The 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.
The 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 Life
Traditionally, 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.
Whilst generally in BaNtu culture, and specifically in Shangaan-Tsonga culture, a Supreme Being is acknowledged, far more relevant are the powers of ancestors who are believed to have considerable effects on the lives of their descendants. The ancestors appear mainly in dreams, but sometimes manifest themselves as spirits.
Some spirits or ancestors are believed to live in certain sacred places where ancient chiefs have been buried. Each clan has several of these burial grounds. The ancestors are propitiated by prayers and offerings, which range from beer to animal sacrifices.
The Sangoma, on behalf of the community, makes offerings in times of trouble or in cases of illness, and on special occasions. Care is taken to please the ancestors, as restless ancestors can cause trouble. Children are named after their ancestors to ensure continuity in the family.
According to the Tsonga, there exists a strong relationship between the creation (ntumbuloko) and a supernatural power called Tilo. Tilo refers to a vaguely described superior being, who created mankind, but it also refers to the heavens, being the home of this creature.
The Tsonga believed that man had a physical (mmiri) and a spiritual body with two added attributes, the moya and the ndzuti. The moya is associated with the spirit, enters the body at birth, and leaves at death to join the ancestors.
The ndzuti was associated with the person’s shadow and reflected human characteristics. At death, in the spirit world, it left the body. This meant that the spirit was attached with the individual and human characteristics of that person. Inherent in this concept is not only the belief in life after death but also that the dead retain very strong links with the living. Passing over into the spirit world is an important stage in the life of a Tsonga.
The members of the family performed a welcoming ceremony to help ease the passage of the dead person into the spirit world. The death of a member of the family also caused all the other members in the homestead to become unclean and they all had to go through ritual cleansing ceremonies.
These ceremonies were performed at different times of the day over the next few months. During religious ceremonies, the family gathered at a special area to pay homage to the ancestral spirits. Food and drink was offered to the ancestors to thank them for providing for the people.
Face scarring in Shangaan–Tsonga culture had its origin in deterring Arab slave traders but it is now considered a sign of beauty. The transition from youth to adulthood is a truly warlike affair, where patterns are burnt into the skin.
It is important to know that in the traditional Tsonga worldview, society is an overall unity, consisting of both the living and the dead. Aside from their belief in serving the ancestral spirits, there exists also a strong belief in magic, which can be used for evil purposes (vuloyi), practised by evil servants (valoyi), with the purpose to harm the community.
Good spirits brought rain and caused good things to happen, and evil spirits, controlled by sorcerers, caused great harm to the community. Illness or persistent bad luck usually indicated the presence of baloyi (evil spirits) but occasional illness was accepted as part of everyday life.
However, if the illness was serious or the cycle of bad luck persisted, a cure had to be found through divination. Traditional healers (tin’anga) consulted the ancestral spirits by “throwing” the bones (tinholo), shells or other artefacts and were thus able to determine the cause of the bad luck and suggest ways in which to get rid of the cause. Traditional healers, also combine magic and the knowledge of medicinal plants (mirhi) in favour of the community.
Music and dance:
In the Shangaan–Tsonga tradition, the storyteller is the grandmother or elder woman of the family who is the respected transmitter of the old stories. The old woman, called Garingani, or narrator, begins her storytelling by saying “Garingani, n’wana wa Garingani!” - “I am Narrator, daughter of Narrator!” after which the crowd cheers “Garingani”. The crowd chants her name after each line of the story.
With a love for music, the Shangaan–Tsonga people have developed a number of musical instruments. The 'fayi' - a small, stubby wooden flute that produces a breathless, raspy, but haunting sound, and is often played by young herd boys. The 'xitende', is a long thin bow tied on each end by a taut leather thong or wire - which runs across a gourd. This was often used to alleviate boredom on long journeys.
The Shangaan-Tsonga is well known for their mine dances, carried out to the beat of drums and horns and wide variety of musical instruments such as the mbila. Shangaan–Tsonga male dancers performed the muchongolo dance, which celebrated the role of women in society, war victories and ritual ceremonies.
Life of the Shangaan Today
A living monument to the Shangaan culture was officially opened on 23 February 1999 near Hazyview, Mpumalanga. The Cultural Village aims to enhance tourism and contribute to job creation, foreign currency earnings and economic development.
Today, the Shangaan live in areas mainly between the Kruger National Park and the Drakensberg Mountains, in South Africa's Mpumalanga and Northern Provinces. Their sister tribe, the Tsongas, inhabit most of southern Mozambique.