Clans & Totems in Xhosa Culture



The Xhosas are one of the four Nguni tribes of South Africa, along with the Ndebeles, Zulus, and Swazis. They are traditionally found in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

What is a clan?

Clans are a group of people or families that might have different surnames but share one clan name. For example, Jola is the clan, but the nation is called AmaMpondomise. A  clan can be traced to families’ first ancestor. Not all Xhosa-speaking people belong to the amaXhosa nation, whose rulership descends from amaTshawe, the Gcaleka, and Rharhabe rulerships. The amaXhosa nation are descendants of the line of Tshiwo ka Phalo, who begot Gcaleka and Rharhabe. 

XHOSA TRIBES: In Xhosa culture, each tribe is divided into clans, and a person’s family history can be traced back to a specific male ancestor. Clan names are highly esteemed and carry a lot of cultural significance. For example, it is considered essential to know a person’s clan name before pursuing a romantic relationship, as individuals with the same clan name are not allowed to marry or have a romantic relationship. Mentioning someone’s clan name is a sign of respect and gratitude; using it rather than their surname is seen as a more meaningful way to address them.

The Xhosa nation is divided into two main clans or sub-tribes: the amaGcaleka and the amaRharhabe. The amaGcaleka, also known as the AmaXhosa omthonyana or original Xhosas, is made up of the following clans: AmaTshawe, amaKhwemte, AmaJwarha, OoKrila, AmaKwayi, AmaQocwa, Amankabane, ooTyani, ooThangani, and ooMtakwende. The amaRharhabe consist of the following clans: AmaNgqika, amaMbalu, amaNtinde, amaGqunukhwebe, imiDange, imiDushane, and amaNdlambe. The amaGcaleka and amaRharhabe are traditionally found in different parts of the Eastern Cape, with the amaGcaleka in the former Transkei region and the amaRharhabe in the former Ciskei region.

The House of Phalo split into the amaGcaleka and amaRharhabe, and the leadership of the Xhosa kingdom is currently being contested between these two houses. The issue of a unified Xhosa kingdom remains unresolved. These nations or groups include several clans, also known as iziduko, of the amaXhosa and related ethnic groups, including: 

AMAMPONDO: The AmaMpondo have a traceable lineage from Sibiside to Dlemini to Njanya, Mpondo, Mpondomise (twins), and Xesibe. The descendants of Mpondo are Santsabe, Sukude, Msiza, Ncindise, Cabe, Gangata, Bhala, Chithwayo, Khonjwayo, Ngcoya, Hlamandana, Thahla, Nyawuza, and many others. The Pondos or AmaPondo’s clan names are Nyawuza, Khwalo, Khwetshube, Tshonyane, Amantlane, AmaZangwa, OKhiwa, and Khonjane.

AMAMPONDOMISE: The Mpondomise were a group of twin brothers who separated after a fight and went on to found their own tribe. The Mpondomise have their own dialect, known as isiMpompondomise, which is now endangered. They intermarried with the San people, and some clans, such as the Jola, claim to be descended from San women. The Amampondomise are a distinct tribe with many clans, including Jola, Debeza, Qadi, Mpinga, Mpehle (Sikhomo), Mhaga, Nxotha, Nxuba, Dosini, Qhinebe, Ngxabane, Ngwevu, Ngitshana, Bhukwana, Zongozi, Mabhengu, Krancolo, Nxasana, Nxane, Gcanga, Zongozi, Ndobe, Mpehle, Fola, Magoba, and Mnjuza.

AMAXESIBE: Previously, the Xhosa people considered the AmaXesibe and AmaQwathi nations to be clans, as they are related and come from the same ancestral house. Most of the Xesibe are located along the Umtamvuna river in the Eastern Cape. The descendants of Xesibe include Ntozabantu, Ndzuza, Miyana, Bimbi, and Nondzaba, who begot Hlabe, Mthetho, and Mtshutshumbe. The Xesibe clans include Nondzaba, Sinama, Noni, Ndlovana, Khuma, Blwange, Sidindi, Mnune, Nxontsa, and Nondize. Their clan totems are cattle and bees. 

AMAQWATHI: This nation was founded by Mtshutshumbe, who split from the amaXesibe nation based in Mount Aylif. They moved and settled in Thembuland in the AmaQwathi nation was founded by Mtshutshumbe, who split off from the amaXesibe nation based in Mount Aylif. They moved and settled in Thembuland, in the Mqanduli area, over 350 years ago. The Thembu people gave the AmaXesibe, under the leadership of Noni, the name AmaQwathi, after a sacred bull called Qwathi. After some time, the AmaQwathi extended their territory and moved to the western part of the old Transkei region, in a place called Engcobo, known for its sweet grass and traditionally referred to as EmaQwathini, or the land of the AmaQwathi. Engcobo is significant in South African history as it is the home of Clarkbury High School, which Nelson Mandela attended, and where anti-apartheid activist and ANC leader Walter Sisulu was born. The AmaQwathi clans include Dikela, Tshaba, Dumba, Cakeni, Sidindi, Bhose, Blangwe, Ncayi, Ntondo, Mhotho, Bhabha, Nzolo, Vumbe, Khombayo, Bangula, Mkhondweni, and Khebesi.

The amaMpondo, amaMpondomise, amaXesibe, and amaQwathi nations are related. Still, the amaQwathi settled in Thembuland more than 350 years ago, so Qwathi chiefdom is more Thembu in culture and political association.

AMAHLUBI: The Hlubis were a distinct group of people who were illiterate and led by their chief, Langalibalele. They were distinguished from other groups in the area, such as the Zulus, by their tekela dialect and certain customs. Only some members of this nation remain in the old Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, though some may be found in Qumbu, Tsomo, Mt. Frere, Matatiele, and Herschell. The Amahlubi, descendants of the Hlubis, can be found throughout South Africa and are divided into over 20 clans that pay allegiance to Isilo Langalibalele II. The Hlubi clans include Rhadebe, Dontsa, Kheswa, and Nkwali. Rhadebe was a prominent figure among the Hlubis known for his knowledge of kingship medicine and rainmaking and was consulted by neighboring tribes on these matters

AMAMFENGU (AMAMBO): AmaMfengu is also known as AmaMbo: AmaMfengu came to the land of amaXhosa, fleeing from attacks during the Mfecane wars in the 1800s. Their nation includes these clan names; – Tolo, Maduna, Ndlangisa, Mfingo, Nkomo, Dlamini, Shweme, Ndlangisa being (Khumalo, Miya, Jama, Ndlela, Nozulu, Gatyeni, Skhosana, Ndlovu, and Bhele). 

AMAGQUNUKHWEBE:  AmaGqunukhwebe was created under the reign of King Tshiwo of amaXhosa, who was a grandfather to Gcaleka and Rharhabe. Their clan names include – AmaNqarhwane, Tshonyane, Sukwini, AmaGiqwa, OosiThathu, Gqwashu, Gqunu, Cethe.

AMABOMVANA: The Bomvana people are native to the Elliotdale district in the Transkei region, located between the Umtata and Mbhashe Rivers. They are known as the “red blanket people” and strongly emphasize preserving their cultural values. The introduction of education in the Bomvana community led to the emergence of two groups: the “red” illiterate people, known as the amaqaba, who paint their faces with red and orange ochre, and the literate people, known as the “school” or amagqobhoka. The amaqaba believed education was unnecessary for girls, who were expected to marry and have children, while boys were allowed to continue their education until they could write letters. As time passed, some members of the amaqaba group married members of the amagqobhoka group, leading to the emergence of a third group known as the amaguquka, or those who changed from the amaqaba to the amagqobhoka way of life. The Bomvana clans include Tshezi, Gebe, and Gqwarhu.

ABATHEMBU: The late President Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, belonged to the Thembu tribe. This tribe is believed to have migrated from the Great Lakes region to present-day KwaZulu–Natal and eventually settled in the Eastern Cape. The Thembu are a part of the Xhosa-speaking people and were led by the grandson of Mbulali, known as Thembu, to settle in the old Transkei. Today, the Thembu can be found in Willovale. The clans within the AbaThembu include Madiba, Ntande, Gxongo, Gcina, Qithi, Ndungwana, Maya, Qhudeni, and Mpangela.

ABESUTHU: Their clan names are Mvulane, Mfene, Ngqosini, Vundle, Nzaba, Gambu, Maduna, and Mkhumbeni.

AMABHACA: This nation is known for its bravery. They were defeated by Ngubengcuka and his men and were told to settle in Rhode, Bhencuthi, and Mbo in the Eastern Cape region. Their clans include:

Mjoli, Bhele, Hlubi, Chiya Mpafane, Wushe, Zulu, Tshezi, Juta, Jili, Gusha, Njilo, Tolo, Ndlangisa, Mweli, Ncwabe, Nqolo, Khambule, Dladla, Mbotho, Sinama, Manguse, maBhovu, Gebashe, Masoka, and Madzana.


Totems are symbols that represent a particular group, such as a clan or lineage, and are often connected to the group’s origin and survival. Totems can be animals, plants, reptiles, birds, insects, or objects and represent a connection between humans and the natural world, often associated with power, wisdom, spirits, respect, trust, and understanding. If a family has a particular animal as their totem, they are not allowed to eat or harm that animal but rather must protect and care for it as it is seen as a spiritual protector. Totems are also tied to the religion and success of community members, and those who share the same totem are considered related, even if they are not biologically related. It can be challenging for individuals with the same totem to get approval to marry, but they are considered part of the same family if they visit a place and find a family with the same totem. 

Each clan has its totem. Examples of a few totems among the Xhosa people are illustrated below:

The crab (unonkala) is usually found within the Amahlubi nation with the OoRhadebe clan. Rhadebes are regarded as river people- so unonkala resides in the water. This crab is also believed to appear when a Rhadebe woman is about to give birth or when a traditional ceremony is held, and lastly, if there is a complaint against some clan members. Respect will be given to the crab by both men and women. Some traditional beer, umqombothi, will be made to drive unonkala away. Sometimes that doesn’t help, and the crab stays longer than expected. In such instances, the clan will consult a diviner to look deeper into the matter.

Iguana is a reptile that stays along the river and in the forest. It is known as uxam in the Xhosa culture. The Ntshilibe clan that falls under amaXhosa – the Gcalekas worship the iguana as their totem. It appears only to the blood relatives of the Ntshilibe family. When the family sees it, men and women will give it respect and show humility by saying their Ntshilibe praises. Like in other totems, its appearance is regarded as some form of ancestral visitation. Traditional beer will be brewed and served among the Ntshilibe clan members. Women will be expected to ukuhlonipha during this occasion by wearing scarfs around their shoulders and covering their heads. During this beer-drinking, older clan men will give speeches and praises to show gratitude to the uxam for its visitation. It will then disappear after this occasion. A diviner will be consulted for clarification if it stays longer than expected. 

A dog: The Mnkabane clan belief is that a dog (inja) as their totem represents spiritual guidance by the ancestors. It is forbidden to kill any dog wandering around the vicinity if you belong to this clan. This dog will generally appear in the form of a dream. The clan members believe that if you dream of a dog playing cheerfully with you, that symbolizes good fortune and a happy, peaceful life. When a dog appears growling and barking at you in a dream, it is a sign/warning that something terrible might befall the family. In some other dreams, the dog may bite you. The biting symbolizes something is not well with the clan members; there is tension and anger among the family members. If the clan cannot find answers regarding a certain dream involving a dog, or if the dreams come repeatedly, the clan member(s) will consult a witch doctor (igqirha) for more insight and answers.

Red Ants and Bees: These totems may not belong to any of the clans as they may appear in any of the clans. Their appearance will be explained differently according to the clan’s beliefs. The nation that has claimed ownership of these totems is the Abathembu, with a clan known as ooMadiba. When the bees visit, they enter a swamp and occupy any space inside or outside the house. Nobody should chase these bees. They are instead treated with respect as their presence is regarded as a message from the ancestors. Umqombothi (traditional beer) will be brewed, and the older family members of the clan will speak, thanking them for their visitation and persuading them to leave. After a few days, they will go. The family will then enjoy the honey from the beeswax as a sign that icamagu livumile (all is well). Should they not leave even after this brewing, the family will visit a diviner for guidance. If the answer is that the ancestors are angry towards the family, a male cow must be slaughtered as a way of ukungxengxeza (asking for pardon/ forgiveness). All the family members of that clan will be expected to sleep in a grass hut where they will be worshipping the whole night before the day of the slaughtering. Then the bees will eventually leave after this occasion. The red ants, known as ubugqwangu, will occupy almost every room in the house in small groups. The same procedure (same as with the bees) will be done for the ants until they disappear or leave.


Despite the advanced dispersal among the Xhosa clans, their clan system has remained intact. The clanship itself is sustained by a degree of coherence that obtains between conceptions of domains such as society, nature, and the ancestral, within which clanship persists as a context for interpersonal relationships and as a cognitive orientation within Xhosa culture.

However, the Indigenous knowledge system is currently gaining popularity and is being incorporated into the formal education system to preserve indigenous knowledge for posterity. 

The totems are there to keep the thread of communication alive between the living and the ancestor world. Respecting the totem’s visitation is very important in the Xhosa culture. Although minor changes influence environmental perceptions, the traditional significance of clans and totems remains vital.