The Tswanas are a tribe who migrated from East Africa to southern Africa during the 14th century. The origin of the name ‘Tswana’ is a mystery, but is applied to a number of groups who all speak the same language, have similar customs, but separate names.
The Tswana migrated into central southern Africa in the 14th century. As hunters, herders and cultivators they found the high plains to their liking. Game animals abounded, the grass was excellent for cattle, there were no serious endemic livestock diseases and the soil was deep and easy to cultivate.
Sorghum, beans, pumpkins, sweet melons and gourds were planted, and the Tswana found that maize, introduced by the Portuguese into the country, was also highly productive.
The origin of the name ‘Tswana’ is a mystery. It is applied to a number of groups who all speak the same language, have similar customs, but separate names. None of them ever knew themselves as the Tswana. As with several other people in South Africa, their name was given by foreigners. The meaning is unknown.
The history of the Tswana people is one of continual dissension and fission where disputes, sometimes over chieftain ascendancy, resulted in a section of the tribe breaking away from the main tribe, under the leadership of a dissatisfied chief’s relative, and settling elsewhere. Often the name of the man who led the splinter group was taken as the new tribe’s name.
Today there are 59 different groups in South Africa who now accept the overall name of Tswana. About three-fourths of the Tswana people live in South Africa. Only about one-fourth
live in Botswana, the country named after them.
The Tswana are closely related to the Sotho (of Lesotho and South Africa). The Sotho-Tswana are bonded in language and customs. They claim a common ancestor, Mogale. They share an agrarian culture, social structures, political organization, religious and magical beliefs and also a family life.
All the Sotho and Tswana languages are inherently intelligible, but for political and historical reasons, they have generally been considered as three languages. The larger sub-tribes are often considered as separate tribes with their separate languages.
Traditional Tswana society included men, women, children and “badimo” (ancestors, living dead, having metaphysical powers). A Tswana does not think in terms of individual rights, but of responsibilities to his family and tribe. The father is to be obeyed and respected by his wife and children at all times.
The Sotho-Tswana are organized by lineages, which developed as the tribe grew. The lineages are organized in subunits and communities. Every level exhibits the same social organization, such as the Kgotla, the traditional court, with various officials assigned various duties in the social structure at each level. In traditional Tswana religion (tribal animism) “Modimo” is the great God, or “The Great Spirit.”
Because of the fact that job availability in Botswana is changing from rural to urban, many Tswanas are leaving the villages and not returning. Thus the Tswana are fast becoming a modern secular society, in Botswana as well as South Africa.