The following article is based on an essay from Kees van der Waal’s chapter in “Critical Essays on Afrikaans Places of Memory”

The term ‘Bantu has gone through various shifts in meaning. It has had both positive and negative meanings, depending on the “historical moment, social positionality and experience of users”. [1]

In its indigenous sense, it relates to kinship between numerous African languages. In Anthropology, the term was used to refer to the people that spoke these languages. [2] 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 archaeology, history and anthropology:

(1) It named a major linguistic group in Africa, and more locally, to identify the sizeable group of Nguni 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.

Although the linguistic and grammatical structure of the different languages had similarities, it is important to note that the Bantu-speaking peoples are not a homogenous group. [3] 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. Wihelm Bleek first used the word 'Bantu' in his 1862 publication Comparative Grammar of South African Languages as a classificatory name. [4]  In 1921, the University of Witwatersrand established a Bantu Studies Department. Under Dr. W.M. Eiselen’s lectureship, an academic foreground to the ‘separate development’ policy was cemented. [5] The Preliminary Survey of the Bantu Tribes of South Africa was compiled by ethnologist N.J. Van Warmelo who worked for the Department of Native Affairs. [6]] This 1935 survey mapped out different chieftancies and led to the systematic separation of people from their land.  A publication in 1956 by J.P. Bruwer, Die Bantoe van Suid-Afrika, emphasized the idea that ‘Bantu peoples’ were primitive. [7] In the earlier apartheid period, c. 1960, ‘Bantu’ 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. [8]

Differing from this view, there are instances where Bantu was used in a positive light by black people. In Umsebenzi, a 1940s ANC periodical, the following phrase is used “The Bantu must demand equal economic, social and political rights . . .” [9]. The term was therefore used to describe the unity of black people. ‘Bantu’ has also been used as a name separate from ethnic meaning, most famously presented by Bantu Steve Biko. This choice by Biko’s father has been suggested to attribute Biko as being a person for other people. [10] “umntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu”, meaning “a person is a person by means of other people”. [11] 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 and influencing Africans, who stated they would also rather be called blacks in association with whites and coloureds in informal usage. [12] From 1977, the term 'Bantu' was slowly replaced by 'black'. In the 1980s, South African universities changed their ‘Bantu languages’ departments to ‘African languages. [13]

The term Bantu is no longer used except in its original context in reference to Bantu languages. After 1994, an emphasis on nation-building did away with divisive terms. [14] 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.

 

[1] K. Van der Waal. “Bantu: From Abantu to Ubuntu” in A. Grundlingh, S. Huigen.  Reshaping Remembrance: Critical Essays on Afrikaans Places of Memory. (Rozenberg, Amsterdam, 2011). p. 33.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] N.J. Van Warmelo, A Preliminary Survey of the Bantu Tribes of South Africa. (Pretoria: Government Printer, 1935)

[7] J.P. Bruwer Die Bantoe van Suid-Afrika. Johannesburg: Afrikaanse Pers 1956, voorwoord. Translation by K. Van der Waal.

[8] K. Van der Waal. “Bantu: From Abantu to Ubuntu” in A. Grundlingh, S. Huigen.  Reshaping Remembrance: Critical Essays on Afrikaans Places of Memory. (Rozenberg, Amsterdam, 2011). p. 34.

[9] Quoted in Federale Sendingraad, Die Naturellevraagstuk: Referate Gelewer op die Kerklike Kongres van die Gefedereerde Ned. Geref. Kerke in Suid-Afrika. (Bloemfontein: N. G. Sendingpers 1950), p. 140.

[10] K. Van der Waal. “Bantu: From Abantu to Ubuntu” in A. Grundlingh, S. Huigen.  Reshaping Remembrance: Critical Essays on Afrikaans Places of Memory. (Rozenberg, Amsterdam, 2011). p. 37.

[11] L. Wilson. “Bantu Stephen Biko: A Life.” In: N.B. Pityana, M. Ramphele, M. Mpumlwana and L. Wilson (eds.). Bounds of Possibility: the Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness, (1991), pp. 15-77.

[12] K. Van der Waal. “Bantu: From Abantu to Ubuntu” in A. Grundlingh, S. Huigen.  Reshaping Remembrance: Critical Essays on Afrikaans Places of Memory. (Rozenberg, Amsterdam, 2011). p. 39.

[13] Ibid. p. 34.

[14] Ibid. p. 40.

References
  • Bruwer, J.P. Die Bantoe van Suid-Afrika. Johannesburg: Afrikaanse Pers 1956, voorwoord. Translation by K. Van der Waal.
  • Federale Sendingraad, Die Naturellevraagstuk: Referate Gelewer op die Kerklike Kongres van die Gefedereerde Ned. Geref. Kerke in Suid-Afrika. N. G. Sendingpers, Bloemfontein, 1950. 
  • Van der Waal, K. “Bantu: From Abantu to Ubuntu” in Reshaping Remembrance: Critical Essays on Afrikaans Places of Memory; Grundlingh, A., Huigen, S. Rozenberg Publishers, Amsterdam, 2011.
  • Van Warmelo, N.J. A Preliminary Survey of the Bantu Tribes of South Africa. Government Printer, Pretoria, 1935.
  • Wilson. L. “Bantu Stephen Biko: A Life.” In: N.B. Pityana, M. Ramphele, M. Mpumlwana and L. Wilson (eds.). Bounds of Possibility: the Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness, 1991, pp. 15-77.

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