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The Xhosa of South Africa

Population:    Botswana 9,900; Lesotho 22,000; South Africa 7,529,000; Zimbabwe 29,000 (Joshua Project 2008)
Religion:   Christianity 88% (South Africa); African Traditional Religion 12% (Joshua Project 2008)
Registry of Peoples code:  Xhosa:  110893
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Xhosa:  xho


The Xhosa people live primarily in the Eastern Cape areas called Ciskei and Transkei.  Xhosa are also found all over the Republic of South Africa in various occupations.  A few also live in Botswana, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

The Xhosa were part of the gradual Bantu migration movement from southern Zaire in various directions to cover most of Africa south of the Sahara.  They are descended from a clan of the Nguni.  By 1600 the Xhosa people by that name were in the Eastern Cape and from 1705 there were periodic minor clashes with the sparse Boers (Dutch-Afrikaner farmers).

As the number of Boers grew and they expanded further north and east from the Cape, clashes increased.  As South Africa shifted politically between British and Dutch rule, clashes with the Xhosa grew in magnitude, as with the Zulu in the Natal area farther north.  The British increased their hegemony over the Eastern Cape in the early to mid 1800s.

They dislocated Xhosa clans and disrupted the traditional lineage-family homesteads and social system.  The Xhosa were pressed into highland areas where the terrain offered some defense.  In the 1830s and 1840s, after major battles, the British stripped the Xhosa chiefs of effective power.  Certain aras were finally designated as semi-autonomous territories, while the Britsh settlers took the prize areas.

In British South Africa traditional areas of the Xhosa and other peoples were preserved as autonomous territories.  These later became administrative districts of the Union of South Africa in 1910.  The Union remained part of the British Empire and Commonwealth until after WW II.

In the election of 1948, the Afrikaner National socialist party won control, restoring Afrikaner control to South Africa for the first time since the annexation of the Boer Republics by 1879.  The Afrikaner government withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth and imposed the segregation policy called "apartheid" (apart-ness).

The Xhosa were active in following decades in opposing this policy, while they were persecuted and separated from most civil and legal rights.  Xhosa and other black African peoples did have access to some education and there was some economic freedom.  There were Xhosa lawyers and business people who worked within the system to oppose apartheid until it was finally dismantled by the Nationalist government.

The Xhosa people of today have developed from an early clan of the Nguni people.  Their oral taditions tell us that the name "Xhosa" comes from a legendary leader called uXhosa.  The Xhosa comprise a set of clan lineages, among whom the main groups are Bhaca, Bomvana, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thembu. They are the most southern group of the Bantu migrations from Central Africa into the southern Africa areas.

The indigenous people they met on their migrations were the Khoisan (Bushmen and Nama or "Hottentot") peoples.  The Xhosa culture (and Nguni culture as a whole) has borrowed from the Khoisan culture and language and the two peoples lived symbiotically and even intermarried.  The Xhosa people speak a language called "Xhosa" which is known as a "click" language, having three basic clicks, borrowed from the Khoisan languages.

The Xhosa were herders and farmers.  But today they are involved in a wide range of activities and livelihoods.

Xhosa is a Bantu language in the Nguni family of southeastern Bantu languages.  Bantu languages are a part of the Benue-Congo division of the Niger-Kordofanian language group.  Xhosa is one of the 11 official languages of the Republic of South Africa.  Many Xhosa speakers also understand Zulu, Swati, Southern Sotho.

Linguists identify the folloiwng dialects of Xhosa speech:  Gealeka, Ndlambe, Gaika (Ncqika), Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondomse, Mpondo, Xesibe, Rhathabe, Bhaca, Cele, Hlubi, Mfengu.

The Nguni languages are unique among the Bantu languages in the use of click sounds as consonants.  These sounds were borrowed from the Khoisan languages of the original inhabitants of the area, the Khoikhoi and San families.  Xhosa is very close to Zulu and the two are largely mutually-intelligible.

The x in Xhosa represents a click like the sound used in English spur a horse on, followed by aspiration (a release of breath represented by the h).  In English the name is commonly pronounced with an English k sound for the x.

Political Situation:
Because of the apartheid system the Xhosa people have suffered economically, educationally and in many other ways.  One of the Xhosa people's own, Nelson Mandela, was elected president in 1994.  Apartheid has technically been dismantled but it will take many years to change people's heart.  A general hatred of whites existed for many years.  As we advise in any cross-cultural communicaiton setting, a foreigner should come with a willingness to work alongside the people and not come to tell them what to do.

The Xhosa people have a very rich heritage of which they are proud.  Traditionally they are mostly known as cattle herders and live in beehive shaped huts in scattered homesteads ruled by chiefs.

Children are usually named by their fathers or grandparents and all names have special meanings.  When a woman marries, her mother-in-law gives her a new name.  When children are old enough to attend school, they are often given an English name.

It is important to greet everyone as you arrive and as you go.  If for some reason you are not able to greet everyone, you should greet the oldest person present.  You may not greet someone older than you by their first name.  You should always use titles such as "Father", "Mother", "Pastor" or "Aunt".  You must also ask permission to leave.  Likewise, when serving food, you would serve the oldest person present and men are usually served before women.  Children are always served last.

Traditionally, the Xhosa wore skin garments but today many will wear western type clothes.  Women must always wear dresses that cover the shoulders and upper arm.  Hats or scarves are worn most of the time, but especially in church.  Dresses with beads are a sign of the traditional "ancestor worship."

A boy becomes a man when his father determines that he is ready to go to the "hut".  He is set apart for a period of up to 6 weeks in which he is circumcised and taught the traditions of his tribe.  Honor to the ancestors is an important focus.  This is typically done between 12 and 18 years of age.  After this time, he is free to get married.

Marriages are arranged by the families.  The family of the boy approaches the family of the girl and begins "negotiations". The lobola, or bride price, must also be agreed upon.  It is typically 10 cows or the equivalent in money.  The bride is captured by the groom's family and taken to live with them.  In secular settings, they are considered married.  In Christian settings, they proceed to the church for a two day service in which one day is spent at the groom's village and the other at the bride's village.

Veneration of the ancestors, sometimes called "ancestor worship," is very prominent among the Xhosa people.  The ancestors are still considered part of the community of the lineage.  They believe the ancestors reward those who venerate them and punish those who neglect them.  Many mix ancestor worship with their Christian faith.  There is a strong sense of loyalty among the tribe or community.  Most things are shared and those that have more are expected to share more.

The Xhosa were very responsive to early Christian mission efforts.  Most have a knowledge of Christianity and are willing to listen and talk about it.  Because of their warm hospitality, you will always find an open door to talk to someone about the gospel.

Christian faith and the institutional church were a strong support for the Xhosa over the decades of apartheid.  The Methodist church is very strong among the Xhosa and has the largest African membership of all churches in South Africa.  Also strong are Anglican and Presbyterian communions.  The Xhosa make up about 20% of all Christians in South Africa.

Related Profiles and Articles on the Site
The Shangaan (Tsonga) People
The Tswa People

For more on the Xhosa

Xhosa — Joshua Project
Xhosa Language — Ethnologue
Xhosa — Wikipedia
Xhosa Language — Wikipedia

Chigwedere, Aeneas.  Birth of Bantu Africa.  Bulawayo, Zimbabwe:  Books for Africa, 1982.
Davis, N E.  A History of Southern Africa.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Longman Group, Ltd, 1978.
Demographic Statistics.  Pretoria, South Africa:  Central Statistical Service, 1995.
Fage, J D.  A History of Africa.  London:  Routledge, 2001.
Marquard, Leo.  The Story of South Africa.  London, UK:  Faber and Faber Limited, 1955.
Omer-Cooper, John D.  History of Southern Africa.  London:  Heinemann, 1994 (also James Currey Ltd, 1994).
Stapleton, Timothy.  Maqoma:  Xhosa Resistance to Colonial Advance 1798-1873.  Johannesburg:  Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1994.
Statistics in Brief.  Cape Town:  Central Statistical Service, 1995.
This is Africa.  Pretoria, South Africa:  South Africa Communication Service, 1995.
Thompson, Leonard.  African Societies in Southern Africa.  London, UK:  Heinemann, 1978.
Were, Gideon S.  A History of South Africa.  London, UK:  Evans Brothers, Ltd, 1974.

Related Books
Tutu, Desmond, ed John Allen.  The Rainbow People of God:  A Spiritual Journey from Apartheid to Freedom.  Cape Town:  Double Story, 2006.
Tutu, Desmond Mpilo.  No Future Without Forgiveness.  NY:  Image (Doubleday), 1999.

Further Bibliography of Resources on the Xhosa

Cliff Jones and Orville Boyd Jenkins
Original profile written August 1996
Web version posted 2001
Updated 6 October 2008

Copyright © 1996, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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