Abantu (or 'Bantu' as it was used by colonists) is the Zulu word for people. It is the plural of the word 'umuntu', meaning 'person', and is based on the stem '--ntu' plus the plural prefix 'aba'.
This original meaning changed through the history of South Africa. It is a term used in two ways in archaeology, history and anthropology:
(1) it named a major linguistic group in Africa, and more locally, to identify the sizeable group of Ngu ni languages spoken by many Africans in sub-Saharan Africa, and
(2) it identifies those Bantu-speakers who spoke that group of closely related languages which linguists divide into four categories: Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Venda and Tsonga-speakers.
It is important to note that the Bantu-speaking peoples are not an homogenous group. They comprise more than a 100 million Negroid people who live in southern and central Africa, ranging from Nigeria and Uganda to South Africa, and who speak about 700 languages, including many dialects.
How these languages spread into southern Africa remains uncertain. Today archaeologists agree that the forbears of such Bantu speakers as the Kalanga, Karanga, and Venda achieved a height of material cultural development in the tenth and fifteenth centuries. They built beautiful structures, pits and fortresses, including the Zimbabwe Ruins, which spread across Zimbabwe into Botswana. These fortresses are also found at Mapungubwe and other places in the northern regions of South Africa.
Whites first encountered Bantu-speakers in the eastern Cape in the 16th century,and in the central interior at the beginning of the 19th century. W H I Bleek first used the word 'Bantu' in about 1856 as a classificatory name. In the earlier apartheid period (1960s), it replaced the word 'Native' in official government usage in South Africa. The Department of Native Affairs changed its name to the Department of Bantu Administration and Development, and the word became despised by Africans as it was associated with apartheid and inferior treatment. From 1977, the term 'Bantu' was slowly replaced by 'black'.
While black South Africans appreciate their own language and culture, they regarded with suspicion the Nationalist Government's approach to their ethnicity, believing it was used in the apartheid plan to isolate them. Therefore, this language term took on a skin of emotive meaning and became a symbol of the oppressors. At about the same time the Black Consciousness movement was spreading from the United States and influencing Africans, who stated they would also rather be called blacks in association with whites and coloureds in informal usage.
The term Bantu is no longer used except in its original context in reference to Bantu languages. The term African is correct and courteous. It is one of the few terms that black South Africans have chosen, that has wide acceptance and that has not been mediated or appropriated through colonization. The widespread and official use of the terms African and black raise new questions. There was a stage when 'black' meant anyone not white, i.e. South African black Africans, Indians and Coloureds. Used interchangeably to mean the same thing, 'black' and 'African' (a native of Africa) could be more openly debated around the issue of exclusivity.