Domestication of Bos Primiginius (that gave rise to the modern African breeds) took place in North Africa about 8,000 years ago.
During the passage from the north of the continent to the south the animals were exposed to the harsh extremes of the climate and the tropical diseases of Africa. Natural selection favoured those animals genetically suited to this hostile environment.
Iron Age nomads first introduced the Nguni cattle breed into South Africa in about 600 AD. These low maintenance cattle were ideally suited to the communal farming system of the settlers and as far as can be established remained relatively unaltered during the next millennium.
The second phase of introduction into South Africa occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries when settlers brought their European farm animals into the country. The colonists often regarded the cattle owned by the Nguni people as inferior.
They appeared to perform poorly (as a result of overstocking) and appeared less uniform, having a wide range of colours and colour patterns that gave the breed the appearance of an indiscriminate mixture of breeds.
This perception of inferiority led to the promulgation of an Act in 1934 in which populations of indigenous breeds and types were regarded as “scrub” (nondescript). Inspectors were empowered to inspect bulls in communal areas and to castrate them if regarded as inferior.
Fortunately, the Act was only applied effectively during the first few years of its existence, as it proved unpopular with stockowners. It was only later that the value of the animals was realized and, in 1985, a committee was appointed to report on the desirability of having an in vitro germplasm bank for indigenous livestock.
It was only recently that scientific evidence showed that the Nguni performed well under optimal conditions while the exotics performed poorly under the prevailing management practices of communal systems (Scholtz, 1988).
The Nguni lived close to humans for centuries – and in South Africa always in the heart of the Zulu kraal – resulting in an animal with an exceptionally good temperament.
Today there are 638 Nguni stud breeders and 38,000 registered stud cattle.