XHOSA, RED XHOSA (South Africa) (®GUS VOL. II, § 



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“Teenagers reported that their first sexual encounters occurred at a young age, usually around 13 or 14 years (but as young as 11). In the majority of cases male partners (the first and subsequent) were said to be older than the girls by about five years […]”[1]. Mayer and Mayer (1970:p175)[2] stated: “Early sex play is regarded indulgently by adults, including the play of children out herding who “learn” by seeing animals mate and “may try to copy them”. “All this is only childishness”. The boy is rather a “bull” (unsocialised) than an “ox” (socialised sexuality) (Mayer and Mayer, 1990:p37)[3]. In an illustrative paper by Ntlabati et al[4] (cf. Kelly and Parker, 2000:p31-3)[5] adolescents construe their coitarche in contradistinction to sexual games, including undize, or coital “hide-and-seek” (cf. Vol. II, § Identifying a multifactorially determined “shift away from parental mediation of sexual enculturation towards a youth and peer-based framework for the same”, Ntlabati, Kelly and Mankayi (2001; note how Undize, hide-and-seek[6], as traditionally played in a deep rural area of the Eastern Cape in South Africa by children aged 7 to the early teens, acquired a coital, as well as a more invariably sexual, level over the past 50 years. This has strained the definition of curricular categories[7]:


“[…] there used to be a strong distinction between sexual experimentation and sexual intercourse. This distinction appears to have blurred so that sexual experimentation much more rapidly evolves into intercourse, to the extent that Undize now involves sexual penetration, albeit somewhere between experimentation and fully-fledged, passion-driven intercourse”.


Thus, while “[l]earning about sex through play is hardly unusual, but in this case the play tends towards reality”. This discourse is suggested by the respondents persistent minimalising of the occurrences:


Female: “[…] it was nothing serious at that stage [12 a 13 to 15]” / “[…] it was not really serious. There was penetration but there was no ejaculation. We were just doing it and we didn’t even experience any form of pleasure. Hence I say it was nothing serious”. Male: “I was 15 and this was nothing serious. We were just playing Undize”.


These ramifications are significant enough to put data such as “[a]n astonishing 22% had their first sexual experience at or below the age of 11 years” on misty grounds (note that the authors do not define their measure of “sexual debut”).


Another account of Xhosa coitarche performances and negotiations leaves out games entirely, instead identifying intercourse as a performance of “love” and “growing up”:


“First sexual encounters were mostly reported to have occurred at a young age, often 12 years, with a male partner who was older by about five years. The consistently reported pattern was that women accepted male requests to establish a liaison, as revealed in the words ‘he asked me if we could love each other and then I agreed’. To these young women, agreement to love was equated specifically with having penetrative intercourse and being available sexually. This equation clearly derived from their male partners, who told the women that sex was the ‘purpose’ of being ‘in love’, that people ‘in love’ must have sex ‘as often as possible’, and that sexual intercourse was ‘what grown-ups do’. These constructions of love, apparently defined entirely by men, constituted the major reason to begin and continue sexual activity for the teenage women”[8].


However, the researchers (1997)[9]note that “[m]any of the adolescents described sex as ‘playing’. One girl explained that some teenagers (particularly those from poor families) had sex frequently because there were no other activities available to them: ‘it starts with the girls because we are lost. You just do a thing, not thinking about the after-effects; it’s nice to go with boys’ ”. Adding to the confusion, male adolescents’ sexuality discourse is complicated with themes of violence and infidelity, boys arguing they are “played with”[10]by girls in their love trajectories.


With puberty the children must learn to refrain from any mention or hint of sexual things in their parents’ presence […] it is merely the hlonipha (respect behaviour) due to parents. Girls in the intutu grades- pre-adolescent or barely adolescent- are already learning about the permissibility of metsha, external sexual intercourse. Invariably this instruction is said to be given by the older girls and never on any account by the mother, for hlonipha reasons”. Until marriage, keeping to metsha is a cardinal rule of youthful sex “play” (p175-8). Among the Xhosa, children are never told about conception, and only seldom witness parental coitus. Males are circumcised at ages 18-22, after which they are told “the laws” (incl. adultery prohibition) by “the old men” (Laidler, 1922)[11]. Premarital virginity is important, marriage occurs at about age 15. Girls must not eat eggs for it would lead to promiscuity (Ames and Daynes, 1974)[12]. “Children were never told about contraception. They seldom witnessed parental intercourse and if they did so inadvertently, they were frightened by the “fighting”. When children asked where the baby came from, they were told that it was bought from the shop or the hospital, “because you should not each a child bad things. If the child is clever and not satisfied with this answer, or has seen sheep giving birth, we tell him that children are born from the knees of the mother because we don’t want them to think that giving birth and going to the toilet are the same thing. The difference between the sexes that is clear to all semi-naked toddlers is usually “explained” by the older children to the younger, the penis often being referred to as ncolosi (the Xhosa name for St. Lucy’s Hospital). A girl may take hold of a boy’s penis, saying she would like to have it. “This is how intercourse begins”. Girls are seldom told about menstruation before the menarche”, and interpret it as traumatic. Girls are not usually told about menstruation until it occurs (age 14). Indeed, only 2 of 30 rural schoolgirls (mean age 17.8) claimed to have had any sex education at school (O’Mahony, 1987)[13]. The earliest admitted “sexual experience” was 14, mean age of first 16.4.


[Additiona refs.: Collins, T. & Stadler, J. (2001) Love, Passion and Play: Sexual Meaning among Youth in the Northern Province of South Africa. Paper presented at International Conference, AIDS in Context, April 4-7, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Cf. Ibid, J Anthropologues  [Montrouge] 82-83:325-37]





Pauw (1963:p111-3, 114, 115, 116)[14] states that in East London “[s]exual activity commonly starts at an early age, long before marriage”. Intercrural intercourse was permitted to unmarried people to avoid premarital pregnancy. However, the majority of town Bantu accept full sexual intercourse as a normal feature of premarital relations. The majority of girls was not prepared for menstruation. After menarche girls are told the possibility of pregnancy. “Other mothers only gave a vague warning not to play or laugh with boys, because they are “dangerous”, “mischievous”, “cruel”, or “rough”. A few girls claimed that they did not realize the significance of their condition when they became pregnant”. One girl was told that babies are bought at the market. “Sex instruction was not discussed in detail with boys, but it is our impression that in the home they get even less of this than girls. Admonitions during initiation may include warnings against making girls pregnant, and immodesty (e.g., not to embrace a girl in view of older people), but there is no evidence of any instruction in sexual technique as part of the initiation ceremonies in town. This the boys [...] learned from the older ones”. “Children start having “sweethearts”, “boy-friends” or “girl-friends”, “cherries” (girls), or iintokazi (lit., female things) from 10 or 11 years onwards”. This varies in intensity. The early timing of the “love-making” is attributed by the respondents to the freedom associated with single-parent household, giving way to unsupervised interplay; others referred to the compromised privacy of the home causing “their being aware of their parents’ sexual relations from an early age”. “Intensive petting- referred to as unkuncokolisa (to excite sexually), uku-phathaphatha (the intensive form of the verb ukuphatha, to touch or feel), or by the English word “romance”, used both as noun and verb- and with it sexual intercourse, are often part of a love-affair from an early age. Cases of pregnancy are known to occur from 12 years age and onward. Among the informants 14 was the youngest age at which one of them first experienced sexual intercourse. From 16 onwards most young people have love-affairs in which intercourse is a common element”. However, there is a deal of interindividual variability. Some have multiple simultaneous lovers: a major one (makhonya, known lover), and a “minor” one (osecaleni, “one on the side”).



Additional references


  • Mzwandile, Plaatjie Ronald (2003) Male Xhosa- speaking adolescents' perceptions of sex and love and the implications of Transmission of HIV/AIDS. Thesis, University of the Western Cape



Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Mar 2005


[1] Wood, K., Maforah, F. & Jewkes, R. (1998) “He forced me to love him”: putting violence on adolescent sexual health agendas, Soc Sci & Med 47,2,16:233-42

[2] Mayer, Ph. & Mayer, I. (1970) Socialization by peers: the youth organization of the Red Xhosa, in Mayer. Ph. (Ed.) Socialization: The Approach from Anthropology. London [etc.]: Tavistock, p159-89

[3] Mayer, Ph. & Mayer, I. (1990) A dangerous age: from boy to young man in Red Xhosa youth organizations, in Spencer, P. (Ed.) Anthropology and the Riddle of the Sphinx. London & New York: Routledge, p35-44. See also Wood, K. & R. Jewkes, R. (2001) ‘Dangerous Love’: Reflections on Violence among Xhosa Township Youth, in Morrell, R. (Ed.) Of Boys and Men: Masculinity and Gender in Southern African Studies. Durban: University of Natal, and ibid., in Morrell, R. (Ed., 2001) Changing Men in Southern Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press / London: Zed Press, p317-36

[4] Ntlabati, Kelly, K. & Mankayi, A. (April, 2001) The First Time: An Oral History of Sexual Debut in a Deep Rural Area. Conference presentation, AIDS in Context Conference, University of the Witwatersrand

[5] Kelly, K. & Parker, W. (Nov., 2000) Communities of Practice: Contextual Mediators of Youth Response to HIV/AIDS. Sentinel Site Monitoring and Evaluation Project. Stage Two Report, Commissioned by Beyond Awareness Campaign, HIV/AIDS and STD Directorate, Dept of Health

[6] U ndize. Children call out “Ndize?” Can I come? The game was mentioned in Nelson Mandela’s 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown & Co. “Usually the boys played among themselves, but we sometimes allowed our sisters to join us. Boys and girls would play games like ndize (hide and-seek) and icekwa (touch-and-run). But the game I most enjoyed playing with the girls was what we called khetha, or choose-the-one-you-like. This was not so much an organized game, but a spur-of-the-moment sport that took place when we accosted a group of girls our own age and demanded that each select the boy she loved. Our rules dictated that the girl's choice be respected and once she had chosen her favorite, she was free to continue on her journey escorted by the lucky boy she loved. But the girls were nimble-witted--far cleverer than we doltish lads--and would often confer among themselves and choose one boy, usually the plainest fellow, and then tease him all the way home”.

[7] See also Stadler, J. (1998) Sex as Play and as Procreation: Adolescent Constructions of Sexuality in the Northern Province of South Africa. 4th Reproductive Health Priorities Conference, Aug 18 - 21. Johannesburg, South Africa

[8] Wood, K., Maforah, F. & Jewkes, R. (1996) Sex, Violence and Constructions of Love Among Xhosa Adolescents: Putting Violence on the Sexuality Education Agenda. MRC Technical report, Medical Research Council, Cape Town, p3

[9] Wood, K., Maepa, J. & Jewkes, R. (1997) Adolescent Sex and Contraceptive Experiences: Perspectives of Teenagers and Clinic Nurses in the Northern Province. MRC Technical Report, Pretoria, p11, 35

[10] Wood, K. & Jewkes, R. (1998) 'Love is a Dangerous Thing': Micro-Dynamics of Violence in Sexual Relationships of Young People in Umtata. Medical Research Council Technical Report: Pretoria, p10, 24

[11] Laidler, P. W. (1922) Bantu Ritual Circumcision, Man22:13-4

[12]Ames, F. R. & Daynes, W. G. (1974) Some impressions of family life in Tsolo (Transkei), South Afr Med J 48:1961-4

[13] O’Mahony, D. (1987) Schoolgirl pregnancies in Libode, Transkei, South Afr Med J 71,12:771-3

[14] Pauw, B. A. (1963) The Second Generation: A Study of the Family among Urbanized Bantu in East London. Cape Town: OxfordUniversity Press. Chapter six, p108-23, deals with pre-marital sexuality.