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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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)