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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.

The national genealogies, and most of the tribal names, were those of real or reputed founders of dynasties. Thus the term Ama-Xosa means simply the "people of Xosa," a somewhat mythical chief supposed to have flourished about the year 1530. Ninth in descent from his son Toguh was Palo, who died about 1780, leaving two sons, Gcalcka and Rarabe (pronounced Kha-Kha-be), from whom came the Ama-Gcaleka, Ama-Dhlambe (T'slambies) and the Ama-Ngquika (Gaika or Sandili's people). The Pondo do not descend from Xosa, but probably from an elder brother, while the Tembu, though apparently representing a younger branch, are regarded by all the tribes as the royal race. Hence the Gcaleka chief, who was the head of all. It will be seen that, as representing the elder branch, the Gcaleka stand apart from the rest of Xosa's descendants, whom they group collectively as Ama-Rarabe (Ama-Khakhabe), and whose genealogies, except in the case of the Gaikas and T'slambies, are very confused. The Ama-Xosa country lies mainly between the Keiskama and Umtata rivers.

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.

Rharabe was the first Xhosa chief to consolidate control over all the Xhosa and Khoisan people living west of the Fish River. Eurocentric historical interpretations often claim that the Zuurveld area was settled simultaneously by Europeans arriving from the west and Xhosa arriving from the east. However, archeological evidence shows that the area was occupied by iron-age people similar in culture to the amaXhosa, from the 12th century onwards. The confusion arises from the fact that Rharabe established himself as the highest royal authority in 1760, originating from areas east of the Kei River. Prior to that time, various clans of amaXhosa, Gonaqua and Gqunukwebe occupied the Zuurveld.

When his father died, Ndlambe served as regent of the kingdom from 1782 - 1796, after which his nephew, Ngqika, took over the reigns of power. Ndlambe's area of control remained the Zuurveld region. He fought in wars alongside the Boers in 1796, but then in collaboration with rebelling Khoisan servants against the Boers from 1799 - 1803. His two wars against the British in 1811 and 1819 resulted in the expulsion of his people from their homes and their resettlement in areas beyond the Keiskamma River.

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.

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). 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.

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.

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.

Bantustan - Ciskei

"After the Quail Commission of South African and foreign experts advised the leaders of Ciskei against independence in favor of an autonomous multiracial regional set-up, Chief Sebe nevertheless endorsed independence. In a national referendum on the issue in December 1980, over 98 percent of Ciskeians reportedly voted for independence although the Quail Commission had found that an overwhelming majority of residents did not favor a separate state.

In addition to the three homelands that had already been declared independent in late 1980, five were at stage two, and two Kangwane and KwaNdebele were at stage one. Kangwane, the homeland of the Swazi people, had an appointed legislature of thirty-six members, nine from each of its four regional authorities. Although its territory had not yet been fixed, KwaNdebele was recognized in 1979 as a territorial site for the South Ndebele. A legislature of four chiefs and forty-two members of the tribal authorities had been appointed by Pretoria.

The unicameral homeland assemblies, which met briefly twice a year ratify legislation and appropriate funds without extensive debate within their delegated jurisdictions, but these actions are subject to promulgation or denial by the South African state president. South African laws continue to apply even in the independent homelands unless specifically repealed by the homeland government.

Bantustan - Transkei

The first of the homelands to move toward self-government was Transkei, which had a tradition of partial local authority that could be traced to the late nineteenth century. The Transkei Constitution Act of 1963 delegated certain powers to a legislative assembly, subject to veto by Pretoria. The assembly consisted of sixty regional chiefs and forty-five elected members. Supported by the traditional chiefs and collaborating with Pretoria on the issue of separate development, Kaiser Matanzima was named chief minister. In contrast, nearly all of the elective seats in the assembly went to groups opposed to a separate path for Transkei.

The grant of "independence" to Transkei on October 26, 1976, culminated thirteen years of progressively greater degrees of self-rule and capped the government's program of separate development with its first apparent success. Matanzima obtained significant territorial gains as part of the bargaining with Vorster. Some 420,000 hectares were taken from the other Xhosa homeland (Ciskei) and given to Transkei. (In return Ciskei was promised a like amount of nearby White lands.)

When Transkei became the first of the homelands to be granted a territorial government in 1964, the votes of the chiefs in the legislative assembly determined that Kaiser Matanzima, an advocate of separate development, be named chief minister. Most of the elected members opposed independence, and Matanzima resorted to detentions before the final preindependence elections, even though he had sufficient support from the appointed chiefs.

Matanzima's domination remained assured by support from the tribal majority in the assembly. Transkei proclaimed itself a nonracial state, permitting South Africans to become citizens and to own land. White hospitals and schools continue to operate, although hotels and other facilities are integrated. In municipal elections in 1977 both White and Black councillors were elected in the capital city of Umtata and in other communities. Although not a signatory to the Southern African Customs and Monetary Unions, under independence agreements with South Africa Transkei participates on a bilateral basis. Thus South African currency is circulated and South African authorities assess import duties on behalf of Transkei. Most of the Transkei labor force is employed on a contract basis in White South Africa, and at least 75 percent of its budget derives from South African grants and customs receipts.

Transkei engaged in acrimonious disputes with South Africa over the forced repatriation of squatters from the Cape and over claims to the district of Griqualand East which separates two elements of Transkei. In April 1978 Matanzima announced the breaking of diplomatic relations with South Africa over the land claims, but ties were resumed in February 1980 after Matanzima's hopes for international sympathy over his disputes with South Africa were not fulfilled. The subsequent improvement in relations was cemented by Transkei's interest in Pretoria's constellation scheme. While Transkei removed South African police and military advisers, several hundred South African civil servants continued to work in Transkei government agencies during the break in relations.

South Africa regarded the small military forces organized in the three Black homelands it recognized as independent in the late 1970s as an integral part of an overall defense system. Although Transkei expelled the SADF training mission when diplomatic relations with South Africa were broken off in 1978, a defense agreement under which South Africa provided arms and supplies remained in effect. The Transkei Battalion had an authorized strength of 400 men and was supplemented by volunteers participating in a six-month national service scheme designed to build up a trained reserve.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2016 20:18:06 ZULU