Unusual South African Customs

Lauren Folkard


South Africa is a very multicultural society and therefore has many different customs. South Africa has 9 provinces and 11 official languages and so you can imagine all the different cultures and customs. To name some of these languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho and Xhoza. South Africa has a democratic government and has three capitals, namely Cape Town, the legislative capital, Pretoria, the administrative capital and Bloemfontein, the judicial capital.


Our English customs are very much the same as Britain because South Africa was once a British colony and was influenced greatly by them. The same with the Afrikaans customs, these were influenced by the Dutch immigrants during the late 1820's. 

Some unusual customs that stemmed from this time were rusks and biltong. Rusks being dried biscuits and biltong, dried meat, usually beef. During the great trek of the British and Dutch settlers from what is today Cape Town, inland, they had no coolerbags or fridge's. Thus they had to make food that would not become rotten and that would last days without having to be kept cold. They would salt the meat and dry the bread. This is where rusks and biltong came from and it is custom now to have rusks with tea and coffee or milo!

Milktart and koeksisters are other types of food that originated from the great Trek and are often eaten with your tea/coffee when you have guests over.


In all the schools throughout South Africa everyone wears school uniforms, this might be unusual for countries such as America and Canada where they don't wear school uniforms.


Our main school sports are Soccer, Rugby, Cricket and Hockey and our national sports are Soccer/Football, Rugby and Cricket.

In the new South Africa it has become traditional to give our national sports teams African names:


Our U21 soccer team: Amaglugglug

Our soccer team: Bafana Bafana

Our rugby team: Amabokkebokke

Our paraplegic team: Amacrokkecrokke


One of our most famous annual custom is our Comrades Marathon. This is a 90km road race that is run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg every year and Pietermariztburg to Durban every second year. In the year 2000 we had approximately 25000 runners participating in this road race. Another famous custom is the Argus, which is a big cycling race which takes place in Cape Town. This road race is 120km long and is pretty tough!


The Zulu culture has many unusual customs that are different from today's western cultures. These are some traditional Zulu customs which are still practiced in parts of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

The wealth of a Zulu man is determined by how many cattle, goats and sheep he owns.

When a young man wants to marry a young girl he must get permission from the girl's father and pay him a 'lebola' which is a certain number of cattle.

The chief of a Zulu village is allowed to have as many wives as he can afford, this can range from 1 to 11 wives.

When a young girl gets married, she then has to wear certain coloured beads in her hair and around her skirt so that everyone in the village can see that she is married.

The host will always walk into the hut before his guest in case there might be a snake or something else inside the hut which would be harmful to the guest.

Some of these customs also overflow into the other South African cultures such as the Sotho culture.


From some of the many examples I have given you today, you can now see what a diverse and multicultural country South Africa really is. It is an exciting country to be part of as it is forever growing and developing and is quite fascinating to study. I hope you have gained as much from this presentation as I have. Thank you.





Catherine Stewart



South Africa is proud of its diverse cultural wealth and traditions.  Although some cultural traditions and customs have been forsaken others still form an integral part of our daily life, often blending with each other and with modern elements to present a fascinating combination of old and new. 

I thought I would highlight some of the unusual customs, which form an integral part of certain ethnic groups.



The Xhosa-speaking peoples inhabit the Eastern Cape from the Kwa-Zulu Natal border to the Eastern Cape Zuurveld.

A boy among the Xhosa is a ‘thing’ and not a person until he has been through the Tribe’s circumcision rite.  This rite is known as the UKWALUSA (circumcision) or the ABAKWETHA ritual and it is the most important event in any male’s life.  The full ritual is spread over a period of about 3 months.


The event usually takes place in the boy’s late teens but sometimes, when they are particularly wild and cannot be controlled by their parents, boys are put in earlier to sober them up and to instill responsibility into them.  The interesting part about the rite is that it indisputably does have this effect.  The reason is not because of any punishment or discipline that is exercised over the initiate in the school itself but purely, it seems, because of the psychological power the rite has.  There have been cases of widows whose sons, without a father’s restraint,

were quite out of control and spent their time thieving and getting up to all the mischief imaginable, who in the end were physically caught by the men of a kraal and taken struggling and shouting to the surgeon with his sharpened assegai.  They were in each case completely reformed as a result of the ceremony.


The surgeon arrives at sunrise and as he passes the family huts, the women start wailing.  Those whom he passes have to be careful because he flails his arms and his assegai around, not worried about injuring anyone.


As he comes in sight of the initiates he screams viciously referring to them as ‘dogs’ and ‘things’.

The operation is done with a sharpened blade and the boy must not cry out or even flinch in pain.  As he operates the doctor says, “You are a man!” and throws the excised portion on the ground in front of the boy who has to repeat, “I am a man!” as he picks up the portion and holds it in his clenched hand.  After this, the initiates have to go in different directions and bury the portions in an ant heap where the ants will eat them up so that a sorcerer cannot find them and make medicine from them.  If the portions were used for such a purpose then the initiates’ wounds would never heal.


The wound is bound with special leaves supposedly having healing properties and mud is then packed over it.


The surgeon then smears a mixture of ant heap and water on the face and chest of the initiates and makes them drink a mouthful of the mixture.   This makes their hearts hard like an ant heap, so that they won’t be cowards in their future lives as men.  It also prevents them from being dizzy.


The initiates are next painted white with chalk or clay from head to foot and then they wrap themselves up in their new blankets so that they will not catch cold.  They are then lectured on being honourable Xhosa’s and the father of each initiate pays the surgeon 50 cents.


Traditional circumcision of Xhosa abakhwetah is causing physical and emotional damage to some initiates.  A number of these young men die or are mutilated for life.  Despite this aspect, initiation remains an essential rite of passage to manhood and cultural identity.


Twice a year, hospital wards fill up with young men suffering the agony of circumcisions that have gone wrong.  They arrive severely dehydrated or with sepsis and gangrene.   Sometimes the young men recover, but every initiation season in the Eastern Cape, at least four or five initiates die.  Scores remain mutilated for life. 


Most of them arrive at hospitals seriously ill.  They are there as a last resort, having delayed their admission dangerously.  Once delivered at the hospital entrance by family or friends, the young men are often abandoned.  The wards become wards of shame and the young men sink into deep depression.  They are in hospital because they were desperately ill and often close to death, but it is an option most initiates do not want to consider.  Even if they are not opposed to it, their traditional attendants, family and peers usually are – so the young men prefer to stay in the bush, suffering excruciating pain in silence, trying to make themselves believe it is all part of becoming a man.  But neither this stoicism nor the society that endorses it shows mercy in the tragic circumstances.  Young men who have been hospitalised not only have to suffer the trauma of severe mutilation or even amputation of their penis, they are also ostracised and denied the dignity of being called men.


Initiates are looked down on for going to hospital and they are often made to believe it is their fault that they are suffering complications.  It is said they have done something wrong and are being punished for it – or by natural process of selection, they are being shown up as too weak to qualify as men.  They face a bleak future.  Those young men who have survived have had to draw on great strength of character to face society again.



The Ndebele today mainly live in the former homeland of KwaNdebele in Mpumalanga and around the Northern Province.


The Ndebele could aptly be called ‘The Artist People’, as they are conspicuous, if not unique, in their devotion to art, and their talents seem almost instinctive – born out of a compelling urge to express themselves in colour and design.


Painting is done exclusively by females.  It would be frowned upon if a man were to take up a brush, as the Ndebele are a people of defined customs and habits; they even have a time when a girl is expected to start painting – at the start of puberty.  Young girls are taught by their mothers or older sisters, and almost every family has an artist with some level of talent.


The origins of painting among the South Ndebele are largely unknown, but it can be safely assumed that the practice began at around about the time that houses with mud walls began to emerge.


In Ndebele society it is women who adorn themselves and their dress becomes increasingly spectacular after marriage and with age.  In earlier times, once her home was built an Ndebele wife would wear copper or grass rings around her neck as well as around her arms and legs.  These rings are believed to have strong ritual power, although wearing them on a permanent basis is no longer common practice.  Traditionally the husband provided his wife with her rings and the more rings she wore the greater was her husband’s wealth. They are considered by wives to be a token of bondedness and faithfulness to their husbands.  Only on his death will she remove them.

These are known to cause malformation of the bones in the neck.  On visits to the hospital they are removed to try and rectify the problem and the women are hesitant to put them back because of the discomfort.




The origin of the Zulu probably the largest single population group in South Africa, lies in a small Nguni-speaking chiefdom that emerged near the White Umfolozi River in what is today known as KwaZulu Natal during the 16th century.  Many Zulus have now become urbanised and follow callings in all walks of city life, but a great number are still rural and by and large follow many of the old traditions and customs which were practiced long before the arrival of white people.  For example, a Zulu man may, even today, take as many wives as he likes, provided of course, he can raise the required lobola.


The custom of lobola, that is handing over cattle to the father of the bride as compensation for the ‘loss’ of his daughter, is still common to all the black peoples of southern Africa.  The number of cattle so handed over for a prospective bride will depend on her marriage ability, and a suitor could give upwards of 20 cattle for the daughter of a chief or a girl of similar social standing, while the average family could ask for four or five animals.  Sometimes the consideration handed may also include other livestock such as a horse, household items or blankets, or any other items on which the parties might agree.  The arrangements are made between the families of the prospective spouses, and a girl might in fact not even know she is about to be married.


Of interest is the fact that despite the migration of rural blacks to suburban townships in modern times, the custom of lobola has not disappeared but continues in these areas just as it does in the country.  It is so firmly rooted in black society and so greatly valued for the protection it offers the bride that it is almost certain to remain as an important social custom for the foreseeable future.

In the townships it is usually not a viable proposition to pay the lobola in cattle, so the amount is set in rands.  The average rate is R400.00, though much more will be handed over for a particularly eligible bride.  In deciding lobola in the townships, much emphasis is placed on the degree of education of the prospective bride.


The ears of Zulu children of both sexes are pierced, in accordance with custom, to ensure that ‘the ears of the mind might also hear’.  These holes are gradually stretched by inserting ever-larger objects into them.


The religion of the Zulu, and indeed of all the Nguni peoples, is one of ancestor worship, based on the belief that when a person dies, he or she will continue to watch over his or her people from the spiritual world.

The Zulu have a saying  “According to the power and authority a forefather had in his lifetime, so it is from the place to which he has gone.”    This in effect means that a person carries into the next world the influence that he had during his lifetime.  The spirit of a Zulu king will watch over the whole Zulu nation, for example, while the ancestral spirits of a family will care for that family, as well as their cattle, goats and crops.


The ancestral spirits ‘like to be remembered’, and offerings will be made to them to show that they have not been forgotten.  At family festivals it is usually for the heads of the family to sit beside his cattle byre and pour a little beer on the ground ‘for his fathers’ before he himself starts to drink.  A woman may take a small piece of bread and place it under the eaves of the hut for an old matriarch of the family.  If the ancestors are forgotten, they may show their displeasure by visiting some misfortune on the family.




It was believed for many years that the San in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and Namibia were descendants of fugitive people driven from better-watered parts of Southern Africa. But it seems that these hunter-gatherers have occupied the Kalahari for many thousands of years.


Some San believe that all animals were human beings previously and all human beings were animals. Each San believes that he knows what animal he was in his former life. They believe that all Whites were once springbuck. When a San shoots a springbuck, he smells the ridge along its back to get the ‘pleasant’ smell of the White man. They firmly believe that when they dance, each and every polecat emerges from its burrow to join in the dance just beyond the circle of light cast just beyond the fire.


One peculiarity of San culture from a Western point of view is that each campfire is regarded as a separate social gathering. When a person visits another’s campfire, even if it is only a few yards away, he greets and is welcomed by each individual there in a formal way. Conversations are kept within the circle of people gathered around a single fire and words are not exchanged with people sitting elsewhere. For a San to talk to someone at another fire would be as impolite as for us to enter a conversation with a stranger sitting at another table in a restaurant!





More than half the people of South Africa are affected by tribal values and customs. Westernization and urbanization are however, rapidly reducing these tribal influences. Unfortunately tribal life today is a pale shadow of what it was due to the political, social and economic changes transforming South Africa.