ETHNONYMS: Caffre, Cafre, Isixhosa, Kaffer, Kaffir, Koosa, Southern Nguni, Xosa
"Xhosa" is the generic name used for a number of related cultural groups in South Africa. Xhosa groups include the Mpondo, Bomvana, Bhaca, Thembu, Mpondomise, Xesibe, Mfengu, Hlubi, and the Xhosa proper. These Southern Nguni peoples, as they are sometimes called, share a common language, Isixhosa, and are culturally similar to one another. Because of their contact with other peoples in the area over the centuries and the strong influence of colonial powers, as well as missionary contact, it is difficult speak of the traditional culture of the Xhosa. Rather, Xhosa culture today is a blend that has resulted from these influences and others. The Xhosa today are much involved in South African political affaire and play a major role in the postapartheid government.
The traditional homeland of the Xhosa was located on the southeastern seaboard of the Republic of South Africa in an area that is currently divided politically into two independent states, Transkei and Ciskei. In 1989 the estimated number of Xhosa living in Transkei was 3,500,000 and in Ciskei, 1,000,000. Xhosa also live in South African cities—especially Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London—and on farms outside Transkei and Ciskei. In 1986 the total population of Xhosa in South Africa was estimated at approximately six million.
The Xhosa-speaking peoples originally consisted of three main groups: the Pondo, the Tembu, and the Xhosa proper. They all spoke the same language and shared the same belief that their culture originated at the headwaters of the Dedesi River. Their customs and beliefs were similar, generally centering around the herding of cattle. They were linked to one another through intermarriage as well as by the diplomatic, military, and political alliances they formed. Through the centuries, internal dissension and further subdivision, contact with San and Khoi-speaking peoples whose territories they overran and conquered, and the arrival of refugees from wars in Natal broke the original Xhosa-speaking nations into diversified chiefdoms and peoples. Nevertheless, the basic division of the Xhosa speakers into Pondo, Tembu, and Xhosa still remains.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Nguni herded cattle, hunted game, and cultivated sorghum. They lived in beehive-shaped huts in scattered homesteads and were ruled by chiefs. One of the main reasons for Xhosa expansion was the splitting off of the sons of reigning chiefs to found new chiefdoms of their own, which relieved the political pressure at the center of the kingdom. Movement was also precipitated by the need to find new hunting grounds and fresh pastures. This was a slow process because of the need to burn down the forest to provide grazing prior to occupation.
The Xhosa traditionally were not a nomadic people, although the need for large pastures to accommodate expanding herds of cattle encouraged steady movement. Xhosa kraals, or cattle enclosures, were surrounded by huts. The kraals formed family clusters tied by allegiance to the Great Place, the principle kraal, that of the chief. The Great Place was usually only a modest grouping of huts.
A Xhosa family homestead was known as an umzi (pl. imizi ), and several adjoining imizi formed a village. An umzi generally housed an extended family, including the head of the family; his wives, children, and aging parents; his married sons and their families; and his unmarried daughters. The huts faced east, toward the sun, and stood in a semicircle around the main focus of their communal existence, the kraal. In the case of a man rich in cattle, who had more than than one wife, each wife had a household of perhaps three huts: a main hut for living and cooking, a second hut for children and visitors, and a third as a storeroom. Close to these huts and never too far from the stream from which they were watered were the gardens in which were cultivated the limited number of crops the Xhosa raised seasonally: cereals such as sorghum, as well as maize, pumpkins, and melons.
Apart from its gardens, a village or group of villages would be surrounded by a substantial territory that represented the hunting grounds and pastures that were common to all.
Villages could contain from fifteen to fifty huts and could be as close as 0.4 kilometers from one another or as far as four to five hours' away by footpath. The inhabitants of a village, or group of villages, could be members of a chiefdom, the many and complex lineages of which could be traced back to a common ancestor. There was generally a local chief, or headman, who ruled over the kraals and who was subordinate to a great chief of a whole district.
Cattle were the focal point of Xhosa existence. Life literally circled around them. Cattle intricately bound together the material realm with the sacred. They were the medium of sacrifice to the ancestral spirits, linking the living with the dead. They represented the future, because they sealed the marriage bond. They also represented wealth and stability. In ordinary daily life, they supplied the principal item of the diet, milk, as well as meat for occassional feasting and leather for clothing. Cattle were viewed as individually as the members of the family itself. The Xhosa language was profuse with varieties of descriptive terms for cattle, mainly based on color combinations and the shapes of the horns.
The Xhosa were bound in their daily lives and actions by reverence for and fear of their ancestors, whose spirits were believed to be omnipresent. If these spirits were offended, they would express their displeasure by inflicting illness, accident, or some other disorder. They were appeased through sacrifice. The sacrificial beasts had to be the best of the herd. During the sacrifice, the slaughterer cut open the belly, thrust his arm up to the heart, and wrenched out the arteries. These ceremonies took place in the cattle kraal and the skulls of the sacrificial animals were placed at the gate posts.
An important traditional value of Xhosa culture is ubuntu, or humanness. At the core of ubuntu is the preservation and stability of the whole. An example of its application is that, in times of war, women and children were never killed. During their anticolonial wars, Xhosa were known to kill White men and their grown sons ruthlessly, at the feet of their wives and sisters; they spared women and children, however, despite the fact that the same kindness was not reciprocated by their enemies.
Costello, Dawn (1990). Not Only for Its Beauty: Beadwork and Its Cultural Significnce among the Xhosa-Speaking Peoples. Pretoria: University of South Africa.
Hodgson, Janet (1982). The God of the Xhosa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Mostert, Noel (1992). Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. New York: Albert A. Knopf.