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From whence the Zulus came and where the Bushmen went

It is a constant refrain heard in South Africa that the Zulus and the “black” Africans come from the north. This “fact” is so skewed in the way in which it is used and is poorly understood by most so I wish to clarify a few points about the arrival of the Bantu-speaking Africans in Southern Africa. Bantu here is used to refer to a broad linguistic group that belongs to the Niger-Congo group of languages.

So I will start by saying that yes the Bantu speakers did come from the north. However, they did not only arrive in the 1600s as often stated; that was apartheid myth-making. The Bantu peoples began arriving in Southern Africa at least 1 800 to 2 000 years ago and newer research keeps pushing that date back. This is shown by the archaeological record that shows Iron-Age furnaces and tools appearing at this stage of prehistory. They arrived in small probably family-based groups bringing with them cattle and hoe agriculture. They did not rush down in some horde massacring the local aboriginals. The aboriginals I refer to here are the Bushmen/San.

The Bantu peoples should not be viewed as a singular people, but a broad linguistic group that would have comprised various ethnicities, identities and means of subsistence. There is little is known of their interaction with the San in the earliest periods of contact. In all likelihood the Bantu would have been few in number, with little power over the indigenous peoples and no central organisation. These things developed in time as the larger ethno-political groups show (Zulu Kingdom for example), but the balance of power would have been originally in favour of the San. They had detailed knowledge of the land and plants, traces that reach through in the healing practices of today. The increasing population pressure and long-term interaction would have eroded the salient differences between peoples through intermarriage, alliances as they have lived side by side for two millennia. Serious conflict appears around the time of centralised power developing, which affected all the peoples of Southern Africa. By this period most San would have been assimilated, their language almost erased and coherent bands would have been relegated to the margins of the mountains and sea. Even these bands exhibited shifting allegiances and ethnicities as see in the colonial records and confusion about the nature of the ethnicity of the people they encountered. There were peoples in colonial Natal that moved between being San and being Zulu depending on circumstances. Their descendants still live in the Drakensberg and claim a San identity (they use the term Abatwa) alongside a Zulu one.

The first European settlers in the Western Cape would have encountered aboriginal and other African peoples engaged in multiple forms of subsistence, speaking a variety of languages with no central political authority and would have exhibited a blend of aboriginal hunting gathering, fishing, herding and agriculture. But make no mistake the other African peoples were already in the region and in fairly large numbers, such as the Xhosa just across the Fish River. For the majority of the San and related groups (Hottentot, Strandlopers) their languages have been lost as were many cultural practices and knowledge, even while influencing the dominant culture of which they became part of.

The Bantu language would have been modified as a result of continuous social contact of trade, marriage and so on. One of these developed into the Nguni language group of today, which contain the distinctive three “click” consonants (isiZulu, isiXhosa, iNdebele, siSwati). These are a direct legacy not of conquest, but assimilation and sharing. This of course does not mean that San people were not killed in some areas, but that the pre-historical picture is a lot more nuanced than often reported and was not just a simple massacre. There is also evidence genetically about the connection between San and Bantu peoples where contemporary populations of Zulu- and Xhosa-speaking peoples have on average almost as many Khoisan as Bantu ancestors, and about 15% of the words of both languages contain click consonants derived from Khoisan. Khoisan refers to a larger family group of related languages and not the contemporary peoples who may or may not speak a language from this family.

So next time you hear that the Zulus came from the north, please correct that fallacy. Their ancestors came from the north 2 000 years ago, and in conjunction with the local indigenous people they developed a new culture and identity and created a new language family. The Bushmen are still around in the Northern Cape, in the Kalahari and number about 110 000, but there are in fact even more descendants of various hues, shades and mixes. They are also present in the Nguni languages and people as well as the Cape coloured in an undisclosed and often unacknowledged admixture.

Far too often the notion of a northern descent is used to justify colonial land acquisition and excesses. The apartheid myth was a powerful one that was deeply embedded in school curriculum and its legacy is still heard today. History (and prehistory) is always contested and laced through with the politics of the times. Migration and movement of peoples may create strife and conflict, but it may also creates new identities and bring new ideas. The Bantu migration saw many languages and cultures ultimately disappear, but it also brought new crops, iron and technologies. And the same goes for the European peoples that arrived bringing strife and conflict, but also new ideas and technologies. The time for drawing lines between the peoples of Africa is well past its time. At core we are all one and we need to work together to find new identities, new ideas and new futures.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.