Setswana in 2016

Welcome to the fifth of Bangula’s language blogs, exploring South Africa’s diverse range of official languages and their current state of development.

Each blog will also be released in a translated version as we hope to encourage the use South Africa’s languages.

Setswana is largely found in North West, a province bordering the country of Botswana, where the language dominates. One of South Africa\’s three Sotho languages, it is the country\’s sixth most common home language, being spoken by 8% of the total population, or just over 4-million people.

It is spoken by 63.4% of all North West residents, where 53.8% of all Setswana- speaking South Africans live. It is also found in the Northern Cape, where it is spoken by 33% of the provincial population, as well as in Gauteng (9.1%) and the Free State (5.2%).

Culture and beliefs:

Tswana culture, social organizations, ceremonies, language and religious beliefs are similar to that of the other two Sotho groups (Pedi and Sotho), although some Tswana chiefdoms were more highly stratified than those of other Sotho groups or the Nguni. Tswana culture is often distinguished for its complex legal system, involving a hierarchy of courts and mediators, and harsh punishments for those found guilty of crimes.

Tswana groups are noted for their capacity to absorb foreign peoples, to turn strangers into ‘their’ people, and to do so without compromising the integrity of their own institutions. Socioeconomic mechanisms such as mafisa (which provided for the lending of cattle) and the ward system of tribal administration facilitated the integration of foreigners. Not all peoples were welcomed into the Tswana fold; some remained foreigners, and some became subjects. The latter category includes peoples of the desert (Bakgalagadi and Bushmen) who are accorded a servile status termed ‘Batlhanka’ or ‘Boiata’.

Although the Tswana received Christian missionaries in the early nineteenth century and most belong to a church today, pre-colonial beliefs retain strength among many Tswana. Missionaries brought literacy, schools, and Western values, all of which facilitated the transition to migrant wage labour. In pre-colonial times Tswana believed in a Supreme Being, Modimo, a creator and director, but nonetheless distant and remote. More immediate and having a greater influence in daily affairs were the ancestors, Badimo. Most Tswana today belong to African Independent churches that incorporate Christian and non-Christian practices, beliefs, and symbols. The Tswana seek medical help from a number of sources, including clinics and hospitals, traditional practitioners, and Christian healers. For example, they still believe in consulting the traditional healer ngak, who is supposed to have powers to intercede on their behalf with the ancestors.

There are a few specialized Tswana arts; wood carving and basket weaving and beadwork is practiced by some and houses are often beautifully designed and painted. Song (pina) and dance (pino) are highly developed forms of artistic expression. Choirs perform and compete with each other on official and ritual occasions. They compose lyrics that offer narratives and critiques of the past and present.

  • Home language to: 8% of the population (4 067 248 people)
  • Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Sotho-Tswana > Tswana
  • Alternate and historical names: Chuana, Coana, Cuana, Tswana, Sechuana, Beetjuans
  • Dialects: Hurutshe, Kwena, Ngwato, Ngwaketse, Tlhaping, Rolong, Tlokwa, Kgatla, Lete (originally a non-Tswana tribe). Other dialects include Khurutshe, Kubung, and Nare. Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana are largely mutually intelligible, but are separate languages.


Source: Census 2011 and Ethnologue