The term “Tswana Bantu” refers to both ethnic peoples and a language. The Tswana Bantu population, related to the Sotho, divide themselves into subgroups (lineages): the Hurutshe, Gwaketse, Kgalagadi, Kgatha, Kwena, Malete, Ngwato, Rolong, Tawana, Thlaping, and Tlokwa. The country of Botswana (which literally means “Land of the Tswana”) bears the name of the Tswana, but only a small portion of them are citizens there (approximately 800,000 to 1 million), whereas most of the Tswana Bantu speakers (2.5 to 3 million) reside in Bophutatswana (“The Place Where Tswana Gather”) in the northeast of South Africa. Less than 25,000 Tswana Bantu reside in Namibia; perhaps 25,000 to 30,000 live in Zimbabwe.
According to its technical linguistic designation, Tswana (Setswana) belongs to the Bantu subbranch of the Niger-Kordofanian language family. It is closely related to Western Sotho and is sometimes referred to as such. English is the official language of Botswana; however, more than 80% of the population speak the Setswana (Tswana) dialect. Furthermore, Setswana is the language of the educational system and of the media. This does not pose a problem for those who speak other dialects of Tswana, for all of the dialects are mutually intelligible. Tswana was orally transmitted until the 1800s when British Protestant ministers (seeking Tswana Bantu converts) translated the Bible.
The issue of whether Sotho-Bantu speaking populations (such as the Tswana) came originally from northwest or eastern Africa is debatable, and a precise date is not available as to their arrival in southern regions of the African continent, nor is the actual reason for a mass migration known. However, one motivation may have been the gradual desertification of sub-Saharan Africa beginning approximately 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. This may have caused Bantu populations to leave hypothetical homelands in successive waves. Only one thing is known with certainty: by 1600 the Tswana Bantu speakers inhabited certain regions of present-day Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
At that time, they lived in major towns with satellite villages and practiced swidden agriculture of domesticated millet, sorghum, beans, melons, and morama (a tuber). The Tswana also continued to hunt, fish, and gather. Traditional drinks include palm wine and homemade sorghum beer. The measure of wealth was cattle that were used to pay debts and contract political alliances, and upon marriage cattle comprised payments to the bride’s family; thus cattle were imbued with symbolic value. The breeding and herding of cattle was the responsibility of boys and men who also raised sheep and goats. This work was forbidden to women. Men also raised the timber frames of houses, cleared new fields, and assisted the women and children in planting, weeding, and harvesting crops. All objects of skin, wood, bone, and metal were made by men. This division of labor persists to the present time, except that after oxen were used as draught animals men began to plough. Today women no longer are forbidden to raise cattle; however, the herding and milking of cattle are still done by males.
In traditional households, women were responsible for children, tilling the fields, building huts and granaries, thatching roofs, cooking food, making beer, and raising fowl. Women made the pottery. However, separating subsistence activities into male and female spheres is problematic, as classic studies of the Tswana illustrate, because many tasks were shared by young and old, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, as well as relatives of near and distant kin. Men and women made baskets, but these men and women belonged to certain specialist lineages. Iron and coppersmith families, traditional religious healers, and those specializing in the art of pottery also adhered to hereditary precedents. Knowledge of these particular trades was considered to be a sacred trust that was guarded zealously against all usurpers; it was to be transmitted only from elder to apprenticed youth of certain hereditary lineages (both male and female).
Today, however, globalization makes such ancient crafts nearly obsolete. For example, though traditional skills were transferred to handcrafted furniture production and dressmaking in the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1970s, mass-produced furniture and mass-produced clothing made such skills unnecessary. Sometimes the only viable subsistence strategy is to leave the farming village to earn money as domestic and industrial labor. Many young people move to urban centers in search of work to assist hard-pressed rural families who struggle against drought and the poverty that attends it.
From the 1800s to the 1900s, the British and Dutch divided Tswana lands between them, now respectively called the sovereign states of Botswana and South Africa. Those Tswana who lived in (Reformed Dutch) South Africa were affected by Dutch racial policy called apartheid, the policy that created Bophutetswana, a nonsovereign “Black” country within the “White nation of South Africa.” Those Tswana who lived in Botswana were British subjects and under British “self-rule” policy that encouraged chiefdom as long as the “chief” had the approval of the British colonial administration. The hereditary chief’s power was not absolute but subject to the scrutiny of advisers and council. Often more able and elderly tribal leaders threatened British hegemony, causing the British to appoint a Tswana leader more amenable to British demands, someone who would readily collect taxes for the British and someone who would convince Tswana youth to work for the British for substandard wages under conditions of slavery, separated by geography and custom from white compatriots. Today, though apartheid has been outlawed, indigenous populations of Africa, such as Tswana, continue to fight against landed and monied proponents of apartheid, an entrenched hegemony difficult to either identify or eradicate.
As the Tswana Bantu have been economically colonized, so too have the Tswana sustained incursion of Christian ideology. Various European religionists sought to impose their religious beliefs upon Tswana Bantu. In the 1800s, British rule allowed the influx of many Christian denominations including Congregationalists (the London Mission Society), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, all of whom founded missions among the Tswana populations. However, despite their diligent attempts to convert the Tswana tribes, a recent Botswana government survey suggests that to a great extent the Tswana have retained ancient religious practices, such as the veneration of the ancestors and a belief in the efficacy of magic spells. According to this survey, as many as 50% of the Tswana may practice traditional religion. The next largest religious group is Roman Catholic. Various Protestant sects divide the remainder of the Tswana among themselves. Women are generally more involved with evangelical brands of Christianity than men, who often espouse indifference to it. Another complication is that those who avow Christianity and who regularly attend Christian services of various denominations may also venerate the ancestors with prescribed sacrifices and ceremonials. These same people may also continue to consult traditional religious specialists (shamans) and healers when modern medical practices fail, or when the cost of Western medical care is prohibitive.
The most eminent anthropologist of Tswana culture was Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). Schapera was research assistant to Bronislaw Malinowski while fulfilling Ph.D. requirements at the London School of Economics in the 1920s. He also fulfilled the position of professor at the University of Capetown from 1935 to 1950, dedicating his life to the documentation of Tswana Bantu history, law, art, language, literature, custom, and religion. Many contemporary anthropologists owe him gratitude for his pioneering work among the Tswana.
- Parson, J. (1984). Botswana: Liberal democracy and the labor reserve in southern Africa. London: Gower.
- Schapera, I., & Comaroff, J. L. (1991). The Tswana. London: Kegan Paul.
- Shillington, K. (1985). The colonisation of the southern Tswana 1870-1900. Braamfontein, South Africa: Ravan Press.