Xhosa people



Identification and Location

The Xhosa people live mostly in the rural and urban areas of the Eastern Cape Province in the Republic of South Africa.

The rural area covers the region stretching from the Umtamvuna River in the east to the Great Fish River in the west, the Indian Ocean in the south, and Lesotho and the Gariep River to the north. Xhosa regions outside the Eastern Cape Province include the rural areas of southern KwaZulu-Natal and urban centers such as Johannesburg (Gauteng Province) and Cape Town (Western Cape Province).

Xhosa people


In the 1996 South African census, 7,196,118 people indicated that isiXhosa was their native language. This accounts for 17.9 percent of the South African population—the second largest language group in that country. In the Eastern Cape Province 83.8 percent of the population is Xhosa-speaking.

Xhosa people


Linguistic Affiliation

siXhosa forms part of the southeastern zone of the Bantu language family. Both words and sounds (especially the "clicks") have been borrowed from the Khoesan languages. The vocabulary also shows some borrowing from English and Afrikaans.

Xhosa people


History and Cultural Relations

The name Xhosa presumably is derived from a man named Xhosa who was the chief during the later part of the fifteenth century or the early part of the sixteenth century. The first known contact with Europeans was with the survivors of a series of shipwrecks on the east coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the São João (1552) and the Stavenisse (1686). It is generally accepted that the Xhosa formed part of the wider group of indigenous Bantu-speaking people of South Africa with origins in East Central Africa. From there they moved in waves to southern Africa, with the Xhosa-speaking people moving down the east coast until their movements were curtailed by environmental conditions and the eastward movement of European settlers after 1652. Those settlers, like the Xhosa, were migratory stock farmers, and stock theft and reprisal raids were common on both sides. After 1778 when the Dutch governor, Van Plettenberg, declared the Great Fish River to be the boundary between "Black" and "White," various colonial administrations tried to create similar boundaries in South Africa.

Calculations indicate that by about 1500 the Xhosa had already been in present-day South Africa and by about 1700 had occupied the majority of present-day Eastern Cape Province. However, archaeological research indicates the presence of both pastoral and horticulture farmers by about 600 on the Eastern Cape coast. They probably were among the predecessors of the Xhosa. In the present-day Eastern Cape Province the Xhosa came into contact with the Khoe and the San. Intermarriage took place, and trade relationships were maintained.

After nine border wars with European settlers and the British colonial administration, the annexation of the territory of the Xhosa was completed in 1894, and that region was incorporated into the British Cape Colony. The migration of Xhosa-speaking people to white-owned farms and to towns started during the first half of the nineteenth century. The "National Suicide" of the Xhosa (1857), the development of the diamond fields near Kimberley (1870s) and gold mining in the Witwatersrand (1886), and industrialization in the rest of South Africa had a strong impact on the rate of urbanization. During the later stages of apartheid in South Africa the Xhosa-speaking people were divided into two "independent" homelands: Transkei and Ciskei. Those areas again became part of the Republic of South Africa in 1993.

The first Christian missionary who made contact with the Xhosa was Dr. Van Der Kemp of the London Missionary Society (1799). Missionaries from the Wesleyan Methodists, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the Moravians, and the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Dutch Reformed churches followed. Those missionaries founded schools in the Eastern Cape and provided the first Western medical services. They also were responsible for the development of Xhosa as a written language and medium of communication; the first written grammar of Xhosa was completed in 1833 by the Reverend W. B. Boyce.

The indigenous Bantu-speaking people of South Africa are collectively known as the Southern Bantu among anthropologists. The Southern Bantu group consists of the Nguni, the Sotho, the Venda and Lemba, the Changana Thonga (also in Mozambique), the Herero-Ovambo (Namibia), and the Shona. The Nguni can be subdivided into the Cape Nguni, the Natal Nguni, the Swazi, the Ndebele, the amaNdebele (Zimbabwe), the abaKwagaza, and the Angoni (Malawi). The Cape Nguni are subdivided into the amaXhosa (Xhosa "proper"), abaThembu, amaMpondo, amaMpondomise, amaBomvana, and amaXesibe, along with fugitive groups such as the amaBhaca and amaMfengu. These subdivisions can be further broken down into smaller chiefdoms that were formed largely because of disputes regarding succession. The assimilation of Khoe people entailed the incorporation of certain cultural elements, especially in regard to animal husbandry.

Xhosa people


After the introduction in 1949 of the "Rehabilitation Scheme" the scattered settlement pattern of kin groups was altered to a village structure. These villages form administrative units, and each village has its own grazing area and arable land. Most villages have a primary school and a shop and are linked by gravel roads to each other and to main roads. Each household has an allocated residential plot, and various styles of buildings are constructed. The thatched roofs of the round mud houses are increasingly being replaced by corrugated iron, and square and rectangular mud or brick houses with corrugated iron roofs are becoming common in the rural areas. Homesteads with round houses usually have at least two of those buildings on a plot. The extra houses are used for cooking, storage, sleeping space for older boys, and accommodations for married sons and their spouses. Each household has its own cattle corral built in front of the house. In areas without a piped water system, water is stored in tanks or fetched from nearby dams, bore holes, or streams.


Major Holidays

Xhosa observe the same holidays as other groups of South Africa. These include the Christian holidays, Workers' Day (or May Day, May 1), the Day of Reconciliation (December 16), and Heritage Day (September 24). During the apartheid era, two unofficial holidays were observed to honor black people killed in the fight for equality and political representation: June 16th, a national day of remembrance for students who were killed by police in Soweto on that day in 1976; and March 21, a holiday honoring protestors who were killed by authorities during a demonstration in Sharpeville in 1960. Both days are recognized with a day of rest, meetings, and prayer. Another important holiday recognizes April 27, the date of the first national election in which black South Africans could vote.

Rites of Passage

After giving birth, a mother is expected to remain secluded in her house for at least ten days. In the past, this seclusion lasted longer, frequently until the child's umbilical cord dropped off and the navel area healed. In Xhosa tradition, the afterbirth and umbilical cord were buried or burned to protect the baby from sorcery.

At the end of the period of seclusion, a goat was sacrificed. The meat was distributed in a prescribed way, and the baby anointed with the meat juice. Those who no longer practice the traditional rituals may still invite friends and relatives to a special dinner to mark the end of the mother's seclusion. On this occasion, guests bring presents or money for the baby and mother.

Initiation for males in the form of circumcision is practiced among most Xhosa groups, except among the Mpondo, Bhaca, and Xesibe. The abakweta (“initiates-in-training”) live in special huts isolated from villages or towns for several weeks. Like soldiers inducted into the army, they have their heads shaved and wear special clothing. They wear a loincloth and a blanket for warmth, and their bodies are smeared from head to toe with a white clay.

Xhosa people

They are expected to observe numerous taboos and to act deferentially to their adult male leaders. Traditionally, the initiation was complete when young amakrwala (“graduates”) performed dances wearing special grass and reed costumes. Different stages in the initiation process were marked by the sacrifice of a goat.

The actual physical operation of circumcision has considerable health risk because the surgeon typically have not received medical training. Risks include infection, gangrene, and even death. Recently in some areas, formally trained physicians have been working in the Eastern Cape to lessen these risks.

The ritual of female circumcision is considerably shorter, although there are similarities with the boys' ceremonies. The intonjane (“girl to be initiated”) is secluded for about a week behind a screen set up at the rear of her home. During this period, there are dances, and ritual sacrifices of animals. The initiate must hide herself from view and observe food restrictions, but there is no actual surgical operation.

A traditional marriage agreement is finalized by the parents of the bride and groom and formalized by the transfer of lobolo (“bridewealth”) from the groom's family to the bride's family. When the agreement was settled, traditionally the family of the bride walked in procession to the home of the family of the groom, driving a sacrificial ox before them. The traditional full marriage ceremony took place over several days and involved a number of ritual sacrifices and dances. The bride and her female attendants were led out of their hut, their faces, heads, and bodies completely covered by hoods and blankets. In a ceremony that took place inside the family's cattle enclosure, the women's coverings were removed at a dramatic moment. These days such ceremonies may be combined with Western church weddings or they may be abandoned all together.

Funeral ceremonies are important community rituals. Friends, relatives, and neighbors gather at the house of the deceased, bearing gifts of money and food. Prior to the burial, a inkonzo yomlindo (“wake”) is often held, during which a large gathering of people sing hymns and pray through the night.


Interpersonal relations

Xhosa have traditionally used greetings to show respect and good intentions to others. In rural areas, greetings between strangers frequently extend into conversations about travel intentions, health, and personal well being. In greeting, a distinction is made between addressing an individual and a group. Molo (“hello”) is used when greeting one person, and molweni when greeting two or more. On departing, one makes the same distinction: Hamba kakuhle (“Go well”) for one person and Hambani kakuhle for two or more.

In interacting with others, it is crucial to show respect (ukuhlonipha). In order not to be rude, youths are expected to keep quiet when elders are speaking and to lower their eyes when being addressed. Hospitality is highly valued, and people are expected to share with visitors what they can. Socializing over tea and snacks is a common form of interaction practiced throughout English-speaking southern Africa.

In Xhosa tradition, one commonly found a girlfriend or boyfriend by attending dances. One popular type of dance, called umtshotsho or intlombe, could last all night. On some occasions, unmarried lovers were allowed to sleep together provided they observed certain restraints. A form of external intercourse called ukumetsha was permitted, but full intercourse was taboo. For Westernized Xhosa, romances often begin at school, church, or through mutual acquaintances. Dating activities include attending the cinema as well as going to dances, sporting events, concerts, and so forth.


Living conditions

During the early period of white rule in South Africa, Xhosa communities were severely neglected in terms of social services. In fact, rural areas were deliberately impoverished so as to encourage Xhosa to seek wage labor employment. In the later years of apartheid, some attempts were made to address major health concerns in these areas, but most government money continued to be set aside for social services that benefited whites. As the Xhosa population in rural areas expanded through natural increase and forced removals, rural lands became increasingly overcrowded and eroded. In the twentieth-century, many men and women migrated to urban shanty-towns such as those that exist on the outskirts of Cape Town. Poverty and ill health are still widespread in both rural and urban communities. Tuberculosis, malnutrition, hypertension, and diarrheal diseases are common health problems. Since 1994, however, the post apartheid government has expanded health and nutritional aid to the black population.

Housing, standards of living, and creature comforts vary considerably among Xhosa-speakers. Xhosa people make up some of the poorest and some of the wealthiest of black South Africans. Poor people live in round thatched-roof huts, labor compounds, or single-room shacks without running water or electricity. Other Xhosa people are among an elite who live in quiet suburban neighborhoods, in large comfortable houses on par with any to be found in Europe or the United States. In South Africa, a person can acquire all the creature comforts that money can buy, provided that one has the money to buy them.

The most common forms of transportation for black people in South Africa are buses, commuter trains, and “taxis.” “Taxis” are actually minivans that carry many individual riders at a time. Most such taxis are for short distances in urban areas, but they are also used as a faster alternative to the long-distance routes of buses. Personal cars and trucks are also not uncommon, although in recent years high rates of inflation and increasing fuel costs have driven up prices considerably.

Famili Life

The traditional Xhosa family was patriarchal. Men were considered the heads of their households; women and children were expected to defer to men's authority. Polygynous marriages were permitted where the husband had the means to pay the lobolo (bridewealth) for each and to maintain them properly. Women were expected to leave their families to live with the family of her husband. The elaborate marriage ceremony discussed previously helped ease a woman's transition to the new home. In addition, her acceptance into the family was confirmed when she was given a ritual offering of milk.

In urban areas, traditional restrictions on sexual expression have been hard to enforce. Consequently, there have been higher rates of unmarried pregnancies than existed in the past. The migrant labor system has also put great strains on the traditional family, with some men establishing two distinct families—one at the place of work and the other at the rural home. With the end of apartheid, some of the families previously separated by the labor laws are beginning new lives in urban areas. Some of these families live under crowded and difficult conditions in shanty towns and migrant labor compounds.

Xhosa people


Many Xhosa men and women dress similarly to people in Europe and the United States. However, pants for women have only recently become acceptable. Also, as a result of missionary influence, it has become customary for a woman to cover her hair with a scarf or hat. As a head covering, many rural women fold scarves or other clothes into elaborate turban shapes. These coverings (imithwalo), plus the continued practice of anointing the body and face with white or ocher-colored mixtures, gives a distinctive appearance that marks them as Xhosa. Other signs of Xhosa identity in dress include intricately sewn designs on blankets that are worn by both men and women as shawls or capes.ñ



Xhosa people share many food traditions with the other peoples of South Africa. Staple foods are corn (maize) and bread. Beef, mutton, and goat are popular meats. Milk is often drunk in its sour form, while sorghum beer, which is also sour in taste, continues to be popular.

Xhosa people

One particular food popularly identified with the Xhosa is umngqusho. This is a dish that combines hominy corn with beans and spices. Xhosa also regularly eat the soft porridge made of corn meal flour that is widespread in Africa.

Eggs were traditionally taboo for women, while a newly wedded wife was not allowed to eat certain types of meat. Men were not supposed to drink milk in any village where they might later take a wife.

The major mealtimes are breakfast and dinner. Children may go without lunch, although school lunch programs have been established recently by the government. As with other South African peoples, food preferences change with the time. For example, a variety of American or British-style fast-food services are available in urban areas throughout the country. Fine locally produced wines are also popular.



Subsistence. In the rural areas mixed farming consisting of horticulture and animal husbandry is practiced. Depending on the availability of arable land, each household has access to a field ranging from 2.1 acres (0.86 hectare) to 8.5 acres (3.43 hectares) or a small garden as part of the residential plot. Chief's and headmen usually receive larger tracts of land that range between 15 acres (6 hectares) and 32 acres (13 hectares). Maize (the staple), sorghum, wheat, barley, beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, gem squash, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and tobacco are grown. The soil varies from sandy to sandy loam, and a few areas have clay and alluvial soils. Soil depth ranges from 6 inches (15 centimeters) to 6.6 feet (2 meters) (alluvial soils next to riverbeds). The main implements are ox-drawn plows and metal-bladed hoes. Cows and goats are eaten on special occasions related to the life cycle and religious ceremonies, and sheep, pigs, and chickens provide meat for household consumption. Commodities not produced locally, such as coffee, tea, sugar, canned food, cloth, clothes, utensils, and furniture, are bought with the earnings from migrant labor in urban areas or the proceeds from the sale of skins and wool to local traders or at shops in nearby towns.

People living near the sea or rivers catch fish and crustaceans and mollusks. Roots, bulbs, berries, wild fruit, and herbal plants are gathered to supplement the diet. Occasionally small game may be hunted.

Commercial Activities. As a result of development efforts a number of irrigation schemes were initiated in which small farmers were resettled to produce pineapples, citrus fruit, coffee, and tea for commercial purposes. Government policy regarding land redistribution favors commercial dairy farming, wool production, and agriculture on a larger scale. In some areas handicrafts are manufactured for the tourist market.

Industrial Arts. Mats, baskets, beer strainers, brooms, utensils made from calabash, beadwork, pipes, knobkerries, walking sticks, wooden yokes, whips, and leather harnesses are made mostly for personal use. Some people are regarded as specialists in these crafts and may manufacture these items for others. In areas near major roads some of those items may be sold to tourists. Sleds are made from forked tree trunks to transport goods. Wooden mortars and pestles and grinding stones are made for the grinding of grain.

Division of Labor. In general, men tend to the livestock and clear virgin land for horticulture and women do the household chores (cleaning, preparing and serving food, washing clothes, fetching water and firewood, and caring for children) and work in the fields or gardens. After the introduction of ox-drawn plows, men became more involved in horticulture by tilling the soil and planting the crops and women did the weeding. The whole family is involved in harvesting. Boys who do not attend school herd the livestock and chase birds when the crops ripen. Girls care for younger siblings and help their mothers with their chores. In areas close to the sea men, women, and children harvest marine resources. In urban areas the division of labor is less prescriptive, but women still do the household chores.

Land Tenure. There are three systems of land tenure—permission to occupy, quitrent, and freehold—in the rural areas. Land is regarded as the property of the tribal group and is held in trust by the chief. A person who wants residential and/or arable land must apply through his or her local headman, and depending on availability, land is allocated. After payment of the required fees, the land is registered at the local magistrate's office in the name of the person to whom it is allocated for that person to use in accordance with the rules applicable to the particular type of land tenure system.



Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal. Exogamous patriclans (iziduko) are the most important kin groups. A variety of clan names are derived from the names of founder members, animals, and plants. The clans are noncorporate groups, and individual members may support one another in times of crisis and during ceremonies related to the life cycle and sacrifices to the ancestors. Closer relatives who have the same clan name (isiduko) are called imilowo (equated by some researchers to lineages) and are more deeply involved in the daily lives of individual members. In earlier times a group of imilowo would form a corporate group with a leader (intloko yemilowo). The father's sister ( udadobawo ) plays an important role in the lives of her brother's children. At ceremonial occasions the children of sisters (abatshana) are included as imilowo. In urban areas neighbors often are included as imilowo. Kinship does not have the same importance in urban areas that it does in rural areas.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are a variation of the Iroquois type. However, the mother and the mother's sister are not referred to with the same term, and the mother's sister's children are referred to by different terms than are the father's brother's children.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by fathers, but their wives and imilowo were consulted. Even very young children were promised to each other by their fathers. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998 tries to harmonize the common law and indigenous law. The act not only recognizes customary marriages but drastically changes the institution to bring it in line with common-law marriages. Consent by the marriage partners is now required. Marriages can be contracted according to customary law or solemnized in a church or magistrate's court, or there may be a combination of those practices. Courting must take place in secret, and traditionally young girls were inspected by older women to assure their virginity. This practice has been abandoned because of pressure by missionaries.

In courting and in marriage the rules of exogamy are strictly applied. Not only are unions between people sharing the same patriclan name forbidden, this prohibition is extended to people with the clan names of their mothers. Men must go through the initiation ceremony and be circumcised before they are allowed to marry. Bride-wealth (ilobolo) in the form of cattle is transferred from the man's family to the family of the woman. This creates ties of goodwill between the two families, transfers the right to the woman's fertility and thus the children from the union to the husband's group, and serves as compensation for the loss of the woman's labor in her parental home. In at least 90 percent of marriages in urban areas this practice is still maintained. Polygyny is practiced and is recognized under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998. A woman's father is expected to provide her with household utensils and furniture such as a bedroom or lounge suite. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, but because of restrictions on the size of residential plots in rural areas this custom is in force only for a certain period of time, after which a son is allowed to start his own household. Often the youngest married son will remain in the household of his parents. In urban areas the accepted practice has become neolocality, but patrilocal and matrilocal postmarital residence are common in urban areas because of economic factors.

Marriages are stable in rural areas, and problems between husband and wife are dealt with by their respective imilowo. Reasons for divorce mostly involve the neglect of one partner by the other. Before the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998, customary marriages were terminated with the permission of the respective imilowo if the imilowo believed that reconciliation was not possible. If the man is at fault, the bride-wealth is forfeited; if the woman is at fault, her father must return at least one head of cattle to signify the termination of the marriage. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act attempts to unify divorce procedures for customary and all other recognized marriages, and termination is under the jurisdiction of the provincial high courts. The death of a woman terminates the marriage, but according to customary law, the marriage does not end when the husband dies. The levirate is not practiced but it is expected that, if possible, the woman will still bear children for the deceased. A person who is acceptable to the deceased's imilowo will become the woman's lover and fulfill this function. The imilowo are responsible for caring for the widow and her children.

Domestic Unit. Households are defined by sharing a cooking area and eating together. The ideal is that married sons will stay with their parents in patrilineal extended families. However, as a result of a shortage of land and restrictions on the size of residential plots, the tendency is away from extended families and toward nuclear families. A married man will stay for some time with his parents and then try to secure his own residential plot. In the case of polygyny a man can settle all his wives on one residential plot or acquire a separate residential plot for each one.

Households in urban areas consist of nuclear families extended by married and/or unmarried relatives and tenants. There is a fairly high incidence of matrifocal families, often extending over four generations.

Inheritance. According to customary law, a man's oldest son or, in cases of polygyny, the oldest son of the main wife is his main heir and successor. The right to land normally is transferred to the name of the main heir in the case of quitrent and permission to occupy. Land in freehold can follow the customary pattern or be inherited in accordance with a will. The main heir also inherits the livestock, plows, tractor, car, houses, household utensils, and furniture, and these items are regarded as house property. The widow has the right to use the property if the main heir is still a minor. The main heir also inherits his father's debts. Each son inherits something from his father because during his lifetime the father earmarks livestock for each of his sons and that livestock will be handed over to them when they marry and start their own households. His clothes are distributed among his sons, and his pipe and accessories are given to one of his brothers. In cases of polygyny, the wives are assigned to different houses and the oldest son from each house is the main heir in that house. As a rule daughters do not inherit anything from their fathers. A man can draw up a will and divide his property among all his children. When a woman dies, the household utensils that she brought to the marriage remain part of the property of her house. Her husband may determine the distribution of her clothes and ornaments among her daughters, and her pipe and accessories are given to the husband's oldest sister.

Socialization. Depending on their age, children are raised by their fathers, mothers, older sisters, grandparents, and other close relatives. From the age of about eight years boys in rural areas are assigned tasks such as herding small animals, and their fathers teach them the tasks assigned to men. Girls are drawn into the realm of household chores, and their mothers teach them the tasks assigned to women. Obedience to both parents is expected and can be enforced through corporal punishment. Respect must be shown to all older people. Nine years of compulsory schooling forms an important part of the socialization process in both rural and urban areas.

Boys are initiated at the age of approximately eighteen years. This involves circumcision and seclusion for at least three weeks, depending on how long the wounds take to heal. During this time they are subject to restrictions regarding their movements and food and are taught the proper way to behave as adult men. This custom is practiced in urban areas as well, although increasingly males are circumcised in hospitals. The corresponding ceremony for women (the intonjane) takes place during a girl's first menstruation. This custom has fallen into disuse in many rural areas and has acquired the character of a fertility rite as married women who have difficulty becoming pregnant are sent back to their fathers' homes to undergo this rite.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Status is determined by age and gender. Men have a higher status than women according to indigenous law. This is changing because of the impact of the Bill of Rights included in the Constitution of South Africa. Although no formal age groups or age sets exist, men and women occupy different status positions during their life cycles that are determined by their age stage and/or marriage. These groups assemble separately during ceremonies and are served different portions of meat from sacrificial animals, and beverages are served to them in different containers. Succession to political office in rural areas is determined by male primogeniture. Important visitors and dignitaries such as chief's, headmen, ministers, priests, and government officials occupy a place of honor during festivities and ceremonies.

In rural areas work groups are organized to help with agricultural and construction activities. Funeral societies, Christian denominations with societies for men and women (iimanyano), the Zenzele women's organization, sports clubs, choirs, school committees, soil conservation committees, local branches of political parties, and trade unions exist in rural and urban areas.

Political Organization. The Black Land Act of 1913, the Black Administration Act of 1927, and the Black Trust and Land Act of 1936 revived the position of chieftainship, which had practically come to an end after the final annexation of Xhosa territories in 1894. The Xhosa have 6 paramount chief's (some people maintain that they must be called kings) and 115 chief's. A paramount chief plays more of a ceremonial role, while a chief (inkosi), as the head of a tribal authority (ingunyabantu lesizwe), is responsible for a tribal area. All tribal areas are incorporated into municipalities as part of the local governing system.

A chief occupies the position because he is the firstborn son of the main wife of the previous chief. The main wife is the one who was chosen for the chief by the tribe. In the tribal areas the chief's and their councilors (amaphakathi) are responsible for administration and the maintenance of law and order. Each tribal area is divided into administrative units (iilali) under the leadership of an elected headman (isibonda). These headmen also act as the chief's councilors. Each headman has a council (inkundla· kwasibonda) consisting of the heads of households (abaninimzi) in his administrative unit. They are responsible for administration, law and order, allocation of land, and the application of regulations regarding land use in the administrative unit. The chief has an elected chief councilor (umandlali gaga) who is also the chairman of the chief's executive and tribal councils. He serves the chief in a close advisory capacity.

Social Control. Conflict arises from the infringement of people's property rights through theft and damage by humans and animals; the infringement of a man's rights over his wife and children through rape, adultery, the impregnation of unmarried daughters, and elopement; violation of privacy and defamation; assault; murder; and accusations of witchcraft. Punishment can take the form of fines in money and/or livestock or corporal punishment for young men and boys, and reparation is given in the form of money and/or livestock. In rural areas the imilowo try to settle conflicts between relatives. If one of the parties is not satisfied with the outcome, he or she may take the matter to the headman's court (inkundla kwasibonda), and from there the matter can be taken to the chief's court (inkundla yesizwe/inkundla yakomkhulu), where cases are tried according to customary law, subject to restrictions imposed by national legislation involving the jurisdiction of courts. An aggrieved party may appeal to the magistrate's court, which usually is in a nearby town.

In urban areas conflict is solved at the individual level or through the law enforcement agencies of the state. However, there are also illegal "people's courts" in which residents take action against culprits, often in violent ways.

Conflict. Before the annexation of the Xhosa territories conflict with other groups mostly involved access to territory and rights to grazing. Livestock raids were common and still cause violent intertribal conflict in rural areas. Most of the time this conflict is settled through the intervention of the state's law enforcement agencies.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. People adhering to the traditional religion, Christians, and those practicing a syncretism of the two religious traditions are found. There is not a sharp division between traditionalists and Christians. Christians have traditionalist relatives and cooperate with traditionalist neighbors in all community activities, including deliberations in the courts, schools, and prayer ceremonies in times of drought.Traditionalist Xhosa believe that a supreme being called uQamata or umDali created the world and maintains the cosmos.

Xhosa people

Another term used to refer to this deity is uThixo, the word that is used in the Xhosa translation of the Bible.

After the creation he was no longer directly concerned with the human world, and therefore no prayers or rituals are directed to him. There is no retribution in the life after death for misdeeds committed on earth. It is believed that the creator was the first ancestor and that he therefore is accessible through the ancestral spirits (izinyanya). The ancestral spirits receive their power and preparation from him. The belief in ancestral spirits forms the central part of the traditionalist religion, and the ancestors are believed to control the day-today affairs of people.

There are four types of spirits: the spirits of the kinship group; tribal spirits, who are deceased chief's; foreign spirits who are deceased, who may have special meaning to people; and the river people, who are the spirits of persons who disappeared in rivers or the sea. Spirits reside in the vicinity of living people, close to the cattle corral. Certain animals are linked to the ancestors; elephants, lions, leopards, snakes, crocodiles, otters, and bees are important in this regard. Ancestors often appear in the form of these animals. Each clan has its own animals of importance, but this is not a form of totemism. When a person dreams of such an animal, it is a sign that the ancestors are trying to make contact with that person. The spirits show displeasure with people by causing illness and plague and killing livestock. To ensure the goodwill of the spirits it is necessary to present them with libations and sacrifices.

Witchcraft is practiced by people (amagqwirha/abathakathi) who are believed to have contact with malevolent powers and can take the form of causing misfortune and death through poisoning, directing lightning, and the use of familiars such as the lightning bird, uthikoloshe (a little man whose outward appearance is described in various ways), snakes, baboons, frogs, wild cats, the jackal-buzzard, and a resurrected deceased person. Accusations of witchcraft often are directed against married women as outsiders to the kin group.

After the first missionaries made contact with the Xhosa in 1799, missionary societies founded 25 mission stations during the nineteenth century. Each mission had a number of outstations, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were few areas where the gospel was not preached. More than 60 percent of the Xhosa are Christians.

Religious Practitioners. The diviner (igqirha) and the herbalist (ixhwele) differ in their training and in their functions in society. A diviner is called by the ancestral spirits. That person contracts the intwaso sickness and is troubled by dreams, pain, hot flushes, and convulsions. More women than men are called, and often there are several diviners in a kin group. A qualified diviner will diagnose the cause of an illness, and a person must be initiated as a diviner for approximately one year under the guidance of a qualified diviner. Diviners normally are consulted to determine the causes of diseases, accidents, death, and the origin of witchcraft. There are generalist diviners, specialist diviners, and rainmakers. Herbalists are not called by the ancestral spirits and obtain training through apprenticeship with a qualified herbalist. Herbalists are consulted for the treatment of people who are affected by witchcraft, protection against witchcraft, cures for diseases, and the provision of medicine that will ensure prosperity. Diviners and herbalists practice in urban areas as well as rural regions. Many people are both diviners and herbalists.

The head of a household officiates when a sacrifice needs to be made by his household. When the wider kin group is involved, the intloko yemilowo officiates; the chief officiates if the sacrifice concerns the tribe as a whole.

Prophets in the African Independent Christian Churches also play an important role in healing activities.

Ceremonies. Offerings in the form of livestock to the ancestral spirits are made during rites of passage in the life cycles of individuals. They also are presented for thanksgiving for national, tribal, and family successes; propitiation in cases of death, chronic sickness, epidemic disease, and offences against customary laws and taboos; and supplication in times of privation, poverty, and drought. Offerings containing crops are made to thank the ancestors after the harvest and form part of the sacrifices made at river pools for the river people. Libations in the form of beer or liquor may be made whenever a person drinks those beverages.



Traditionally, patterned pottery was manufactured and widely used. Mats, beer strainers, and baskets are woven from grass, and beadwork has become an artistic tradition. Decorated ceremonial clothes are made from different types of cloth, and women knit and crochet with various types of wool and yarn. Traditional musical instruments include musical bows, drums, and trumpets made from the horns of animals. Diviners use drums to accompany their dances. The main type of musical expression is singing, usually accompanied by dancing. Choir singing is a popular form of musical expression in both rural and urban areas. Jazz and "township music" have a large following in urban areas. The first book in Xhosa appeared in 1824. Since that time numerous books, articles, newspapers, and journals have been published, many of which have been translated into English.



Therapeutic practices include cutting, sucking, massage, purgatives, and the provision of amulets made from animal and plant parts and beads. Medicines are made from dried bark, leaves, roots, and bulbs ground into a fine powder. Medicine is mixed with water and drunk or smeared onto the affected part of the body; it also can be carried on the body in a small container. Some herbalists have divining spirits that help them execute their duties and make the presence of those spirits known to the ancestral spirits. Many "Muti shops" that sell indigenous medicines exist in urban areas. Clinics and hospitals in rural and urban areas provide scientific medicine to patients. Often one type of medicine is reverted to after the other type has been used if the person is not satisfied with the outcome of the first treatment.


Death and Afterlife

Death is ascribed to witchcraft and sorcery, natural causes, and the will of God. The spirit of a deceased household head is believed to continue to live as an ancestral spirit. By law, all corpses must be buried in a cemetery, and this has had an influence on the belief that a household head should be buried in his cattle corral, a person who was struck by lightning or who drowned should be buried where the corpse was found, and babies should be buried under the wood pile. A death causes impurity, and any person who has come into contact with a corpse must be purified through the washing of his or her hands. Funerals are important occasions, and relatives and friends make an effort to attend. Graves are covered with branches from thorn trees to prevent animals from damaging the grave and to prevent sorcerers from digging up the body and changing it into a familiar. There are different types of tombstones in both rural and urban areas, and they are ceremonially unveiled. Burial societies play an important role in rural and urban areas, and their members provide one another with material and moral support.


Gender Issues

Xhosa society was in the past fairly typical of patriarchically organized societies. Women were expected to seek primarily fulfillment as wives and mothers. Under apartheid family bonds were strained under the system of migrant labor upon which many rural people depended. During this time, women in effect became household heads when their husbands' were away at their jobs. Families were further impoverished during the period of forced settlement in the Bantustans. These conditions also fostered high rates of gender violence, including domestic abuse and rape. The forced separation of husband and wives under apartheid led to other problems as well, such as adultery and prostitution. Also, some men and women engaged in homosexual behaviors, although the idea of a gay identity has not been widely accepted.

The South African government has made improving conditions of gender inequality an important part of its educational and economic development strategy. In terms of education, roughly the same proportions of males and females attend school and graduate, but they do not always achieve parity in employment and promotion opportunities. To correct this within the government, one goal is to have 50% of the managers in public service be women.