The word Xhosa refers to a people and a language of South Africa. The Xhosa-speaking people are divided into a number of subgroups with their own distinct but related heritages. One of these subgroups is called Xhosa as well. The other main subgroups are the Bhaca, Bomvana, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thembu. Unless otherwise stated, this article refers to all the Xhosa-speaking people. Well before the arrival of Dutch in the 1650s, the Xhosa had settled the southeastern area of South Africa. They interacted with the foraging (food-gathering) and pastoral (nomadic herding) people who were in South Africa first, the Khoi and the San. Europeans who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, they sought to expand their territory.
This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken as well. A series of wars between trekboers (Afrikaner colonists) and Xhosa began in the 1770s. Later, in the nineteenth century, the British became the new colonizing force (foreigners in control) in the Cape. They directed the armies that were to vanquish the Xhosa. Christian missionaries established their first outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, but met with little success. Only after the Xhosa population had been traumatized by European invasion, drought, and disease did Xhosa convert to Christianity in substantial numbers. In addition to land lost to white annexation, legislation reduced Xhosa political autonomy. Over time, Xhosa people became increasingly impoverished. They had no option but to become migrant laborers.
In the late 1990s, Xhosa make up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa’s gold mines. Under apartheid (a government policy requiring the separation of races), the South African government created separate regions that were described as Bantustans (homelands) for black people of African descent. Two regions—Transkei and Ciskei—were set aside for Xhosa people. These regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Apartheid policy denied South African citizenship to many Xhosa. Thousands of people were forcibly relocated to remote areas in Transkei and Ciskei. The homelands were abolished with the change to democracy in 1994.
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