Xhosa on the international stage

In Language by Tine Ndhlovu

IsiXhosa is the language of many stories; a culture so diverse, and a tradition so rich in creative verbal expression. It is a language as powerful and as impactful as Nelson Mandela.  

Notably, it was the language Miriam Makeba took with her in exile as she introduced the world to a language of power, politics, race and identity. And, it was even adopted by Chadwick Bosman for his role in Black Panther. 

Behind every click, tonal pattern and phoneme, we hear a language so familiar to southern Africa and the continent. It is the language that was taken to the international stage, and amplified Makeba’s exoticness through her music, by having her sing her “click” songs—a diminutive term that white South Africans and Americans used to mimic the Xhosa language. A ‘click song’ to the colonial ear, ‘Qongqothwane’ to the Xhosa ear, but in its essence a song of good fortune. 

For much of the last century, it echoed the pain behind apartheid and the strength of identity, race and belonging.

From the streets of Johannesburg, to a local jazz cafe in New York, then Marvel Studios with Black Panther, Xhosa continues to re-introduce itself to the global stage.

Perhaps, even after global recognition one may still question: who are the Xhosa people?

Who are the amaXhosa’s?

Long before the Dutch settled into the southern Cape region of South Africa in the 1650s, the Xhosa, amongst other tribal groups, had an established settlement and interacted with other pastoral and foraging groups. Much like most of southern Africa, isiXhosa is a language of the Bantu language family, within the Nguni subgroup. Xhosa is one of the widely spoken traditional languages in South Africa, and one of the official languages to the Eastern cape region. Xhosa people reside mainly in South Africa but can be found all over southern Africa. They belong to many organized, but distinct chiefdoms that have their origins in their Nguni ancestors. The other main subgroups in which Xhosas are divided into are the Bomvana, Bhaca, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe and Thembu. In addition, they have a rich oral tradition which has spanned over many generations, emphasizing ancestral heroes and traditions.

Xhosa or isiXhosa?

Those who speak this language form part of the ethnic group called the amaXhosa and refer to their language as isiXhosa. The word Xhosa was in fact a name given by the Koi and San people towards the King whom their tribal name descends from. In its origin, the word Xhosa is derived from the Khoisan language meaning “The angry men,” due to the stronger tonal patterns used in speech. IsiXhosa is made up of three distinct clicks (X, C, Q), giving it its unique sound. The “X” in Xhosa represents a type of click made by the tongue on the side of the mouth. The “C” sound is made by creating a sort of ‘tisk’ sound with your tongue and the back of your front two teeth, while the ‘Q’ sound is made by making a ‘clicking’ sound with the tip of your tongue on the upper palate of your mouth. Much like other South African languages (Zulu, Sotho etc), Xhosa is characterized by respectful forms of address for in-laws and elders. 

Xhosa and Bongeziwe

Given their long history, and encounters under colonialism and apartheid, Xhosa singers continue to shed a light on the importance of their tradition and traditional values. Singing and embracing isiXhosa helps to keep their culture alive and, considering that they are great in oral tradition, singing becomes another method of continuing their oral tradition and telling a story. 

Even in a new international scene, Bongeziwe Mabandla continues to bring Xhosa into the international light.

From Makeba to Bongeziwe Mabandla, the synchronized sounds of soul and tradition merge together with the changing voices of the Xhosa language.

Xhosa, through the vocals of Mabandla is that of storytelling. 

It’s where his album Mangaliso (Miracle) embraces life’s journey and “finally arriving to where you’ve been searching for all your life.”

Very much like the influential isiXhosa voices before him, he is quickly becoming one of the strong and influential voices shaping the South African scene. Deeply inspired by African tradition sonorities, his music carries many familiar sounds from across the continent. With his music mainly written in Xhosa, the lyrics evoke his quest for self and the struggles that young people have to deal with. 

His song ‘Isizathu (The reason)’ emphasizes the existing challenges for many South Africans. Such as in isizathu he sings:

Wakhala, unontlupheko                             Cried the mother of poverty

Ecinga o khathazekile                               Thinking about the sister of worry

Imini zobuhlungu                                      The days of the wretched

Ngoku, ngok’uyazibuza                             Now, now she questions herself

Ukuba siph’ (Siphi)                                  Because, where is it? (Where is it?)

Siph’ (Siphi)                                             Where is it? (Where is it?)

Siphi isizathu!                                          Where is the reason?

Songs like Isizathu express a deeper meaning. A reason for life and its true essence. There is a deeper meaning that often gets lost when we begin to translate, and break it down. Much like many languages across the continent, there is such power and connection that artists vocalize when singing in isiXhosa. Songs like Isizathu emphasize the idea of looking for a reason and the meaning of life for different people and the idea that we are all looking for love. He even goes on to express in ‘Ngawe Mama’:

Ndiyakhumbula funisa ngomntana                         I remember when I was still a child

Siphila ngenyembezi                                              We live in tears

Siphila ngobunzima                                               We lived hard

Wawunondibalisela ngephupha lethu bo               You would tell me about a dream

Uthi bambelela kulo ngoba kuzubomi                   You told me to hold on to it

Ezulwini emhlabeni lwizweni, lonke bo                In heaven, on earth

Akekho, akekho endimthanda njengawe               The nation as a whole

Ezulwini Emalahleni lwizweni, lonke bo              There is no one,

Akekho, akekho endimthanda njengawe               There is no one, no one, i love like you

As we know, language is a part of our identity. Language shapes how we interact and behave, whether as a collective, or as an individual. It tells a story about who you are and where you come from. Despite the legacy of apartheid in leaving Indigenous languages particularly vulnerable to powerful politicial, economic, and social pressures, many efforts have been made to strengthen and amplify the importance of traditional languages as a way to preserve culture.

IsiXhosa, like the impact of Mandela, Makeba and Mabandla and many other influential amaXhosas is a language and culture that will continue to live on for many centuries and generations to come, and with each activist, artist and singer/songwriter, Xhosa will continue to make an impact.