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Bantu speaking peoples of South Africa

Black South Africans were at times officially called "Bantu" by the apartheid regime. The term Bantu is derived from the word for "people" common to many of the Bantu languages. In South Africa Bantu is no longer in wide use as a description of black South African people. The Oxford Dictionary of South African English describes its use in a racial context as obsolescent and offensive because of its strong association with white minority rule and the apartheid system. However, "Bantu" is used without pejorative connotations in other parts of Africa.


It is generally accepted that the Bantu speaking peoples originated from West Africa around 4,000 years ago. In several major waves of migration and dispersal they moved east (at first north of the tropical rainforest to the northern region of East Africa) and then south, coming to occupy the central highlands of Africa in the third wave. From there a final southwards migration took place into the southern regions of Africa, which is measurable from around 2,000 years ago. The final movement into the southern regions resulted in the displacement of the aboriginal and Khoisan peoples, resulting in some ethnic and linguistic mixing. They utilised advanced technologies for the Iron Age compared to the people they displaced; they also led to profound changes in some regions they entered such as the area presently known as the Waterberg in about 450AD in the extreme north of South Africa; for example, they brought cattle raising to areas such as the Waterberg Massif and displaced natural grazers like white rhino and blue wildebeest.

At some stage after the tertiary dispersal period a settlement at Great Zimbabwe was established as the capital of a trading empire. Around this time there is evidence of coastal trading with Arabs, with the South East Asian region, and even with China. As the southern groups of Bantu speakers migrated southwards two main groups emerged, the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi), who occupied the eastern coastal plains, and the Sotho-Tswana who lived on the interior plateau. The two language groups have diverged and differ on certain key aspects (especially in the sound systems).

When the early Portuguese sailors (cf. Vasco Da Gama and Bartholomew Dias) rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1400s very few Bantu speakers were found there. The predominant indigenous population around the Cape was made up of Khoisan peoples. Following Jan van Riebeeck's settlement at the Cape in 1652 European settlers — mostly Dutch, French Huguenots and Germans, known in the past as Boers (today referred to as Afrikaners) — began to occupy Southern Africa in increasing numbers. Around 1770 Boers migrating North encountered land permanently occupied by Bantu speakers (in particular around the Fish River) and frictions arose between the two groups. This began a pattern in which the new (white) settlers used superior force to subdue and/or displace the Bantu speakers they encountered, much as had been done with the aboriginal Khoisan peoples the Boers had previously encountered at the Cape.

From the late 1700s and early 1800s there were two major areas of frictional contact between the white settlers and the Bantu speakers in Southern Africa. Firstly, as the Boers moved North inland from the Cape they encountered the Xhosa, the Basotho, and the Tswana. Secondly attempts at large coastal settlements were made by the British in Xhosa territory (now the Eastern Cape), and in Zululand (now KwaZulu-Natal).

At the time KwaZulu-Natal was populated by dozens of small Zulu-speaking clans. In 1816 Shaka acceded to the Zulu throne (at that stage the Zulu were merely one of the many clans). Within a relatively short period of time he had conquered his neighboring clans and had forged the Zulu into the most important ally of the large Mthethwa clan, which was in competition with the Ndwandwe clan for domination of the northern part of modern day KwaZulu-Natal. By many accounts Shaka used ruthless military force against his opponents, often adopting a scorched earth policy to destroy or displace civilian populations.

After the death of the Mthethwa king Dingiswayo around 1818, at the hands of Zwide, the king of the Ndwandwe, Shaka assumed leadership of the entire Mthethwa alliance. The alliance under his leadership survived Zwide's first assault at the Battle of Gqokli Hill. Within two years he had defeated Zwide at the Battle of Mhlathuze River and broken up the Ndwandwe alliance, some of whom in turn began a murderous campaign against other Nguni communities, setting in motion what has come to be known as Mfecane, a mass migration of communities fleeing the Zulu. By 1825 he had conquered a huge empire covering a vast area from the sea in the east to the Drakensberg mountains in the west, and from the Pongola River in the north to the Bashee river in the south, not far from the modern day town of East London.

Shaka is well known for the many military, social, cultural and political reforms he used to create his highly organized and centralised Zulu state. The most important of these were the transformation of the army, thanks to innovative tactics and weapons he conceived, and a showdown with the spiritual leadership, limiting the power of traditional healers, and effectively ensuring the subservience of the Zulu church to the state. Whereas previous battles had been limited to relatively minor encounters, Shaka introduced the more deadly stabbing spear to replace the throwing spear, military encirclement to replace allowed retreat of the enemy, and the total destruction of lands to remove any means of sustenance for the enemy.

Shaka integrated defeated clans into the Zulu, on a basis of full equality, with promotions in the army and civil service being a matter of merit rather than circumstance of birth.

As a result of the Mfecane, an offshoot of the Zulu, the Matebele, were ejected from Zululand. They then migrated more than 1,000 kilometres, first west to the land occupied by large numbers of small Sotho-Tswana communities, and then north to the Tswana nation, and finally North-East to encounter the Shona in what is morden day Zimbabwe. Their king, Mzilikazi created an empire centred on Bulawayo (named after the original settlement in Zululand) in modern day Zimbabwe.

Shaka, who had had contacts with English explorers realized that the Europeans posed a threat to local populations, and had planned to begin an intensive program of education to enable the Nguni people to catch up with the Europeans. However in 1828 he was assassinated by his half brother Dingane, who succeeded him. A weak leader, Dingane was defeated by the Boers, however under his successors Mpande (another half-brother) and Mpande's son Cetshwayo the Zulu were able to rebuff Boer attempts to conquer them. He handed the British army the worst defeat it ever suffered at the hands of a non-European fighting force at the Battle of Isandlwana, at great cost to his impis, before succumbing to modern European military technology.

With the growing settlement of white peoples in southern Africa came social, economic, and political forces that had profound effects on the Bantu speakers. Whereas the British policy was "divide and conquer", the Boer policy could probably be summed as "outright domination." In the 19th and 20th centuries there were several uprisings against settlers, one of the most notable being the Bhambatha rebellion in Natal.

The establishment of political boundaries in Southern Africa, as had happened elsewhere in Africa, was arbitrary to the local population. For example: Tswana-speaking peoples live on both sides of the Republic of South Africa / Botswana border; half of the land occupied by the Swazi was given to the Boers (and is now part of South Africa) at the time Swaziland was declared a British Protectorate; a division of the land occpied by the Basotho were constrained to the Protectorate of Basutoland (now Lesotho) to the least viable agricultural land; the Swati were denied access to traditional lands at Maputo by the Portuguese colony in what is now Mozambique.

Following the election in the Republic of South Africa of the National Party in 1948 the white minority government of South Africa insitutionalised the system of Apartheid. One effect of this policy was to balkanise (into "homelands" named "Bantustans") and greatly limit the land which Bantu speakers were allowed to occupy, depriving them of political and economic opportunities. With the election in 1994 of a democratic South African government this system was abolished and limited land restitution was begun. At the same time civil liberties for all citizens were enshrined in a new constitution of South Africa. In accordance with the principles of the African Union boundaries between different countries that were determined during colonial times remain intact.

Social organization

Until very recently, Bantu speaking communities were often divided into different clans, not around National federations, but independent groups from some hundreds to thousands of individuals.

The smallest unit of the political organisational structure was the household, or Kraal, consisting of a man, woman or women, and their children, as well as other relatives living in the same household. The man was the head of the household and often had many wives; and was the family's primary representative. The household and close relations generally played an important role. Households which lived in the same valley or on the same hill in a village were also an organisational unit, managed by a sub-chief.

Chiefdomship was largely hereditary, although chiefs were often replaced when not effective. With most clans the eldest son inherited the office of his father. With some clans the office was left to the oldest brother of the deceased chief, and after his death again the next oldest brother. This repeated until the last brother died. Next was the eldest son of the original chieftain; then the oldest one of the brothers as the leader. The chief was surrounded with a number of trusted friends or advisors, usually relatives like uncles and brothers, rather than influential Headmen or personal friends. The degree of the democracy depended on the strength of the chieftain. The more powerful and more influential a chieftain was, the lesser the influence of his people. Although the leader had much power, he was not above the law. He could be criticized both by advisors as well as by his people, and compensation could be demanded.

Ethnic partitioning

South Africa's Bantu speaking communities are roughly "divided" into four main groups: Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Vhavenda and Shangana Tsonga, with the Nguni representing the largest group. These are divided as follows (this list is not exhaustive):

(speaking Tshivenda)

Common among the two powerful divisions of the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana are patrilineal societies, with which the leaders formed the socio-political units. Similarly, food acquisition was by cultivation and hunting. The most important differences are the strongly deviating languages, although both are Southern Bantu languages, and the different settlement types and relationships. With the Nguni settlements were villages widely scattered, whereas with the Sotho-Tswana settled in towns.


Traditionally, Bantu speakers were not territorially minded like the Europeans, but rather group-related. As long as sufficient land was available, they had only very vague conceptions of borders. Borders were natural features such as rivers or mountains, which were not by any means fixed.

Food acquisition

Their food acquisition was primarily limited to agriculture and hunting, where generally the women were responsible for agriculture and the men drew for the hunt. Except with the Tsonga (and partially the Mpondo), fishing was surprisingly of little importance. The diet consisted of corn (introduced from South-East Asia), meat (mostly wild game and beef), vegetables; and milk, water and grain beer (which contained very little alcohol compared with European beer).

There were a number of taboos regarding the consumption of meat. No meat of dogs, apes, crocodiles and snakes could be eaten. Likewise taboo was the meat of some birds, like owls, crows and vultures, as well as the flesh of certain totem animals.

All Bantu speaking communities commonly had clear separation between the tasks of the women and those of the men.

House types

Traditionally, communities live in two different types of houses. The Nguni use the Beehive house, a circular structure out of long poles, which is covered with grass. The huts of the Sotho-Tswana, Venda and Shangana Tsonga use the cone and cylinder house types. A cylindrical wall is formed out of vertical posts, which is sealed with mud and cow dung. The roof is built from tied-together poles. The floor of both types is compressed earth.


Magic takes a major central role in African Traditional Religion, with good and bad influence. There is a belief in the separation from body and spirit after death.


  • Schapera I (OD.): The Bantu Speaking Tribes OF South Africa. 1959: Routlege & Kegan Paul, London.
  • Guthrie, M. 1967. Comparative Bantu. Farnborough: Gregg International Publishers Ltd. Vols. 1-4.
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