Written documents are very important sources of history. Letters, diaries, and even old shopping lists can tell us a lot about how people lived, what they thought and how they felt about what happened around them. For many years, people thought that something could only be studied as history if it is written down.

But how do we learn about societies where there are no written records, where people did not read or write? Many cultures did not write down their history. Instead, they told stories to their children about what happened, and so it was passed on from one generation to the next. In this way history was kept alive. This is called “oral tradition”. (Oral means spoken.)

Today, historians recognise how important oral traditions are. It is one of the only ways to know what happened in these societies. There are two main types of oral tradition. One is oral history – what, when and why things happened to a person or a community. The other type is stories that are more about the message than facts. These fictional stories try to give reasons for things in life that the community could not really explain. It could be something serious like what happens when people die, or something less serious like how leopard got his spots. These stories are known as folklore or fairy tales.

Both types of oral tradition are important. Oral history tells us what happened, and the folklore helps us to understand what people believed and how they felt about their environment. Oral history tells us how a community named rivers, mountains and other landmarks, and why they performed certain nature practices like rainmaking dances. Oral traditions include medical practices. In the San, Black and Afrikaans traditions, people knew how to treat certain illnesses or wounds from what their elders told them. In the San and Black cultures it was usually the medicine men that knew this, but in Afrikaans it is called ‘boererate’, and anybody was allowed to use them.

South Africa is very rich in oral traditions. In the next unit there are some examples of stories from all over South Africa and from different cultures living in the country. They were carried over from generation to generation, and today they have been written down to preserve them. There may be different versions of every tale. This is because as people told them over and over again, things were changed. They might have left something out, added a new bit, or changed things to make them easier to understand. This often happens in oral tradition. But the heart of the stories stay the same, and they give us important clues about the past.

Some examples

The legend of queen Modjadji

Modjadji is the title of the queen of the Lobedu people. They live near Duiwelskloof in the Limpopo Province, also known as Ngoako Ramalepe. Modjadji is also called the Rain Queen, because, it is said, she can make rain. She is believed to be immortal. This is how she became the queen of the Lobedu:

Hundreds of years ago, there was a mighty kingdom in Zimbabwe, called the kingdom of Monomotapa. It was a peaceful kingdom, with a lot of riches. Then, one day, the king heard that one of his sons had a relationship with his half-sister, the king’s daughter. Her name was Dzungudini, and she was carrying her brother’s child. The king was afraid that this child would take over his kingdom, and banished his daughter from the kingdom of Monomotapa.

Before she left, Dzungudini’s mother gave her a very special gift. It was the king’s rain medicine and the sacred beads with which he made rain. She also taught Dzungudini how to make rain. Dzungudini fled to the south and started a new kingdom. Her offspring became the rulers of the Lobedu people.

Two centuries later, spirits told the Lobedu king of a plot to overthrow him. They told him to kill all his sons and to marry his daughter. They had a daughter, and she became Queen. This was the beginning of the line of the rain queens, or Modjadjis.

Modjadji became famous for her art of rain making. Kings from all over the land asked her to make rain for them – like Shaka of the Zulus, Moshoeshoe of the Basotho and Soshangana from Gazaland. Nobody was allowed to see her. When the Boer general Piet Joubert visited her, the lady he thought was Modjadji, was really her sister. When the time came for Modjadji to turn over her reign to her daughter, she poisoned herself after teaching the new Modjadji the art of making rain.

Today, Modjadji still rules over the Lobedu. The new Modjadji became queen in 2002. Her home is at the Modjadji Cycad Reserve, a forest of cycads, trees that are very precious and very old.Modjadji VI, the Rain Queen of the Balobedu.(Source: www.suntimes.co.za/2003/ 04/13/news/africa/)


Nongqawuse was a young Xhosa girl in the 19th century. She told her elders that spirits had appeared and had told her that if her people killed all their cattle, the White people would disappear in the sea. The Xhosa did this, but they were not freed from the White people. Instead, many of them died from hunger. This is how many people told the story.

Nongqawuse - Source: www.sahistory.org.za/people/nongqawuse


Little Hare Harelip

A traditional San tale about Mother Moon’s message to man about life after death, and how the Hare’s lip was split.

‘Mother Full Moon peered over the shoulder of the mountain at the people on the plain. She saw how they rejoiced at her coming. She saw them dance. But she knew that all men carry a stone in their hearts, for they feared death.

“ I must send a message to my children,” she said to herself. “Then they will never again be unhappy.” She searched with shining eyes through the night until she saw Owl, who was out hunting.

“ Owl!” she called. “Will you take a message for me?”

“ I cannot,” sighed Owl. “The night is short, and mice are few. Leave me alone!”

“ Now I understand why you always have to hide in the dark,” said Mother Full Moon with disgust. “There is no light or warmth in your heart.”

Just then, trotting around a bush, came Jackal, sniffle-snuffling here and there and everywhere, smelling out stuff no one else wanted, so that he could eat it.

“ Jackal!” called Mother Full Moon. “Will you take a message for me?”}

Jackal sat on his haunches, stuck his nose in the air and howled, “Oow! oow! Mother Full Moon, look how I suffer. Look how little I have to live on. Do not ask more of me. Rather help me, help me. Give me food.”

“ Be off, you beggar!” said Full Moon crossly.

Then she saw Hare feeding in the uintjie-field. “Hare, will you take a message for me?”

“ Yes, yes, Mother Full Moon,” he said. He sat bolt upright on his short tail and sang:

“I am Hare Four-foot,

I am Hare-run-wild,

I am Hare Fleetfoot,

I am the Wind’s own child.”

“I want to send you to my people,” said Full Moon, “to the men of the veld.”

“ I know them, Mother,” said Hare.

Mother Full Moon continued, “You must tell them this: Look at Mother Moon, and be content. First she is like the horn of an eland. Then she becomes round and fat like the hunters when the herds of animals are plentiful, and every arrow find its mark. Then she melts away until there is only a crane’s wishbone left. In the end she vanishes completely. So it is with men too. First a man is young, but he grows strong. Then comes old age and sucks his bones dry. But when he dies, he shall live again – just as I do.”

“ Is that all, Mother?” asked Hare.

“ Yes, but ...,” said Full Moon. Before she could say, “wait a while”, Hare had gone. He ran so fast that the stones spat behind him, and the bushes rustled. He ran and sang:

“I am Hare Four-foot,

I am Hare-run-wild,

I am Hare Fleetfoot,

I am the Wind’s own child.”

Whoops! He crashed so hard into something that he had to sit back on his hind legs.

“ Can’t you look where you are going?” asked the thing. It was a man of the veld.

“ I was looking for you,” said Hare importantly. “Mother Full Moon sent me. She says you are Eland’s horn. No, she says you are Crane’s wishbone. I mean, she says, when you are dead, you are dead, and you will not live again.”

“ Yes,” sighed the man, and he hung his head. This was what he had always feared.

“ Perhaps it is the other way around!” Hare called after him, for he was completely muddled by now, but the man was already gone. Hare hung his head. He peered over his shoulder and saw Mother Full Moon’s face, red above the mountains. She looked full of anger.

Hare slipped under a bush. He ran through the dark places to his lair. But Mother Full Moon lay in wait for him. When he came around a high tussock of grass, she grabbed him by the hind leg.

“ Bad one!” said Mother Full Moon. “You bungled everything!”

“ But, Mother ...,” began Hare. Before he could say “Full Moon”, she smacked him in the face so violently that his lip split open.

“ You will have a harelip forever, because you did not listen carefully to what I told you!” said Mother Full Moon.

“ Yes, Mother,” said Hare, “but how can I put right the mess I made?”

Then Mother Full Moon’s heart melted. “Go,” she said, “go quickly, and give my people the right message.” - Source: GROBBELAAR, P. W. (1985). Famous South African folk tales, Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.

Where stories came from

A traditional Zulu tale that explains where all tales and the art of storytelling came from.


A traditional Nguni character. Hlankanyana is a very small boy, as big as a thumb. But he is stronger than all the other men in his father’s kraal, and eats more than any of them. He is a sly little man who often steals meat and lets other people get the blame and punishment for it.

Captain Van Hunks and the Devil

An old Dutch/Afrikaans tale about how Cape Town got its ‘tablecloth’, a thin layer of clouds that covers the peaks when the south easterly wind blows. It also explains why one of Table Mountain’s ridges is called Devil’s Peak.

A sailing ship docked in Table Bay, and a very big man came ashore. He was six feet two inches tall, with broad shoulders and with the neck of a bull. And he looked such an important gentleman too. He had on a doublet of the finest silk, the buttons real rubies. The silver buckles on his shoes flashed in the sun. A long peacock’s feather was stuck in his hatband.

People crowded around, curious.

“ Is not that old Van Hunks?” called someone who had had a good look.

“ Where did he get all that stuff?” asked another.

Old Van Hunks did not say a word. But his face got redder and redder, and the veins on his neck swelled purple. Then the sailors started to unload. Trunks and chests, and more chests and trunks. Perhaps they contained treasures, perhaps rubbish. But he was certainly very concerned about them.

The people of Cape Town remembered all about him. In the olden days he had been the Governor’s huntsman. Then suddenly he had vanished without a trace. In those times he had been as poor as a pauper. And look at him now! How could it have happened?

People began to ask around, quietly in corners, and secretly in one of the taverns where the sailors drank. How had he done it? Such a scoundrel! Heads were shaken, fists were clenched, teeth were gnashed.

“ Sailing under the skull and cross-bones,” said one.

“ A real pirate!” said another.

“ Certainly no captain of an ordinary ship!” said a third.

“ A child of the Devil!” they all agreed. “May the Devil take him!”

But Captain Van Hunks did not take any notice of all this talk. He went of to the Windberg, to the little house that had waited for him all the years. In those days the Cape was still young, but the Captain had grown old. He had come to spend his last days. there.

So he lived alone in his house, with one or two slaves to look after his cattle, and one for his garden. When the weather was bad, he sat on the stoep with his calabash pipe in his mouth, and a little barrel of arrack beside him. But on fine days he climbed up the Windberg, and there he sat smoking, drinking and looking far across the bay. He loved to watch the white sails of the ships filling in the wind as they came in to dock. But he dared not go near the harbour. There were too many sailors who might know him and who might prove dangerous.

Late one afternoon the old captain sat there as usual, when suddenly he became aware of a stranger beside him. He had not seen him come, nor did he know who he was. But the man clearly knew him, because he greeted him as a friend, “Good afternoon, Captain Van Hunks.”

“ Good day,” said Van Hunks curtly, and he pulled on his pipe, but the stranger was not put off by his bad manners.

“ A pleasant place to sit,” said the stranger, and he sat down himself.

“ Yes,” said the captain.

“ A pleasant place to smoke,” the stranger went on, and he took out his own pipe.

“ Yes, yes!” said Captain Van Hunks.

A queer figure this stranger was. Long and thin, and dressed all in black, he was wearing a very tall tophat. There was not a trace of colour in his hollow cheeks, and black shadows lurked in his dark eyes.

He lit up. With the smoking, they came to talking, and from talking they went to boasting.

“ I’m the heaviest smoker!”

“ No, I am!”

“ I!”

“ Come, let us see then, who is, “ said the stranger, and he emptied his tobacco-pouch onto a flat stone.

“ Yes, come,” said the captain and turned his pouch out too.

“ We must smoke for a prize,” the stranger went on. “For your eternal soul, if I win. And I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the earth if I lose.”

“ I lost my soul a long time ago already,” growled the old sea captain. “And I’ve seen enough of earthly kingdoms. They’re just trouble the livelong day. No, we’ll smoke for the joy of it – to see who is the greatest smoker.”

The tobacco was divided equally. Each had a small mountain in front of him, for they both had capacious pouches.

They knocked their pipes out. The tinder-boxes lay ready.


Ram it down. Light up. Take a good pull. The old captain smoked with great enjoyment. So did the stranger.

They smoked till the sun set and darkness came. They smoked till the cocks crew. In between the old captain told stories of pirates. The stranger listened, but did not speak.

Later on the smoke hung in a thick cloud over the slopes of the Windberg. Driven by the wind, it spread over the flat top of Table Mountain next to them.

“ Look at that!” a French ship’s captain, who had just arrived in the bay, called out. “The mountain is wearing a powdered wig.”

“ No,” said the people of Cape Town, “it’s a tablecloth for the Table Mountain.”

They smoked the whole day long. They smoked the following night. The cloud cloth grew ever thicker.

On the third day the stranger began to turn yellow. By midday his face was grass-green. That whole day the captain was the only one who spoke. Nothing seemed to bother him. His face was slightly redder than usual, but that was all.

“ No, no, no!” the stranger called out suddenly, and he fell over flat on his back. The fall pushed his tophat off, and two little horns peeped out.

“ Oh yes!” said Captain Van Hunks when he saw them. “So you were the Devil all the time.”

“ Yes,” said the Devil, and he got up slowly, “I’ve come to fetch you.”

“ But I won!” old Captain Van Hunks protested.

The only answer was a flash of lightening and a clap of thunder. The whole world smelt of sulphur. When the blue fumes cleared, there was a great burnt patch on the mountain to mark the place where old Van Hunks and the Devil had sat. But there was no sign of the two of them.

Two of the old captain’s slaves who had gone to find their master, arrived just in time to see what happened. They fled without once looking back, and their story quickly spread through the whole town.

But as the years passed, the story grew. Old Van Hunks was such a pigheaded fellow, people said, that even the Devil could not get the better of him. He kept on nagging the Devil that he had been tricked by him, and that he had won the smoking competition. When things got too bad, the Devil brought him back to the Windberg to smoke again, but he could never the better of old Van Hunks. With pipe and tobacco he was the champion.

The Cape has changed since that first competition. Sailing ships have gone. Smoking monsters and sleek race-hounds of the seven seas use the new harbour now. Captain Van Hunks’ little house has turned to dust, and his mountain is now called Devil’s Peak.

The people he knew, are all dead long ago. New generations have come and gone. Old Van Hunks is unknown now. Only the Devil has his acquaintances in every age. Nowadays, when Captain Van Hunks and the Devil light their pipes and send the white clouds over the mountain, people say, “Look, Table Mountain has its tablecloth on again. The south-easter will blow.” Then they pull their doors shut and close the windows fast, not knowing that, if you screw up your eyes, you can see the two old smokers’ pipes glowing high against the side of Devil’s Peak.

Sheikh Yusuf

A Cape Malay story. A Sheikh is an Arab ruler. In the time when the Cape was still ruled by the Dutch, Sheikh Yusuf was banned to the Cape after a war between the Netherlands and his homeland in the Far East. In the Cape he spread the religion of Islam and he was even friends with the Cape governor, Simon van der Stel. When he died, his grave was at first forgotten. Since then his burial spot has become an important religious site for Muslims. It is part of the Circle of Islam, a group of graves or karamats of important Muslim leaders in the Cape. This tale tells how his grave was discovered again.

There are countless more stories like this, from all over South Africa. You will find books with South African folklore in most libraries.

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