South Africa Table of Contents
About 1.6 million Swazi people live in the region in the 1990s--almost 900,000 in Swaziland and the remainder in South Africa, especially in the area of the former homeland, KaNgwane. Until the late eighteenth century, Swazi society consisted of a group of closely related Nguni chiefdoms organized around patrilineal descent groups. At that time, a powerful chief, Ngwane I, seized control over several smaller neighboring chiefdoms of Nguni and Sotho peoples to strengthen his own army's defense against the Mthethwa forces led by Dingiswayo. The greatest rival of the Mthethwa, the Ndwandwe, later subjugated the Mthethwa and killed Dingiswayo. Ngwane I, under pressure from the Ndwandwe, then withdrew into the mountainous territory that would later become Swaziland.
Ngwane I was able to resist incorporation into the Zulu empire during the reign of Shaka, and the Swazi maintained generally peaceful relations with Shaka's successors. Some Swazi clans were forced to move north, however, as regional upheaval spread, and together with displaced Zulu clans, they established aristocratic dynasties over herdsmen and farmers as far north as areas that would later become Malawi and Zambia.
In the twentieth century, the Swazi kingdom retained its autonomy, but not total independence, as the British protectorate of Swaziland in 1903 and as a British High Commission territory in 1907. In 1968 Swaziland became an independent nation led by King Sobhuza II. Swaziland has pressured Pretoria for the return of Swazi-occupied areas of South Africa since the 1960s. In 1982 Pretoria agreed, but that decision was reversed by the South African Supreme Court.
KaNgwane was carved out of land adjacent to Swaziland during the 1960s and was declared a "self-governing" territory with a population of about 400,000 in 1984. KaNgwane's Chief Minister Enos Mabuza tried to build an agricultural and industrial economy in the small, segmented territory, and he became the first homeland leader to grant full trade union rights to workers in his jurisdiction. Mabuza also led the fight against the incorporation of KaNgwane into Swaziland. During the late 1980s, he clashed with Pretoria by expressing strong support for the ANC, although many KaNgwane residents remained uninvolved in South African politics.
The Xhosa (amaXhosa) people in South Africa in the mid-1990s number roughly 6 million, according to official estimates, including the Pondo (Mpondo), Thembu, and several other small ethnic groups, which have been assimilated, to varying degrees, into Xhosa society over several centuries. Each of these is also a heterogeneous grouping of smaller populations.
Most Xhosa people speak English, and often several other languages, but they also take great pride in speaking Xhosa (isiXhosa), an Nguni language closely related to Zulu. Unlike most other African languages, Xhosa has more than a dozen "click" sounds, probably assimilated from Khoisan speakers over long periods of acculturation between Xhosa and Khoisan peoples.
Some ancestors of twentieth-century Xhosa arrived in the eastern Cape region from the north before the fifteenth century, and others moved into the area during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Xhosa history tells of settlement east of the Sundays River by the early eighteenth century. The Xhosa eliminated or enslaved some of the Khoisan speakers they encountered, but many Khoikhoi were peacefully assimilated into Xhosa society. Khoikhoi workers were often entrusted with the care of cattle for a generation or two before being accepted as equal members of Xhosa society. The Xhosa generally incorporated newcomers who recognized the dominance of the Xhosa chief. In fact, until the twentieth century, the term Xhosa was often used to designate territorial affiliation rather than common descent. The resulting Xhosa society was extremely diverse.
Most Xhosa lived by cattle herding, crop cultivation, and hunting. Homesteads were normally built near the tops of the numerous ridges that overlook the rivers of the area, including the Fish River, the Keiskama River, the Buffalo River, and the Kei River. Cattle, serving as symbols of wealth, as well as means of exchange, pack animals, and transportation, were central to the economy. Crops such as corn, sorghum, and tobacco thrived in years with adequate rainfall. Woodworking and ironworking were important men's occupations.
Xhosa homesteads were organized around descent groups, with descent traced through male forebears. These lineages, and the large clans formed by groups of related lineages, provided the center of Xhosa social organization. These descent groups were responsible for preserving ancestral ties and for perpetuating the group through sacrifices to the ancestors, mutual assistance among the living, and carefully arranged marriages with neighboring clans or lineages. Political power was often described as control over land and water. A powerful chief may be praised in oral histories by the claim that he had power over the land close to a large river, and a lesser chief, by the claim that he had power over land near a smaller river or tributary.
Xhosa oral histories tell of installing a royal lineage, probably by the early seventeenth century. This family, the Tshawe, or amaTshawe (people of Tshawe), continued to dominate other Xhosa clans for more than a century; only the Tshawe could be recognized as chiefs over other Xhosa, according to historical accounts in The House of Phalo: A History of the Xhosa People in the Day of Their Independence , by Jeffrey B. Peires. The Xhosa also experienced a rapid increase in population, and they divided several times over six or seven generations. The resulting dominant chiefdoms, the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe (Rarabe), formed distinct sections of Xhosa society throughout the twentieth century.
Xhosa people had extensive contact with Europeans by the early nineteenth century, and they generally welcomed European missionaries and educators into their territory. A Xhosa grammar book--the first in a southern African language--was published in 1834. Their early and sustained contact with Christian missionaries and educators led the Xhosa to distinguish between "school people," who had accepted Western innovation, and "red people," who were identified with the traditional red ocher used to dye clothing and to decorate the body. By the twentieth century, the Xhosa school people formed the core of South Africa's emerging black professional class and included lawyers, physicians, and ministers.
The South African government recognized the split between the Gcaleka Xhosa and the Ngqika (a subgroup of Rharhabe) Xhosa in the twentieth century by establishing two Xhosa homelands. Transkei, a segmented territory in eastern Cape Province bordering Lesotho, was designated for the Gcaleka Xhosa, and Ciskei--just west of Transkei--was for the Ngqika Xhosa. Transkei became an independent homeland in 1976, and Ciskei, in 1981.
Xhosa language speakers also include the Thembu (Tembu), the eastern neighbors of the Xhosa during much of their history. The Thembu represent a number of clans that managed to exert their dominance over neighboring clans. The Thembu had long and varied contacts with the Xhosa. These were often peaceful and friendly--for example, Xhosa history says that the Great Wife of each chief was a Thembu--but they sometimes erupted into war. The Thembu recognize their own royal clan, the Hala, who led many Thembu into battle against the Xhosa during the late eighteenth century.
Also closely related to the Xhosa are the Pondo (Mpondo), the eastern neighbors of the Thembu. The Pondo royal clan, the Nyawuza, struggled to establish and to preserve its dominance over neighboring clans well into the nineteenth century, when some of the Pondo and their neighbors were displaced and subjugated by the Zulu.
Another population often described as a Xhosa subgroup is the Mfengu, consisting of descendants of small remnants of clans and chiefdoms that were displaced during the early nineteenth-century upheaval of the mfecane (or crushing--see Glossary). Survivors of the mfecane attached themselves to Xhosa society, which was relatively stable, often in Xhosa villages located near Christian missions. After an initial period of clientship, or social inferiority that eroded as generations passed, the Mfengu were generally accepted as equals in the diverse Xhosa population.
Data as of May 1996
South Africa Table of Contents