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The Tswana Cluster

Population:      Botswana 1,070,000; South Africa 3,301,774; Zimbabwe 30,000;
                     Namibia 6050 All Countries 4,407,174 (Ethnologue-Johnstone, 1993)

Religion:       Animism, Secularism and Christianity (about 18% Christian)

Registry of Peoples codes
 Tswana, Central:  101942
    (only in some sources)
 Tswana, Hurutshe:  103925
 Tswana, Kgatla:  104871
 Tswana, Kwena:  105534
 Tswana, Malete:  106173
 Tswana, Ngwaketse:  107298


 Tswana, Ngwato:  107299
 Tswana, Rolong:  108393
 Tswana, Seleka:  108811
 Tswana, Tawana:  109899
 Tswana, Tlhaping:  110099
 Tswana, Tlokwa:  110102
 Tswana, Kwena:  105534

Registry of Languages code (Tswana Language -- Ethnologue):  Tswana:  tsn


The Tswana people are associated with the country of Botswana, whose name means "Land of the Tswana."  But most of the people of this language group live in the northeastern part of South Africa.  Before the coming of democracy in 1994, this densely populated area was a "homeland" called Bophutatswana under the South African Aprtheid scheme, meaning "The Place of Gathering of the Tswana."

Lehurutse, Mafeking and Mmabatho are major cities on the South African side.  Gaberone and Lobatse are major Tswana cities in Botswana.  Most of Botswana is desert, including the great Kalahari.  A few thousand Tswana also live in the neighboring area of Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The area now called Botswana was first inhabited by San Bushmen.  Legend suggests that the three sons of Masilo, a great Sotho chief of about 1500, were the ancestors of the three main Tswana tribes of modern Botswana: Kwena, Ngwato and Ngwaketse.

Another version says Ngwato and Ngwaketse were sons of Kwena.  Historically the three became separate lineages in the 18th century.  In the early 1800's the Sotho were still moving slowly south and had reached to the area of modern Swaziland and almost to the Orange River on both sides of the Vaal, where the San still lived.

The lands of the Tswana suffered the shattering experience of invasion from a whole series of refugee groups escaping from the anger of Shaka Zulu at the beginning of the 19th century.  Marauding Nguni groups, the Hlubi and Ngwane, created chaos as they were pushed westward across the Vaal River.

The Tloka Sotho of MaNthatisi, led by her son Sekonyela, left a path of destruction as they attacked other Sotho groups, marching from Natal to Lesotho and on to the northwest of Botswana.  Various Sotho groups moved around attacking each other in their turn.  The Phuting moved north and destroyed the Hurutshe capital, Kaditschwene.

The Fokeng, Phuting and the Hlakoane began fighting among themselves.  But the Tlokwa kept coming.  Robert Moffat, father-in-law of David Livingstone, persuaded the Griquas (a Coloured tribe) to join forces and fight the coming Tlokwa invasion.  On 26 June 1823 the half-starving invaders were defeated by the more mobile Griquas mounted on horseback, saving Dithakong, the capital of the Tlapin people, with its rich herds of cattle from the invading Tlokwa.

Mzilikazi and the Ndebele proved more formidable opponents than the Tlokwa.  The Ndebele caused devastation, moving through Tswana country under continual pressure from raiding Zulu regiments, as Mzilikazi left Shaka's sphere of control causing general devastation.  Large areas were depopulated, towns were set on fire and in particular the Kwena were almost exterminated, never to regain their early prominence.  Eventually, the Ndebele decided to move towards what is now Zimbabwe.  One group of Ndebele came to be Sotho speakers and live in the Transvaal today.

During the second half of the 19th century the areas of the Tswana peoples were dominated by Chief Khama III of the Ngwato, who recognized the growing European interest in the area.  He was baptized into the Christian faith in his early twenties, and his conversion made a deep and lasting impression on his people, as he banned alcohol and was scrupulously honest.

The British annexed the area because they needed to control the route between the Transvaal and the Kalahari and because they didn't want German expansion further southward from the Caprivi strip of Namibia.  The region became the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in 1886, halting encroachment by Boers and Germans from the south and southwest.  

The southern part of Bechuanaland was made a British crown colony and was incorporated into the union of South Africa in 1910.  Scattered segments of that area were called Bophutatswana as one of the home lands in apartheid South Africa.  The protectorate became fully independent 30 September 1966, changing its name to Botswana.

The Tswana are a southern Bantu people closely related to the Sotho (of Lesotho and South Africa).  The Sotho-Tswana are bonded in language and customs.  They claim a common ancestor, Mogale.  They share an agrarian culture, social structures, political organization, religious and magical beliefs and family life.

The name "Tswana" with many variations is the European name for a grouping of Bantu peoples.  The word is derived from a Xhosa name originally used for all interior Bantu speakers.  The meaning or origin is not known.  The term gradually came to be applied to the subdivisions of the Sotho peoples now called Tswana.  The "Tswanas" actually have no common self-designated name, calling themselves by their various tribal names.

The Tswana, who are divided into 11 sub-groups, make up about 60% of the population of Botswana.  These 11 groups are: Thlaping (Thapi), Rolong, Kwena, Kgatla, Kgalagadi, Tawana, Hurutshe, Gwaketse, Ngwato, Tlokwa and Malete.  Due to this traditional manner of self-identification, the Registry of Peoples lists each of these groups under a separate code as a separate ethnicity.

In addition, there is the larger Kgalagadi tribe whose language is different enough to be classified as a separate language.  They are classified as a separate people in the broader Sotho-Tswana family.  All the Sotho and Tswana languages are inherently intelligible, but for political and historical reasons, they have generally been considered as three languages.  

About three-fourths of the Tswana people live in South Africa.  Only about one-fourth live in Botswana, the country named after them.  The larger sub-tribes are often considered as separate tribes with their separate languages.

The Sotho-Tswana are part of a Niger-Congo language sub-family called Bantu.  Tswana is a technical name used by linguists for a grouping of closely related languages of the various peoples called Tswana today.  Being Bantu languages, the speech of each sub-group is called by the name of that subgroup.  The Kwena are dominant people among the Southern Sotho.

The language called "Tswana" (Setswana) is actually the language of the Kwena lineage cluster.  Tswana (Kwena) is the national language spoken by over 80% of the Botswana population and used in schools and the media.  The Bible is in the Rolong dialect.  All the dialects can use one translation.  In addition to dialects by the names of the 11 people sub-groups, there is another dialect called Ngwatu.  English is the official language of Botswana.  It is estimated that about 40% of the population of Botswana can read and speak English.

Political Situation:
What is now known as Botswana was previously a British Protectorate called Bechuanaland.   This political entity never entered into the Union of South Africa.   The territory gained its independence form Britain in 1966.   The current Head of State is President Festus Mogae, who took office April 1, 1998, succeeding Quett Masire, who had been president since 1980.

Traditional Tswana society included men, women, children and "badimo" (ancestors, living dead, having metaphysical powers).  A Tswana does not think in terms of individual rights, but of responsibilities to his family and tribe.  The father is to be obeyed and respected by his wife and children at all times.  Job availability in Botswana is changing from rural to urban.  In the quest for "the better life," the young are leaving the villages and not returning.  The Tswana are fast becoming a modern secular society.

The Sotho-Tswana are organized by lineages, which developed as the tribe grew.  The lineages are organized in subunits and communities.  Every level exhibits the same social organization, such as the Kgotla, the traditional court, with various officials assigned various duties in the social structure at each level.

In traditional Tswana religion (tribal animism) Modimo is the great God, or "The Great Spirit." It is interesting that "God" is the singular spirit "Mo-dimo", and the general spirits are the plural "ba-dimo." The badimo (ancestral spirits) are understood as agents of Modimo.  This implies traditionally the Tswana acknowledge the singular supreme God.

"Ancestor worship" is their philosophy of hierarchical forces, going upwards from men to ancestors, to the ultimate God, believing that if one fails the other will help.  The paternalistic teaching and preaching of early Christian missionaries neglected the significance of culture, and retarded growth of the church.  Today, the majority of Tswana are indifferent to religion of any kind, or insincere about the one they profess.

By 1820, missionaries from France and Britain were working among several Sotho-Tswana groups including the Tlokwa and Kwena.  Missionaries settled in Lesotho in 1833.  Moffat impacted the Tswana by translating the Bible, and by establishing the first church in 1829.  Livingstone followed in 1841.

Current workers with churches in Botswana reoport a high level of indifference toward the Christian faith.  Many people in Botswana seem to be unaware of who Jesus is when asked.  Failure of Christian teaching can be attributed to the cultural forms in which Christianity was brought to Africa.

About 60% of the Tswana profess Christianity, but only about 18% are practicing Christians, of which women outnumber men at least 2:1.  Some sources put the percentage of practicing Christians even lower.



Population (Ethnologue, 2005) 1,561,973
Neighbors: Namibia on North and West, South Africa on South, Zimbabwe on North East
Capital: Gaborone
Topography: The Kalahari Desert, supporting nomadic San (Bushmen) and wildlife, spreads over the Southwest.  Farming areas and swamplands in the north.  Rolling plains supporting livestock in the east.

Industries: Livestock processing, mining
Chief crops: Corn, sorghum, beans.  Cattle raising and mining (diamonds, copper, nickel) have contributed to the country's economic growth.  The economy is closely tied to South Africa.
Minerals: Copper, coal, nickel, diamonds
Other resources: Big Game

Related Profile

For more on the Tswana People
Tswana -- Siyabona Africa (Botswana Safaris)
Tswana Language -- Ethnologue

Chigwedere, Aeneas.  Birth of Bantu Africa.  Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: Books for Africa, 1982.

Davis, N.  E.  A History of Southern Africa.  London, U.K.: Longman Group Ltd., 1980.

Lanting, Frans.  "A Gathering of Waters and Wildlife," National Geographic (Vol.  178, No.  6), December 1990.

Marquard, Leo.  The Story of South Africa.  London, U.K.: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1973.

Morton, Fred, Andrew Murray and Jeff Ramsay.   Historical Dictionary of Botswana.   London and Metuchen, New Jersey:   The Scarecrow Press, 1989.

Thompson, Leonard.  African Societies in Southern Africa.  London: Heinemann Educational Book Ltd., 1978.

Zich, Arthur.  "Botswana: the Adopted Land," National Geographic (Vol.  178, No.  6), December 1990.

Tim James and Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written May 1996
Revised and first posted 19 May 2006
Last updated 22 May 2006

Copyright © 1997, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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