South Africa's Most Famous Tribes and Their Language: Part 1

by Jodi Lucas

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One of the greatest pleasures of traveling is being exposed to new cultures, traditions, and ways of living. It is a chance to expand and challenge your current beliefs, and to become grateful for the life that you currently live.

South Africa is one of the best places to truly immerse in a cultural safari, as it is one of the cradles of human evolution and home to a spectacular number of tribes that work together to make the region a true rainbow nation.

When you’re on a safari here, it is about more than just seeing the Big Five in the flesh. To help you navigate your way through the country’s various cultures, we’ve put together a guide to the South African tribes you might come across and how to speak a bit of their language.

Zulu
zulu warriors


If your travels take you to the lush region of Kwazulu-Natal, then you’re likely to come across people from this epic nation. The Zulu’s are the most famous and the largest South African tribe, with approximately10–12 million people spread across KZN, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

The name Zulu literally means ‘the people of heaven’. They believe in a creator god known as Nkulunkulu, who does not have any interest in everyday human life. To bridge the gap between the human and the spirit world (unKulunkulu), their ancestors are regarded as intermediaries as they work hand in hand with god. 

They believe that all misfortune is a result of an evil sorcery or offended spirits and that nothing just happens because of natural causes. This is where Sangomas (spiritual healers) come into the picture. It is their role to communicate with the ancestors on behalf of the people and to bring good luck and protection.

Language basics:

‘Hello’: Sawubona
‘How are you?’: Unjani?
‘Please’: Ngiyacela
‘Thank you’: Ngiyabonga

Xhosa
Xhosa women


This tribe is the second largest culture after the Zulu and is divided into various sub-groups, each with their own distinct but related heritages. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Xhosa people were spread across the Fish River and their region extended all the way to some parts of southern KZN that were inhabited by the Zulus.

The Xhosa culture is rich in verbal expression and many of their stories are of legendary warriors and ancestral heroes. One of their most popular lores is of a great leader called Xhosa (which means fierce), who is believed to have been the first person on Earth.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a little like the story of Adam, then you aren’t too far off. During the time of colonization, Christianity was brought to the region and soon became intertwined with traditional beliefs and practices.

When it comes to communication, it is crucial to show respect. Younger people are expected to keep quiet when elders are speaking, and to lower their eyes when being addressed. 

Language basics:

‘Hello’: Mholo, or Mholweni
‘How are you?’: Unjani?
‘Please’: Ndiyacela
‘Thank you’: Enkosi

Sotho
Sotho tribe

When traveling through Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, you’re likely to meet many people from this vibrant culture. Although the origins of the Sotho culture are mostly a mystery, it is widely believed that the first people were ironworkers and that the founding people had rituals and dances associated with smelting.

Like many other African cultures, the Sotho culture is divided into sub-groups in which people live in villages with a single chief. These villages are separated by age and each one has specific responsibilities. As the men and women age, they move onto the next village and celebrate this change with a series of rituals in which girls and boys are taken separately to the bush in the winter.

Their livelihood was primarily based on hunting, farming, and smelting, and polygamy was common among the most elite. The more wives a man had, the higher his social status was. This form of relationship was less common among the “working class,” where marriages were arranged by transfer of bohadi (bridewealth) from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. 

Language basics:

‘Hello’: Dumela
‘How are you?’: u phela joang?
‘Please’: Hle
‘Thank you’: Ke a leboga

Swati
Swazi woman


The Swati (also known as Swazi) people are among the few African tribes who have managed to keep their identity to date. Despite colonial invasions and having accepting Christianity, the Swazi have kept their traditions and beliefs alive.

Although the culture has no class of ordained priests, Swazi people are very superstitious and there is a wide belief in witchcraft and sorcery. Traditionally speaking, the oldest man in every family communicates with the ancestors, while the Diviners lead rituals such as the incwala.

When it comes to children, things are a little different with the Swazi people. Infants are not seen as people up until three months old, and remain unnamed or touched by men until this time. After “achieving personhood,” the infants are kept close to their mothers and only begin to socialize with other children from around three years old. At about six years of age, the boys and girls are separated for training; boys are taught to take care of livestock and girls are taught how to prepare and maintain the household.

Although many of the traditions have adapted to modern times, respect is still a major part of the community, and greetings are important.

Language basics:

‘Hello’: Sawubona (the literal translation is ‘do you see me?’)
‘How are you?’: Unjani?
‘Please’: Ngiyacela
‘Thank you’: Ngiyabonga

South Africa has over 11 official languages and major tribes! That is a little too many to include in one go, so keep your eyes out for Part 2 to discover more fascinating South African cultures.
 


Get to know more about South Africa’s famous Zulu Tribe and their infamous King while on an epic safari in KwaZulu-Natal, and don’t forget to give a friendly Sawubona to the locals!
 

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