Xhosa people

The Xhosa nation are a Bantu ethnic group from Southern Africa whose homeland is primarily within the modern-day Eastern Cape. There is a small but significant Xhosa-speaking community in Zimbabwe, and their language, isiXhosa, is recognised as a national language.
The Xhosa people are divided into several tribes with related yet distinct heritages. The main tribes are the amaGcaleka, amaRharhabe, amaHlubi, imiDange, imiDushane, and amaNdlambe. In addition, there are other tribes found near or among the Xhosa people such as abaThembu, amaBhaca, abakoBhosha and amaQwathi that are distinct and separate tribes which have adopted the isiXhosa language and the Xhosa way of life.
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 among the people was not Xhosa, but that "xhosa" was a name given to him by the San, which means "fierce" or "angry" in Khoisan languages. The Xhosa people refer to themselves as the amaXhosa, and to their language as isiXhosa.
Presently approximately 8 million Xhosa people are distributed across the country, and the Xhosa language is South Africa's second-most-populous home language, after the Zulu language, to which Xhosa is closely related. The pre-1994 apartheid system of Bantustans denied the Xhosa 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, East London, and Port Elizabeth.
the majority of Xhosa speakers, approximately 5.3 million, lived in the Eastern Cape, followed by the Western Cape, Gauteng, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Mpumalanga, the Northern Cape, and Limpopo.


The Xhosa are part of the South African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region around the Great Lakes. Xhosa people were already well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-17th century, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from around the Great Fish River area to lands inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban.
The Xhosa and white settlers first encountered one another around East London in 1686 when survivors of the wrecked ship 'Stavenisse' were taken in as guests by the then Xhosa ruler named Togu. 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 the British Empire 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 people received these scattered tribes and assimilated them into their cultural way of life and followed Xhosa traditions. The Xhosa called these various tribes AmaMfengu, meaning wanderers, and were made up of tribes such as the amaBhaca, amaBhele, amaHlubi, amaZizi and Rhadebe. These newcomers came to speak Xhosa 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.


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.

Folklore and religion

include diviners. This job is mostly taken by women, who spend five years in apprenticeship. There are also herbalists, prophets, and healers 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 descendants named Phalo gave birth to two sons, Gcaleka kaPhalo, the heir, and Rarabe ka Phalo, a son from the Right Hand house. Rarabe 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 diviner, 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 usurp the throne from his father, but Rarabe 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; Rarabe would leave the great place and settle in the Amathole Mountains region. Rarabe, 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 senior amaGcaleka and the junior amaRharhabe.
The AmaRharhabe branch of the AmaXhosa is under the leadership of King Jonguxolo Sandile, who was named and anointed King at the Special Official Funeral of his mother, Queen Noloyiso Sandile Aah! Noloyiso, who was a daughter of King Cyprian Bhekuzulu Nyangayezizwe kaSolomon and sister to the current reigning Zulu monarch Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu.
The AmaGcaleka are currently under the regency of Chief Anderson Dumehleli Mapasa as a result of the death of the monarch, King Mpendulo Sigcawu .
The key figure in the Xhosa oral tradition is the imbongi or praise singer. imbongi traditionally live close to the chief's "great place" ; 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

The Xhosa are a South African cultural group who emphasise traditional practices and customs inherited from their forefathers. Each person within the Xhosa culture has his or her place which is recognised by the entire community. Starting from birth, a Xhosa person goes through graduation stages which recognise his growth and assign him a recognised 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, from inkwenkwe to indoda. These rituals and ceremonies are sancrosact to the identity and heritage of the Xhosa and other African descendents. Though some western scholars question the relevance of these practices today, even urbanised Xhosa people do still follow them. 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.
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 for instance—which matters most to the Xhosa identity 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 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 names are considered total strangers, but two people from the same clan but with different surnames are regarded as close relatives. This forms the roots of ubuntu – 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 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 customs.
In modern times the practice has caused controversy, with over 825 circumcision- and initiation-related deaths since 1994, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, via the practice of circumcising initiates with the same blade. In March 2007, a controversial mini-series dealing with Xhosa circumcision and initiation rites debuted on South African Broadcasting Corporation. 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. In January 2014 the website 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. The South African Film and Publication Board ruled that the website was "scientific with great educative value", addressing a "societal problem needing urgent intervention".
Girls are also initiated into womanhood. They too are secluded, though for a shorter period. Female initiates are not circumcised.
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 undisclosed cultural information. Most importantly, it determines where you belong".

Rituals surrounding ''umtshato'' (Xhosa marriage)

Xhosa marriage, umtshato, is one that is filled with a number of customs and rituals which relate to the upkeep of Xhosa traditional practices. These rituals have been practiced for decades by the Xhosa people and have been incorporated into modern day Xhosa marriages as well. The purpose of the practices is to bring together two different families and to give guidance to the newly wed couple throughout.


To start off the procedures the male intending to marry goes through Ukuthwalwa which entails him choosing his future bride and making his intentions of marriage known. In modern day, the man and woman would most likely have been in courtship or a relationship prior to Ukuthwalwa. Decades before Ukuthwalwa would entail legal bridal abduction, where the man could choose a woman of his liking to be his bride and go into negotiations with the family of the bride without her knowledge or consent. She would have to abide to the marriage as per tradition.


Following Ukuthwala, the man will then be in discussion with his parents or relatives to inform them of his choice in bride. During this discussion the clan name, isiduko, of the woman would be revealed and researched. If it were found that the woman and the man share the same clan name they would not be allowed to proceed with the marriage as it is said that people with the same clan name are of the same relation and cannot be wed.


Once discussions with the family are complete and satisfactory information about the woman is acquired then the family of the man will proceed to appoint marriage negotiators. It is these very negotiators that will travel to the family of the woman to make known the man and his intentions. Once the negotiators reach the family of the woman they will be kept in the kraal, inkundla, of the woman's family. If the family does not possess a kraal they will simply be kept outside the household as they will not be allowed to enter the household without the acknowledgment and acceptance of the woman's family. It is here where the lobola negotiations will begin. The family of the woman will give them a bride-price and a date for which they must return to pay that price. The bride-price is dependent on numerous things such as her level of education, the wealth status of her family in comparison to that of the man's family, what the man stands to gain in the marriage and the overall desirability of the woman. The payment of the bride-price could be in either cattle or money depending on the family of the woman. The modern Xhosa families would rather prefer money as most are situated in the urban cities where there would be no space nor permits for livestock.
Upon return of the man's family on the given date, they will pay the bride-price and bring along gifts of offering such as livestock and alcoholic beverages, iswazi, to be drunk by the family of the bride. Once the lobola from the man's negotiators is accepted then they will be considered married by the Xhosa tradition and the celebrations would commence. These include slaughtering of the livestock as a grateful gesture to their ancestors as well as pouring a considerable amount of the alcoholic beverages on the ground of the bride's household to give thanks to their ancestors. The groom's family is then welcomed into the family and traditional beer, Umqombothi, will be prepared for the groom's family as a token of appreciation from the bride's family.


To solidify their unity the family of the bride will head to the groom's household where the elders will address her with regards to how to carry herself and dress appropriately at her newly found household, this is called Ukuyalwa. Furthermore, a new name will also be given to her by the women of the groom's family and this name signifies the bond of the two families.

Xhosa burial practices

Burial practices and customs include a specific sequence of events and rituals which need to be performed in order to regard a funeral as dignified. Once the family has been notified that a member has died, the extended family comes together in preparation for the burial of the deceased.
The "umkhapho" ritual is performed in order to accompany the spirit of the deceased to the land of the ancestors. The local male clan leader or his proxy is the one who facilitates the process. The purpose of umkhapho is to keep the bonds between the deceased person and the bereaved alive so that the deceased may be able to return later and communicate as an ancestor.
During this ritual, an animal such as a goat is slaughtered. A larger animal like a cow may also be slaughtered for an important person like a head of the family whilst a goat without a blemish may be slaughtered for others.
Further customs include the emptying the main bedroom of the bereaving family, known as 'indlu enkulu'. This room is where most of the last respects will be paid by family and friends. The emptying of the room is done in order to create space for extended family members to be able to mourn in the main room. The first family members and/or neighbours to arrive arrange the main bedroom to accommodate this seating arrangement by placing a traditional grass mat or mattress on the floor.
Mourners do not require an invitation to attend a funeral and everyone who can and would like to attend is welcome. This means that the bereaved family has to cater for an unknown number of mourners. Traditionally, mourners were fed with 'inkobe', which is boiled dried corn and water, and the corn was taken from the family food reserves as well as donated by family members and neighbours. In the 21st century, it is regarded as taboo to feed mourners with 'inkobe' and, as a result of shame, funeral catering has become a lucrative business for the industry during burial events.
On the day of burial, before extended family members disperse to their homes, the ukuxukuxa ritual occurs and a goat or sheep or even a fowl is slaughtered.
A cleansing ritual is done the day after the burial, in which the bereaved women of the family go to the nearest river to wash all the materials and blankets that were used by the deceased before death. Furthermore, the clothes of the deceased are removed from the house and the family members shave their hair. The shaving of hair is an indication that life continues to spring up even after death.

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, mutton, and goat meat, sorghum, milk, pumpkins, Mielie-meal, samp, beans, vegetables, like "rhabe", wild spinach reminiscent of sorrel, "imvomvo", the sweet sap of an aloe, or "ikhowa", a mushroom that grows after summer rains.

Xhosa cuisine

Traditional crafts include bead-work, weaving, woodwork and pottery.
Traditional music features drums, rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments and especially group singing accompanied by hand clapping. 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. "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, 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.
Black Panther, which is an American movie that made over a billion dollars at box office also features the Xhosa language.

Xhosa beadwork

Beads are small round objects made of glass, wood, metal, nutshell, bone seed and the likes, which are then pierced for stringing. Before glass beads were introduced, people used natural materials to make beads. Xhosa people relied on the San to sell beads to them through trade or barter exchange. Xhosa people would give hemp to the San in exchange for beads. The beads made by the San were made out of ostrich egg shells which were chipped to small size, bored and polished and strung into sinews. Producing them took a long time, so they were scarce, highly priced, valued and in demand. It is recorded that it was only in the 1930s that the Portuguese introduced glass beads through trade.

Xhosa beadwork and its symbolism

Adornments serve a particular purpose across different cultures as social markers. They are used to ascertain where one belongs to with regards to identity, history and geographical location. They reveal personal information with regards to age and gender and social class as some beads were meant to be worn by royalty. Beadwork creates a sense of belonging and cultural identity and traditions hence people draw their cultural ways of living and meanings, as Xhosa people use them as social markers. Xhosa people believe that the beads also create a link between the living and the ancestors as diviners use them during rituals. Thus beads have some spiritual significance.
Social identities/markers with regards to age, gender, grade, marital status, social rank or role and the spiritual state can be ascertained through Xhosa beadwork. Symbolic references are drawn from the beads through the colour, pattern, formation and motifs. However, it ought to be taken into cognisance that some of these messages are limited to a certain group or between two people. In Xhosa culture beads represent the organisational framework of the people and the rites of passage that people have gone through as the beads are representative of the stages of one's life. Motifs on the beads often used include trees, diamonds, quadrangles, chevrons, triangles, circles, parallel lines that form a pattern that is exclusive to certain age groups. Although the beadwork has some cultural significance with certain motifs having exclusive meanings, the creator of the beadwork has creative control and can create and draw meaning from individual preference. Thus the meanings drawn from the beadwork are not rigidly set.
Among the Thembu, after circumcision, the men wore, and still wear, skirts, turbans and a wide bead collar. A waistcoat, long necklaces, throat bands, armbands, leggings and belts are part of his regalia. The dominant colours in the beadwork are white and navy blue, with some yellow and green beads symbolising fertility and a new life, respectively.
Xhosa people regard white as the colour of purity and mediation; white beads are still used as offerings to spirits or to the creator. Amagqirha/diviners use white beads when communicating with the ancestors. These diviners also carry with them beaded spears, which are associated with the ancestors that inspire the diviner; beaded horns; and calabashes, to hold medicinal products or snuff. "Amageza", a veil made of beads, is also part of their regalia, they use these beads by swaying them in someone's eyes so as to induce a trance-like state.
Inkciyo is a beaded skirt that serves as a garment covering the pubic area. Among the Pondo people the beads are turquoise and white in colour. This skirt is worn during a virginity testing ceremony among Xhosa people undergoing their rites of passage into womanhood.
Impempe is a whistle that has a necklace on it, the whistle symbolises one's introduction to teenagehood.
Xhosa beadwork and other cultural beadworks have cultural ties, but nowadays beads are also worn as fashion pieces, too, either as cultural appreciation or appropriation. The use of cultural beadworks as fashion pieces means that anyone can wear these pieces without having to belong to that cultural group.


The Xhosa culture has a traditional dress code informed by the individuals social standing portraying different stages of life. The 'red blanket people' have a custom of wearing red blankets dyed with red ochre, the intensity of the colour varying from tribe to tribe. Other clothing includes beadwork and printed fabrics. Although in general, Xhosa lifestyle has been adapted to Western traditions, the Xhosa people still wear traditional attire for special cultural activities.
The various tribes have their own variations of traditional dress which includes the colour of their garments and beadwork. This allows for different Xhosa groups to be able to be distinguishable from one another due to their different styles of dress. The Gcaleka women, for instance, encase their arms and legs in beads and brass bangles and some also wear neck beads.


Unmarried women often wear wraps tied around their shoulders, leaving their breasts exposed. Engaged women redden their plaited hair and let it screen their eyes, this was done as a sign of respect for their fiancés. Xhosa women wear some form of headdress to cover their heads as a sign of respect to the head of the family which is either their father or husband. Elderly Xhosa women are allowed to wear more elaborate headpieces because of their seniority.


Xhosa men traditionally filled the roles as hunters, warriors and stockman therefore, animal skin forms an important part of their traditional wear.
Men often wear goatskin bags in which to carry essentials such as tobacco and a knife. The bag is usually made from skin that had been removed in one piece, cured without removing the hair, and turned inside out.
On special occasions such as weddings or initiation ceremonies, Xhosa men wear embroidered skirts with a rectangular cloth over the left shoulder alternatively, a tunic and strands of beaded necklaces can be worn.


Men wear 'ingcawa' a white and black blanket, adorned with 'ukurhaswa'. Men wear beads around their neck. 'Isichebe' is a short bead while 'Isidanga' is a long bead necklace with different colors. Men wear beads around their wrists and foot called 'amaso'. Beads that are worn on the head are called 'unngqa' or 'igwala'. Men smoke pipes that are decorated by 'ukurhaswa'. The traditional smoking pipes are called 'umbheka phesheya'.

Xhosas in modern society

Xhosa people currently make up approximately 18% of the South African population. The Xhosa are the second largest cultural group in South Africa, after the Zulu-speaking nation.
Under apartheid, adult literacy rates were as low as 30%, and studies estimated the literacy level of first-language Xhosa speakers at approximately 50%. There have been advances since then, however.
Education in primary-schools serving Xhosa-speaking communities is conducted in Xhosa, 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 Xhosa. Rhodes University in Grahamstown, additionally, offers courses in Xhosa 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 policies 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 has become increasingly common, especially amongst rural Xhosa people.

Notable Xhosa