Xhosa Culture & Tradition Adapting To Modern South Africa


Issue No.22010

Words: Artur Caracciolo

The majority of Xhosa women have a basic lifestyle in the Western and Eastern Cape. These women make jewellery to sell for a living.Photo: © South African Tourism

Approaching 8 million people, the Xhosa speaking population is the second largest ethnic group in South Africa following the Zulu.

Most of the Xhosa population are concentrated in the Transkei and Ciskei regions of the Eastern Cape (approximately 5.3 million). However, since the end of apartheid many Xhosa people have moved to the Western Cape, where today there is roughly 1 million. The migration from the Eastern to the Western Cape is due to the lack of job opportunities in the their native land, where many people still live a rural lifestyle, based on traditional agriculture, without being affected by development in the fast-growing cities and suburban areas. On the other hand, circumstances in the (former homeland) rural areas of the Eastern Cape have deteriorated to such an extent that it is becoming less and less possible for rural households to sustain their homes. Therefore, migration becomes their only option.

Last year, in Cape Town, the Xhosa population increased. Unfortunately, because of their poor origin, they live mostly in the black townships outside the city, like Khayelitsha or Gugulethu, however, a minority of them occupy prestige positions in society and live in better areas of the city, while others are improving their lives by gaining a good education.

Life in a small village

Funeka is 46 years old and she lives in a little room in Muizenberg, on the coast of Cape Town, with her daughter who is almost 16 years old. She is the perfect example of a typical Xhosa lady in Cape Town. She works, so that she can give her daughter a better education. ‘I want her to be free to do what she wants,’ Funeka says, ‘even to go and see the world.’ She came to Cape Town in 1986 from a little village in the Eastern Cape, ‘I came here to change my life, after my husband died I didn’t have a reason to stay and so I decided to go to Cape Town to find a job’.

Funeka described her life in the Eastern Cape: ‘Imagine that when I was 16 I was forced to marry a man, like all the other Xhosa women, this practice is called ukutwala in my language and is part of my tradition. I was washing the clothes in the river with my sisters when three men came up to us, asking which one of us was Funeka, I said that I was Funeka and they went away. That night they came to my house, I was sleeping with my mother, they took me (completely covered) to a car, I couldn’t see anything, and I could only hear my mother shouting at them. When we arrived at the other village they showed me my ‘husband’ and I had to sleep with him that night. My mother was really disappointed because she wanted me to study instead of being a wife my whole life so she called the police. The family of my husband threatened her, they said they wouldn’t continue to give her support with her house and with her harvest; they threatened to ban her from the village community. Sadly as my mother was lonely [Funeka’s father died when she was 5 years old], she decided to end the police involvement and grant the marriage’.

The arranged marriage

Traditionally, Xhosa people are supportive of arranged marriages, but this is beginning to change with modern influences..Photo: Kai Kuusik-Greenbaum, www.sxc.hu

In the Xhosa tradition, the wife has to play a subservient role. She is responsible for most of the domestic chores as well as tending to crops. Before a marriage, the family of the future husband has to pay an amount to the family of the bride, this amount is called lobola in the Xhosa language. Lobola is not a ‘bride price’, but a means of establishing a link between the two families. The size of lobola varies considerably depending on the relative wealth and status of the family. The advantage of this custom is the creation of the marriage link and the desirability of the bride. ‘They paid the lobola to my mother, they gave her plenty of sheep and cows – in my village we pay with animals.’

Funeka explains that when you become a wife you have to be introduced to the groom’s ancestors through a process called utsiki. ‘I did it after they paid lobola. The family of my husband killed a sheep for me and I had to eat the sheep in front of them, in this way I was welcomed into their family and I could be part of it – this is like the imbeleko with your own family’.

Some more traditions

The imbeleko is another Xhosa tradition, which dictates that when a child reaches a certain age they have to be introduced to family ancestors. It is believed the child will grow perfectly sane once they have imbeleko. ‘When a child didn’t do imbeleko he started to express strange behaviour,’ says Funeka. ‘For example when my daughter was three or four years old she started to act strange and she said weird stuff that didn’t make sense, so I called a Sangoma and he told me that she needs imbeleko.’

A Sangoma is a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling. In the Xhosa group, both men and women can become a Sangoma, if they receive the calling from an ancestor’s spirit. ‘They call to you through your dreams, if you had a particular dream you would know that they are calling you, it’s like a gift, you can predict the future and bring good luck to the people. We used to call Sangomas every time we had problems and we needed the support of our ancestor spirits.’

At the age of 16, it is customary for a Xhosa young woman to undergo a virginity test. The mother will often insist this is carried out so the family gains respect and will have a larger lobola at the time of marriage.Photo: © South African Tourism

Now, after living in Cape Town for 24 years, it is difficult for Funeka to choose which one of these old traditions she is ready to forget. She doesn’t want her daughter to marry someone and have a bad experience with marriage like she had; ‘it was awful, imagine what happened when we couldn’t have children, my husband went with other girls to prove that it wasn’t his fault. I couldn’t say anything as he was the man in my culture and I can’t speak against him. But, I don’t want my daughter to be slave to a man; I want her to be free to marry who she wants, when she wants.’

Funeka continued to say that she doesn’t want lobola for her daughter; however she still feels that she needs to follow one important tradition. ‘When my daughter turns 16 next September, I will take her to my village and she will do her virginity test. Every girl in my village has that done as it is important for family respect.’ The virginity test involves one of the elder women in the village examining the young girl’s sexual organ to check if her virginity is intact or not. If she is still a virgin, her respect will grow and also her lobola will increase.

Another important Xhosa tribal tradition is the ‘clan’ division. Every Xhosa person (this is common also for the Zulu) has a clan name and separate a family name. The clan is quite large; therefore it is common for someone to meet someone else from the same clan without being aware of it.

Funeka describes, ‘My brother went out with a girl a few years ago, they were really close but he couldn’t understand why there was no sexual attraction between them. Soon he asked my mother and she found out that the girl was from the same clan, they were brother and sister. This kind of thing can happen often, especially in the city where one can lose the knowledge about one’s clan.’ It is difficult to understand how the link between clan members can affect the relationship between people, especially since there is no blood relation. However, this strong belief in a clan social organisation is important not just for the village people, but for the city dwellers too.

Township life vs. village life

Xhosa women have colourful traditional dress and they are proud of their culture and customs.Photo: © South African Tourism

In Cape Town, Funeka experienced 10 years of life in Khayelitsha, the biggest township in Cape Town, before moving to Muizenberg, a middle class area. ‘It was really bad living there, many times I promised myself to move from there. Everyday, when I came back from work, I found my house empty, I was robbed all the time, it was frustrating. In the Eastern Cape this never happened.’

In Khayelitsha, Funeka fell pregnant with her daughter from a man she never saw again. She was scared to go out, for the fear of being robbed or raped and her neighbours were not friendly to her. ‘In my village everyone is ready to help you; you can leave all your stuff outside, like your washing and you will still find them there when you came back, there were no gangs and no drugs. There the people still live without electricity and water, but we are really close to each other and the lifestyle is better, even if it is extremely poor. My daughter loves that place, every time we go there she is exited, I think she prefers to stay there than here in Cape Town.’

Future for beliefs

At the moment, Funeka’s daughter attends Muizenberg High School. After that, she plans go to college and hopefully get a better job compared to her mother. Funeka says, ‘I have worked every day for 20 years as a housekeeper to pay for my daughter’s education – she will have a better life than mine.’

For many Xhosa people, the future lies in moving away from their village into the bigger towns and cities. Therefore, it seems only natural that different generations may find it more difficult to maintain a certain kind of belief and social character. Sangomas for example, are intended to disappear, ‘In the last few years, people started to not trust Sangomas anymore,’ explains Funeka, ‘many of us pray instead.’

However, even though situations are slowly changing, there are some traditions – like in the Xhosa tribe – which will never be forgotten. Funeka’s final words on the sensitive topic were: ‘The name of my clan is majola, our sacred animal is a brown snake. If ever we see a brown snake – which we call majola like our clan – it is means something good is going to happen. Three years ago, I was in another house here in Muizenberg when the owner says we have to move. I was scared I didn’t want to move back to a township, so I started to pray. The day after when I got up early in the morning I looked out of the window and just in front of me I saw this little brown snake, I saw majola. I was so happy and full of energy; that same day, a girl offered me this room where I live today, it was because of the snake.’