Xhosa people

Xhosa people
Nelson Mandela.jpg SthAfrica.ThaboMbeki.01.jpgArchbishop-Tutu-medium.jpg
Notable Xhosa: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Desmond Tutu
Total population
7.9 million (2001 estimate)
Regions with significant populations
Eastern Cape: 5.4 million

Western Cape: 1.1 million
Gauteng: 0.7 million
Free State: 0.25 million
Kwazulu-Natal: 0.22 million
(2001 estimates1)


Xhosa (many also speak Zulu, English, and/or Afrikaans)


African Traditional Religion, Christianity

Related ethnic groups

Nguni, Basotho, Zulu, Khoisan

 person  umXhosa
 people  amaXhosa
 language  isiXhosa

The Xhosa (pronounced [kǁʰɔsɑ] ( listen)) people are speakers of Bantu languages living in south-east South Africa, and in the last two centuries throughout the southern and central-southern parts of the country.

Xhosa-speaking peoples are divided into several tribes with related but distinct heritages. The main tribes are the Mpondo, Mpondomise, Bomvana, Xesibe, and Thembu. In addition, the Bhaca and Mfengu have adopted the Xhosa language.[1] The name "Xhosa" comes from that of a legendary leader called uXhosa. There is also a theory that the word xhosa derives from a word in some Khoi-khoi or San language meaning "fierce" or "angry", the amaXhosa being the fierce people. The Xhosa refer to themselves as the amaXhosa and to their language as isiXhosa.

Presently approximately 8 million Xhosa people are distributed across the country, and Xhosa is South Africa's second most common home language, after Zulu, to which Xhosa is closely related. The pre-1994 apartheid system of bantustans denied Xhosas South African citizenship and attempted to confine them to the nominally self-governing "homelands" of Transkei and Ciskei, now both a part of the Eastern Cape Province where most Xhosa remain. Many Xhosa live in Cape Town (iKapa in Xhosa), East London (iMonti), and Port Elizabeth (iBhayi).

As of 2003 the majority of Xhosa speakers, approximately 5.3 million, lived in the Eastern Cape, followed by the Western Cape (approximately 1 million), Gauteng (671,045), the Free State (246,192), KwaZulu-Natal (219,826), North West (214,461), Mpumalanga (46,553), the Northern Cape (51,228), and Limpopo (14,225).[2]



The Xhosa are part of the South African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region around the Great Lakes, displacing the original Khoisan hunter gatherers of Southern Africa. Xhosa peoples were well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-17th century, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from the Fish River to land inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban[1].

The Xhosa and white settlers first encountered one another around Somerset East in the early 18th century. In the late 18th century Afrikaner trekboers migrating outwards from Cape Town came into conflict with Xhosa pastoralists around the Great Fish River region of the Eastern Cape. Following more than 20 years of intermittent conflict, from 1811 to 1812 the Xhosas were forced east by British colonial forces in the Third Frontier War.

In the years following, many Xhosa-speaking clans were pushed west by expansion of the Zulus, as the northern Nguni put pressure on the southern Nguni as part of the historical process known as the mfecane, or "scattering". The Xhosa-speaking southern Nguni people had initially split into the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe (who had moved westwards across the Kei river). Further subdivisions were made more complicated by the arrival of groups like the Mfengu and the Bhaca from the Mfecane wars. These newcomers came to speak the Xhosa language, and are sometimes considered to be Xhosa. Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial expansion was further weakened by the famines and political divisions that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856. Historians now view this movement as a millennialist response both directly to a lung disease spreading among Xhosa cattle at the time, and less directly to the stress to Xhosa society caused by the continuing loss of their territory and autonomy.[citation needed]

Some historians argue that this early absorption into the wage economy is the ultimate origin of the long history of trade union membership and political leadership among Xhosa people.[citation needed] That history manifests itself today in high degrees of Xhosa representation in the leadership of the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling political party.


Xhosa is an agglutinative tonal language of the Bantu family. While the Xhosas call their language "isiXhosa," it is usually referred to as "Xhosa" in English. Written Xhosa uses a Latin alphabet-based system. Xhosa is spoken by about 18% of the South African population, and has some mutual intelligibility with Zulu, especially Zulu spoken in urban areas. Many Xhosa speakers, particularly those living in urban areas, also speak Zulu and/or Afrikaans and/or English.

Among its features, the Xhosa language famously has fifteen click sounds, originally borrowed from now extinct Khoisan languages of the region. Xhosa has three basic click consonants: a dental click, written with the letter "c"; a palatal click, written with the letter "q"; and a lateral click, written with the letter "x." There is also a simple inventory of five vowels (a, e, i, o, u). Some vowels however may be silent. In other words, they can be present in wriiten language but hardly audible in spoken language. This happens especially at the end of the word. This is because the tone of most Xhosa words is lowest at the end.

Folklore and religion

Traditional Xhosa culture includes diviners known as amagqirha.This job is mostly taken by women, who spend five years in apprenticeship. There are also herbalists amaxhwele, prophets izanusi, and healers inyanga for the community.

The Xhosas have a strong oral tradition with many stories of ancestral heroes; according to tradition, the leader from whose name the Xhosa people take their name was the first King of the nation. One of Xhosa's descendents named Phalo gave birth to two sons Gcaleka, the heir and Rharabe a son from the Right Hand house. Rharhabe the warrior wanted Gcaleka's throne but was defeated and banished and settled in the Amathole Mountains. Maxhobayakhawuleza Sandile Aa! Zanesizwe is the King in the Great Place in Mngqesha. The Zwelonke Sigcawu was crowned King of the Xhosa on 18 June 2010 [1].

The key figure in the Xhosa oral tradition is the imbongi (plural: iimbongi) or praise singer. Iimbongi traditionally live close to the chief's "great place" (the cultural and political focus of his activity); they accompany the chief on important occasions - the imbongi Zolani Mkiva preceded Nelson Mandela at his Presidential inauguration in 1994. Iimbongis' poetry, called imibongo, praises the actions and adventures of chiefs and ancestors[1].

The supreme being is called uThixo or uQamata. Ancestors act as intermediaries and play a part in the lives of the living; they are honoured in rituals. Dreams play an important role in divination and contact with ancestors. Traditional religious practice features rituals, initiations, and feasts. Modern rituals typically pertain to matters of illness and psychological well-being.

Christian missionaries established outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, and the first Bible translation was in the mid-1850s, partially done by Henry Hare Dugmore. Xhosa did not convert in great numbers until the 20th century, but now many are Christian, particularly within the African Initiated Churches such as the Zion Christian Church. Some denominations combine Christianity with traditional beliefs.

Rites of passage

The Xhosa are a South African cultural group with a strong emphasis on traditional practices and customs inherited from their forefathers. Each person within the Xhosa culture has his or her place which is recognised by the entire community. Starting from birth, a Xhosa person goes through graduation stages which seek to recognise his growth and hence assign him a recognisable place in the community. This results in a number of stages that one must go through, each one of which is marked by a specific ritual aimed at introducing the individual to their counterparts and hence to the ancestors. Starting from “imbeleko” which is a ritual performed to introduce a new born to the ancestors to “Umphumo”; from “Inkwenkwe” (a boy) to “Indoda” (a man). These rituals and ceremonies are still practiced today, but many urbanised Xhosa people do not follow the rituals rigidly. The “Ulwaluko” and “Intonjane” are also traditions which separated this tribe from the rest of the Nguni tribes. These are performed to recognise the transition from boyhood to manhood and from girl to woman respectively. Zulus once performed the ritual but King Shaka stopped it because of war in the 1810s. In 2009 it was reintroduced by King Goodwill Zwelithini Zulu not a custom, but as a medical procedure to curb HIV infections and other STI's. This topic has caused my arguments and fights among Xhosa and Zulus. That is because either side sees itself as superior to the other because it practices or forsakes certain customs.

All these rituals are symbolic to one's development. Before these are performed, the individual gets to spend time with elders in the community in a bid to teach them of the “Dos” and “Don’ts” in preparation for the next stage. A very interesting[citation needed] aspect of Xhosa culture is that this type of information is not written anywhere—it is transmitted from generation to generation by Oral Tradition. The “Iziduko” (clan) for instance—which matters most to the Xhosa identity (even more than names and surnames) are transferred from one to the other through oral tradition. Knowing your “Isiduko” is vital to the Xhosas and it is considered a shame and “Uburhanuka” (lack-of-identity) if one doesn’t know one's clan. This is considered so important that when two strangers meet for the first time, the first identity that gets shared is “Isiduko”. It is so important that two people with the same surname but different clan are considered total strangers but the same two people from the same clan but different surnames are regarded as close relatives. This forms the roots of "Ubuntu" (neighbouring) - a behaviour synonymous to this tribe as extending a helping hand to a complete stranger when in need. Ubuntu goes further than just helping one another - it is so deep that it even extends to looking after and reprimanding your neighbour's child when in the wrong. Hence the saying "it takes a village to raise a child".

One traditional ritual that is still regularly practiced is the manhood ritual, a secret rite that marks the transition from boyhood to manhood (Ulwaluko). After ritual circumcision, the initiates (abakhwetha) live in isolation for up to several weeks, often in the mountains. During the process of healing they smear white clay on their bodies and observe numerous taboos.

In modern times the practice has caused controversy, with over 300 circumcision- and initiation-related deaths since 1994, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV via the practice of circumcising initiates with the same blade.[3] In March 2007, a controversial mini-series dealing with Xhosa circumcision and initiation rites debuted on SABC. Titled Umthunzi Wentaba, the series was taken off the air after complaints by traditional leaders that the rites are secret and not to be revealed to non-initiates and women.[4]

Girls are also initiated into womanhood (Intonjane). They too are secluded, though for a shorter period. Female initiates are not circumcised[1].

Other rites include the seclusion of mothers for ten days after giving birth, and the burial of the afterbirth and umbilical cord near the village. This is reflected in the traditional greeting Inkaba yakho iphi?, literally "Where is Your Navel?" The answer "tells someone where you live, what your clan affiliation is, and what your social status is and contains a wealth of cultural information. Most importantly, it determines where you belong".[5]

Traditional diet

The Xhosa settled on mountain slopes of the Amatola and the Winterberg Mountains. Many streams drain into great rivers of this Xhosa territory including the Kei and Fish Rivers. Rich soils and plentiful rainfall make the river basins good for farming and grazing making cattle important and the basis of wealth.

Traditional foods include beef (Inyama yenkomo), mutton (Inyama yegusha), and goat meat, sorghum, milk (often fermented, called "amasi"), pumpkins (amathanga), beans (iimbotyi), and vegetables.

Arts and crafts

Traditional crafts include beadwork, weaving, woodwork and pottery.

Traditional music features drums, rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments and especially group singing accompanied by hand clapping.[1] There are songs for various ritual occasions; one of the best-known Xhosa songs is a wedding song called "Qongqongthwane", performed by Miriam Makeba as "Click Song #1". Besides Makeba, several modern groups record and perform in Xhosa. Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing.[1] "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika", part of the National anthem of South Africa is a Xhosa hymn written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga.

The first newspapers, novels, and plays in Xhosa appeared in the 19th century[1], and Xhosa poetry is also gaining renown.

Several films have been shot in the Xhosa language. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a modern remake of Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen. It is shot entirely in Xhosa, and combines music from the original opera with traditional African music. It takes place in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha.

Xhosas in modern society

Xhosa people currently make up approximately 18% of the South African population.

Under apartheid, adult literacy rates were as low as 30%[1], and in 1996 studies estimated the literacy level of first-language Xhosa speakers at approximately 50%.[6] There have been advances since then, however.

Education in primary-schools serving Xhosa-speaking communities is in the Xhosa language, but this is replaced by English after the early primary grades. Xhosa is still considered as a studied subject, however, and it is possible to major in Xhosa at the university level. Most of the students at the University of Fort Hare are Xhosa.

The effects of government polices during the years of apartheid can still be seen in the poverty of the Xhosa who still reside in the Eastern Cape. During this time, Xhosa males could only seek employment in the mining industry as so-called migrant labourers. Since the collapse of apartheid, individuals can move freely.

Migration to Gauteng and Cape Town is increasingly common, especially amongst rural Xhosa.

Notable Xhosa

See also


Note that the figure mentioned on this page is based upon the number of people speaking Xhosa as their home language, which may be greater or less than the total number of people claiming Xhosa descent. In addition, several million people in the Johannesburg-Soweto region speak Xhosa or Zulu as a second or third language. For a majority of these, the two languages become difficult to distinguish (unsurprising given the extreme closeness of their linguistic relationship).
  • Reader, J., 1997. Africa: A Biography of the Continent, Vintage Books, New York, NY, United States of America.
  • Kaschula, Russell The Heritage Library of African People: Xhosa, New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 1997.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Xhosa clan names — (isiduko (sing.), iziduko (pl.) in Xhosa) are family names which are considered more important than surnames. Much like the clan system of Scotland, each Xhosa person can trace their family history back to a specific male ancestor or stock.… …   Wikipedia

  • Xhosa — Infobox Ethnic group group = Xhosa caption = Notable Xhosa: Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba, Thabo Mbeki, Desmond Tutu poptime = 7.9 million (2001 estimate) popplace = Eastern Cape: 5.4 million Western Cape: 1.1 million Gauteng: 0.7 million Free… …   Wikipedia

  • Xhosa Wars — Military history of South Africa This article is part of a series Conflicts Khoikhoi Dutch Wars Anglo Dutch rivalry Xhosa Wars Zulu Ndwandwe civil war Battles between Voortrekkers …   Wikipedia

  • Xhosa calendar — By the traditional Xhosa calendar, the year began in June and ended in May, when Canopus, a large star visible in the Southern Hemisphere, signalled the time for harvesting. In the Xhosa language, there are two ways of naming months: modern and… …   Wikipedia

  • Xhosa —   [ koːsa], Xosa, Kọsa, früher Kạffern, ein in zahlreiche Stämme untergliedertes Bantuvolk aus der Sprachgruppe der Nguni in der Republik Südafrika. Neben den von allen negriden Völkern am weitesten nach Süden vorgestoßenen eigentlichen Xhosa… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Xhosa — [kō′sä, kō′zä] n. pl. Xhosas or Xhosa 1. a member of a people living mainly in S South Africa 2. the Bantu language of this people, closely related to Zulu adj. of the Xhosas or their language or culture: Also sp. Xosa …   English World dictionary

  • Xhosa language — Infobox Language name =Xhosa nativename =isiXhosa familycolor=Niger Congo states=flagicon|South Africa South Africa flagicon|Lesotho Lesotho region=Eastern Cape Province, Western Cape Province speakers=7.9 million fam2=Atlantic Congo fam3=Volta… …   Wikipedia

  • Xhosa (Volk) — Die Xhosa [ˈkoːza] (isiXhosa: [ǁʰosa]) sind ein südafrikanisches Volk, das sprachlich zu den Bantu gehört. Der Name bezieht sich angeblich auf einen ihrer Häuptlinge in der Geschichte. Sich selbst bezeichnen sie als amaXhosa. Sie sind im Rahmen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Xhosa — /koh seuh, zeuh, kaw /, n., pl. Xhosas, (esp. collectively) Xhosa for 1. 1. a member of a Nguni people of eastern Cape Province, Republic of South Africa. 2. the Bantu language of the Xhosa. Also, Xosa. * * * People living primarily in East Cape… …   Universalium

  • Xhosa — UK [ˈkɔːsə] / US [ˈkoʊsə] / US [ˈkɔsə] noun Word forms Xhosa : singular Xhosa plural Xhosas or Xhosa 1) [uncountable] an African language that people speak in South Africa 2) [countable] a member of a Bantu people of South Africa Derived word:… …   English dictionary

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