A Brief Historical Overview Of The Amaxhosa

Knowing another man’s language in the manner referred to by Nelson Mandela implies also knowing his culture, because the two are inseparably mixed. Most of the problems between people grow from deep misunderstandings, and many of these are rooted in cultural differences. History has shown that when human beings understand a culture, they are less likely to respond in a negative way to behaviour that is different to their own. When we understand the reasons for someone’s behaviour, we are less likely to take offense. Today when people of the world are so tense that negative responses are becoming the norm, we really need to inject human understanding into the mix of our daily lives and the best way to do that is to try to understand the other cultures of those living in the world around us. At the same time, the deeper reason is how rich that understanding can make our lives.

Therefore as an introduction to your journey into the learning of isiXhosa, I will be giving you a brief insight into the history and background of the people whose language you are learning to speak, namely the amaXhosa, before giving you some cultural insights.  What follows is a loose, historical overview of the amaXhosa, covering short descriptions of their origin and traditional way of life.  [Recognition given to: Pinnock, P.S. – XHOSA a cultural grammar for beginners] As you progress through the modules you will be provided with additional insights into Xhosa values, etiquette, and folk lore which I hope you will find enriching and informative.

According to Pinnock, the earliest reports by Portuguese survivors of shipwrecks along the south-east coast during the 16 and 17th centuries describe the amaXhosa as cattle herders who hunted game and cultivated sorghum.  They lived in beehive –shaped huts in scattered homesteads which were ruled by chiefs.  According to oral tradition, the ancestors of the amaXhosa lived in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains before moving slowly to the coast. They are thought to have moved westward over a period of 300 years, roughly between 1550 and 1850.  The boundaries of the territory they occupied varied considerably from time to time, but between the years 1700 and 1850 they seldom extended west of the Sunday’s River [approximately 40 km east of Port Elizabeth] or east of the Mbashe River [meaning “dark river” or “dangerous ravine”]
in the upper reaches of the Transkei.

The amaXhosa were pastoralists [people who herded livestock, often as nomadic wanderers without a set farm area], and their slow movement was more of an expansion of territory rather than migration.  One of the main reasons for this movement of expansion was simply the splintering off of the sons of chiefs to found new chiefdoms of their own.  Over centuries various chiefdoms formed as a result of inner turmoils and division, through unions with the Khoisan groups [more about this later] whose territories were overrun and conquered by the amaXhosa and through the arrival of refugees from wars in Natal, having been expelled from this area by the legendary king uShaka.

The four major ethnic divisions among Black South Africans are the Nguni, Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. The Nguni represent nearly two thirds of South Africas Black population and can be divided into four distinct groups; the Northern and Central Nguni (the Zulu-speaking peoples), the Southern Nguni (the Xhosa-speaking peoples), the Swazi people from Swaziland and adjacent areas and the Ndebele people of the Northern Province and Mpumalanga. Archaeological evidence shows that the Bantu-speaking groups that were the ancestors of the Nguni migrated down from East Africa as early as the eleventh century.

Language, culture and beliefs:

The amaXhosa are the second largest cultural group in South Africa, after the Zulu-speaking nation. The Xhosa language (isiXhosa), of which there are variations, is part of the Nguni language group. IsiXhosa is one of the 11 official languages recognized by the South African Constitution, and the latest (2012) statistics indicate the approximately 8,7 million South Africans speak isiXhosa as a home language. It is a tonal language, governed by the noun – which dominates the sentence, which you will see as we progress through the various modules.

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

Oral tradition plays a major part in documenting the history of the amaXhosa.
Consequently stories and legends providing accounts of Xhosa ancestral heroes abound in oral literature. According to one oral tradition, the first person on Earth was a great leader called Xhosa. The first modern historian of the amaXhosa, J.H. Soga, speculated that Xhosa’s heroic stature stemmed from the fact that he was a ‘Moses – type figure who brought his people from some remote inland area to the coastlands which later became their home.  However Pinnock states that it is unlikely that such a person ever existed as there are no legends or stories about him and it is more likely according to another school of thought, that the word ‘Xhosa’ is derived from the Khoi word ‘//kosa’, meaning ‘angry men’.

Another tradition stresses the essential unity of the Xhosa-speaking people by proclaiming that all the Xhosa subgroups are descendants of one ancestor, Tshawe who dethroned his older brother Cirha sometime before 1600.
Tshawe in his own right became a distinguished chief who established the amaTshawe as the royal clan of the amaXhosa nation and they remain so today.
His descendants expanded the kingdom by settling in new territory and bringing people living there under the control of the amaTshawe. Generally, the group would take on the name of the chief under whom they had united. There are therefore distinct varieties of isiXhosa, the most distinct being isiMpondo (isiNdrondroza).
Other dialects include: Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondomise, Rharhabe, Gcaleka, Xesibe, Bhaca, Cele, Hlubi, Ntlangwini, Ngqika, Mfengu (also names of different groups or clans).

Unlike the Zulu and the Ndebele in the north, the position of the king as head of a lineage did not make him an absolute king. The junior chiefs of the various chiefdoms acknowledged and deferred to the paramount chief in matters of ceremony, law, and tribute, but he was not allowed to interfere in their domestic affairs. There was great rivalry among them, and few of these leaders could answer for the actions of even their own councilors.
As they could not centralise their power, chiefs were constantly preoccupied with strategies to maintain the loyalties of their followers. As a result, each Tshawe chief was relatively autonomous within his own chiefdom.
As the generations passed, the chiefs dispersed over a wide area, expanding the amaXhosa kingdom by subjecting the Khoisan and other independent clans to their authority, consequently beginning the westward descent of the cattle-owning farmers along the south-eastern coast.  This westward movement accelerated rapidly during the 18th century until, in the last part of the century, they found themselves in the path of eastward-moving white Dutch/Afrikaner colonists. These colonists who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, they began to experience conflict among themselves and certain groups moved away and sought to expand their territory.  This eastward movement by the Dutch colonists became known as the Great Trek which is widely documented.
This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken as well. The amaXhosa encountered the eastward-moving White pioneers or Trek Boers in the region of the Fish River. According to Pinnock, the ensuing struggle was not so much a contest between Black and White races as a struggle for water, grazing and living space between two groups of farmers. However it can safely be said that the amaXhosa historically, were the first to feel the brunt of violent contact with the outside world during the so-called Frontier Wars.

One of Tshawe’s successors was Phalo, who rules during the 18th century.
He had two sons, Rharhabe and Gcaleka, who both laid claim to Tshawe’s position during his lifetime.  This succession dispute resulted in a war and a split between the two brothers, resulting in the Tshawe dynasty being divided into two main branches – the Great House of Gcaleka, living east of the Great Kei River and the Right-Hand House of Rharhabe, living west of the Great Kei. In later years many Xhosa chiefdoms in the Transkei descended from Gcaleka and those in the Ciskei, from Rharhabe.

Be that as it may, the Amarharhabe bore the brunt of the Frontier Wars and in the process were divided yet again between the followers of Ngqika, who collaborated with the colonial forces and the followers of Ndlambe, who resisted them. Nine Frontier Wars [1779-1878]
followed between the Xhosa and European settlers, and these wars dominated
19th century South African History. The first frontier war broke out in
1780 and marked the beginning of the Xhosa struggle to preserve their traditional
customs and way of life. It was a struggle that was to increase in intensity when the British arrived on the scene.

The Xhosa fought for one hundred years to preserve their independence, heritage and land, and today this area is still referred to by many as Frontier Country.

During these wars the amaXhosa were shattered by the Great Cattle Killing of 1856-1857, when, acting on the prophecies of a young girl called Nongqause, they slaughtered their cattle and stopped planting crops.  According to Nongqause’s prophecies, these deeds would lead to the resurrection of the ancestors, the retreat of the white colonizers and an era of ‘idyllic prosperity’. On a specific day the sun would rise and set again in the east and a whirlwind would sweep all White people into the sea.
On the day, all awoke and waited with great expectation for the ‘resurrection’ to take place, but nothing happened. Instead approximately 20 000 (roughly 80% at the time) people starved to death and the amaXhosa were torn apart and approximately another 30 000 were dispersed among the white farmers in the Karoo and Eastern Cape.  They were the first African people to become widely known to Europeans and this is probably why, according to historians, the name ‘Xhosa’ became the name for all Africans in the Eastern Cape.

[A more detailed account of the Great Cattle Killing will be included in a later insert]

The belief system

The Supreme Being among the Xhosa is called uThixo or uQamata.
The name uThixo was adopted as the name for God [Pinnock.67] by the early missionaries and is used by the Christian churches.  It is generally believed that the name does not actually belong to the amaXhosa, but was derived from the Khoi people. As in the religions of many other Bantu peoples, God is only rarely involved in everyday life and may be approached through ancestral intermediaries who are honoured through ritual sacrifices. Ancestors commonly make their wishes known to the living in dreams. However, because not everyone is capable of interpreting these dreams, witchdoctors are called in to act as mediums.

They are easily recognisable by their exotic regalia and they often wear white-a symbol of purity.  Death and burial are associated with many complex beliefs and rituals.  The men of the clan (family) always lead the funeral procession and the women follow behind.  In the case of the death of the head of the family, cattle will be sacrificed and strict procedures followed as he goes to join his ancestors and prepares himself to watch over the interests of the family that is left behind.  Today, many of the amaXhosa are Christians, as a result of the early contact with European missionaries  However their religion remains a unique blend of Christianity and traditional African beliefs.

During the Frontier Wars, hostile chiefs forced the earliest missionaries to abandon their attempts to evangelise them. This situation changed after 1820, when John Brownlee founded a mission on the Tyhume River near Alice, and William Shaw established a chain of Methodist stations throughout the Transkei.

Other denominations followed suit. Education and medical work were to become major contributions of the missions, and today Xhosa cultural traditionalists are likely to belong to independent denominations that combine Christianity with traditional beliefs and practices. In addition to land lost to white annexation, legislation reduced Xhosa political autonomy. Over time, the amaXhosa became increasingly impoverished, and had no option but to become migrant workers. In the late 1990s, the amaXhosa made up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa’s gold mines.

The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked more changes for all Black South Africans. In 1953 the South African Government introduced homelands or Bantustans, and two regions Transkei and Ciskei were set aside for the amaXhosa. These regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Therefore many amaXhosa were denied South African citizenship, and thousands were forcibly relocated to remote areas in Transkei and Ciskei.

The homelands were abolished with the change to democracy in 1994 and South Africa’s first democratically elected president was African National Congress (ANC) leader, Nelson Mandela, who is a member of the Thembu people.

Rites of passage traditions

The amaXhosa have various rites of passage traditions. The first of these occurs 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 and female initiation in the form of circumcision is practiced among most Xhosa groups. Before a Xhosa male is recognised as an adult with the right to marry, he first has to go through the initiation process and be circumcised.  Until such time, he is regarded as a boy and irresponsibility on his part is expected and condoned. Only boys who were considered ready were allowed to undergo initiation.

The ceremony usually takes place when the corn ripens during the month of May.  On the agreed day, the married women emerge at dawn and start building a grass hut isolated from villages or towns in which the male abakhwetha (initiates-in-training) will live for several weeks. The boys wait in a secluded spot for the arrival of the ingcibi  (surgeon) who will perform the operation.
The boys are not allowed to utter any sound during the procedure.

Like soldiers inducted into the army, they have their heads shaved. They wear a loincloth and a blanket for warmth, and white clay (ifuthe) is smeared on their bodies from head to toe. After the wounds have healed, the boys undertake hunting excursions into the bush, sometimes accompanied by a small boy from the village.  Sometimes they are joined by one of the senior, respected men from the village who teaches them to behave like responsible adults.  This teaching includes the rules of etiquette, the laws of respect and how to honour the ancestral spirits. Different stages in the initiation process are marked by the sacrifice of a goat.

At one of these stages the umtshilo or traditional dance of the circumcision initiates takes place and is a festive occasion where young boys gather for exhibition dancing.  It normally draws a large number of onlookers who enjoy the performance and traditional beer is freely available.

On this occasion [The Greater Dictionary of Xhosa – Volume 3], the dancers are decorated with patterns of blue spots on the white clay background of their bodies (Thembu) or black, blue and red spots (Bomvana).
They are dressed in a short skirt made of dried palm leaves, headgear and a veil with two slender fronds projecting upwards like horns. The dancing sometimes accompanied by singing, is extremely strenuous and is a true test of endurance, commencing at around midday, continuing uninterruptedly until sunset.  The dancing is also competitive with the older men doing the judging and the best dancer the intshili, given gifts as a prize.

At the end of the isolation period, the initiates are marched to a river to wash themselves.  Upon returning, their guide places a piece of fat on their heads and smears it straight down their bodies and across their shoulders in the shape of a cross. After this ritual, the boys are wrapped in new blankets and turned away from the hut, covering their faces and forbidden to look back..  All their possessions are thrown into the hut which is then set alight to prevent witches from taking possession of these things. The amakrwala (new initiates) are then marched back to their parental homes where they are showered with gifts and a feast known as the umgidi is prepared in their honour.

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.

Lobola and the traditional wedding

Once a young girl has made the choice of her husband-to-be, the wedding process can begin and this takes place with the lobola agreement.
This is considered as a show of the groom’s commitment to his future bride. It is “compensation” to the father and his kraal for the loss of the girl. In this way the bridegroom and his family lay claim to any children produced in the marriage. Lobola is usually paid in head of cattle – an amount agreed upon after fierce negotiation between the elders of the two families, but today can also be paid in cash.

Traditionally, after a formal engagement had been made, and the terms of lobola settled, the cattle / money is delivered in ‘instalments’ to the father. This can continue for a year or two until the bridegroom’s family insists on a wedding.

Traditional amaXhosa weddings are characterised by joyous singing and ululating, dancing and mock fighting by warriors in traditional dress.
The women wear traditional headdresses, beautiful beaded necklaces and soft leather aprons. No invitations are sent and importantly, the whole community joins in the celebrations.

The wedding must be at night when the moon is bright, because a faint moon signifies bad luck, and also makes the celebrations less festive.
The wedding is held in the open in the bridegroom’s kraal. A few days before the wedding, the bride arrives with a retinue of bridesmaids, all carrying parts of her trousseau on their heads. She often brings gifts from her father to the bridegroom’s father with her.

On the morning of the traditional wedding, uduli is the party of men and women numbering five to ten people, selected by the bride’s father to accompany her to her future home. They carry the bride’s outfit and presents to her future home.  When they get there a hut is assigned to them and an animal is slaughtered. The clans are in this way united through the symbolic exchange of meat. On their return home, they drive the dowry given for the bride, if this has not been done previously.

The brewing of traditional beer

The first step is to prepare the malt.  This is done by moistening a quantity of sorghum or mealies, covering it and placing it in a warm place to germinate after which it is dried and used as malt or inkoduso for making the beer. Meanwhile the women and girls grind sorghum, maize or wheat coarsely.  This meal is moistened and left overnight to be ground fine the next day. The resultant dough is placed in a tub and left, covered with a hessian bag overnight.  The following day a thin porridge is cooked, using the dough.  A small quantity of this is left to cool and is then poured into a pot or tub where it is mixed with the malt to ferment quickly and forms the isilumiso, or yeast , some of which is then used to hasten the fermentation of a small quantity of beer.
This is drunk by the head of the household and his friends.  On the day set aside for the purpose, the rest of the porridge is poured into containers and mixed with the rest of the isilumiso / yeast.
Before this yeast is poured into the container, half of the remaining malt, known as imithombo yangaphantsi is poured into the bottom of the tub and the whole mixture is stirred thoroughly.  Then the other half of the malt, imithombo yangaphezulu, is poured over the mixture which is again stirred and then covered with a sack to ferment.  The rate of fermentation depends on the amount of yeast added and the prevailing temperature, but it normally takes about 24 hours.  The beer is then strained and is ready for consumption.  Nowadays the meal and malt are bought ready ground.  Apart from this, the brewing process remains unaltered.


The term literally means “humanness” and is used to represent the saying “I am because we are” and is described by Barbara Nessbaum as follows:

Ubuntu is the capacity in African culture to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interests of building and maintaining community with justice and mutual caring. Ubuntu, an Nguni word from South Africa, speaks to our interconnectedness, our common humanity and the responsibility to each other that flows from our deeply felt connection. Ubuntu is consciousness of our natural desire to affirm our fellow human beings and to work and act towards each other with the communal good in the forefront of our minds. Ubuntu calls upon us to believe and feel that:

Your pain is My pain,

My wealth is Your wealth,

Your salvation is My salvation.

And this consequently gives rise to the saying: Umntu Ngumntu Ngabantu – “A person is a person because of others”. Ubuntu is a social philosophy, a way of being, a code of ethics and behavior deeply embedded in African culture. The underlying value seeks to honor the dignity of each person and is concerned about the development and maintenance of mutually affirming and enhancing relationships. Because ubuntu embraces and requires justice, it inspires and therefore creates a firm foundation for our common humanity. It has been in existence for thousands of years in most countries of Africa and continues to lie at the core of intrinsic values in traditional African culture, although in urban areas, such values are being increasingly eroded

Everyday Social  Observances

Observances pertaining to greetings when entering a room:

The visitor greets first as he/she enters saying “Molo” when there is only one person in the room/house and “Molweni” if there are two or more people.  If the visitor is known or knows the family, he/she may call out the person’s name.  Likewise, the same procedure can be followed when greeting a group of people with the greeting “Molweni mawethu” – Greetings my fellows.  These observances are also normally accompanied by the shaking of hands.  Other observances pertaining to the shaking of hands are:

  • The hand of a witchdoctor is not shaken.
  • The hand of a young man who is undergoing the initiation or ulwaluko process is not shaken.
  • Hand shaking is accompanied by meeting the eyes of the other person, not looking sideways or down.
  • In the more rural areas, young people can be expected to greet one another not with a hand shake, but with sticks.

Seating arrangements inside a house or room

  • Men always occupy the left side of a room as you enter, with the women on the right.  This is traditionally done for reasons of protection,
    because an “enemy” after entering a room and noticing this seating arrangement, will immediately step back.  To deviate slightly, the same applies to when a man and a woman are walking together – the man will walk on the left and slightly in front, in order to ward off any enemy that might be lying in wait.  Today this could for example happen as you leave a lift, and the man walking out first.  This again is not to be perceived as a sign of impoliteness, but rather seen as him fulfilling his role as protector – hence the expression “Ukugabula izigcawu” – To beat away the spiders (pave the way).
  • After knocking on the door, you will be summoned inside by the head of the family, with the word “Ngaphakathi!”, literally meaning “Inside!”, but implying “Come in, you are welcome”.
  • The visitor should always wait to be offered a seat, the man being offered a seat on the left-hand side, a woman on the right, boys with boys and girls with girls, etc.

Cultural observances in this situation

  • It is etiquette for the visitor to shake everyone’s hand with the exception of:
    • A newly wed or young woman should greet only the older members of the family, especially the women, and just nod to the other members.
  • The older person will initiate the well-being exchange by saying: “Unjani? (singular) or “Ninjani?” (plural) – both meaning “How are you?” This plural form is commonly used and the question is often asked why this is directed at a single person. The reason for this is that the question is not only directed at the visitor as an individual, but also includes his/her family at home.
  • This initiation of the well-being exchange is responded to by the visitor saying “Ndiphilile enkosi” – I am well thanks, or “Siphilile enkosi” – We are well thanks, followed by the reciprocal question “Unjani wena?” –“And how are you?” or “Ninjani nina? – “And how are you all?”.

Other cultural observances pertaining to the greeting

  • The first to enquire about the well-being of a visitor is the most senior person in the room or house.
  • Should the meeting take place in the street, the first to greet does not initiate the well-being exchange, but rather the one met and greeted. This is done as a sign of respect and politeness.
  • This practice applies to all genders. However a female may not enquire about any well-being before this has been done by a male member of the household.
  • If the visitor is a woman, the male will initiate the well-being exchange and then hand over to the most senior woman or his wife, if she is the most senior.
  • One can expect the respondent (visitor) to relate the well-being of his /her entire family to those present.

Cultural observances pertaining to departing / farewell

The visitor when wishing to leave may state any one of the following depending
on the stituation and those present:

  • Ndicela indlela – I am requesting the road (may I leave?)
  • Mandinishiye – I must leave you
  • Mandibaleke – I must hurry off
  • Nisale kakuhle –Stay well (all of you)

Responses to these are:

  • Kulungile, hamba kakuhle –  Fine, go well
  • Nawe uhambe kakuhle – And you too, go well
  • Kulungile, Ubulise kubo bonke ekhaya – Ok, Gretting to all at home

The visitor should not leave until given permission by the senior person present that he may do so.  He could in a formal situation, say “Siyakunika” –“ We are giving you the road – you may leave”.  Another round of handshaking denoting departure could follow, with the senior household member accompanying the visitor to the door.

We hope that you will find learning this language and about its people, an enriching experience!!

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