Tswana

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(seTswana [language], baTswana [people])

The four major ethnic divisions among Black South Africans are the Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. Together the Nguni and Sotho account for the largest percentage of the total Black population. The major Sotho groups are the South Sotho (Basuto and Sotho), the West Sotho (Tswana), and the North Sotho (Pedi).

Language, culture and beliefs:

About 4 million Tswana people live in southern Africa; 3 million in South Africa and 1 million in the nation of Botswana. In South Africa, many Tswana live in the area that formed the numerous segments of the former homeland, Bophuthatswana, as well as neighboring areas of the North-West Province and the Northern Cape. Tswana people are also found in most urban areas throughout South Africa.

Tswana culture, social organizations, ceremonies, language and religious beliefs are similar to that of the other two Sotho groups (Pedi and Sotho), although some Tswana chiefdoms were more highly stratified than those of other Sotho groups or the Nguni. Tswana culture is often distinguished for its complex legal system, involving a hierarchy of courts and mediators, and harsh punishments for those found guilty of crimes.

Like many neighboring Nguni peoples, the Sotho traditionally relied on a combination of livestock raising and crop cultivation for subsistence. Most Sotho people were traditionally herders of cattle, goats, and sheep, and cultivators of grains and tobacco. In addition, Sotho were skilled craftsmen, renowned for their metalworking, leatherworking, and wood and ivory carving.

Also like the Nguni, most Sotho people lived in small chiefdoms, in which status was determined in part by relationship to the chief. Unlike the Nguni, Sotho homesteads were grouped together into villages, with economic responsibilities generally shared among village residents. Villages were divided into wards, or residential areas, often occupied by members of more than one patrilineal descent group.

The village chief (a hereditary position) generally appointed ward leaders, whose residences were clustered around the chief's residence. Sotho villages sometimes grew into large towns of several thousand people. Farmland was usually outside the village, not adjacent to the homestead. This village organization may have enabled the Sotho villagers to defend themselves more effectively than they could have with dispersed households, and it probably facilitated control over ward leaders and subjects by the chief and his family.

The cattle kraal is central to most traditional Tswana villages and is the focus of life. Tswana believe in voluntary work on behalf of other families, especially during the ploughing and harvesting seasons. This form of voluntary work is known as letsema. The South African government has presently adopted the word letsema to encourage its citizens in volunteerism. 

Sotho villages were also organized into age-sets, or groups of men or women who were close in age. Each age-set had specific responsibilities; men organized for warfare and herding, depending on age-set, and women for crop cultivation and religious responsibilities. An entire age-set generally graduated from one task to the next, and the village often celebrated this change with a series of rituals and, in some cases, an initiation ceremony. In the past initiations into adulthood were elaborate ceremonies lasting a few months, in which girls and boys were taken separately to the bush in the winter. The boys were circumcised. Increasingly, funerals have become the most elaborate life-cycle rituals.

Tswana groups are noted for their capacity to absorb foreign peoples, to turn strangers into ‘their’ people, and to do so without compromising the integrity of their own institutions. Socioeconomic mechanisms such as mafisa (which provided for the lending of cattle) and the ward system of tribal administration facilitated the integration of foreigners. Not all peoples were welcomed into the Tswana fold; some remained foreigners, and some became subjects. The latter category includes peoples of the desert (Bakgalagadi and Bushmen) who are accorded a servile status termed ‘Batlhanka’ or ‘Boiata’.

Sotho descent rules were important, even though descent groups did not form discrete local groups. Clans were often totemic, or bound to specific natural objects or animal species by mystical relationships, sometimes involving taboos and prohibitions. Major Sotho clans included the Lion (Taung), Fish (Tlhaping), Elephant (Tloung), and Crocodile (Kwean) clans.

Nguni and Sotho people’s marriage rules differed markedly. Sotho patrilineages were usually endogamous - i.e. the preferred marriage partner would be a person related through patrilineal descent ties. Nguni patrilineages, in contrast, were exogamous ‘ i.e. marriage within the descent group was generally forbidden.

Although the Tswana received Christian missionaries in the early nineteenth century and most belong to a church today, pre-colonial beliefs retain strength among many Tswana. Missionaries brought literacy, schools, and Western values, all of which facilitated the transition to migrant wage labor. In pre-colonial times Tswana believed in a Supreme Being, Modimo, a creator and director, but nonetheless distant and remote. More immediate and having a greater influence in daily affairs were the ancestors, Badimo. Most Tswana today belong to African Independent churches that incorporate Christian and non-Christian practices, beliefs, and symbols. The Tswana seek medical help from a number of sources, including clinics and hospitals, traditional practitioners, and Christian healers. For example, they still believe in consulting the traditional healer ngak, who is supposed to have powers to intercede on their behalf with the ancestors.

There are a few specialized Tswana arts; wood carving and basket weaving and beadwork is practiced by some and houses are often beautifully designed and painted. Song (pina) and dance (pino) are highly developed forms of artistic expression. Choirs perform and compete with each other on official and ritual occasions. They compose lyrics that offer narratives and critiques of the past and present.

The Tswana language is closely related to Sotho, and the two are mutually intelligible in most areas. Tswana is sometimes referred to as Beetjuans, Chuana (hence Bechuanaland), Coana, Cuana, or Sechuana. It is spoken across South Africa and is one of the 11 official languages recognized by the South African Constitution, it is also the national and majority language of Botswana. In 2006 it was determined that over 3 million South Africans speak Setswana as a home language.

Tswana was the one of the first written Sotho languages. The earliest example being Heinrich Lictenstein’s 1806 text called Upon the Language of the Beetjuana. Followed by John Cambell’s Bootchuana words (1815) and Burchell’s Botswana in 1824.

Dr Robert Moffat from the London Missionary Society went to Botsawana in 1818 and built the first school in the area. In 1825, he realised that he needed to use and write Setswana in his teachings. He therefore began translating the bible into Tswana; he completed the New Testament in 1840 and the Old Testament in 1857.

The first Motswana (singular) to contribute towards the writing of Setswana was Sol D. T. Plaatje, who assisted Professor Jones with the book on The Tones of Sechuana Nouns in 1929.

Origins:

The first pottery in South Africa associated with the Sotho is called Icon and dates to between 1300 and 1500. As with the Nguni, anthropological and linguistic data suggest an East African origin for Sotho-Tswana speakers, in this case in what is now Tanzania. By 1500 the Sotho groups had expanded to the south and west and separated into the three distinct clusters; the South Sotho (later became the Basuto and Sotho), the West Sotho (later the Tswana), and the North Sotho (later the Pedi). It is important to note however that all three clusters share very similar dialects, beliefs and society structures and the main distinctions between the three groups were only established as a result of the early 19th century difiqane period.

Most Sotho people were herders of cattle, goats, and sheep, and cultivators of grains and tobacco. In addition, the Sotho people were skilled craftsmen, renowned for their metalworking, leatherworking, and wood and ivory carving. In fact, most archaeologists presume the Sotho were the main body of early stone builders in this part of the country, because Iron Age sites studied by them resemble the areas reported by early eyewitnesses very closely.

In the 16th century, the Tswana settled in what was known as the Western Transvaal. They were divided into two main groups: the Tlhaping and Rolong under Chief Morolong (the metal worker) and the the Bafokeng (people of the dew). Oral traditions celebrate Morolong as 'the forger' who 'danced to iron'.

In Botswana, the Tswana States started growing when the Kwena and Hurutshe migrants founded the Ngwaketse chiefdom among Khalagari-Rolong in south-eastern Botswana by 1700. They engaged in hunting, cattle raising, and copper production.

A period of warfare, political disruption, and migration commonly termed the difiqane (Zulu: mfecane) characterized the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The difiqane engendered a period of chaos, during which the Tswana experienced varying degrees of suffering, impoverishment, political disintegration, death, and forced movement. At the same time, however, some groups, particularly the western Tswana chiefdoms, eventually prospered and strengthened to the extent that they incorporated refugees and livestock.

European traders and missionaries (of the British nonconformist sects) began to arrive in the Tswana region in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Trade (ivory, furs, and feathers being the most valued items) escalated after this period, and control over this trade dramatically empowered some Tswana chiefs, who were able to consolidate their control over extensive areas. By the mid-nineteenth century, Afrikaners, newly settled in the Transvaal, posed a threat to Tswana; Tswana chiefdoms acquired firearms to protect themselves, and many Tswana moved westward, into the area that is now Botswana. Christian missions were established throughout the region in the nineteenth century.

The discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1860s and 1870s in southern Africa led to the industrialization of South Africa and the introduction of the migrant-labor system, which continues to draw thousands of Tswana men to the mines (although recruitment from Botswana has been restricted since 1979). In 1885 the Bechuanaland Protectorate was established in the north of the region, and, in the south, British Bechuanaland (now Republic of Botswana) was established as a Crown colony.  

By the late nineteenth century, Afrikaner and British officials had seized almost all Tswana territory, dividing it among the Cape Colony, Afrikaner republics, and British territories. In 1910, when the Cape, Transvaal and British Bechuanaland were incorporated into the Union of South Africa, the Tswana chiefs lost most of their remaining power, and the Tswana people were forced to pay taxes to the British Crown. They gradually turned to migrant labor, especially in the mines, for their livelihood.

The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked more changes for all Black South Africans. In 1953 the South African Government introduced homelands; the Tswana in South Africa were declared citizens of Bophutaswana homeland, under the leadership of Chief Lucas Mangope. In 1977 Bophutatswana was granted nominal independence by South Africa, but no other nation recognized it. The homeland consisted primarily of seven disconnected enclaves near, or adjacent to, the border between South Africa and Botswana. Efforts to consolidate the territory and its population continued throughout the 1980s, as successive small land areas outside Bophuthatswana were incorporated into the homeland. Its population of about 1.8 million in the late 1980s was estimated to be 70 percent Tswana peoples; the remainder were other Sotho peoples, as well as Xhosa, Zulu, and Shangaan. Another 1.5 million Tswana lived elsewhere in South Africa.

Bophuthatswana's residents were overwhelmingly poor, despite the area's rich mineral wealth. Wages in the homeland's industrial sector were lower than those in South Africa, and most workers traveled to jobs outside the homeland each day. The poverty of homeland residents was especially evident in comparison with the world's wealthy tourists who visited Sun City, a gambling resort in Bophuthatswana.

The non-Tswana portion of the homeland population was denied the right to vote in local elections in 1987, and violence ensued. Further unrest erupted in early 1988, when members of the Botswana Defence Force tried to oust the unpopular homeland president, Lucas Mangope. Escalating violence after that led to the imposition of states of emergency and government crackdowns against ANC supporters in Bophuthatswana, who were often involved in anti-Mangope demonstrations. Mangope was ousted just before the April 1994 elections, and the homeland was officially dismantled after the elections.

Last updated : 15-Jun-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011

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