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Take a Dive into the Xhosa Culture


In addition to speaking different dialects of the same language, the Xhosa and Zulu people (known as the Nguni) have a number of cultural characteristics in common. They lived in individual family homesteads consisting of beehive-style huts arranged in a semicircular or circular plan around the central cattle kraal.

Of the main chiefdoms that arrived first in the southwestward migration of the South Nguni into the present day Eastern Cape of South Africa were the Thembu, Gcaleka, Xhosa, Mpondomise, Pondo and Bomvana. Later arrivals were the Xesibe, Bhaca and Hlubi as a result of the Zulu eruptions. Broken remnants of many other tribes who came to be known as the Fingo – from imfengu-homeless wanderer. These and others were bound through the centuries by ties of marriage as well as diplomatic, military and political alliances and because of their linguistic and cultural similarities it has been the practice to apply the name Xhosa to all Africans indigenous to the Eastern Cape.

As they migrated west of the Kei River they infiltrated and overran the territory occupied by the Hottentots or Khoikhoi who are said to have given them the name ‘kosa’ meaning angry men – or destroyers according to some. Hence the name Xhosa. Some people including the first modern Xhosa historian have speculated that the name comes from a figure named Xhosa who gave his name to the chiefdom and subsequently the nation.

Among themselves they still tend to refer to themselves by these chiefdoms so that Winnie Mandela is Pondo, Nelson Mandela (Madiba) is Thembu and Steve Biko is Xhosa.

Xhosa & Politics

The Xhosa tend to dominate politics in South Africa and many cabinet members come from the Eastern Cape, which is, but one of the nine provinces in South Africa. Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki of the new democratic South Africa come from the Eastern Cape and are Xhosa speaking. Perhaps it should be seen as just reward for it was upon the Xhosa that the longest struggle and main burden of resistance to white penetration of the South African interior fell.

With the meeting of the advancing Xhosa and with white settlers, and the establishment of the Fish River as the boundary between black and white, a century of war was unavoidable although peace inevitably followed. With the influence of the missionaries and subsequent ever-increasing contact with western society, much of the rich heritage of the Xhosa people is gradually disappearing. Traditionally the Xhosa men fulfilled the role of warrior, hunter and stockman looking after their cattle while the women looked after the land, the crops and homes.

Lack of land, cattle and the move to urbanization led to many migrating to work in the Gold mines or in other major cities like Cape Town. Today what are known as the Xhosa, make up the second biggest group after the Zulu.

(Information provided by Rob Speirs of Speirs Travel, South Africa www.speirstours.co.za)


Traditionally children are named by their fathers often expressing joy and fruitfulness such as in names like Sipho (gift) and Nwabisa (happiness) or noble characteristics like Mandela (strength) or expressing thankfulness to God such as Siyabonga (we give praise). Early converts to Christianity were given new names (so called christian names) and Chief Kama’s son, for example, was named William Shaw Kama. The first blacks to be baptized at the Chumie Mission Station were given the names Robert Balfour, John and Elizabeth Love, Charles Henry and Mary Ann!

Some were named after early explorers or historical figures. Thabo Mbeki’s father for example was named Govan; other names like Livingstone, Nelson (the name given to Nelson Mandela on his first day at school by his teacher) and Wellington were more common. Names like Goodman, Wiseman, Beauty and Patience are still around.

Clan names are considered more important than a surname and so to call a Xhosa person by his/her clan name is considered friendly and warm. Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name. Other well-known clan names are names like Dlamini, Radebe and Mabele.

A newly married woman may be given a new name by her inlaws whereas boys are often given new names on going through their initiation ceremony by elder men.Sipho (gift) is a common boy’s name while by adding –kazi the word it becomes a girl’s name i.e. Siphokazi. Also by placing –no in front it also indicates a girl i.e. Cebo is a boy and Nocebo is a girl’s name.

The Xhosa Hut

Construction of the huts is the role of the woman. The old-style Xhosa huts were beehive-shaped and of thatch over a light sapling frame with a floor made of clay and dung. This style is still retained for the lodge where boys undergoing initiation live in seclusion, though plastic sheets are now often used to make it more waterproof. The beehive shape has been replaced with thatched straight-walled rondavels. They are built with poles stuck in the ground and encircled with laths between which rocks are inserted and finally mixed with a mixture of clay and cattle dung. Wattle trees were introduced from Australia to help save the indigenous forests from over exploitation. Where trees are scarce, walls are commonly made now with mud ‘box’ bricks. The roof is built, often with pine poles and thatched with grass collected locally. A fire is made in the center of a hut and no outlet is made for the smoke except through a single doorway. There may sometimes be two tiny openings as windows. The circular layout is fast disappearing except in the more rural areas and the present trend is toward modern houses.

The huts are usually situated on the ridge of a hill near a stream, leaving the fertile valleys free for cultivation. The villages were normally not too far from hunting grounds and pastures. (Today illegal hunting is still carried on in the indigenous forests managed by the Forestry Department).


Furniture and utensils were very simple and few. Sometimes the only item of furniture was a reed or grass mat on which people sat or slept. A block of wood may have served as a headrest. Basketwork, pottery (now no longer used), calabashes and a grinding stone provided most of the utensils used in the preparation and storage of food

Wooden dishes and wooden or horn spoons were made while, prior to tinder-boxes or matches, fire was made by drilling a hard stick into a softer wood like. With the advent of trading stations, axes, three legged pots, buckets, basins, trunks, chairs, tables and beds were introduced.


Before woven cloth became available, the clothing that was worn was made of skins of animals both wild and domestic. Only royalty could use leopard skin. Different tribes had different fashions. In the east a small head scarf and a beaded head-ring were and still are worn by married women. Women liked to plait their hair and add attachments at the ends or the whole length. The use of beads was widespread and each area had its own colors, but as during the time of sanctions against South Africa they became hard to get, they are used less and less. Women throughout the area wore short fringe aprons of fibre cords later strung with beads. After the missionaries arrived and traders moved in there was a swing to garments of cotton cloths, blankets as well as breast covering were added. In central Transkei women are often seen with long pipes they smoke.

The most important for men was the sheath that covered their genital areas, which continued to be used until modern times. A short hide cloak was sometimes worn, as were sandals when on a long journey. The skin cloak was later replaced with a blanket. Trousers and a loincloth were introduced. Cloth headbands used to be worn to distinguish the status of soldiers, for example, soldiers praised for bravery in battle wore blue crane feathers in their headbands. Ostrich feathers and other ornaments would sometimes be worn.

They also wore fringes of monkey and wildcat skin around the waist and sometimes the neck. The Chief would often wear ivory bangles and perhaps a leopard tooth necklace together with his leopard skin. Snuff or tobacco pouches were made from the Giant Golden mole, (which is endemic to the province.)

Diviners formerly wore a kilt of animal tails, with strips of skin and many other objects around their necks and arms sometimes tied in their hair. Lately white clothing and beadwork – (particularly white clothing) is worn. The headdress of important diviners is a cap of baboon or other skin. Boys undergoing initiation normally wear blankets, which are white with red stripes. Special costumes of palm leaf headdresses were worn afterwards.


The Xhosa have a love for ornaments and beadwork, in particular. Seeds of the coral tree, shells, bone or ivory, claws and teeth as well as pieces of roots were used before glass beads were introduced. Ivory arm rings (awarded by the chief) indicated some had medicinal or magic values, which is probably why the missionaries tried to discourage people from wearing such ornaments. There was also a concern that they were prepared to barter valuable items such as cattle for a handful of buttons and beads. When mission work first began at Weslyville such items were nevertheless given as payment for construction work in the absence of any currency. They could then afterwards trade these items for cattle.

In 1780 one pound of beads was the equivalent of one cow. As the price went down, the beads were used as ornaments to decorate clothing and other objects of value. Certain styles, patterns and colors were chosen in different areas but there was no ‘language of color’ found among some northern Nguni.

Initiation of Boys

The Xhosa boys went and still go through a traditional transition from boyhood to manhood marked by the abakweta circumcision ceremony. In the past, every Xhosa youth had to go through this ceremony before he was considered to be a man. It is still a strong tradition in rural areas (where it is a communal matter and a number of boys undergo initiation together) and to a lesser extent in the urban centers. With the coming of spring, the circumcision operation was performed. Today it is usually postponed to the Christmas holidays

The age of young boys entering the ceremony varies. The boys live in a special hut constructed for the purpose of surviving away from the villages. They are instructed in their conduct, disciplined and taught ethnic loyalties that will be expected of them as adults. They live frugally, undergo endurance tests and may not be visited by any female. The disciplinary training today is not as harsh as it was in the past, but the process may still occasionally result in death, normally through botched circumcisions.

The boys whiten their bodies with white clay and usually wear a white blanket to protect them from evil and to show that they are in a state of separation. For the traditional dances, they wear reed skirts, caps and masks. The huts, costumes, bandages and other items used in the rituals are then burned as the boys are driven to a river with initiators ceremonially beating them as they go towards the river. They are not allowed to look back and plunge into the river and wash away the white paint (clay) from their bodies as a sign that boyhood is being stripped off and removed from them.

When they emerge on the opposite bank, they are no longer boys and are then painted with red ochre and receive from their fathers a new blanket or suit of clothes. The boys return home and will usually wait the customary four years before they marry.

The Cattle Kraal

The center of the homestead, physically and spiritually, was the cattle-kraal, (a circular enclosure of interlaced poles or brushwood, or stone, in which the cattle were kept at night). The wooden pole gate always faced the principle hut. Either the interior of the kraal itself or the space between its gate and the door of the hut was the men’s meeting place, where at chief’s places laws and lawsuits were heard. Sacrifices and ceremonies were held there and the grain was stored in a deep pit dug in the floor. Chiefs were buried in the kraal, but the head of an ordinary homestead was buried just outside the gate.


Great importance was attached to their cattle, which was the domain of the men who showed great devotion towards them. It places in perspective the great sacrifice the Xhosa made in carrying out the great cattle-killing episode following the Eighth Frontier War. By killing their cattle and destroying their crops, it had been prophesied that the whites would be driven into the sea, that their ancestors would rise from the grave, and abundant crops and cattle would appear.

Women were not permitted to have any contact with them. For the owners, cattle became the first form of capital in South Africa, the medium of exchange and standard by which wealth was measured. With cattle they would pay lobola to the parents of the girl they wished to marry.

In killing a beast for a village feast or for an honored guest, a man could demonstrate his generosity, a quality that was highly esteemed. On one occasion when the missionary Rev Shaw stopped over in a chief’s territory and he had no cattle to slaughter due to the ravages of war, he gave the Rev Shaw an elephant tusk instead.

Cattle allowed for greater mobility and the grazing and stealing of cattle became primary issues that led to the first few frontier wars. Milk was left to curdle in a hide sack or calabash of sour milk, amasi, and was the staple diet of adults. Fresh milk was given only to children. Butter was used for cosmetic purposes, the hide used for shields, traditional clothing and bags. Spoons, snuff boxes, and containers were made from the horns.

The dung was not used as a fertilizer but as fuel and for preservation on the hut floors. Oxen were used as pack animals as well as for riding or racing. It fell on the women to do all the work in the fields with hoes only, as oxen could not be used by them.

Cattle were closely connected with the religious life of the Xhosa. Ritual sacrifices at certain times were means of maintaining good relations with the ancestral spirits who were believed to control health and prosperity.

(Information provided by Rob Speirs of Speirs Travel, South Africa www.speirstours.co.za)


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