Part of South Africa’s magic is the rich cultural heritage that can be discovered while traveling around the region. We’re not dubbed the “rainbow nation” for nothing. While traveling through South Africa, you are bound to hear a vibrant array of languages that each have a fascinating culture and rich history behind them.
Whether you’re here for a Big Five safari or for catching the surf on our world-famous beaches, South Africa’s vibrant people are definitely going to leave a lasting impression on you. While traveling in and around the country, you’re bound to hear a vibrant array of languages. Although most of these tribes have adapted to the modern world, each of them has a rich history.
We know that it can be a bit overwhelming at first. So, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to South Africa’s most famous tribes and the languages that they speak.
If you have missed Part 1 of this series, then you can check it out here.
Now let’s dive right in, shall we?
About 4 million South African residents are Tswana and while many Tswana people can be found in South Africa’s urban areas, their heritage is mostly found in Botswana. The Tswana (or Batswana) tribe are one of four major sub-groups of the Sotho tribe, and like many other neighboring Nguni people, their livelihood was most reliant on a combination of livestock raising and crop cultivation.
Although Christianity was adopted into the culture with the arrival of the missionaries in the early 19th-century, traditionally speaking, the Batswana people believe in a distant supreme being called Modimo, who is seen as the creator. Similar to other Nguni belief systems, their god is distant and does not interfere with the lives of people and so their ancestors (known as Badimo) are called to for support in daily life.
The dingaka (doctors) are highly regarded in the community and are seen as the specialists in healing and magic. These doctors preside over many rituals which include anything from rainmaking to protection over the land and even assistance with producing children.
‘Hello’ : Dumela
‘How are you?’ : O tsogile jang
‘Please’ : Tswêê-tswêê
‘Thank you’: Ke a leboga
The Pedi people are another sub-group of the greater Sotho tribe and has its origins in the Limpopo province. Although they are closely linked to other tribes, there are a few differences between the Pedi and other Sotho people, one of the biggest being their cross-marriage with other tribes.
When it comes to marriage, the elders of a family would choose an appropriate partner for their child. After a formal meeting between the families, they plan how the couple would meet and the girl's parents decide how many cows or how much money will be paid as Bogadi.
Before marriage, there are initiation ceremonies that mark the coming of age for both boys and girls. Boys would spend most of their younger days herding cattle at remote outposts with older men as leaders and teachers. Every five years, an initiation ceremony would be held, which included circumcision for the boys. This is still practiced today and provides a substantial income to the chiefs.
‘How are you? : O kae
‘Thank you’: ke a leboga
The Venda culture is perhaps one of the most fascinating tribal cultures of South Africa. It is the smallest tribe of the country that dates back to the 9th century with their first king, Shiriyadenga.
Like many other African tribes, the Venda culture is steeped in mythical dogmas and water is an essential theme in their belief system. Lakes and rivers are sacred places, and rains are believed to be controlled by the Python God. Although there are many sacred water sites in their culture, it is Lake Fundudzi that is the most highly regarded.
There are many supernatural stories that surround this massive lake found in Limpopo in the foothills of the Soutspansberg Mountains. Although it was originally formed by a landslide, locals believe that there are three rivers that flow into the lake, but it never overflows and there is no obvious outlet. The forest surrounding the lake is also a very sacred place as it is believed to be filled with spirits, with two mythical creatures, the white lion and the lighting bird called Ndadzi, keeping guard.
‘How are you? : Vhu vowa hani
‘Please’: Ndi khou tou humbela
‘Thank you’: Ndo livhuwa Ro livhuwa
During the time of King Shaka Zulu’s rule, a group of people split from the Zulu culture under the leadership of Mzilikazi to form a tribe of their own. However, due to internal conflict, the tribe split again into the Northern and Southern Ndebele.
Although the Southern African Ndebele culture is shrouded in mystery (due to cultural assimilation and relocation), there are approximately 800,000 people from this tribe spread across the rural areas of Mpumalanga and Gauteng.
While the Ndebele share many similarities to the Zulus, there are a few distinct traits in their language and culture. Ndebele women traditionally wear a variety of ornaments, each symbolizing her status in society. Married women would traditionally wear copper rings around their necks, arms and legs as a symbol of faithfulness and would only remove them after the death of her husband.
‘How are you? : Kunjani
‘Thank you’: Ngiyabonga
There is so much more to South Africa than seeing the Big Five. So, get out there an immerse yourself in this vibrant country’s history and culture. Who knows, you might just pick up a new language!
Immersing yourself in a new culture is a great way to explore the world. So, check out these cultural safaris in South Africa.