The Thembu are one of the handful of nations and population groups which speak Xhosa in South Africa. In Xhosa the name is abaThembu, aba- being a common prefix for peoples. In the 19th century they were frequently known as the "Tamboekie" or "Tambookie" people. The most internationally famous Thembu person was Nelson Mandela, whose father was a reigning nobleman from a junior branch of the Madiba clan of kings. Walter Sisulu was also of Thembu descent, on his mother's side. The land in which they lived was historically known as Thembuland.
After conquest, the Thembu were administered by the government of the Cape Colony as one of the Transkeian Territories, which with the exception of a few missionaries and white traders, were treated as lands reserved for African occupation. Other peoples in the territories who had formerly had independent kingdoms included the Gcaleka branch of the Xhosa, the Mpondo (who split into two kingdoms late in the 19th century), the Bhaca and the Xesibe. Under apartheid the Transkei was turned into a bantustan. In the ethnic theory underpinning apartheid, the Transkei was regarded as the "homeland" of the Xhosa people. As a result, the Thembu people are often misidentified as being Xhosa.