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The Bantu refer to over 400 different Ethnic groups in Africa, from Cameroon to South Africa, united by a common language family, the Bantu language, and in many cases common customs.
Black South Africans were at times officially called “Bantus” by the apartheid regime.
When Jan van Riebeeck went around the coast of South Africa in 1652, very few Bantu were found there. However, the San and Khoi Khoi moved south, and European settlers following Van Riebeeck, mostly from Holland, French Huguenots and German settlers, known today as Boers moved in over a period of 100 years, from the middle of the 1700s. Only around 1770 did the Boers discover the Bantu, although in 1700s they were the main inhabitants of South Africa. During the 1800s many battles were fought between these ethnic peoples and the white settlers, now including the British.
The Bantu were divided into different clans, not around national federations, but independent groups from some hundreds to thousands of individuals.
The smallest unit of the Bantu organisational structure formed the household, or Kraal consisting of a man, woman or women, their children as well as other relatives living in the same household. The man was the head of the household and often had many wives, and had the complete authority over the family. The household and close relations generally played an important role in the life of the Bantu. Households which were resident in the same valley or on the same hill, were also an organisational unit, managed by a sub-chief.
The chief was not elected, but hereditary. With most clans the eldest son inherited the office of his father. With some clans the office was left to the oldest brother of the deceased chief, and after his death again the next oldest brother. This repeated until the last brother had deceased. Next was the eldest son original chieftain, then the oldest one of the brothers as the leader. The chief was surrounded with a number of trusted friends or advisors, usually relatives like uncles and brothers, rather than influential Headmen or personal friends. The degree of the democracy depended on the strength of the chieftain. The more powerful and more influential a chieftain was, the lesser the influence of people. Although the leader had much power, he was not above the law. He could be criticized both by advisors as well as by his people, and compensation could be demanded.
The Bantu is divided into four main groups: Nguni, Sotho, Venda and Shangana Tsonga, with the Nguni represented the largest group. These are divided as follows:
Basotho (also: Southern Sotho )
Tswana (also: Western Sotho )
Lemba In common between the two powerful groups of the Nguni and the Sotho are patrilinear societies, with which the leaders formed the socio political units. Similarly food acquisition was by cultivation and hunting. The most important differences were the strongly deviating languages, although both are dialects of Bantu language, and the different settlement and relationships. With the Nguni settlements were villages widely scattered, whereas with the Sotho settled in towns.
The Bantu were not territorially minded like the Europeans, but rather group-related. As long as sufficient land was available, they had actually only very vague conceptions of borders. Borders were naturally in the form of rivers or mountains, which were not by any means fixed.
The food acquisition of the Bantu was limited in the main to agriculture and hunt, whereby usually the women responsible for the agriculture and the men drew for the hunt. Except with the Tsonga and partially with the Mpondo fishing was surprisingly of no importance. The diet was thus corn, meat, vegetables, beef and milk, water and grain beer, which contained only very little alcohol compared with European beer. The Bantu had a number of taboos regarding the consumption of meat. No meat of dogs, apes, crocodiles and snakes could be eaten. Likewise taboo was the meat of some birds, like owls, crows and vultures.
All Bantu tribes commonly had clear separation between the tasks of the women and those of the men.
The Bantu lived in two different types of huts. The Nguni used the Beehive hut, a circular structure out of long poles, which was covered with grass. The huts of the Sotho, Venda and Shangana Tsonga used the Cone and Cylinder hut. A cylindrical wall was formed out of vertical posts, which was sealed with mud and cow dung. The roof was built from tied together poles. The floor of both types of compressed earth.
Magic takes a major central role in Bantu belief, with good and bad influence. They often saw a manifestation of the souls of deceased ancestors in ceremonies. The Bantu believed the separation from body and spirit after death.