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ETHNONYMS: Xhosa speakers, Cape Nguni, Southern Nguni, South Eastern Bantu


Identification and Location. Xhosa-speaking people live mostly in the rural and urban areas of the Eastern Cape Province in the Republic of South Africa. The rural area covers the region stretching from the Umtamvuna River in the east to the Great Fish River in the west, the Indian Ocean in the south, and Lesotho and the Gariep River to the north. Xhosa regions outside the Eastern Cape Province include the rural areas of southern KwaZulu-Natal and urban centers such as Johannesburg (Gauteng Province) and Cape Town (Western Cape Province).

Annual rainfall ranges from 20 inches (500 millimeters) inland to 55 inches (1,400 millimeters) on the coast. The natural vegetation varies from open grassy plains on the high interior plateaus to dense forest growth along the coast, in the larger river valleys, and along the mountain ranges.

Demography. In the 1996 South African census, 7,196,118 people indicated that isiXhosa was their native language. This accounts for 17.9 percent of the South African populationthe second largest language group in that country. In the Eastern Cape Province 83.8 percent of the population is Xhosa-speaking.

Linguistic Affiliation. IsiXhosa forms part of the southeastern zone of the Bantu language family. Both words and sounds (especially the "clicks") have been borrowed from the Khoesan languages. The vocabulary also shows some borrowing from English and Afrikaans.

History and Cultural Relations

The name Xhosa presumably is derived from a man named Xhosa who was the chief during the later part of the fifteenth century or the early part of the sixteenth century. The first known contact with Europeans was with the survivors of a series of shipwrecks on the east coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the São João (1552) and the Stavenisse (1686). It is generally accepted that the Xhosa formed part of the wider group of indigenous Bantu-speaking people of South Africa with origins in East Central Africa. From there they moved in waves to southern Africa, with the Xhosa-speaking people moving down the east coast until their movements were curtailed by environmental conditions and the eastward movement of European settlers after 1652. Those settlers, like the Xhosa, were migratory stock farmers, and stock theft and reprisal raids were common on both sides. After 1778 when the Dutch governor, Van Plettenberg, declared the Great Fish River to be the boundary between "Black" and "White," various colonial administrations tried to create similar boundaries in South Africa.

Calculations indicate that by about 1500 the Xhosa had already been in present-day South Africa and by about 1700 had occupied the majority of present-day Eastern Cape Province. However, archaeological research indicates the presence of both pastoral and horticulture farmers by about 600 on the Eastern Cape coast. They probably were among the predecessors of the Xhosa. In the present-day Eastern Cape Province the Xhosa came into contact with the Khoe and the San. Intermarriage took place, and trade relationships were maintained.

After nine border wars with European settlers and the British colonial administration, the annexation of the territory of the Xhosa was completed in 1894, and that region was incorporated into the British Cape Colony. The migration of Xhosa-speaking people to white-owned farms and to towns started during the first half of the nineteenth century. The "National Suicide" of the Xhosa (1857), the development of the diamond fields near Kimberley (1870s) and gold mining in the Witwatersrand (1886), and industrialization in the rest of South Africa had a strong impact on the rate of urbanization. During the later stages of apartheid in South Africa the Xhosa-speaking people were divided into two "independent" homelands: Transkei and Ciskei. Those areas again became part of the Republic of South Africa in 1993.

The first Christian missionary who made contact with the Xhosa was Dr. Van Der Kemp of the London Missionary Society (1799). Missionaries from the Wesleyan Methodists, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the Moravians, and the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Dutch Reformed churches followed. Those missionaries founded schools in the Eastern Cape and provided the first Western medical services. They also were responsible for the development of Xhosa as a written language and medium of communication; the first written grammar of Xhosa was completed in 1833 by the Reverend W. B. Boyce.

The indigenous Bantu-speaking people of South Africa are collectively known as the Southern Bantu among anthropologists. The Southern Bantu group consists of the Nguni, the Sotho, the Venda and Lemba, the Changana Thonga (also in Mozambique), the Herero-Ovambo (Namibia), and the Shona. The Nguni can be subdivided into the Cape Nguni, the Natal Nguni, the Swazi, the Ndebele, the amaNdebele (Zimbabwe), the abaKwagaza, and the Angoni (Malawi). The Cape Nguni are subdivided into the amaXhosa (Xhosa "proper"), abaThembu, amaMpondo, amaMpondomise, amaBomvana, and amaXesibe, along with fugitive groups such as the amaBhaca and amaMfengu. These subdivisions can be further broken down into smaller chiefdoms that were formed largely because of disputes regarding succession. The assimilation of Khoe people entailed the incorporation of certain cultural elements, especially in regard to animal husbandry.


After the introduction in 1949 of the "Rehabilitation Scheme" the scattered settlement pattern of kin groups was altered to a village structure. These villages form administrative units, and each village has its own grazing area and arable land. Most villages have a primary school and a shop and are linked by gravel roads to each other and to main roads. Each household has an allocated residential plot, and various styles of buildings are constructed. The thatched roofs of the round mud houses are increasingly being replaced by corrugated iron, and square and rectangular mud or brick houses with corrugated iron roofs are becoming common in the rural areas. Homesteads with round houses usually have at least two of those buildings on a plot. The extra houses are used for cooking, storage, sleeping space for older boys, and accommodations for married sons and their spouses. Each household has its own cattle corral built in front of the house. In areas without a piped water system, water is stored in tanks or fetched from nearby dams, bore holes, or streams.


Subsistence. In the rural areas mixed farming consisting of horticulture and animal husbandry is practiced. Depending on the availability of arable land, each household has access to a field ranging from 2.1 acres (0.86 hectare) to 8.5 acres (3.43 hectares) or a small garden as part of the residential plot. Chief's and headmen usually receive larger tracts of land that range between 15 acres (6 hectares) and 32 acres (13 hectares). Maize (the staple), sorghum, wheat, barley, beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, gem squash, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and tobacco are grown. The soil varies from sandy to sandy loam, and a few areas have clay and alluvial soils. Soil depth ranges from 6 inches (15 centimeters) to 6.6 feet (2 meters) (alluvial soils next to riverbeds). The main implements are ox-drawn plows and metal-bladed hoes. Cows and goats are eaten on special occasions related to the life cycle and religious ceremonies, and sheep, pigs, and chickens provide meat for household consumption. Commodities not produced locally, such as coffee, tea, sugar, canned food, cloth, clothes, utensils, and furniture, are bought with the earnings from migrant labor in urban areas or the proceeds from the sale of skins and wool to local traders or at shops in nearby towns.

People living near the sea or rivers catch fish and crustaceans and mollusks. Roots, bulbs, berries, wild fruit, and herbal plants are gathered to supplement the diet. Occasionally small game may be hunted.

Commercial Activities. As a result of development efforts a number of irrigation schemes were initiated in which small farmers were resettled to produce pineapples, citrus fruit, coffee, and tea for commercial purposes. Government policy regarding land redistribution favors commercial dairy farming, wool production, and agriculture on a larger scale. In some areas handicrafts are manufactured for the tourist market.

Industrial Arts. Mats, baskets, beer strainers, brooms, utensils made from calabash, beadwork, pipes, knobkerries, walking sticks, wooden yokes, whips, and leather harnesses are made mostly for personal use. Some people are regarded as specialists in these crafts and may manufacture these items for others. In areas near major roads some of those items may be sold to tourists. Sleds are made from forked tree trunks to transport goods. Wooden mortars and pestles and grinding stones are made for the grinding of grain.

Division of Labor. In general, men tend to the livestock and clear virgin land for horticulture and women do the household chores (cleaning, preparing and serving food, washing clothes, fetching water and firewood, and caring for children) and work in the fields or gardens. After the introduction of ox-drawn plows, men became more involved in horticulture by tilling the soil and planting the crops and women did the weeding. The whole family is involved in harvesting. Boys who do not attend school herd the livestock and chase birds when the crops ripen. Girls care for younger siblings and help their mothers with their chores. In areas close to the sea men, women, and children harvest marine resources. In urban areas the division of labor is less prescriptive, but women still do the household chores.

Land Tenure. There are three systems of land tenurepermission to occupy, quitrent, and freeholdin the rural areas. Land is regarded as the property of the tribal group and is held in trust by the chief. A person who wants residential and/or arable land must apply through his or her local headman, and depending on availability, land is allocated. After payment of the required fees, the land is registered at the local magistrate's office in the name of the person to whom it is allocated for that person to use in accordance with the rules applicable to the particular type of land tenure system.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal. Exogamous patriclans (iziduko) are the most important kin groups. A variety of clan names are derived from the names of founder members, animals, and plants. The clans are noncorporate groups, and individual members may support one another in times of crisis and during ceremonies related to the life cycle and sacrifices to the ancestors. Closer relatives who have the same clan name (isiduko) are called imilowo (equated by some researchers to lineages) and are more deeply involved in the daily lives of individual members. In earlier times a group of imilowo would form a corporate group with a leader (intloko yemilowo). The father's sister ( udadobawo ) plays an important role in the lives of her brother's children. At ceremonial occasions the children of sisters (abatshana) are included as imilowo. In urban areas neighbors often are included as imilowo. Kinship does not have the same importance in urban areas that it does in rural areas.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are a variation of the Iroquois type. However, the mother and the mother's sister are not referred to with the same term, and the mother's sister's children are referred to by different terms than are the father's brother's children.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by fathers, but their wives and imilowo were consulted. Even very young children were promised to each other by their fathers. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998 tries to harmonize the common law and indigenous law. The act not only recognizes customary marriages but drastically changes the institution to bring it in line with common-law marriages. Consent by the marriage partners is now required. Marriages can be contracted according to customary law or solemnized in a church or magistrate's court, or there may be a combination of those practices. Courting must take place in secret, and traditionally young girls were inspected by older women to assure their virginity. This practice has been abandoned because of pressure by missionaries.

In courting and in marriage the rules of exogamy are strictly applied. Not only are unions between people sharing the same patriclan name forbidden, this prohibition is extended to people with the clan names of their mothers. Men must go through the initiation ceremony and be circumcised before they are allowed to marry. Bride-wealth (ilobolo) in the form of cattle is transferred from the man's family to the family of the woman. This creates ties of goodwill between the two families, transfers the right to the woman's fertility and thus the children from the union to the husband's group, and serves as compensation for the loss of the woman's labor in her parental home. In at least 90 percent of marriages in urban areas this practice is still maintained. Polygyny is practiced and is recognized under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998. A woman's father is expected to provide her with household utensils and furniture such as a bedroom or lounge suite. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, but because of restrictions on the size of residential plots in rural areas this custom is in force only for a certain period of time, after which a son is allowed to start his own household. Often the youngest married son will remain in the household of his parents. In urban areas the accepted practice has become neolocality, but patrilocal and matrilocal postmarital residence are common in urban areas because of economic factors.

Marriages are stable in rural areas, and problems between husband and wife are dealt with by their respective imilowo. Reasons for divorce mostly involve the neglect of one partner by the other. Before the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998, customary marriages were terminated with the permission of the respective imilowo if the imilowo believed that reconciliation was not possible. If the man is at fault, the bride-wealth is forfeited; if the woman is at fault, her father must return at least one head of cattle to signify the termination of the marriage. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act attempts to unify divorce procedures for customary and all other recognized marriages, and termination is under the jurisdiction of the provincial high courts. The death of a woman terminates the marriage, but according to customary law, the marriage does not end when the husband dies. The levirate is not practiced but it is expected that, if possible, the woman will still bear children for the deceased. A person who is acceptable to the deceased's imilowo will become the woman's lover and fulfill this function. The imilowo are responsible for caring for the widow and her children.

Domestic Unit. Households are defined by sharing a cooking area and eating together. The ideal is that married sons will stay with their parents in patrilineal extended families. However, as a result of a shortage of land and restrictions on the size of residential plots, the tendency is away from extended families and toward nuclear families. A married man will stay for some time with his parents and then try to secure his own residential plot. In the case of polygyny a man can settle all his wives on one residential plot or acquire a separate residential plot for each one.

Households in urban areas consist of nuclear families extended by married and/or unmarried relatives and tenants. There is a fairly high incidence of matrifocal families, often extending over four generations.

Inheritance. According to customary law, a man's oldest son or, in cases of polygyny, the oldest son of the main wife is his main heir and successor. The right to land normally is transferred to the name of the main heir in the case of quitrent and permission to occupy. Land in freehold can follow the customary pattern or be inherited in accordance with a will. The main heir also inherits the livestock, plows, tractor, car, houses, household utensils, and furniture, and these items are regarded as house property. The widow has the right to use the property if the main heir is still a minor. The main heir also inherits his father's debts. Each son inherits something from his father because during his lifetime the father earmarks livestock for each of his sons and that livestock will be handed over to them when they marry and start their own households. His clothes are distributed among his sons, and his pipe and accessories are given to one of his brothers. In cases of polygyny, the wives are assigned to different houses and the oldest son from each house is the main heir in that house. As a rule daughters do not inherit anything from their fathers. A man can draw up a will and divide his property among all his children. When a woman dies, the household utensils that she brought to the marriage remain part of the property of her house. Her husband may determine the distribution of her clothes and ornaments among her daughters, and her pipe and accessories are given to the husband's oldest sister.

Socialization. Depending on their age, children are raised by their fathers, mothers, older sisters, grandparents, and other close relatives. From the age of about eight years boys in rural areas are assigned tasks such as herding small animals, and their fathers teach them the tasks assigned to men. Girls are drawn into the realm of household chores, and their mothers teach them the tasks assigned to women. Obedience to both parents is expected and can be enforced through corporal punishment. Respect must be shown to all older people. Nine years of compulsory schooling forms an important part of the socialization process in both rural and urban areas.

Boys are initiated at the age of approximately eighteen years. This involves circumcision and seclusion for at least three weeks, depending on how long the wounds take to heal. During this time they are subject to restrictions regarding their movements and food and are taught the proper way to behave as adult men. This custom is practiced in urban areas as well, although increasingly males are circumcised in hospitals. The corresponding ceremony for women (the intonjane) takes place during a girl's first menstruation. This custom has fallen into disuse in many rural areas and has acquired the character of a fertility rite as married women who have difficulty becoming pregnant are sent back to their fathers' homes to undergo this rite.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Status is determined by age and gender. Men have a higher status than women according to indigenous law. This is changing because of the impact of the Bill of Rights included in the Constitution of South Africa. Although no formal age groups or age sets exist, men and women occupy different status positions during their life cycles that are determined by their age stage and/or marriage. These groups assemble separately during ceremonies and are served different portions of meat from sacrificial animals, and beverages are served to them in different containers. Succession to political office in rural areas is determined by male primogeniture. Important visitors and dignitaries such as chief's, headmen, ministers, priests, and government officials occupy a place of honor during festivities and ceremonies.

In rural areas work groups are organized to help with agricultural and construction activities. Funeral societies, Christian denominations with societies for men and women (iimanyano), the Zenzele women's organization, sports clubs, choirs, school committees, soil conservation committees, local branches of political parties, and trade unions exist in rural and urban areas.

Political Organization. The Black Land Act of 1913, the Black Administration Act of 1927, and the Black Trust and Land Act of 1936 revived the position of chieftainship, which had practically come to an end after the final annexation of Xhosa territories in 1894. The Xhosa have 6 paramount chief's (some people maintain that they must be called kings) and 115 chief's. A paramount chief plays more of a ceremonial role, while a chief (inkosi), as the head of a tribal authority (ingunyabantu lesizwe), is responsible for a tribal area. All tribal areas are incorporated into municipalities as part of the local governing system.

A chief occupies the position because he is the firstborn son of the main wife of the previous chief. The main wife is the one who was chosen for the chief by the tribe. In the tribal areas the chief's and their councilors (amaphakathi) are responsible for administration and the maintenance of law and order. Each tribal area is divided into administrative units (iilali) under the leadership of an elected headman (isibonda). These headmen also act as the chief's councilors. Each headman has a council (inkundla· kwasibonda) consisting of the heads of households (abaninimzi) in his administrative unit. They are responsible for administration, law and order, allocation of land, and the application of regulations regarding land use in the administrative unit. The chief has an elected chief councilor (umandlali gaga) who is also the chairman of the chief's executive and tribal councils. He serves the chief in a close advisory capacity.

Social Control. Conflict arises from the infringement of people's property rights through theft and damage by humans and animals; the infringement of a man's rights over his wife and children through rape, adultery, the impregnation of unmarried daughters, and elopement; violation of privacy and defamation; assault; murder; and accusations of witchcraft. Punishment can take the form of fines in money and/or livestock or corporal punishment for young men and boys, and reparation is given in the form of money and/or livestock. In rural areas the imilowo try to settle conflicts between relatives. If one of the parties is not satisfied with the outcome, he or she may take the matter to the headman's court (inkundla kwasibonda), and from there the matter can be taken to the chief's court (inkundla yesizwe/inkundla yakomkhulu), where cases are tried according to customary law, subject to restrictions imposed by national legislation involving the jurisdiction of courts. An aggrieved party may appeal to the magistrate's court, which usually is in a nearby town.

In urban areas conflict is solved at the individual level or through the law enforcement agencies of the state. However, there are also illegal "people's courts" in which residents take action against culprits, often in violent ways.

Conflict. Before the annexation of the Xhosa territories conflict with other groups mostly involved access to territory and rights to grazing. Livestock raids were common and still cause violent intertribal conflict in rural areas. Most of the time this conflict is settled through the intervention of the state's law enforcement agencies.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. People adhering to the traditional religion, Christians, and those practicing a syncretism of the two religious traditions are found. There is not a sharp division between traditionalists and Christians. Christians have traditionalist relatives and cooperate with traditionalist neighbors in all community activities, including deliberations in the courts, schools, and prayer ceremonies in times of drought.

Traditionalist Xhosa believe that a supreme being called uQamata or umDali created the world and maintains the cosmos. Another term used to refer to this deity is uThixo, the word that is used in the Xhosa translation of the Bible. After the creation he was no longer directly concerned with the human world, and therefore no prayers or rituals are directed to him. There is no retribution in the life after death for misdeeds committed on earth. It is believed that the creator was the first ancestor and that he therefore is accessible through the ancestral spirits (izinyanya). The ancestral spirits receive their power and preparation from him. The belief in ancestral spirits forms the central part of the traditionalist religion, and the ancestors are believed to control the day-today affairs of people.

There are four types of spirits: the spirits of the kinship group; tribal spirits, who are deceased chief's; foreign spirits who are deceased, who may have special meaning to people; and the river people, who are the spirits of persons who disappeared in rivers or the sea. Spirits reside in the vicinity of living people, close to the cattle corral. Certain animals are linked to the ancestors; elephants, lions, leopards, snakes, crocodiles, otters, and bees are important in this regard. Ancestors often appear in the form of these animals. Each clan has its own animals of importance, but this is not a form of totemism. When a person dreams of such an animal, it is a sign that the ancestors are trying to make contact with that person. The spirits show displeasure with people by causing illness and plague and killing livestock. To ensure the goodwill of the spirits it is necessary to present them with libations and sacrifices.

Witchcraft is practiced by people (amagqwirha/abathakathi) who are believed to have contact with malevolent powers and can take the form of causing misfortune and death through poisoning, directing lightning, and the use of familiars such as the lightning bird, uthikoloshe (a little man whose outward appearance is described in various ways), snakes, baboons, frogs, wild cats, the jackal-buzzard, and a resurrected deceased person. Accusations of witchcraft often are directed against married women as outsiders to the kin group.

After the first missionaries made contact with the Xhosa in 1799, missionary societies founded 25 mission stations during the nineteenth century. Each mission had a number of outstations, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were few areas where the gospel was not preached. More than 60 percent of the Xhosa are Christians.

Religious Practitioners. The diviner (igqirha) and the herbalist (ixhwele) differ in their training and in their functions in society. A diviner is called by the ancestral spirits. That person contracts the intwaso sickness and is troubled by dreams, pain, hot flushes, and convulsions. More women than men are called, and often there are several diviners in a kin group. A qualified diviner will diagnose the cause of an illness, and a person must be initiated as a diviner for approximately one year under the guidance of a qualified diviner. Diviners normally are consulted to determine the causes of diseases, accidents, death, and the origin of witchcraft. There are generalist diviners, specialist diviners, and rainmakers. Herbalists are not called by the ancestral spirits and obtain training through apprenticeship with a qualified herbalist. Herbalists are consulted for the treatment of people who are affected by witchcraft, protection against witchcraft, cures for diseases, and the provision of medicine that will ensure prosperity. Diviners and herbalists practice in urban areas as well as rural regions. Many people are both diviners and herbalists.

The head of a household officiates when a sacrifice needs to be made by his household. When the wider kin group is involved, the intloko yemilowo officiates; the chief officiates if the sacrifice concerns the tribe as a whole.

Prophets in the African Independent Christian Churches also play an important role in healing activities.

Ceremonies. Offerings in the form of livestock to the ancestral spirits are made during rites of passage in the life cycles of individuals. They also are presented for thanksgiving for national, tribal, and family successes; propitiation in cases of death, chronic sickness, epidemic disease, and offences against customary laws and taboos; and supplication in times of privation, poverty, and drought. Offerings containing crops are made to thank the ancestors after the harvest and form part of the sacrifices made at river pools for the river people. Libations in the form of beer or liquor may be made whenever a person drinks those beverages.

Arts. Traditionally, patterned pottery was manufactured and widely used. Mats, beer strainers, and baskets are woven from grass, and beadwork has become an artistic tradition. Decorated ceremonial clothes are made from different types of cloth, and women knit and crochet with various types of wool and yarn. Traditional musical instruments include musical bows, drums, and trumpets made from the horns of animals. Diviners use drums to accompany their dances. The main type of musical expression is singing, usually accompanied by dancing. Choir singing is a popular form of musical expression in both rural and urban areas. Jazz and "township music" have a large following in urban areas. The first book in Xhosa appeared in 1824. Since that time numerous books, articles, newspapers, and journals have been published, many of which have been translated into English.

Medicine. Therapeutic practices include cutting, sucking, massage, purgatives, and the provision of amulets made from animal and plant parts and beads. Medicines are made from dried bark, leaves, roots, and bulbs ground into a fine powder. Medicine is mixed with water and drunk or smeared onto the affected part of the body; it also can be carried on the body in a small container. Some herbalists have divining spirits that help them execute their duties and make the presence of those spirits known to the ancestral spirits. Many "Muti shops" that sell indigenous medicines exist in urban areas. Clinics and hospitals in rural and urban areas provide scientific medicine to patients. Often one type of medicine is reverted to after the other type has been used if the person is not satisfied with the outcome of the first treatment.

Death and Afterlife. Death is ascribed to witchcraft and sorcery, natural causes, and the will of God. The spirit of a deceased household head is believed to continue to live as an ancestral spirit. By law, all corpses must be buried in a cemetery, and this has had an influence on the belief that a household head should be buried in his cattle corral, a person who was struck by lightning or who drowned should be buried where the corpse was found, and babies should be buried under the wood pile. A death causes impurity, and any person who has come into contact with a corpse must be purified through the washing of his or her hands. Funerals are important occasions, and relatives and friends make an effort to attend. Graves are covered with branches from thorn trees to prevent animals from damaging the grave and to prevent sorcerers from digging up the body and changing it into a familiar. There are different types of tombstones in both rural and urban areas, and they are ceremonially unveiled. Burial societies play an important role in rural and urban areas, and their members provide one another with material and moral support.

For the original article on the Xhosa, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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Mayer, P., editor (1980). Black Villagers in an Industrial Society. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

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(1975).Christianity and Xhosa Tradition. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

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Soga, J. H. (1931). The Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs. Lovedale: Lovedale Press.


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LOCATION: South Africa (eastern, urban areas)

POPULATION: 6 million

LANGUAGE: Xhosa (Bantu)

RELIGION: Traditional beliefs (supreme being uThixo or uQamata ); Christianity


The word Xhosa refers to a people and a language of South Africa. The Xhosa-speaking people are divided into a number of subgroups with their own distinct but related heritages. One of these subgroups is called Xhosa as well. The other main subgroups are the Bhaca, Bomvana, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thembu. Unless otherwise stated, this article refers to all the Xhosa-speaking people.

Well before the arrival of Dutch in the 1650s, the Xhosa had settled the southeastern area of South Africa. They interacted with the foraging (food-gathering) and pastoral (nomadic herding) people who were in South Africa first, the Khoi and the San. Europeans who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, they sought to expand their territory. This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken as well. A series of wars between trekboers (Afrikaner colonists) and Xhosa began in the 1770s. Later, in the nineteenth century, the British became the new colonizing force (foreigners in control) in the Cape. They directed the armies that were to vanquish the Xhosa.

Christian missionaries established their first outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, but met with little success. Only after the Xhosa population had been traumatized by European invasion, drought, and disease did Xhosa convert to Christianity in substantial numbers. In addition to land lost to white annexation, legislation reduced Xhosa political autonomy. Over time, Xhosa people became increasingly impoverished. They had no option but to become migrant laborers. In the late 1990s, Xhosa make up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa's gold mines.

Under apartheid (a government policy requiring the separation of races), the South African government created separate regions that were described as Bantustans (homelands) for black people of African descent. Two regionsTranskei and Ciskeiwere set aside for Xhosa people.

These regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Apartheid policy denied South African citizenship to many Xhosa. Thousands of people were forcibly relocated to remote areas in Transkei and Ciskei. The homelands were abolished with the change to democracy in 1994.


Before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1600s, Xhosa-speaking people occupied much of eastern South Africa. The region extended from the Fish River to land inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban. This territory includes well-watered rolling hills near scenic coastal areas as well as harsh and dry regions further inland. Many Xhosa live in Cape Town (iKapa), East London (iMonti), and Port Elizabeth (iBhayi). They can be found in lesser numbers in most of South Africa's major metropolitan areas. As of 1995, there were about 6 million Xhosa, making up approximately 17.5 percent of South Africa's population.


The Xhosa language is properly referred to as isiXhosa. It is a Bantu language closely related to Zulu, Swazi, and Ndebele. As with other South African languages, Xhosa is characterized by respectful forms of address for elders and in-laws. The language is also rich in idioms. To have isandla esishushu (a warm hand), for example, is to be generous.

Xhosa contains many words with click consonants that have been borrowed from Khoi or San words. The "X" in Xhosa represents a type of click made by the tongue on the side of the mouth. This consonant sounds something like the clicking sound English-speaking horseback riders make to encourage their horses. English speakers who have not mastered clicks often pronounce Xhosa as "Ko-Sa."

Names in Xhosa often express the values or opinions of the community. Common personal names include Thamsanqa (good fortune) and Nomsa (mother of kindness). Adults are often referred to by their isiduko (clan or lineage) names. In the case of women, clan names are preceded by a prefix meaning "mother of." A woman of the Thembu clan might be called MamThembu. Women are also named by reference to their children, real or intended; NoLindiwe is a polite name for Lindiwe's mother.


Stories and legends provide accounts of Xhosa ancestral heroes. According to one oral tradition, the first person on Earth was a great leader called Xhosa. Another tradition stresses the essential unity of the Xhosa-speaking people by proclaiming that all the Xhosa subgroups are descendants of one ancestor, Tshawe. Historians have suggested that Xhosa and Tshawe were probably the first Xhosa kings or paramount (supreme) chiefs.

Xhosa tradition is rich in creative verbal expression. Intsomi (folktales), proverbs, and isibongo (praise poems) are told in dramatic and creative ways. Folktales relate the adventures of both animal protagonists and human characters. Praise poems traditionally relate the heroic adventures of ancestors or political leaders.


The supreme being among the Xhosa is called uThixo or uQamata. As in the religions of many other Bantu peoples, God is only rarely involved in everyday life. God may be approached through ancestral intermediaries who are honored through ritual sacrifices. Ancestors commonly make their wishes known to the living in dreams.

Christianity in one form or another is accepted by most Xhosa-speaking people today. Cultural traditionalists are likely to belong to independent denominations that combine Christianity with traditional beliefs and practices. Xhosa religious practice is distinguished by elaborate and lengthy rituals, initiations, and feasts. Modern rituals typically pertain to matters of illness and psychological well-being.


Xhosa observe the same holidays as other groups of South Africa. These include the Christian holidays, Workers's Day (or May Day, May 1), the Day of Reconciliation (December 16), and Heritage Day (September 24). During the apartheid era, two unofficial holidays were observed to honor black people killed in the fight for equality and political representation. June 16 was a national day of remembrance for students killed by police in Soweto on that day in 1976. March 21 honored protestors killed by authorities during a demonstration in Sharpeville in 1960. Both of these anniversaries continue to be recognized with a day of rest, meetings, and prayer. Another important holiday is April 27, the date of the first national election in which black South Africans could vote.


After giving birth, a mother is expected to remain secluded in her house for at least ten days. In Xhosa tradition, the afterbirth and umbilical cord were buried or burned to protect the baby from sorcery. At the end of the period of seclusion, a goat was sacrificed. Those who no longer practice the traditional rituals may still invite friends and relatives to a special dinner to mark the end of the mother's seclusion.

Male initiation in the form of circumcision is practiced among most Xhosa groups. The abakweta (initiates-in-training) live in special huts isolated from villages or towns for several weeks. Like soldiers inducted into the army, they have their heads shaved. They wear a loincloth and a blanket for warmth. White clay is smeared on their bodies from head to toe. They are expected to observe numerous taboos (prohibitions) and to act deferentially to their adult male leaders. Different stages in the initiation process were marked by the sacrifice of a goat.

The ritual of female circumcision is considerably shorter. The intonjane (girl to be initiated) is secluded for about a week. During this period, there are dances, and ritual sacrifices of animals. The initiate must hide herself from view and observe food restrictions. There is no actual surgical operation.


Xhosa have traditionally used greetings to show respect and good intentions to others. In interacting with others, it is crucial to show respect (ukuhlonipha). Youths are expected to keep quiet when elders are speaking, and to lower their eyes when being addressed. Hospitality is highly valued, and people are expected to share with visitors what they can. Socializing over tea and snacks is common.

In Xhosa tradition, one often found a girlfriend or boyfriend by attending dances. One popular type of dance, called umtshotsho or intlombe, could last all night. On some occasions, unmarried lovers were allowed to sleep together provided they observed certain restraints. A form of external intercourse called ukumetsha was permitted, but full intercourse was taboo. For Westernized Xhosa, romances often begin at school, church, or through mutual acquaintances. Dating activities include attending the cinema as well as going to school dances, sporting events, concerts, and so forth.


During the early period of white rule in South Africa, Xhosa communities were severely neglected in terms of social services. In fact, rural areas were deliberately impoverished so as to encourage Xhosa to seek wage labor employment. In the later years of apartheid, some attempts were made to address major health concerns in these areas. However, most government money continued to be set aside for social services that benefited whites. As the Xhosa population in rural areas expanded through natural increase and forced removals, rural lands became increasingly overcrowded and eroded. In the twentieth-century, many men and women migrated to urban shantytowns (towns comprised of crudely built huts). Poverty and ill health are still widespread in both rural and urban communities. Since 1994, however, the post-apartheid government has expanded health and nutritional aid to the black population.

Housing, standards of living, and creature comforts vary considerably among Xhosa. Xhosa people make up some of the poorest and some of the wealthiest of black South Africans. Poor people live in round thatched-roof huts, labor compounds, or single-room shacks without running water or electricity. Other Xhosa are among an elite who live in large comfortable houses in quiet suburban neighborhoods.


The traditional Xhosa family was patriarchal; men were considered the heads of their households. Women and children were expected to defer to men's authority. Polygynous marriages (multiple wives) were permitted where the husband had the means to pay the lobolo (bride wealth) for each, and to maintain them properly. Women were expected to leave their families to live with their husband's family.

The migrant labor system has put great strains on the traditional family. Some men have established two distinct families, one at the place of work and the other at the rural home. With the end of apartheid, some of the families previously separated by the labor laws are beginning new lives in urban areas. Some of these families live under crowded and difficult conditions in shanty-towns and migrant labor compounds.


Many Xhosa men and women dress similarly to people in Europe and the United States. Pants for women have only recently become acceptable. As a result of missionary influence, it has become customary for a woman to cover her hair with a scarf or hat. Many rural woman fold scarves or other clothes into elaborate turban shapes. They continue to apply white or ochre-colored mixtures to their bodies and faces. Other unique Xhosa dress includes intricately sewn designs on blankets that are worn by both men and women as shawls or capes.


Xhosa people share many food traditions with the other peoples of South Africa. Staple foods are corn (maize) and bread. Beef, mutton (sheep meat), and goat meat are popular. Milk is often drunk in its sour form. Sorghum beer, also sour in taste, continues to be popular.

One particular food popularly identified with the Xhosa is umngqusho. This dish combines hominy corn with beans and spices. Xhosa also regularly eat the soft porridge made of corn meal flour that is widespread in Africa. Eggs were traditionally taboo for women, and a just-married wife was not allowed to eat certain types of meat. Men were not supposed to drink milk in any village where they might later take a wife.

The major mealtimes are breakfast and dinner. Children may go without lunch, although school lunch programs have been established by the government.


The first Western-style schools for Xhosa-speakers were begun by missionaries. One of the most famous of the missionary institutions, the University of Fort Hare, boasts Nelson Mandela and a number of other famous African leaders as former students.

Under apartheid, African access to education was restricted and many of the best mission schools were shutdown. As a result, adult literacy rates (percentage able to read and write) dropped, in some areas to as low as 30 percent. Today, the goal is free education for all those aged seven to seventeen. Literacy and education are now seen as keys to success and are highly valued by most people.


Xhosa traditional music places a strong emphasis on group singing and handclapping as accompaniment to dance. Drums, while used occasionally, were not as fundamental a part of musical expression as they were for many other African peoples. Other instruments used included rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments constructed with a bow and resonator.

Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing. Among the most successful of the Xhosa hymns is the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikele' iAfrika (God Bless Africa). It was written by a school teacher named Enoch Sontonga in 1897.

Xhosa written literature was established in the nineteenth century with the publication of the first Xhosa newspapers, novels, and plays. Early writers included Tiyo Soga, I. Bud-Mbelle, and John Tengo Jabavu.


Many rural Xhosa have left home to find employment in the city. Under white rule, Xhosa men were most frequently hired as miners and farm laborers. Women also worked as farm laborers, but work in domestic service was more valued. For those with high school and college educations, the greatest opportunities were in health care, education, and government administration. In the 1990s, Xhosa sought degrees in all fields. South Africa's migrant labor system has dramatically altered Xhosa social life and put strain on the family.


Xhosa children enjoy skipping rope, racing, swimming, and playing hopscotch. Boys enjoy wrestling and stick fighting.

The most popular sport in South Africa is soccer. There are many professional, school, and company teams. There are also organized competitions between schools in athletics (track and field).


Popular entertainment includes attending movies, plays, and musical performances. Televisions and videocassette recorders are also popular. Most movies are imported from other countries, but a South African film industry is developing. Plays are often broadcast over TV and radio. Television broadcasts also include programs in Xhosa. Xhosa "soap operas" are a regular feature.

South Africa has a well-established music industry. The most popular musicians are typically those that perform dance tunes. Religious choirs are also popular.


Folk craft traditions include beadwork, sewing, pottery making, house decoration, and weaving. Hand-woven materials were generally functional items such as sleeping mats, baskets, and strainers. Xhosa ceremonial clothing is often elaborately decorated with fine embroidery work and intricate geometric designs.


Most of the social problems found among Xhosa people today stem directly or indirectly from the apartheid past. These include high rates of poverty, fractured families, malnutrition, and crime. Competition for scarce resources has also led to conflict with other African ethnic groups. There are also divisions within the Xhosa communitybetween men and women, young and old, rural and urban, and highly educated and illiterate. These divisions may lead to tensions if not resolved in the post-apartheid era. One of the biggest challenges for South Africa as a whole is to meet rising expectations for education, employment, and improved standards of living.


Ramphela, Mamphela. A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1993.

Switzer, Les. Power and Resistance in an African Society: The Ciskei Xhosa and the Making of South Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Zenani, Nongenile. The World and the Word: Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradition. Collected and edited by Harold Scheub. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.


Embassy of South Africa, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Government of South Africa. [Online], 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. South Africa. [Online] Available, 1998.

Southern African Development Community. South Africa. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Caffre, Cafre, Isixhosa, Kaffer, Kaffir, Koosa, Southern Nguni, Xosa

"Xhosa" is the generic name used for a number of related cultural groups in South Africa. Xhosa groups include the Mpondo, Bomvana, Bhaca, Thembu, Mpondomise, Xesibe, Mfengu, Hlubi, and the Xhosa proper. These Southern Nguni peoples, as they are sometimes called, share a common language, Isixhosa, and are culturally similar to one another. Because of their contact with other peoples in the area over the centuries and the strong influence of colonial powers, as well as missionary contact, it is difficult speak of the traditional culture of the Xhosa. Rather, Xhosa culture today is a blend that has resulted from these influences and others. The Xhosa today are much involved in South African political affaire and play a major role in the postapartheid government.

The traditional homeland of the Xhosa was located on the southeastern seaboard of the Republic of South Africa in an area that is currently divided politically into two independent states, Transkei and Ciskei. In 1989 the estimated number of Xhosa living in Transkei was 3,500,000 and in Ciskei, 1,000,000. Xhosa also live in South African citiesespecially Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East Londonand on farms outside Transkei and Ciskei. In 1986 the total population of Xhosa in South Africa was estimated at approximately six million.

The Xhosa-speaking peoples originally consisted of three main groups: the Pondo, the Tembu, and the Xhosa proper. They all spoke the same language and shared the same belief that their culture originated at the headwaters of the Dedesi River. Their customs and beliefs were similar, generally centering around the herding of cattle. They were linked to one another through intermarriage as well as by the diplomatic, military, and political alliances they formed. Through the centuries, internal dissension and further subdivision, contact with San and Khoi-speaking peoples whose territories they overran and conquered, and the arrival of refugees from wars in Natal broke the original Xhosa-speaking nations into diversified chiefdoms and peoples. Nevertheless, the basic division of the Xhosa speakers into Pondo, Tembu, and Xhosa still remains.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Nguni herded cattle, hunted game, and cultivated sorghum. They lived in beehive-shaped huts in scattered homesteads and were ruled by chiefs. One of the main reasons for Xhosa expansion was the splitting off of the sons of reigning chiefs to found new chiefdoms of their own, which relieved the political pressure at the center of the kingdom. Movement was also precipitated by the need to find new hunting grounds and fresh pastures. This was a slow process because of the need to burn down the forest to provide grazing prior to occupation.

The Xhosa traditionally were not a nomadic people, although the need for large pastures to accommodate expanding herds of cattle encouraged steady movement. Xhosa kraals, or cattle enclosures, were surrounded by huts. The kraals formed family clusters tied by allegiance to the Great Place, the principle kraal, that of the chief. The Great Place was usually only a modest grouping of huts.

A Xhosa family homestead was known as an umzi (pl. imizi ), and several adjoining imizi formed a village. An umzi generally housed an extended family, including the head of the family; his wives, children, and aging parents; his married sons and their families; and his unmarried daughters. The huts faced east, toward the sun, and stood in a semicircle around the main focus of their communal existence, the kraal. In the case of a man rich in cattle, who had more than than one wife, each wife had a household of perhaps three huts: a main hut for living and cooking, a second hut for children and visitors, and a third as a storeroom. Close to these huts and never too far from the stream from which they were watered were the gardens in which were cultivated the limited number of crops the Xhosa raised seasonally: cereals such as sorghum, as well as maize, pumpkins, and melons.

Apart from its gardens, a village or group of villages would be surrounded by a substantial territory that represented the hunting grounds and pastures that were common to all.

Villages could contain from fifteen to fifty huts and could be as close as 0.4 kilometers from one another or as far as four to five hours' away by footpath. The inhabitants of a village, or group of villages, could be members of a chiefdom, the many and complex lineages of which could be traced back to a common ancestor. There was generally a local chief, or headman, who ruled over the kraals and who was subordinate to a great chief of a whole district.

Cattle were the focal point of Xhosa existence. Life literally circled around them. Cattle intricately bound together the material realm with the sacred. They were the medium of sacrifice to the ancestral spirits, linking the living with the dead. They represented the future, because they sealed the marriage bond. They also represented wealth and stability. In ordinary daily life, they supplied the principal item of the diet, milk, as well as meat for occassional feasting and leather for clothing. Cattle were viewed as individually as the members of the family itself. The Xhosa language was profuse with varieties of descriptive terms for cattle, mainly based on color combinations and the shapes of the horns.

The Xhosa were bound in their daily lives and actions by reverence for and fear of their ancestors, whose spirits were believed to be omnipresent. If these spirits were offended, they would express their displeasure by inflicting illness, accident, or some other disorder. They were appeased through sacrifice. The sacrificial beasts had to be the best of the herd. During the sacrifice, the slaughterer cut open the belly, thrust his arm up to the heart, and wrenched out the arteries. These ceremonies took place in the cattle kraal and the skulls of the sacrificial animals were placed at the gate posts.

An important traditional value of Xhosa culture is ubuntu, or humanness. At the core of ubuntu is the preservation and stability of the whole. An example of its application is that, in times of war, women and children were never killed. During their anticolonial wars, Xhosa were known to kill White men and their grown sons ruthlessly, at the feet of their wives and sisters; they spared women and children, however, despite the fact that the same kindness was not reciprocated by their enemies.


Costello, Dawn (1990). Not Only for Its Beauty: Beadwork and Its Cultural Significnce among the Xhosa-Speaking Peoples. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Hodgson, Janet (1982). The God of the Xhosa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Mostert, Noel (1992). Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. New York: Albert A. Knopf.

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Xhosa (Xosa) Group of related Bantu tribes. The Xhosa moved from e Africa to the vicinity of the River Great Fish, s Africa, in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were defeated and subjected by Europeans in 1835. In culture, they are closely related to the Zulu. Today, the 2.5 million Xhosa live in the Eastern Cape and form an important part of South Africa's industrial and mining workforce. Xhosa is the most widely spoken African language in South Africa.

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Xho·sa / ˈkōsə; ˈkhō-/ • n. (pl. same or -sas) 1. a member of a South African people traditionally living in the Eastern Cape Province. They form the second largest ethnic group in South Africa after the Zulus. 2. the Nguni language of this people. • adj. of or relating to this people or their language.

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"Xhosa." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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XhosaAlissa, Clarissa, kisser, Larissa, Marisa, Melissa, Orissa, reminiscer •fixer, mixer, sixer •convincer, mincer, pincer, rinser, wincer •Amritsar, Maritsa, spritzer •howitzer • kibitzer • purchaser •artificer • officer • surfacer • Pulitzer •Wurlitzer • promiser • harnesser •menacer •practiser (US practicer) •de-icer, dicer, enticer, gricer, paise, pricer, ricer, slicer, splicer •Schweitzer •Barbarossa, dosser, embosser, fossa, glosser, josser, Ossa, Saragossa, tosser •boxer • sponsor • matzo • bobbysoxer •Chaucer, courser, endorser (US indorser), enforcer, forcer, reinforcer, saucer, Xhosa •balsa, waltzer •dowser, grouser, Hausa, mouser, Scouser •announcer, bouncer, denouncer, pouncer, pronouncer, renouncer, trouncer •schnauzer

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