The Tswana People

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  • Topic: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho
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  • Published : April 14, 2008
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The Tswana People
Tswana is the name applied to a number of groups who all speak the same language and share similar customs but have separate names. Tswana are defined as a member of the Bantu people inhabiting Botswana, western South Africa, and neighboring areas. They are also called Batswana or Bechuana. The language Tswana is defined as the Sotho language of the Tswana people and is a Bantu language. It may also be referred to as Setswana or Sechuana, and it was the first Sotho language written to have a written form. The principal Tswana clans are the: Barôlông, Bakwêna, Bangwaketse, Bamangwato, Batawana, Batlôkwa, Bakgatla, and Balete. None of these people ever knew themselves as the Tswana because foreigners gave them this name, the meaning and origin of which is unknown. The Tswana people migrated from Eastern Africa into central southern Africa in the 14th century. They lived as hunters, herders, and cultivators in the high plains where there was plenty of game and grass, no serious livestock diseases, and fertile soil. The Tswana were able to grow sorghum, beans, pumpkins, sweet melons, gourds, and after being introduced by the Portuguese, maize was also highly productive. They existed as thriving agricultural communities.

The Tswana are Bantu speaking people originated in the Katanga area that is today part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Between 200 and 500 CE, this group expanded across sub-Saharan Africa, crossed the Limpopo River, and entered into the area known today as South Africa. This migration occurred in two broad waves, by the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana. The Sotho-Tswana settled primarily in the Highveld, the large and relatively high central plateau of southern Africa. And, by 1000 CE, the Bantu had colonized most of South Africa, with the exception of the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, which were inhabited by Khoisan people.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sotho-Tswana society was shaken by two major developments. First was the Difaqane or “the crushing.” This was the forced migration and upheaval caused by the rise of the Zulu nation. Within two decades, under the reign of Shaka, this nation evolved from a typical Bantu-speaking decentralized pastoral society into a highly centralized nation-state with a powerful standing army. The second disruption was the advance of Boer settlers from the Cape Colony into the interior territory that has been populated by Sotho-Tswana peoples. The settlers were called voortrekkers and sought to leave British rule after the British seized the Cape Colony from the Netherlands.

In an effort to repel attacks from the Nguni groups fleeing Zulu conquest, King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho people was able to weld numerous clans into a kingdom and reach an understanding with the Zulu to prevent their attempting to conquer his kingdom. This state was strong enough to keep the Boers at bay and maintained its independence after the formation of the Orange Free State. Then, as tensions between the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal and the British increased, Moshoeshoe maneuvered between them and ultimately fought to a stalemate when diplomacy had failed. As a result, Britain protected Lesotho, previously Basutoland, as a Crown Colony. Thus, it never became a part of South Africa and became the independent nation of Botswana in 1965.

Further north, the less centralized Sotho and Batswana did not fare as well as the Basotho during the Difaqane. The Matabele rebelled against the Zulu and fled KwaZula, or Zululand. The Matabele killed many of the Batswana before they became better prepared to fend off invasion attempts and the Matabele finally settled in the southwest region of modern Zimbabwe.

Later, the British and Boer South African Republic divided the territory of Batswana. Then, after the British defeat of the South African Republic in the Anglo-Boer War, some of the territory became part of...
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