The Xhosa people are divided into several tribes with related yet distinct heritages. The main tribes are the amaGcaleka, amaRharhabe, imiDange, imiDushane, and amaNdlambe. In addition, there are other tribes found near or among the Xhosa people such as abaThembu, amaBhaca, abakoBhosha and amaQwathi that are distinct and separate tribes which have adopted the isiXhosa language and the Xhosa way of life.
The name "Xhosa" comes from that of a legendary leader and King called uXhosa. There is also a fringe theory that, in fact the King's name which has since been lost among the people was not Xhosa, but that "xhosa" was a name given to him by the San and which means "fierce" or "angry" in Khoisan languages. The Xhosa people refer to themselves as the amaXhosa, and to their language as isiXhosa.
Presently approximately 8 million Xhosa are distributed across the country, and the Xhosa language is South Africa's second-most-populous home language, after the Zulu language, to which Xhosa is closely related. The pre-1994 apartheid system of Bantustans denied the Xhosa South African citizenship, but enabled them to have self-governing "homelands" namely; Transkei and Ciskei, now both a part of the Eastern Cape Province where most Xhosa remain. Many Xhosa live in Cape Town (eKapa in Xhosa), East London (eMonti), and Port Elizabeth (eBhayi).
The Xhosa are part of the South African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region around the Great Lakes. Xhosa people were already well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-17th century, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from around the Port Elizabeth area to lands inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban.
In the years following, many tribes found in the north eastern parts of South Africa were pushed west into Xhosa country by the expansion of the Zulus in Natal, as the northern Nguni put pressure on the southern Nguni as part of the historical process known as the mfecane, or "scattering". The Xhosa-speaking people received these scattered tribes and assimilated them into their cultural way of life and followed Xhosa traditions. The Xhosa called these various tribes AmaMfengu, meaning wanderers, and were made up of tribes such as the amaBhaca, amaBhele, amaHlubi, amaZizi and Rhadebe. These newcomers came to speak Xhosa and are sometimes considered to be Xhosa.
Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial expansion was to be weakened by the famines and political divisions that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856–1858. Historians now view this movement as a millennialist response, both directly to a lung disease spreading among Xhosa cattle at the time, and less directly to the stress to Xhosa society caused by the continuing loss of their territory and autonomy.
Some historians argue that this early absorption into the wage economy is the ultimate origin of the long history of trade union membership and political leadership among Xhosa people. That history manifests itself today in high degrees of Xhosa representation in the leadership of the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling political party.