IntroductionThe Tsonga are a diverse people, generally including the Shangaan, Thonga, Tonga, and several smaller ethnic groups. Together they numbered about 1.5 million people in South Africa in the mid-1990s, with some 4.5 million individuals in southern Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Historical BackgroundThe first Tsonga-speakers to enter the former Transvaal probably did so during the 18th Century. They were essentially traders who followed rivers inland, where they bartered cloth and beads for ivory, copper and salt. The Shangaan tribe came into being when King Shaka of the Zulu, sent Soshangane (Manukosi) to conquer the Tsonga people in the area of present-day southern Mozambique, during the Mfecane upheaval of the 19th Century.
Soshangane found a fertile place inhabited by scattered communities of peace-loving people, and he decided to make it his home rather than return to Shaka. The Shangaan were a mixture of Nguni (a language group which includes Swazi, Zulu and Xhosa), and Tsonga speakers (Ronga, Ndzawu, Shona, Chopi tribes), which Soshangane conquered and subjugated.Soshangane insisted that Nguni customs be adopted, and that the Tsonga learn the Zulu language. Young Tsonga men were assigned to the army as 'mabulandlela' (those who open the road). Soshangane also imposed Shaka's military system of dominion and taught the people the Zulu ways of fighting. Soshangane's army overran the Portuguese settlements in Mozambique, at Delagoa Bay, Inhambane and Sena, and during the next few years, he established the Nguni kingdom of Kwa Gaza, which he named after his grandfather, Gaza. The Gaza Kingdom comprised parts of what are now southeastern Zimbabwe, as well as extending from the Save River down to the southern part of Mozambique, covering parts of the current provinces of Sofala, Manica, Inhambane, Gaza and Maputo, and neighbouring parts of South Africa.Another army, under the command of Dingane and Mhlangana, was sent by Shaka to deal with Soshangane, but the army suffered great hardship because of hunger and malaria, and Soshangane had no difficulty, towards the end of 1828, in driving them off. During the whole of this turbulent period, from 1830 onwards, groups of Tsonga speakers moved southwards and defeated smaller groups living in northern Natal; others moved westwards into the Transvaal, where they settled in an arc stretching from the Soutpansberg in the north, to Nelspruit and Barberton areas in the southeast, with isolated groups reaching as far westwards as Rustenburg. After the death of Soshangane in 1856, his sons fought over the chieftainship. Soshangane had left the throne to Mzila, but Mawewe felt that he should be chief. Mawewe attacked Mzila and his followers, causing them to leave Mozambique and flee to the Soutpansberg Mountains in the Transvaal.Mzila stayed with João Albasini at Luonde. Albasini, who had been appointed by the Portuguese Vice-Consul to the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) in 1858, employed many of the Tsonga men as 'indhuna' (headman), and defenders of his fort-like home at the foot of the Piesangkop near the modern town of Makhado (formerly known as Louis Trichardt). Aided by Albasini and traders at Lourenço Marques, Mzila gained the upper hand, returning and defeating Mawewe in 1862. Mawewe fled to Swaziland, where he sought the help of King Mswati I, finally settling in northern Swaziland on the border with Gazaland. Ngungunyane, who succeeded Mzila, was defeated by the Portuguese in 1895, which caused the collapse of the Gaza kingdom.The Tsonga came to João Albasini for protection and they considered Jiwawa (the Tsonga version of his name) as their chief. Between 1864 and 1867, the Tsonga were involved in the battles between Paul Kruger's commandos and the Venda chief Makhato. For their services they were rewarded some land near the town of Schoemansdal. This area became known as the 'Knobneusen Location', because of the habit the Tsonga had acquired of tattooing the nose. Later the Shangaan people fled to the Lowveld after the Portuguese conquered them. The descendants of both Tsonga and Shangaan lived together in the area and a great deal of interaction occurred between the two groups. The Tsonga-Shangaan homeland, Gazankulu, was carved out of northern Transvaal Province during the 1960s and was granted self-governing status in 1973. The homeland economy depended largely on gold and on a small manufacturing sector.Only an estimated 500,000 people - less than half the Tsonga-Shangaan population of South Africa - ever lived there. Many others joined the throngs of township residents around urban centres, especially Johannesburg and Pretoria. Traditionally, each Tsonga family had its own 'village' composed of a few houses and a kraal, surrounded by the fields and grazing areas. From 1964, the government started resettling the people in rural villages of 200 to 400 families. These resettlements brought tremendous changes in the life of the people, some for the better (roads, schools, water, etc), some for the worse (scattering of the enlarged family, lack of privacy, problems with cattle, distance form the fields, and so forth).
Social and Cultural LifeTraditionally, the Tsonga lived mainly by fishing for subsistence. A few goats and chickens were raised, and crop cultivation was important. Their tsetse fly-infested coastal lowland habitat made cattle raising an uncommon practice. By the 18th Century, most Tsonga were organised into several small and independent chiefdoms in which inheritance by brothers, rather than sons, was a defining feature of the social system, a practice common in many Central African societies but rare among other South African groups. Compared with common western family structures, the traditional social structures of the Tsonga tribes are quite complex.
The smallest social unit that can be determined is the 'nuclear family', consisting of a woman with her own hut and cooking area, her husband and their children. For Tsonga men, the possibility of having more than one wife exists. In cases of polygamy, 'extended families' came about, consisting of a group of nuclear families, headed by the same man. When the sons of an extended family married, a settlement, or muti came about, consisting of a man, his wives, their unmarried children and the families of their married sons.Traditionally, these settlements appeared as circular living areas, surrounded by wooden walls. Inside this circle, various huts and cooking spots were built. Large thatched conical roofs typify the style of their homes. Wide beaded necklaces and heavy metal bracelets are also popular. Within the Tsonga community, different social units exist. Aside from the family units mentioned above, lineages or nyimba exist, consisting of persons who can prove they descend from the same ancestors. The various lineages can be grouped into clans or xivongo, consisting of all persons, who descend from the same ancestor. In present times, the Tsonga community structure is based on tribal relationships. A tribe is a group of people, which recognises the authority from one tribal chief or hosi, and is living in a specific tribal area, or tiko ra hosi.