As with most of the other peoples of South Africa the Venda (VhaVenda) came from the Great Lakes of Central Africa. They first settled down in the Soutpansberg Mountains. Here they built their first capital, D’zata, the ruins of which can still be seen today.
Venda culture has an interesting mix of other cultures - it appears to have incorporated a variety of East African, Central African, Nguni, and Sotho characteristics. For example, the Venda forbid the consumption of pork, a prohibition that is common along the East African coast. They also practice male circumcision, which is common among many Sotho, but not among most Nguni peoples.
The Venda language, TshiVenda or LuVenda, emerged as a distinct dialect in the 16th Century. In the 20th Century, the TshiVenda vocabulary was similar to SeSotho, but the grammar shares similarities with Shona dialects, which are spoken in Zimbabwe. Today about 875 000 people in South Africa speak Tshivenda.
The history of the Venda starts from the Mapungubwe Kingdom (9th Century). According to historical studies King Shiriyadenga was the first king of Venda and Mapungubwe. Shiriyadenga was succeeded by his children.
From 800AD, the Mapungubwe Kingdom emerged, stretching from the Soutpansberg in the south, across the Limpopo River to the Matopos in the north. The Mapungubwe Kingdom declined from 1240, and the centre of power and trade moved north to the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom.
A shifting of focus to Zimbabwe's Khami and Rozwi empires followed, but the culture did not come to a standstill. South of the Limpopo Shona-Venda and Venda pottery styles developed in the 14th and 15th Centuries. There are no stonewalled ruins comparable in size to Great Zimbabwe in the northeastern part of Northern Province, but those in the mountains show a link.
Accompanying the development of these centres, from about 1400, waves of Shona-speaking migrants from modern Zimbabwe (known by the Venda as Thavatsindi) settled across the Lowveld.
The Venda are generally regarded as one of the last black groups to have entered the area south of the Limpopo River. Their history is closely related to the history of their successive captains’ houses, especially those who were descended from their legendary ancestor, Thoho-ya-Ndou (Head of the Elephant).
Thoho-ya-Ndou’s kraal (home) was called D’zata and the remains of this have been declared a National Monument. D’zata had great significance for the Venda because they buried their chiefs facing it. When Thoho-ya-Ndou died, divisions arose between the different captains’ houses as a result of disputes regarding the question of who was to succeed him.
In Venda tradition, succession to the throne is a complex matter and their history has been characterised by many disputes over occupancy of the throne. Today there are 26 captains’ houses that trace their origins to the great man while a few others trace their ancestry to tribes that were later incorporated with the Venda.
However, the true Venda can be divided into 2 groups, namely a western group, primarily of Singo origin and descended from the followers of leaders such as Mphephu, Senthumule and Kutama; and an eastern group who regarded themselves as descendants of Lwamonde, Rambuda, Tshivashe and Mphapuli.
It was believed that the Singo king could protect his people from attack by their enemies by beating a special drum called the Ngoma Lungundo, ('drum of the dead'). According to legend, the sound of the drum would strike terror in the hearts of the enemy and they would flee. Some Venda say that this king disappeared from his kraal one night with this special drum and neither were ever seen again. It is believed that at Mashovhela “place where the drums can be heard”, rock pool on the Morning Sun Nature Reserve, you can still hear the his drum in the echoes of the cliffs and is considered the second most sacred site in Venda culture. One of the most interesting and distinct groups of people who later joined the Venda are the African Semites, the Lemba.
They are believed to be the descendants of Semitic (Arab) traders who entered Africa around 696AD. The Lemba believe themselves to be Black Jews, descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. They keep to themselves, only marry within their own group and sometimes refer to themselves as Vhalungu, which means 'non-Negroid' or 'respected foreigner'.
The beads they brought with them from these far-off countries are still treasured to this day and are used in divination and other magical ceremonies. The Lemba were very good traders and artisans. They were also famous, for their metalwork and pottery. The first contact between the Venda and the whites occurred when the Voortrekker leader, Louis Trichardt came to the area in 1836.
In 1848, the whites established a settlement named Schoemansdal. However, Makhado, the Venda captain at the time, harassed the white settlers to such an extent that they abandoned the town in 1867. This harassment was continued by Makhado’s son, Mphephu and eventually led to the Mphephu War when he was defeated and had to flee to Zimbabwe.
During the Apartheid period, a homeland was set aside for the Venda people. It covered 6 500 square kilometres and the capital city was called Thohoyandou in honour of the great Venda chief of the same name. It became independent in 1979. Today, the area is once again part of South Africa; located in the Limpopo Province.
Social & Cultural life:
Trade, warfare and intermarriage with Tsonga, Lobedu, Zulu, Swazi and other people, have also left their imprints on Venda culture. The Venda were a protective people, many of whom still practiced polygamy and worshipped their families' ancestors.
Members of the different clans could, and did, live in any of the tribal territories, because the tribe was purely a political and territorial unit, consisting of people who chose to owe allegiance to a particular dynasty.
It was quite common to find a ruler attracting members of his own clan after his accession. There was no paramount chief each tribe was ruled by an independent chief, who had under him headmen, responsible for the government of districts within the tribal territory.
Most of the chiefs belonged to lineages of the same clan, which crossed the Limpopo River and controlled those whom they found living in the Zoutpansberg in the latter half of the 18th century. Thus there was an important social division in Venda society between commoners (vhasiwana) and the children of chiefs and their descendants (vhakololo).
In the Sibasa district (located in Northern Province) there were 12 Venda chiefs some were the descendants of brothers, who were the sons of a ruling chief but broke away and established independent chiefdoms elsewhere. There were a number of differences in the customs of the various clans, especially in religious ritual, but there were no distinct differences between the tribes.
Venda Belief System:
The Venda culture is built on a vibrant mythical belief system, which is reflected in their artistic style. Water is an important theme to the Venda and there are many sacred sites within their region where the Venda conjure up their ancestral spirits.
They believe zwidutwane, (water spirits), live at the bottom of waterfalls. These beings are only half-visible; they only have one eye, one leg, and one arm. One half can be seen in this world and the other half in the spirit world. The Venda would take offerings of food to them because the zwidutwane cannot grow things underwater.
One of the most sacred sites of the Venda is Lake Fundudzi. Suspicion surrounds the lake, which is fed by the Mutale River yet does not appear to have an outlet. It is also said that you can sometimes hear the Tshikona song although no one appears to be there.
The Venda people have a very special relationship with Crocodiles. The area where they live is filled with these dangerous reptiles. The Venda believe that the brain of the Crocodile is very poisonous, therefore they are given right of way by the Venda who do not even hunt them for food.
The Domba is a pre-marital initiation, the last one in the life of a Venda girl or boy. The chief or sovereign will 'call' a domba and preparations are made by the families for their girls to be ready and to prepare what’s necessary to attend the ceremony (entry fees for the ruler, clothes and bangles).
Historically girls used to stay with the chief for the whole duration (3 months to 3 years) of the initiation; nowadays because of schooling, girls only spend weekends at the ruler’s kraal.
This rite of passage was attended by both girls and boys after each individual had previously attended other separated initiations dedicated to one’s gender; Vusha and Tshikanda for girls and Murundu for boys (the circumcision done during this rite has been introduced by North Sotho). Since the missionaries decided that mixing males and females in the same ceremony was immoral.
Only girls attend the Domba which has two main functions teaching girls how to prepare themselves to become wives (birth planning, giving birth and child care, how to treat a husband, and nowadays the teaching of AIDS risks); and bringing fertility to the new generation of the tribe.
Music and Dance:
Various rituals are particular to the Venda and certain aspects are kept secret and not discussed with westerners, however, it is known that the python dance, conducted at the female coming of age ceremony (iconic to the Limpopo region) is usually where the chief chooses a wife.
Girls and boys dance fluidly, like a snake, to the beat of a drum, while forming a chain by holding the forearm of the person in front. Once a wife has been chosen a set of courtship and grooming rituals take place over a number of days.
The tshikona is traditionally a male dance in which each player has a pipe made out of a special indigenous type of bamboo growing only in few places around Sibasa and Thohoyandou (which no longer exists). Each player has one note to play, which has to be played in turn, in such a way as to build a melody.
The tshikona is a royal dance, each sovereign or chief has his own tshikona band. Tshikona is played at various occasions for funerals, wedding or religious ceremonies, this can be considered as the Venda 'national music / dance', which is particular to Venda in South Africa.
The tshigombela is a female dance usually performed by married women, this is a festive dance sometimes played at the same time as tshikona. Tshifhasi is similar to tshigombela but performed by young unmarried girls (khomba).
The Mbila is played in the north of South Africa and more particularly by the Venda. It can be described as a keyboard made out of a piece of wood, which is the resonator, and with metal blades (made out of huge nails hammered flat) which are the keys.
While the Mbila is still widely played in Zimbabwe, in South Africa it is only played by a few old people, who sadly notice that most youngsters are disinterested in their own culture and let it die. The playing of the Mbila is one of the most endangered Venda traditions. The Venda style of playing Mbila is quite different from that of Zimbabwe or Mozambique.
Drums are central in Venda culture and there are legends and symbols linked to them. Most sets of drums are kept in the homes of chiefs and headmen, and comprise one ngoma, one thungwa, and 2 or 3 murumba.
Drum sets without the Ngoma may be found in the homes of certain members of the tribe, such as the doctors who run girls’ ’circumcision’ schools. Drums are often given personal names. Drums are always played by women and girls, except in possession dances, when men may play them.
Under the apartheid system the land of the Venda people was designated a homeland so they were fairly unaffected by the political and social changes that had such a massive affect on the rest of the country.
The 1 000 000 strong Venda population was left alone to live the way they had for hundreds of years in their lush, mountainous and remote region, which is why their culture, language, arts and crafts have survived so strongly. Today, many Venda people live in Thohoyandou in the Limpopo. It is situated not far from the border of Zimbabwe.