Xhosa people

For the Pakistani ethnic group, see Khosa.
Further information: Xhosa language
Total population
8,104,752 (2011 Census)
Regions with significant populations

Eastern Cape: 5,092,152
Western Cape: 1,403,233
Gauteng: 796,841
Free State: 201,145
Kwazulu-Natal: 340,832

(2001 estimates1)
Xhosa (many also speak Zulu, English, and/or Afrikaans)
African Traditional Religion, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Zulu, Swati and Ndebele
Person umXhosa
People amaXhosa
Language isiXhosa

The Xhosa people (English /ˈkɔːsə/ or /ˈksə/;[1][2][3] Xhosa pronunciation: [kǁʰɔ́ːsa]) are a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa mainly found in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, and in the last two centuries throughout the southern and central-southern parts of the country. There is a small but significant Xhosa (Mfengu) community in Zimbabwe with its language, Xhosa, being a recognized Zimbabwean national language.[4][5]

The Xhosa people are divided into several tribes with related yet distinct heritages. The main tribes are AmaGcaleka, AmaRharhabe, ImiDange, ImiDushane, and AmaNdlambe. In addition, there are other tribes found near or amongst the Xhosa people such as AbaThembu, AmaBhaca, AmaMpondo, AmaMpondomise and AmaQwathi that are distinct and separate tribes which have adopted the Xhosa language and the Xhosa way of life.[6]

The name "Xhosa" comes from that of a legendary leader and King called uXhosa. There is also a fringe theory that, in fact the King's name which has since been lost amongst the people was not Xhosa, but that the name "xhosa" was a name given to him by the San and which means "fierce" or "angry" in the San language. The Xhosa people refer to themselves as the AmaXhosa, and to their language as isiXhosa.

Presently approximately 8 million Xhosa are distributed across the country, and the Xhosa language is South Africa's second-most-populous home language, after Zulu, to which Xhosa is closely related. The pre-1994 apartheid system of Bantustans denied Xhosas South African citizenship, but enabled them to have self-governing "homelands" namely; Transkei and Ciskei, now both a part of the Eastern Cape Province where most Xhosa remain. Many Xhosa live in Cape Town (eKapa in Xhosa), East London (eMonti), and Port Elizabeth (eBhayi).

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).[7]


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 people were well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-17th century, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from around the Port Elizabeth area to lands inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban.[6]

Xhosa people, 1848

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 tribes found in the north eastern parts of South Africa were pushed west into Xhosa country by the expansion of the Zulus in Natal, 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 received these scattered tribes and assimilated them into their cultural way of life and followed Xhosa traditions. The AmaXhosa called these various tribes AmaMfengu, meaning wanderers, and were made up of tribes such as the Bhaca, Bhele, Hlubi, Zizi and Rhadebe.

These newcomers came to speak the Xhosa language, and are sometimes considered to be Xhosa. Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial expansion was to be weakened by the famines and political divisions that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856–1858. 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.

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. 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.


Main article: Xhosa language
Map of South Africa showing the primary Xhosa language speech area in green

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 eighteen click consonants, pronounced at three places in the mouth: a series of dental clicks, written with the letter "c"; a series of alveolar clicks, written with the letter "q"; and a series of lateral clicks, written with the letter "x". There is 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 written 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 izanuse, 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 was a great warrior and a man of great ability who was much loved by his father. Gcaleka was a meek and listless man who did not possess all the qualities befitting of a future king. Matters were also complicated by Gcaleka's initiation as a diviver, which was a forbidden practice for members of the royal family.

Seeing the popularity of his brother and fearing that he might one day challenge him for the throne; Gcaleka attempted to ursurp the throne from his father, but Rharhabe would come to his father's aid and quell the insurrection. With the blessing of his father, who provided him retinue and also accompanied him; Rharhabe would leave the great place and settle in the Amathole Mountains region. Rharhabe through his military prowess subjugated various tribes he found in the region and would buy lands from the Khoikhoi to establish his own kingdom. The AmaXhosa would from then on be split into two kingdoms under the AmaGcaleka, being the senior line and the AmaRharabe.

The AmaRharhabe branch of the AmaXhosa is under the leadership of the regent Queen Noloyiso Sandile Aah! Noloyiso, daughter of King Cyprian Bhekuzulu Nyangayezizwe kaSolomon and sister to the current reigning Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu. The AmaGcaleka are currently under the leadership King Mpendulo Sigcawu Aah! Zwelenko who was crowned King of AmaXhosa on 15 May 2015.[6]

The key figure in the Xhosa oral tradition is the imbongi (plural: iimbongi) or praise singer. imbongi 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. imbongis' poetry, called imibongo, praises the actions and adventures of chiefs and ancestors.

The supreme being is called uThixo or uQamata. In Xhosa tradition the ancestors act as intermediaries between the living and God; they are honoured in rituals in order to bring good fortune. 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

Further information: Xhosa clan names

The Xhosa are a South African cultural group who emphasize traditional practices and customs inherited from their forefathers. Each person within the Xhosa culture has his or her place which is recognized by the entire community. Starting from birth, a Xhosa person goes through graduation stages which recognize his growth and assign him a recognized place in the community. Each stage is marked by a specific ritual aimed at introducing the individual to their counterparts and also to their ancestors. Starting from imbeleko, a ritual performed to introduce a new born to the ancestors, to umphumo (the homecoming), from inkwenkwe (a boy) to indoda (a man). These rituals and ceremonies are still practiced today, but many urbanized Xhosa people do not follow them rigidly. The ulwaluko and intonjane are also traditions which separated this tribe from the rest of the Nguni tribes. These are performed to mark the transition from child to adulthood. 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 as a custom, but as a medical procedure to curb HIV infections. This topic has caused arguments and fights among Xhosa and Zulus; each side sees itself as superior to the other because it practices or forsakes some customs.

All these rituals are symbolic of one's development. Before each is performed, the individual spends time with community elders to prepare for the next stage. The elders' teachings are not written, but 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" (human kindness) – 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 (abakwetha) 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 825 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.[8] 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.[9] In January 2014 the website ulwaluko.co.za was released by a Dutch medical doctor. It features a gallery of photographs of injured penises, which sparked outrage amongst traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape.[10] The South African Film and Publication Board ruled that the website was "scientific with great educative value", addressing a "societal problem needing urgent intervention".[11]

Girls are also initiated into womanhood (Intonjane). They too are secluded, though for a shorter period. Female initiates are not circumcised.[6]

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".[12]

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 (Inyama yebhokwe), sorghum, milk (often fermented, called "amasi"), pumpkins (amathanga), Mielie-meal (maize meal), samp (unngqusho), beans (iimbotyi), vegetables, like "rhabe", wild spinach reminiscent of sorrel, "imvomvo", the sweet sap of an aloe, or "ikhowa", a mushroom that grows after summer rains.[13]

Xhosa cuisine

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.[6] There are songs for various ritual occasions; one of the best-known Xhosa songs is a wedding song called "Qongqothwane", 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.[6] "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,[6] 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 children in former Transkei
Xhosa woman from the Transkei living in the Western Cape

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

Under apartheid, adult literacy rates were as low as 30%,[6] and in 1996 studies estimated the literacy level of first-language Xhosa speakers at approximately 50%.[14] There have been advances since then, however.

Education in primary-schools serving Xhosa-speaking communities is conducted in isiXhosa, 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 university level. Most of the students at Walter Sisulu University and University of Fort Hare speak isiXhosa. Rhodes University in Grahamstown, additionally, offers courses in isiXhosa for both mother-tongue and non-mother-tongue speakers. These courses both include a cultural studies component. Professor Russel H. Kaschula, Head of the School of Languages at Rhodes, has published multiple papers on Xhosa culture and oral literature.

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.

After the breakdown of apartheid, migration to Gauteng and Cape Town is increasingly common, especially amongst rural Xhosa people who are the most impoverished tribe in South Africa.[15]

Notable Xhosa

Main article: List of Xhosa people

See also


  1. "Xhosa – Definition and pronunciation". Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  2. "Xhosa – pronunciation of Xhosa". Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Publishers Limited. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. http://www.peoplegroups.org/Explore/groupdetails.aspx?peid=15685
  5. Nombembe, Caciswa. "Music-making of the Xhosa diasporic community: a focus on the Umguyo tradition in Zimbabwe." Masters dissertation, School of Arts, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, 2013.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=coronation+of+zwelonke+sigcawu
  7. "SouthAfrica.info". SouthAfrica.info. 9 July 2003. Archived from the original on 22 May 2005. Retrieved 2011-12-20.
  8. "TheHerald.co.za". TheHerald.co.za. Retrieved 2011-12-20.
  9. IOL.co.za
  10. Outrage over graphic circumcision website
  11. Media release on ulwaluko.co.za
  12. "Ualberta.ca". Uofaweb.ualberta.ca. Retrieved 2011-12-20.
  13. Xhosa cuisine
  14. Ethnologue.com, Ethnologue entry
  15. Bähre, Erik. Money and Violence; Financial Self-Help Groups in a South African Township. Brill: Leiden. 2007
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).
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