The word Bantu for the language families and its speakers is an artificial term based on the
reconstructed Proto-Bantu term for "people" or "humans". It was first introduced (as Bâ-ntu) by
Wilhelm Bleek in 1857 or 1858, and popularised in his Comparative Grammar of 1862. The name
was coined to represent the word for "people" in loosely reconstructed Proto-Bantu, from the
plural noun class prefix *ba- categorizing "people", and the root *ntʊ̀ - "some (entity), any"
(e.g. Zulu umuntu "person", abantu "people", into "thing", izinto "things").
There is no native term for the people who speak Bantu languages, because they are not an ethnic group. People speaking Bantu languages refer to their languages by ethnic endonyms, which did not have an indigenous concept prior to European contact for the larger ethno-linguistic phylum named by 19th century European linguists. Bleek's coinage was inspired by the anthropological observation of groups self-identifying as "people" or "the true people". That is, idiomatically the reflexes of *bantʊ in the numerous languages often have connotations of personal character traits as encompassed under the values system of ubuntu, also known as hunhu in Chishona or botho in Sesotho, rather than just referring to all human beings R.K.Herbert and R. Bailey in Rajend Mesthrie (ed.), Language in South Africa (2002).
The root in Proto-Bantu is reconstructed as *-ntʊ́. Versions of the word Bantu (that is, the root plus the class 2 noun class prefix *ba-) occur in all Bantu languages: for example, as bantu in Kikongo and Kituba; watu in Swahili; anthu in Chichewa; batu in Lingala; bato in Kiluba; bato in Duala; abanto in Gusii; andũ in Kamba and Kikuyu; abantu in Kirundi, Lusoga, Zulu, Xhosa, Runyoro and Luganda; wandru in Shingazidja; abantru in Mpondo and Ndebele; bãthfu in Phuthi; bantfu in Swati and Bhaca; banhu in kisukuma; banu in Lala; vanhu in Shona and Tsonga; batho in Sesotho, Tswana and Northern Sotho; antu in Meru; andu in Embu; vandu in some Luhya dialects; vhathu in Venda and bhandu in Nyakyusa.
In the 1920s, relatively liberal South Africans, missionaries and the small black intelligentsia
began to use the term "Bantu" in preference to "Native". After World War II, the National Party
governments adopted that usage officially, while the growing African nationalist movement and
its liberal allies turned to the term "African" instead, so that "Bantu" became identified with
the policies of apartheid. By the 1970s this so discredited "Bantu" as an ethno-racial
designation that the apartheid government switched to the term "Black" in its official racial
categorizations, restricting it to Bantu-speaking Africans, at about the same time that the
Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko and others were defining "Black" to mean all
non-European South Africans (Bantus, Khoisan, Coloureds and Indians). In modern South Africa
due to its connection to apartheid the noun has become so discredited that it is only used in
its original linguistic meaning.
Examples of South African usages of "Bantu" include:
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”