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South Africa

The Land and Peoples of South Africa up to 1800

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The Geography

The southernmost part of Africa under discussion is bordered in the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south from Cape Town up to the east by the Indian Ocean, while the tropical grassland and Zambezi River form the northern boundary. Southern Africa has distinct topographical features as discussed above.

These are the various elevated expanses of land watered by a network of rivers, which leaves behind deep gorges in the valleys. Apart from the mountainous plateaus and rivers that empty themselves into the Atlantic and Indian oceans, there is the large expanse of arid land called the Kalahari Desert.

The Climates

The series of highlands (Drakensberg Mountains) and rivers with temperate climates characterize the eastern half of the region; the western half is mainly made up of the desert with the Cape Town region, which enjoys a Mediterranean climate being an exception. Drakensberg Mountains act as a natural barrier between the arid Kalahari Desert and the rain belt in the east and therefore signifies a vegetational divide in the region.

The landscape

The landscape of the region has greatly dictated the vegetational and climatic conditions. From the eastern coast to the interior westwards, the vegetation becomes thinner and more sparsely forested and after the Drakensberg highlands, it gradually merges with the arid Kalahari Desert.

This is because the sources of water,(rivers and rainfall) are much more common in the eastern side of the Drakensberg Mountains than in the west. As a result, the more forested eastern half can sustain a larger farming population than the west.

Settlements and Occupational Engagements

This has influenced the settlement pattern of the inhabitants of the region and largely explains their occupational engagements. For instance, due to the arid nature of the Kalahari Desert, agricultural activity is severely curtailed and so far, only minimal animal husbandry like ranching can be profitably engaged in.

However, the well-watered littoral areas have a regular supply of rainfall and so the cultivation of crops could be practised. In fact, it is the proximity of the Cape region to the Atlantic Ocean that has made it famous for the agricultural production of fruits, wheat and ranching.

The People

The inhabitants of the area by 1800 were products of series of movements from within and outside the continent at different times who settled in different locations. Southern Africa was inhabited by four distinct groups of people at the beginning of the 19th century.

These are the San, the Khoikhoi, the Bantu-comprising several splinter groups such as the Nguni, Sotho and Heroro and finally the Europeans who were the last immigrants into the region, with the Dutch arriving first in 1652 as we shall soon see.

Much later, there emerged a coloured population (mulattos) who were products of inter-race affairs between the Europeans and other groups.

The Indian population that settled in the region was also categorized with the mulattos as coloured. The peoples or dwellers of South Africa shall now be discussed piecemeal.

The San

The earliest known dwellers of the region are the San speaking people often referred to as the Bushmen. Although their origin is shrouded in antiquity, we do know that they had at one time spread over much of Southern Africa.

The San. cr: africageographic


They were gradually confined to the infertile western side of the Kalahari Desert area due to the population pressure of immigrants into Africa, South of the Limpopo River. A short brownish skinned people, the San largely lived a nomadic life close to the gathering and hunting lifestyle of the Old Stone Age man. It was through this means that they obtained food for subsistence.

Social Structure

Their social structure also shares the same simplicity that characterizes their economic life. The largest socio-political unit was the hunting band, which comprised about twenty to three hundred people. Usually, members of a unit were related by birth or marriage and had little or no relationship with other bands.

The bands had no leader as power was diffused amongst all male adults. Consequently, decision making was a product of discussion and consensus amongst adult males who were deemed equal.

Even though their mode of subsistence required their frequent movement and lack of permanency in their settlements, they nevertheless had a sense of territory and resisted encroachment into their hunting grounds. The looseness in their social organization was, however, a major weakness. This is because it made them easy victims to be displaced by better organized and ambitious groups such as the Bantu.

The Khoikhoi

The Khoikhoi, otherwise called the Hottentots are believed to have originated from ancestors that lived in Southern Africa, but whose origin, just like the San is quite obscure. All we know is that they are purported to have migrated from the Central African region to displace the San from the choicest portions of land in Southern Africa.


Although a very distinct race, they are often regarded as a zygote of the Bushmen and the Bantu Negro. However, they approximate more to the San who are their closest neighbours.

This manifests in their stature, their yellowish skin colour and their language, which is akin to the click sound of the San language; a product of inter-group relations between these neighbours. It is due to these similarities that both groups have been given the collective name of Khoisan.

khoikhoi. African-is picture

Occupational Engagements

The Hottentots were pastoral people who kept livestock (cattle and sheep) and also engaged in some hunting. Their women gathered wild foods to supplement their feeding. As a result, they lived a nomadic life with no permanent homes but instead resided in temporary shelters made of grass and bushes of caves.

However, they did not just wander endlessly in their search for pasture for their livestock. They, like the San, had a sense of territory and jealously guided it. Due to their proximity to the San, they sometimes strayed into their territories in search of grazing grounds and this often resulted in feuds with them.

In other to preserve clan identity, intra-clan marriages were encouraged while inter-clan marriages were forbidden. Since they were mainly pastoralists, the number of cattle owned was the major determinant of wealth and status within the community.

Political Arrangement

Organized along tribal lines, the Khoikhoi had a more complex political arrangement. The tribe was made up of several clans that were semi-autonomous units.

Amongst the clans, the one regarded as the most senior of them (perhaps, the founder of the tribe’s clan) often produced the tribal chief. The choice of a candidate as a tribal chief was based on his individual merit-provided he was from the senior clan.

The chief, whose authority over the tribe was very weak, ruled with the assistance of the clan heads who were often consulted on major issues affecting their welfare.

As a result of the somewhat confederate arrangement, or what has been referred to as a commonwealth of clans in their political set-up, an aggrieved or ambitious clan head could assert his clan’s autonomy by migrating away to form a new independent political unit. Over time, such units increased in population and developed into tribes. This made it difficult for the Khoikhoi to develop large political setups.

The Bantu

Of all the African inhabitants in Southern Africa before 1800, the Bantu speaking people arrived the region last. By the 19th century, the Bantu-a Negro people who had begun migration out of the West African region several thousands of years ago had reached and settled in the central and particularly the eastern part of Southern Africa.

Herero people. cr:


However, they moved into South Africa some hundreds of years before 1800 in various strands of migration at different times from different starting points.

Some came into Southern Africa from East Africa, while others entered the region from Central Africa.

Because of their migratory activities over the years, the various Bantu groups intermingled with different people and so exhibited slightly different cultural traits from each other.

This was because, in the course of migration, they intermingled with different groups, sometimes absorbing or expelling the earlier habits. However, they all belonged to the Southern Bantu branch of the African Bantu family and shared very many aspects of their lifestyle.


Amongst the various Bantu groups that settled in Southern Africa are the Nguni, the Sotho, the Ovambo and the Herero. Generally, of dark complexion, they are much taller than their Khoikhoi and San co-inhabitants of the region.

They were socio-politically and economically more developed than their neighbours also. These Bantu groups came into the area with the knowledge of ironworking and this further gave them an advantage over the other groups, Fairbridge. D. described them as ”fierce and warlike, truthful and honest, holding in great esteem the virtues of hospitality.” They could, therefore, be regarded as primus inter pares amongst the African groups within Southern Africa.

At the advent of the 19th century, they had occupied effectively the fertile eastern coastal strip of the region and had begun to spread across South West Africa along the Great Fish River.

Other Bantu groups had also settled around the central plateau area of Southern Africa where the Kalahari Desert is located. With the passage of time, some of them pushed further south to Transvaal and the Orange River area.

Thus, the Bantu effectively occupied most of the eastern half of Southern Africa and were beginning to make incursions into the western half of the continent by the opening decades of the 19th century.

For specificity, while the Nguni settled mainly along the fertile eastern littoral region, the Sotho people occupied the central plateau and were pushing further south. The Herero and Ovambo were thus left to find a space for themselves in the south western part of the region.


Unlike their neighbours, the Bantu practised mixed farming as their main occupation. They reared cattle and cultivated crops and the ownership of cattle was a major symbol of wealth and consequently attracted much attention.

As we shall see later, several clashes between these groups were generated due to the raids organized by the various groups for the purpose of procuring cattle.

Due to their economic lifestyle, they were able to maintain a large population and were more sedentary than their neighbours. They, therefore, lived in large communities with permanent homes and have a more sophisticated social and political culture.

Political Arrangement

Nkosi, the Ruler

Politically, they were organized into clans linked together by common descent, with each clan having between 400 to 500 members. Each group of clans had a major one from which a ruler was chosen.

The ruler called Nkosi, as the head of the community, was the highest authority in all political and legal issues.

As in most African countries, he was the intermediary between the community and the ancestors. In this way, he performed some religious functions since he had to intervene on behalf of the community in times of need.

The Indunas

In spite of his wide powers, the Nkosi could not afford to be despotic. This was because of the various strata of administration that acted as a check to his power.

The Nkosi had a body of personal assistants called Indunas who helped in running the affairs of the community. These assistants were usually commoners whose families had no claims to royalty.

This was in order to guide against a situation where an ambitious Induna would seize power from the Nkosi. It was from amongst this group that he chose his deputy who was regarded as the Chief Induna.

Following closely to the Indunas in the political hierarchy were Sub-Indunas who were often important members of the royal family. The Nkosi had to govern in consultation with this group because of the power they wielded, coupled with their eligibility to royalty.

Decision making was in theory the Nkosi’s privilege, but this he did in consultation with his advisers and sub-tribe rulers.

This was because a refusal to do this (i.e. take a unilateral decision) might result into a crisis if such a decision did not have the consensus of the sub-leaders. On such occasions, the sub-leaders could break away to form a new independent tribe.

In other instances, splitting of tribes could be a function of dynastic disputes, which often emerged following the demise of a Nkosi, as there often arose struggles amongst the eligible for succession to the throne.

At this juncture, it could be stated that migrating away to another area seems to characterize the problem-solving technique of most of the settlers in this region.

These migratory tendencies by splinter groups must be due partly to the availability of uninhabited portions of land. Therefore, when it became difficult to migrate as a sign of protest, aggrieved or ambitious individuals had to seek other solutions.

Social Organization

The Southern Bantu had a complex social organization that rested on respect for ancestors, traditions and customs of the land. Prominent amongst these traditions was the initiation rites of young men of the same age grade into manhood.

It was during the initiation period, which lasted for days and in which initiates were secluded from the rest of the community, that they were taught the dos and don’ts of their people.

Also inculcated into them during this period was a sense of group identity and the expectations and demands of the community from them. They were also circumcised to signify their coming of age as men and at the end of the ceremony, they could proceed to marry.

With the exception of the Basotho group, female initiation was not a group affair amongst the Southern Bantu tribes.


In conclusion, by 1800, the various African groups in Southern Africa had settled in different parts of the sub-continent with their divergent cultures. The peopling of the region started with the San who were later joined by the Khoikhoi and the Bantu.

However, migrations within the region did not entirely stop; as the various groups continued to expand into other lands when the need for such arose.

In the process, they sometimes trespassed on each other’s territory with one group displacing another. This often resulted into conflicts between them. In most cases, however, they moved into yet unsettled territories for settlement.

Written by Prof. V.O Edo and Dr S.A Ogunode

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