In this article we will be talking about the cultures of Southern Africa, the geographic region composed of South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia and Botswana (as defined by the UN). In other parts of this website the term “Southern Africa” may be used to cover a larger region (see note on the right).
The cultures and people of Southern Africa are as varied as the region’s landscapes and colors. Once populated by San, Khoikhoi and other smaller tribes, the area became inhabited by speakers of the Bantu language group following the Bantu expansion, which began about 3000 years ago and lasted until reaching South Africa in 300 AD.
As a result, the majority of ethnic groups in this region, including the Southern Ndebele, Northern Ndebele, Xhosa, Swazi, Zulu, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Northern Sotho, Himba, Venda, Tsonga, Ovambo and Herero speak languages of Bantu origin. The process of colonization also brought a significant population of European (Afrikaner, British, French, Portugese Africans, etc.) and Asian descent (Cape Malays, Indian South Africans, etc.), which are not covered by this article.
1. Southern Ndebele (South Africa)
Language: Southern Ndebele, one of the eleven official languages of the Republic of South Africa.
2. Northern Ndebele (Zimbabwe, Botswana)
Language: Matabele, which is not a variant of Southern Ndebele, but a separate language, considered a dialect of Zulu by some linguists.
3. Northern Sotho or Pedi (South Africa, Lesotho)
4. Southern Sotho (South Africa, Lesotho)
5. Swazi (Swaziland, South Africa)
Language: Swazi or Siswati
6. San (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia)
The indigenous people of South Africa, referred to as Bushmen in South Africa, as Basarwa in Botswana and as San in Namibia.
7. Xhosa (South Africa)
Language: Xhosa, South Africa’s second most common home language, after Zulu.
8. Tsonga (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe)
Language: Tsonga, also known as Shangaan
9. Tswana (Botswana, South Africa)
10. Venda (South Africa, Zimbabwe)
11. Zulu (South Africa)
12. Himba (Namibia, Angola)
Language: Otjihimba (closely related to the Herero language).
13. Ovambo (Namibia)
14. Herero (Namibia)
15. Nama (Namibia)
The Nama are the largest group of the Khoikhoi people. Their language, Nama, is one of the few languages of non-Bantu origin.
Photo credits (top to bottom): Ndebele woman by United Nations photo; Sotho man by Daniel Chong Kah Fui; Swaziland – King Mswati III by whl.travel; San hunters by Frank Vassen; Tsonga by JJ van Zyl; Zulu dancers by Brian Negin; Himba boy © Pierre Marien. Herero women by Harryandrowenaphotos.