Bantu is a large category of African languages. It is also used as a general label for 300-600 ethnic groups in Subsahara-Africa. It is almost impossible to speak of one coherent people, even though they all have the same origins. There are a lot of differences among the subtribes, and when we speak of the Bantu in general, it does not mean that every Bantu subtribe or subgroup follows the same beliefs and practices.

Bantu history

Bantu migration
1 = 3000 bis 1500 v. Chr. original homeland
2 = 1500 v. Chr. start of the expansion
2a = east Bantu, 2b = west Bantu
3 = 1000 bis 500 v. Chr. east Bantu-Urewe- Nukleus
4-7 = spreading over South Africa

The Bantu origins can be found about 4000 years ago (2000 BC). The Bantu rose in the Cameroon highlands and in the Southern East of Nigeria. They were farmers and expanded their territories to the rainforests of Central Africa. About 3000 years ago, they started a new, quick expansion to the South and the East, and they mixed with the natives there. That was when they discovered the production of iron, the techniques of cattle breeding and the cultivation of bananas and they then ruled over a quite a large territory.

When the Europeans arrived, there were a lot of Bantu nations all over the continent. The Bantu were wandering people, so when their population grew, the people separated, and a part of them moved to other territories. This was also the reason why there were a lot of conflicts between them and other tribes and also the Europeans. Today, most of Subsaharan tribes are Bantu or related to the Bantu, and Bantu culture has survived the milleniums.

Bantu religon

In Bantu religions, magic, that is the belief in supernatural entities which are to be appeased, is omnipresent. These entities can have good or bad influences on their lives. Often, they see a manifestation of the souls of their ancestors in these entities. With a lot of ceremonies, rites and taboos, they try to preserve the good will of the spirits. A lot of Bantu people think their ancestors will return in the shape of an animal, so they worship this animal as their personal totem.

Bantu people also believe in a god, a highest entity that created the world and is called the Creator. But he does not care about the human beings and that is the reason why they do not often pray to him.

Bantu culture

The Bantu are split into a lot of ethnic groups of different sizes. This does not mean that they have countries or nations. A tribe is only a group of people who live in the same area, lead by their chief. The different tribes see themselves as offsprings of a certain ancestor, for example a famous former chief. But often people were opportunistic and decided to change their tribe when they were disappointed by their former tribe.Then they ran over to another tribe, which was more prestigious. When this happened, one of these favoured tribes and its chief could gain a lot of power and increase the tribal empire. In accordance with this, unpopular or weak chiefs lost their power and strong chiefs rose with their tribes. But every family and every single person had a spiritual link to their personal totem, which was invariable. This practice has survived up to now.

The title of chief in Bantu culture was hereditary. This means a chief was not elected by his tribe, but he would hand his title to a near relative. Often, the inheritor is the eldest son of the deceased chief, but in some tribes, the title is passed on to the eldest brother of the former Chief. For the Bantu, their hierarchy is very important. There is a the chief, who rules over his whole territory, but the different areas or valleys in which the subtribes lived, were ruled by a headman, who reported to the chief. Each of this headmen used his own jurisdiction.

Under this construction, the family plays its role. Often they live in so-called Kraals (explained at "Shangaan"). All Bantu tribes have in common that also the family is structured very strictly. Everywhere there is a division of work between mother and father, even though it is not the same kind of divison everywhere. In Bantu culture, the father is always the head of the family, the leader, the provider and spiritual guide.

Three important ethnic groups in South Africa

Zulu wariors (from:
The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Their population is about 11 million, and they mainly live in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the provinces in South Africa. They were one of the first tribes which settled in South Africa. Their language is called IsiZulu, and in IsiZulu, they call themselves "amaZulu", which means "sons of the sun". In the 19th and 20th century, the Zulu culture was very martial, and by African standards they ruled over quite big realm. In 1816, the famous Zulu king Shaka expanded their empire, and let the conquered tribes become a part of it. Shaka was also the one who reformed the Zulu military system: Every male Zulu had to go to a training camp for 2-3 years, when he reached the age of 14 years. After learning the fundamentals of war and the customs of a warrior, he had to serve in a regiment for about 8 months. After that, he was dismissed to his former subtribe. A warrior was only allowed to marry when he was more then 30 years old.

The regime of the Zulu was a monarchy: There was one king, who ruled over the whole tribe, but the chiefs of the different subtribes administrated the empire for him. Usually, the king's eldest son became the next king of Zululand, but like in every militant culture, there were quite a lot of coups to dispossess the old king. But these coups were mostly enforced by family members, and so the crown of Zululand actually remained in one family. Like other Bantu tribes, the Zulu worship a natural religion. They believe in gods, but also in natural spirits, demons and witches. Even though he is almighty, and created the whole world and every form of life in it, the Zulu do not pray to him, because they believe he is to distant for them, and that he does not deal with human desires. There is, as an opposite to Unkulunkulu, a devilish creature called Tokoloshe (isiZulu for "little ghost" or "little devil"). He is described as a dwarfish, haired black humanoid, who looks like a baboon without a tail. He is profoundly vicious, but he only can harm humans if he is summoned by a witch or a sorcerer. Then he hides under people's beds and attacks them while they are asleep. Only a witch doctor can banish him. Today, most of the Zulu have converted to Christianity, even though they still believe in their old ways.
The Shangaan or Tsonga are also an ethnic group in South Africa but they are not as numerous as the Zulu.
Dancing ritual of the Shangaan (from
Johannes' mother is Shangaan. The Shangaan have their own idiom like other tribes. The Shangaan tribe is a people of farmers, and their population of about 6 millions is settled in Limpopo (South Africa) and Zimbabwe. Traditionally, the Shangaan live in patriarchal kraals, which may be bigger than others, because one man can marry as many women as he wants. The social structure in such a kraal is strictly membered: There are so-called "nuclear families", composed of a mother with her children. The members of such a nuclear family live in their own hut, while other nuclear families live in others.Together with the father of all the children these nuclear families form the extended family. The father is the head of the whole kraal, but each mother rules over her own little household, feeds the children and brings them up.

In Shangaan culture, the lineage of a family or a clan is highly important. When a Shangaan can prove his lineage from a noble ancestor, he is also regarded as noble. In their religion, they have an ancestral belief. A human being is composed of his body and his soul: The soul enters the body at birth, and when the body dies, the soul will leave it and join the line of ancestors, to support the living kin.

The Venda are a very little ethnic group among the others in South Africa. There are only about 700'000 Vendas, who mostly live in the Soutpansberg Mountains in the Limpopo Province of Southafrica.The first Venda settlement there was that of the legendary chief Thoho-ya-Ndou (Head of the Elephant) His royal kraal was called D’zata, the remains of this have been declared a National Monument. Once, the Venda kingdom was very powerful, and its frontiers were much larger, before the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom absorbed most of its areas.

The Venda culture is built on a vibrant mythical belief system, and water is an import theme. The Venda believe rivers and lakes to be sacred and that the rain was controlled by their Python God. Also drums and dances are sacred in their culture. The Vendas' most sacred place is lake Fundudzi, and there, the annual Python Dance is performed. It is an initiation rite for girls to become women, and offerings of beer to the lake should secure a good harvest. An important part of Venda culture is ancestral worship and their close ties to the world of spirits. The Sangoma or traditional healer is believed to have access to the spirits and seeks guidance from the ancestors. Many Venda consult a Sangoma when they become ill, who will diagnose the trouble in the spiritual world. The Sangoma usually prescribes a course of herbs to cure the patient's illness.

In rural areas cattle means wealth, and the lifestyle revolves around agriculture. Male and female roles are clearly defined, with the men responsible for livestock, ploughing and the building of huts, while the women do most of the harvesting as well as all the domestic duties. Polygamy is still common, and due to the fertility of the farmland, fewer men leave the area to work in the mines than is the case with many other tribes. As a result, traditional life has changed little over the years.