People have lived in southern Africa for many millennia. In fact, remains of some of the earliest human ancestors have been found there, in an area known as “the Cradle of Mankind.” Early humans migrated from this region, and migration has remained a major factor in the formation of identities in southern Africa. Over the centuries, people from other parts of Africa, from Europe, and from Asia have migrated into what is today South Africa.
The diversity of the population has presented a challenge for how different groups live together. Conflict between the groups has never been inevitable; at times, diverse groups lived together peacefully. But as the territory became increasingly prosperous, with lush farmland and the mining of diamonds and gold, some groups sought to keep the country’s wealth for themselves by controlling and excluding other groups. The history of struggle for control and for resources shaped how groups came to understand their own identities.
Prior to the arrival of European colonists, a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups lived in the southernmost region of the African continent. The earliest known inhabitants were the Khoisan peoples. The more egalitarian San lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering, while the more hierarchical Khoikhoi (“men of men”) were primarily herders. For centuries, they lived in small communities of 20 to 80 families related by blood and marriage; a male leader was marked by a degree of wealth, distinctive clothing, and in some cases several wives. While these groups once occupied much of what is today South Africa, newcomers migrating from other parts of Africa gradually displaced them. Over thousands of years, the newcomers integrated many San and Khoikhoi into their communities and pushed the remaining San to the most arid regions of the interior and the remaining Khoikhoi to the territory’s southwestern edge.
The new arrivals were mostly farmers and herders who spoke languages from a large African language group known as Bantu. As the migrants settled in various parts of the territory, people living in close proximity gradually developed distinct languages and cultures, creating new ethnic groups. For example, the modern Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Swazi ethnic groups all trace their origins to an earlier group, known as the Nguni, and their languages today remain mutually understandable.
Over time, many smaller groups gradually merged into larger political communities, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force. The process of group formation remained fluid until relatively recently. For example, until the late 1700s, the Zulu were a small group in the east. Under the leadership of several powerful kings, especially Shaka Zulu, who came to power in 1816, the Zulu conquered a number of neighboring groups. Those who would not submit to Zulu rule had no choice but flight, and some moved as far north as modern-day Zimbabwe. Today, South Africa includes ten large African ethnic groups and a number of smaller groups. Together these African ethnic groups constitute over 80% of South Africa’s population.
The arrival of Europeans in South Africa and their gradual conquest of African peoples, the establishment and exercise of colonial control over Africans, and, later, apartheid all had major impacts on group identity formation and change. European colonial practices, wars between the Dutch and the Koi, and Dutch “hunting raids” over time caused the disappearance of the Khoikhoi as a distinct ethnic group as they lost control of their land to white colonists or fled colonial control and were incorporated into other ethnic groups, particularly the neighboring Xhosa.
In modern South Africa, particularly in urban settings, black South Africans of various ethnic groups live together in diverse communities, where individual ethnic identities are less important. Yet the traditions of the different ethnic groups are not entirely lost. Ceremonies such as namings, weddings, and burials often follow the traditions of specific ethnic communities. Arts and crafts and music and dance that bear the marks of specific groups are part of the modern scene of both rural and urban South Africa. More importantly, as the reading African Identities illustrates, pride in the traditions and cultures of the various African groups was an important resource and inspiration for black South Africans as they fought against apartheid and other forms of oppression.
Diverse locations, experiences, and traditions have shaped black South African cultures and promoted an array of different identities with many overlapping features. References to a uniform oppositional identity—the idea that black South Africans’ identity was shaped exclusively by the experience of apartheid—are misleading. While most black South Africans recognize a shared experience, most remain very much members of a specific ethnic group as well. The challenge of maintaining control over their culture was one of the factors in the African struggle against colonialism, as reflected in the reading and poem My Name.