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Xhosa Culture


In excess of 5.2 million, Xhosa-speakers constitute 83.8% of the population of the Eastern Cape, the second largest province in South Africa, an area 169, 580 km2 in extent (Statistics South Africa, 1998). Literacy in the +20 age group is 79.1%.

The 'Xhosa-speaking people', a term current in modern anthropological usage, refers to the Southern or Cape Nguni in general, i.e. the Xhosa, Thembu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Bhaca, Xesibe, Bomvana, Hlubi, Zizi, Tolo, Bhele and Ntlangwini chiefdom clusters. The Southern Nguni are usually distinguished from the Zulu or Natal Nguni, with whom they share certain social and cultural traits. Xhosa and Zulu were the first Nguni dialects written down by European missionaries and subsequently used by them in printing and education. With the result that most of the other dialects of Nguni have in practice come to coalesce round Xhosa and Zulu (Wilson, 1982). For modern anthropologists, the term Xhosa or Southern Nguni designates a linguistic, rather than an ethnic, category.

The Mfengu - the Hlubi, Zizi, Tolo and Bhele - were the clients or dependents of the Xhosa King Hintsa (cf. Peires, 1981), whom the missionaries and the British colonial authorities claimed in 1835 as 'refugees of the Mfecane', Shaka's 'total war' of the late 1820's (Ayliff & Whiteside, 1912). The Mfengu were brought under colonial protection primarily to swell depleted labour reserves (Bundy, 1988; Cobbing, 1988). At the time, the colonial governor, Sir Benjamin D' Urban, was embroiled in a war with the Xhosa. No sooner had the Mfengu left Transkei with some 28 000 cattle, which belonged to their former Xhosa hosts and patrons and were apparently in the care and safekeeping of the Mfengu, than at least 900 Mfengu were immediately enrolled as levies in the British army in the frontier war against the Xhosa.

Historically the Xhosa, like the Nguni in general, were herders, subsistence-cultivators and hunters. Patrilineal and polygynous, they were organized in a number of semi-independent chiefdom clusters, each loosely recognising the ritual seniority of a paramount chief or king. Xhosa-speakers present a general picture of cultural uniformity (Hammond-Tooke, 1975, 1980). During the nineteenth century, conversion to Christianity resulted in the development of a major cultural cleavage among the Xhosa, which lasted up until the 1950s, between 'School' people and 'Red' traditionalists (Mayer & Mayer, 1961). The former, who embraced Christianity and Western education, were essentially the product of the mission stations and schools. They were greatly influenced by European culture, as imparted to them in word and deed by the missionaries. School people adopted a distinctive style of dress and evolved cultural traditions centring on church and school. Traditionalists were described as 'Red' because of their practice of daubing (ukuqaba) red clay on their faces and bodies. Hence, they were known as amaQaba or 'Red People'. Initially rejecting the church and Western education as foreign introductions during the nineteenth century - the situation is vastly different today in the new South Africa - traditionalists continued to perform time-honoured rituals (amasiko) commemorating the ancestors (iminyanya). The Xhosa are today predominantly Christian. Even traditional leaders and healers, i.e. diviners (amagqirha) and herbalists (amaxhwele), are nominal, if not practising, Christians. Nowadays, the Christianity of the Xhosa is increasingly one that has attained various forms of accommodation with the ancestors and the traditional rituals commemorating them (cf. Hammond-Tooke, 1980; Hirst, 1990, 1997, 2005; Edgar & Sapire, 2000).