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The Bantu refer to over 400 different ethnic groups in Africa, from Cameroon to South Africa, united by a common language family, the Bantu languages, and in many cases common customs.

Black South Africans were at times officially called "Bantus" by the apartheid regime.



Dr. Wilhelm Bleek was the first person to define the term "Bantu" in his 1862 book A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages. He proposed the hypothesis that a vast number of languages spread across central, southern, eastern, and even western Africa shared so many characteristics that they must be part of a single language group. This basic thesis is still accepted today, although there have been many modifications to the details of the theory since 1862.

The Bantu languages are very closely related considering the vast territory they cover, leading historians to believe the Bantu came to dominate sub-equatorial Africa relatively recently and quickly. This is born out by early North African and Middle Eastern sources that do not report Bantus north of Mozambique before the year 1000.

Before the Bantu the southern half of Africa is believed to have been populated by Khoisan speaking people, today relegated largely to the arid regions around the Kalahari and a few isolated pockets in Tanzania. Other language groups such as Cushitic, and Afro-Asiatic, were also supplanted in other areas.

There are two basic theories of Bantu origins. The first was advanced by Joseph Greenberg in 1963. He had analyzed and compared several hundred African languages and found that a group of languages spoken in Southeastern Nigeria were the most closely related to Bantu. He theorized that Bantu was one of these languages that spread south and east over hundreds of years.

This was quickly challenged by Malcolm Guthrie who analyzed each Bantu language and found that the most stereotypical were those spoken in Zambia and southern Zaire. This provided the alternate theory that Bantu speakers had spread from this location in all directions.

Today the accepted truth is a synthesis of these theories. The Bantu first originated around the Benue-Cross rivers area in southeastern Nigeria and spread over Africa to the Zambia area. Sometime in the second millennium BC, perhaps triggered by the drying of the Sahara and pressure from the migration of Saharans into the region, they were forced to expand into the rainforests of central Africa (phase I). About 1000 years later they began a more rapid second phase of expansion beyond the forests into southern and eastern Africa. Then sometime in the first millennium new agricultural techniques and plants were developed in Zambia, likely imported from South East Asia via Malay speaking Madagascar. With these techniques another Bantu expansion occurred centered on this new location (phase III).

By about 1,000 AD it had reached modern day Zimbabwe and South Africa. In Zimbabwe the first major southern hemisphere empire was established, with its capital at Great Zimbabwe. It controlled trading routes from South Africa to north of the Zambezi, trading gold, copper, precious stones, animal hides, ivory and metal goods with the Arab traders of the Swahili coast. By the 14th or 15th centuries the Empire had surpassed its resources and had collapsed, with the city of Great Zimbabwe being abandoned.

They couldn't spread southwards because their cattle and plants were not adapted to the Mediterranean climate. It was Huguenots who brought the Mediterranean techniques to South Africa.

Bantu in South Africa


When Jan van Riebeeck went around the coast of South Africa in 1652, very few Bantu were found there, and the predominant indigenous population around the Cape of Good Hope was made up of Khoisan people. European settlers following Van Riebeeck, mostly from Holland, French Huguenots and German settlers, known in the past as Boers, [but the most commonly accepted term today is Afrikaners] moved in over a period of 100 years, from the middle of the 1700s. Only around 1770 did the Boers discover the Bantu, although in 1700s they were the main inhabitants of Southern Africa. During the 1800s many battles were fought between these ethnic peoples and the white settlers, now including the British.

By the time Great Zimbabwe had ceased being the capital of a large trading empire Bantu peoples had completed their colonization of southern Africa, with only the western and northern areas of the Cape not dominated by them. Two main groups developed, the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi), who occupied the eastern coastal plains, and the Sotho-Tswana who lived on the interior plateau.

In the late 18th and early 19th century two major events occurred. The Xhosa, the most southerly tribe, who had been gradually migrating south west made the first tentative contact with the Dutch Trekboers gradually trekking northeast from the Cape colony.

At the same time major events were taking place further north in modern day KwaZulu. At that time the area was populated by dozens of small clans, one of which was the Zulu, then a particularly small clan of no local distinction whatsoever.

In 1816 Shaka acceded to the Zulu throne. Within a year he had conquered the neighboring clans, and had made the Zulu into the most important ally of the large Mtetwa clan, which was in competition with the Ndwandwe clan for domination of the northern part of modern day KwaZulu-Natal.

He also initiated many military, social, cultural and political reforms, creating a well organized centralized Zulu state. The most important of these were the transformation of the army, thanks to innovative tactics and weapons he conceived, and a showdown with the spiritual leadership, clipping the wings, claws and fangs of the witchdoctors, effectively ensuring the subservience of the "Zulu church" to the state.

Another important reform was to integrate defeated clans into the Zulu, on a basis of full equality, with promotions in the army and civil service being a matter of merit rather than circumstance of birth.

After the death of Mtetwa king Dingiswayo around 1818, at the hands of Zwide king of the Ndwandwe, Shaka assumed leadership of the entire Mtetwa alliance. The alliance under his leadership survived Zwide's first assault at the Battle of Gqokli Hill. Within two years he had defeated Zwide at the Battle of Mhlatuze River and broken up the Ndwandwe alliance, some of whom in turn began a murderous campaign against other Nguni tibes and clans, setting in motion what has come to be known as Defecane or Mfecane, a mass migration of tribes fleeing tribes fleeing the remnants of the Ndwandwe fleeing the Zulu. By 1825 he had conquered a huge empire covering a vast area from the sea in the east to the Drakensberg mountains in the west, and from the Pongola River in the north to the Bashee river in the south, not far from the modern day city of East London.

An offshoot of the Zulu, the Kumalos, better know to history as the Matabele created under their king, Mzilikazi an even larger empire, including large parts of the highveld and modern day Zimbabwe.

Shaka, who had had contacts with English explorers realized that the white man posed a threat to local populations, and had planned to begin an intensive program of education to enable the Nguni people to catch up with the Europeans. However in 1828 he was assassinated by his half brother Dingane, who succeeded him. A weak leader, Dingane was defeated by the Boers, however under his successors Mpande (another half-brother) and Mpande's son Cetshwayo the Zulu were able to rebuff Boer attempts to conquer them. He handed the British army the worst defeat it ever suffered at the hands of a non-European fighting force at the Battle of Isandlwana, at great cost to his impis, before succumbing to modern European military technology.

Social organization

The Bantu were divided into different clans, not around national federations, but independent groups from some hundreds to thousands of individuals.

The smallest unit of the Bantu organisational structure formed the household, or Kraal, consisting of a man, woman or women, and their children, as well as other relatives living in the same household. The man was the head of the household and often had many wives; he had complete authority over the family. The household and close relations generally played an important role in the life of the Bantu. Households which resided in the same valley or on the same hill were also an organisational unit, managed by a sub-chief.

The chief was hereditary. With most clans the eldest son inherited the office of his father. With some clans the office was left to the oldest brother of the deceased chief, and after his death again the next oldest brother. This repeated until the last brother had deceased. Next was the eldest son of the original chieftain; then the oldest one of the brothers as the leader. The chief was surrounded with a number of trusted friends or advisors, usually relatives like uncles and brothers, rather than influential Headmen or personal friends. The degree of the democracy depended on the strength of the chieftain. The more powerful and more influential a chieftain was, the lesser the influence of his people. Although the leader had much power, he was not above the law. He could be criticized both by advisors as well as by his people, and compensation could be demanded.

Ethnic partitioning

The Bantu is divided into four main groups: Nguni, Sotho, Venda and Shangana Tsonga , with the Nguni represented the largest group. These are divided as follows:

  • Nguni
    • Northern Nguni
    • Southern Nguni
      • Mfengu
      • Mpondo
      • Mpondomise
      • Thembu
      • Xhosa
  • Shangana Tsonga
  • Sotho
    • Basotho (also: Southern Sotho)
    • Northern Sotho
      • Lobedu
      • Pedi
    • Tswana (also: Western Sotho)
  • Venda
  • Lemba

Common among the two powerful groups of the Nguni and the Sotho are patrilinear societies, with which the leaders formed the socio-political units. Similarly, food acquisition was by cultivation and hunting. The most important differences were the strongly deviating languages, although both are dialects of Bantu language, and the different settlement types and relationships. With the Nguni settlements were villages widely scattered, whereas with the Sotho settled in towns.


The Bantu were not territorially minded like the Europeans, but rather group-related. As long as sufficient land was available, they had only very vague conceptions of borders. Borders were natural features such as rivers or mountains, which were not by any means fixed.

Food acquisition

The food acquisition of the Bantu was primarily limited to agriculture and hunting, whereby usually the women responsible for the agriculture and the men drew for the hunt. Except with the Tsonga (and partially the Mpondo ), fishing was surprisingly of little importance. The diet consisted of corn, meat (mostly beef), vegetables; and milk, water and grain beer (which contained very little alcohol compared with European beer).

The Bantu had a number of taboos regarding the consumption of meat. No meat of dogs, apes, crocodiles and snakes could be eaten. Likewise taboo was the meat of some birds, like owls, crows and vultures.

All Bantu tribes commonly had clear separation between the tasks of the women and those of the men.

House types

The Bantu lived in two different types of huts. The Nguni used the Beehive hut , a circular structure out of long poles, which was covered with grass. The huts of the Sotho, Venda and Shangana Tsonga used the Cone and Cylinder hut. A cylindrical wall was formed out of vertical posts, which was sealed with mud and cow dung. The roof was built from tied together poles. The floor of both types of compressed earth.


Magic takes a major central role in Bantu belief, with good and bad influence. They often saw a manifestation of the souls of deceased ancestors in ceremonies. The Bantu believed the separation from body and spirit after death.

See also


  • Schapera I (OD.): The Bantu Speaking Tribes OF South Africa. 1959: Routlege & Kegan Paul, London.
  • Supplementary Photos

Last updated: 09-02-2005 03:30:48
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12