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Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, Vol. 1, 2009. 
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PRONUNCIATION: KOH-suh (“X” represents a click sound)
LOCATION: South Africa (southeastern and urban areas)
POPULATION: 8 millionLANGUAGE: Xhosa (Bantu)
RELIGION: traditional beliefs (supreme being uTh ixo or uQamata), Christianity


The word Xhosa refers to a people and a language of South Africa. The Xhosa-speaking people are divided into a number of subgroups with their own distinct but related heritages. One of these subgroups is sometimes rather confusingly called Xhosa as well, while other subgroup names are Bhaca, Bomvana, Gcaleka, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thembu (Tembu). Unless otherwise stated, this article includes all these subgroups, and refers to all Xhosa-speaking people.

The Xhosa, among all the Bantu-speaking peoples of South Africa, penetrated furthest south towards the Cape of Good Hope. Well before the arrival of Dutch in the 1650s, the Xhosa had settled the southeastern area of South Africa. In this territory, they interacted with the foraging and pastoral people who were in South Africa first, the Khoi and the San.

The Europeans who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, this limited region was not enough for some of the settlers. A subculture of trekboers (white pastoralists) moved away from the Cape, increasing the territory of white control. This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken too. A series of wars between trekboers and Xhosa began in the 1770s. Later, in the nineteenth century, the British became the new colonizing force in the Cape. They directed the armies that were to vanquish the Xhosa. Sustained military resistance to the Cape forces ended in 1853, although warfare continued for another 25 years until at least 1878.

Christian missionaries established their first outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, but met with little success. Only after the Xhosa population had been traumatized by European invasion, drought, and disease did Xhosa convert to Christianity in substantial numbers. Most of the initial conversions began in the 1850s following the failure of a prophetic movement known as the Cattle Killing. Some 20,000 people died of hunger and disease after killing their cattle to fulfill the Cattle Killing prophecy. Without other recourse and in despair, many Xhosa sought help from the missionaries. Others were forced to flee the territory, taking menial positions working for whites.

In the aftermath of the Cattle Killing, a cultural division developed between mission-educated “school” people and traditionalists, who were called “Reds” after their practice of anointing themselves with red ocher. School people saw themselves as enlightened by Christianity and civilized by Western education, while red people saw themselves as being true to proper Xhosa traditions and the ways of their ancestors.

In addition to land lost to white annexation, legislative acts such as the Glen Grey Act of 1894 reduced Xhosa ability to control their own political affairs. Political authority was allocated to white magistrates, and landholdings were privatized. Over time, Xhosa people became increasingly impoverished and had no other option except to become migrant laborers. In the late 1990s, Xhosa make up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa's gold mines.

Under apartheid, the South African government created separate regions that were described as Bantustans (home-lands) for black people of African descent. Two regions—Transkei and Ciskei—were set aside for Xhosa people. Although these regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government, they were not recognized as such outside South Africa. Apartheid policy denied South African citizenship to many Xhosa, and thousands of people were forcibly relocated to remote areas in Transkei and Ciskei. Rural areas became even more impoverished, although a few urban centers such as Umtata did achieve some economic growth. After apartheid ended, these areas became part of the Eastern Cape province. In fact, only one of the six districts of the Eastern Cape was not formerly a part of Transkei or Ciskei


Before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1600s, Xhosa-speaking people occupied much of eastern South Africa, extending from the Fish River to regions inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban. This territory includes well-watered rolling hills near scenic coastal areas as well as harsh and dry regions further inland. Many Xhosa-speaking people live in Cape Town (iKapa), East London (eMonti), and Port Elizabeth (iBhayi). They can be found in lesser numbers in most of South Africa's major metropolitan areas. As of 2007, there were about 8 million Xhosa, making up approximately 17.5% of South Africa's population. Others may speak Xhosa as a second language without necessarily identifying themselves as a Xhosa person.


The Xhosa language, properly referred to as isiXhosa, is a Bantu language closely related to Zulu, Swazi, and Ndebele. There are also a number of dialects that are frequently associated with clans predominant in certain areas. “Thembu,” for example, may refer to people of a particular clan as well as a particular dialect. It is often suggested that the dialect of the Mpondo is most distinctive. As with other South African languages, Xhosa is characterized by respectful forms of address for elders and in-laws. The language is also rich in idioms. To have isandla esishushu (“a warm hand”), for example, is to be generous.

The historically close relationship between the Xhosa and other peoples is evident in the language. For example, Xhosa contains many words with click consonants that have been borrowed from Khoi or San words. The “X” in Xhosa represents a type of click made by the tongue on the side of the mouth. This consonant sounds something like the clicking sound English-speaking horseback riders make to encourage their horses. English speakers who have not mastered clicks often pronounce Xhosa as “Ko-Sa.” There are other consonants used in the written language to represent clicks as well, including “c,” “gc,” and “nq.” Modern Xhosa speakers also borrow words liberally from English and Afrikaans.

Names in Xhosa often express the values or opinions of the community. Common personal names include Th amsanqa (“good fortune”) and Nomsa (“mother of kindness”). Names Xhosamay also make reference to topical events, or be coined from English words. Adults are often referred to by their isiduko (clan or lineage) names. In the case of women, clan names are preceded by a prefix meaning “mother of.” For example, a woman of the Thembu clan might be called MamThembu. Women are also named by reference to their children, real or intended; NoLindiwe is a polite name for Lindiwe's mother.


Stories and legends provide accounts of the Xhosa ancestral heroes. According to one oral tradition, the first person on Earth was a great leader called Xhosa. Another tradition stresses the essential unity of the Xhosa-speaking people by proclaiming that all the Xhosa subgroups are descendants of one ancestor, Tshawe. Historians have suggested that Xhosa and Tshawe were probably the first Xhosa kings or paramount (supreme) chiefs, although the time of their reigns cannot be precisely dated. Madzikane, a hero among the Xhosa-speaking Bhaca, was a contemporary of the famous Zulu leader Shaka in the early 19th century.

Xhosa tradition is rich in creative verbal expression. In the hands of masters, intsomi (folktales), proverbs, and isibongo (praise poems) are told in dramatic and creative ways. Folk-tales relate the adventures of both animal protagonists and human characters. These are related in ways that make them both theatrical and musical performances. Praise poems traditionally relate the heroic adventures of ancestors or political leaders. Folk themes are also incorporated into the modern storytelling art produced on television and other media. One prominent artist named Gcina Mhlope tells stories in this way to promote literacy and education in general.


The supreme being among the Xhosa is called uTh ixo or uQamata. As in the religions of many other Bantu peoples, God is only rarely involved in everyday life, but may be approached through ancestral intermediaries who are honored through ritual sacrifices. Ancestors commonly make their wishes known to the living in dreams.

Xhosa religious practice is distinguished by elaborate and lengthy rituals, initiations, and feasts. Modern rituals typically pertain to matters of illness and psychological well-being. A common spiritual affliction is a demand from ancestors to undergo ukutwasa (“initiation”) into amagqira, a cult of healers. An individual may experience physical ailments until he or she agrees to undergo the initiation process, which may take many months and is very expensive.

Christianity in one form or another is accepted by most Xhosa-speaking people today, although historically there was a division between traditionalists who rejected Western belief and those who embraced Western education and the message of missionaries. Among Xhosa-speaking Christians, this division may still be observed—traditionalists are more likely to belong to independent denominations, rather than to one of the denominations that were brought to South Africa by the missionaries. In South Africa, the independent denominations combine the Christian creed with acceptance of the ancestors and other traditional beliefs and practices. These denominations make up a slight majority of today's Xhosa Christians. Statistics gathered in recent years in the Xhosa heartland of the Eastern Cape suggest that the most popular internationally known Christian denominations are Methodist (19%), Catholic (7%), Anglican (6%), and Presbyterian (5%). Varieties of independent churches known as “Zionist” are followed by approximately 13% of Xhosa while those known as “Apostolic” make up about 9%. Another 9% of Xhosa do not identify with any religion.


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.


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. 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


The first Western-style schools for Xhosa-speakers were begun by missionaries. Many of these schools were remarkably successful. One of the most famous of the missionary institutions, the University of Fort Hare, boasts Nelson Mandela and a number of other famous African leaders as former students. Unfortunately, however, an indirect consequence of the mission-school heritage was that public education for Africans was not considered a matter of national concern.

Under apartheid, African access to education was restricted and many of the best mission schools were shutdown. As a result, adult literacy rates dropped, in some areas to as low as 30%. Today, the goal is free education for all those aged seven to seventeen. Literacy and education are now seen as keys to success and are highly valued by most people.


Xhosa traditional music places a strong emphasis on group singing and handclapping as accompaniment to dance. Drums, while used occasionally, were not as fundamental a part of musical expression as they were for many other African peoples. Other instruments used included rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments constructed with a bow and resonator.

Xhosa people also have specific styles in the material arts. They have distinctive forms of beadwork, pottery making, body decoration, basketry, and, as mentioned above, headwear. Many Xhosa-speaking artists today see themselves as employing their traditions creatively in the context of the world's entire art scene.

Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing. Among the most successful of the Xhosa hymns is the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikele' iAfrika (God Bless Africa), written by a school teacher named Enoch Sontonga in 1897, with additional verses by S.E. K Mqhayi.

Xhosa written literature was established in the nineteenth century with the publication of the first Xhosa newspapers, novels, and plays. S.E. K. Mqhayi (1875-1945) is considered by many to be the Xhosa national poet. His work USamson, published in 1907, is arguably the first Xhosa novel. Other early writers include Tiyo Soga, A.C. Jordan, I. Bud-Mbelle, and John Tengo Jabavu.

Today there are many individuals of Xhosa background working in literature and the arts. Among them are Fatima Dike, John Kani, Zakes Mda, Gcina Mhlope, and Sindiwe Magona.


Wage labor for many rural Xhosa has meant leaving home to find employment in the city. Under white rule, Xhosa men were most frequently hired as miners and farm laborers. Women also worked as farm laborers, but work in domestic service was more valued. For those with high school and college educations, the greatest opportunities were in health care, education, and government administration. Today, Xhosa seek degrees in all fields.

South Africa's migrant labor system has dramatically altered Xhosa social life. Besides putting strain on the family, migrant labor has led to the development of new social groups. For example, associations of young men called iindlavini were formed. Iindlavini are typically young men with some schooling who have spent time working in the mines. They adopted some of the ways of the city while developing their own particular traditions as well. Changes in international economic conditions greatly affect Xhosa peoples. For example, when gold prices declined in recent years, many Xhosa lost their jobs. These workers and the people who depend on their wages suffered considerably.


Many of the games popular among Xhosa children are found worldwide. These include skipping rope, racing, swimming, playing hopscotch, and so forth. Boys also enjoy wrestling and stick fighting.

The most popular sport in South Africa is soccer. There are many professional teams as well as teams associated with schools and companies. In school, there are also organized competitions in athletics, what Americans call “track and field.”


Popular entertainments include attending movies, plays, and musical performances. Televisions and videocassette recorders are also popular. Most of the movies are imported foreign films, but a South African film industry is developing. A Xhosa version of Georges Bizet's Carmen (U-Carmen eKhayelitsha) set in a Cape Town won top honors in the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. Plays are often broadcast over TV and radio. Television broadcasts also include programs in Xhosa, with Xhosa “soap operas” a regular feature. Music videos can be seen as well.

South Africa has a well-established music industry. The most popular musicians are typically those that perform dance tunes, although religious choirs are also popular. One of the most famous of South Africa's musicians, Miriam Makeba, is of South African background. By listening to her version of the “click” song, one can get a good sense of how clicks operate in the language, but she is also known for her contributions to world music. Today there are many other Xhosa musicians whose work is globally oriented and multicultural. Among them are the classically trained composer Bongani Ndodona-Breen and the late pop musician Brenda Fassie. Xhosa-speaker Thandiswa Mazwai is also known as one of the founders of the South African pop music form known as kwaito.


Folk craft traditions include beadwork, sewing, pottery making, house decoration, and weaving. Hand-woven materials were generally functional items such as sleeping mats, baskets, and strainers. Xhosa ceremonial clothing is often elaborately decorated with fine embroidery work and intricate geometric designs.

Xhosa-speaking artists today may see themselves as employing their traditions creatively in the context of the world's entire art scene. Thus, they incorporate traditional forms into modern works of art.


Most of the social problems found among Xhosa people today stem directly or indirectly from the apartheid past. These include high rates of poverty, disease, fractured families, mal-utrition, A Xhosa-speaking worker creates a necklace from beads at Umtha Beads, a craft business run by David and Cheryl Milligan. The couple started the business after David was laid off work as companies restructured in the new South Africa.A Xhosa-speaking worker creates a necklace from beads at Umtha Beads, a craft business run by David and Cheryl Milligan. The couple started the business after David was laid off work as companies restructured in the new South Africa. (The Image Works) and crime. Poverty and social dislocation may also tempt people to form gangs and to abuse drugs and alcohol. Competition for scarce resources has also led to conflict with other South African groups such as the Sotho, the Zulu, and people of mixed-race. The high numbers of refugees and illegal immigrants who have come to South Africa from other African countries in recent years has also led to tension. There are divisions within the Xhosa community as well—between men and women, young and old, rural and urban, and highly educated and illiterate—which may lead to tensions if not resolved in the post-apartheid era. One of the biggest challenges for South Africa as a whole is to meet rising expectations for education, employment, and improved standards of living.

South Africa as a whole has suffered considerably from HIV/AIDS. Recent estimates suggest that nearly 700,000 people in the Eastern Cape are HIV positive with some 5.4 million South Africans suffering from the condition. These are some of the highest rates in the world. Deaths from AIDS and AIDS-related diseases have also led to a high proportion of orphans and poorly cared-for young people. On a more positive note, the numbers who are receiving appropriate treatment has increased dramatically since 2006.


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.


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—by R. Shanafelt

Source Citation:
"Xhosa." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. Ed. Jeneen Hobby and Timothy Gall. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 587-592. Global Issues In Context. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.
Gale Document Number:CX1839300107