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ETHNONYMS: Vhavenda, Bavenda


Identification and Location. The Venda traditionally occupy an area in and around the Soutpansberg Mountains in the northeastern section of South Africa's Northern Province, close to the borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The name Venda refers to both the people and the territory they inhabit. The eastern boundary of this region is formed by the Kruger National Park on the border of Mozambique. To the south is the Shangaan cultural group. The western boundaries are formed by agricultural farmlands and cattle ranches owned by English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans as well as areas inhabited by the Northern Sotho. To the north is the Limpopo River, the international boundary with Zimbabwe, where many Venda people live under six chiefs in the southern and central parts of that country.

Venda is located between 22° 15" and 23° 45" S. and 29° 50" and 31° 30" E., with a height of 787 to 4,592 feet (240 to 1,400 meters) above sea level. The Soutpansberg mountain range stretches in an east-west direction for approximately 94 miles (150 kilometers), with the eastern half breaking up into three parallel ranges with fertile valleys between them. The main rivers are the Nzhelele, Mutale, Mutshindudi, and Luvuvhu, all of which drain into the Limpopo. The northern section between the mountains and the Limpopo River is hot and arid. Parts of the central zone as well as the area to the south of the Soutpansberg range have a hot, humid subtropical climate with high rainfall and are suitable for agriculture and the growing of subtropical fruits. Winters are mild and generally frost-free. Prevailing winds are from the east, frequently shrouding the mountains in clouds. Violent thunderstorms come from the west.

Demography. In 1935 it was estimated that there were about 160,000 Venda people living in South Africa, with an unknown number residing outside that country. In 1979 the population of Vendaland was 360,000, with an estimated 150,000 Venda living elsewhere, mostly migrant workers in the major industrial cities of South Africa. The 1996 census indicated a total of 758,200 persons, but there are no recent estimations of the number of Vhavenda outside South Africa.

With the dismantling of the apartheid system and the repeal of discriminatory legislation that started in 1989 and was completed in 1994, the way was opened for an increase in migratory labor to the industrial centers and major cities in South Africa.

Linguistic Affiliation. The spoken language is called Tshivenda and is in the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo language family. The language has strong links with the Shona language but uses many words derived from Sesotho. For many years it was thought that the Venda had borrowed words from their Sotho neighbors. However, linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Tshivenda originated from two different early Shona language dialects that moved into the Soutpansberg Mountains around 1200 c.e. and again around 1450, where they mixed with an early proto-Sotho language.

The language makes much use of metaphors and symbolism, the context of which remains even when Venda persons speak English. When a man says that he is going to "climb the mountain," the listener must judge whether this is meant literally or figuratively. If it is figuratively meant, the speaker is going to see a chief.

History and Cultural Relations

The Venda are not a homogeneous ethnic group but consist of numerous clans that settled in the Soutpansberg area at various times over the last six hundred years. Oral traditions refer to numerous migrations, mainly of small clans or parts of clans whose names have counterparts among the Karanga. Three major migrations took place. Two of them (the Vhatavhatsinde and MaKkwinde groups) occurred early, and on entering the Soutpansberg area, the migrants found that it was occupied by people calling themselves VhaNgona. The third migration was that of the Singo clan, whose members became the unifiers and rulers of all the people living in and around the Soutpansberg area in approximately 1720. Many of the documented traditions relate to the customs and history of this clan, and it is only since 1985 that smaller clans have spoken openly about an alternative history.

From excavations and research done in the Soutpansberg region, the Limpopo Valley, northeastern Botswana, and the modern state of Zimbabwe, a more complicated history and cultural development going back to 900 c.e. can be reconstructed.

Between 900 and 1300 local communities in the area surrounding the junction of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, where South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe meet, developed a trade network with Arab-Islamic traders living along the African east coast, exchanging ivory, hides, and gold for glass beads, cloth, and other goods. At first trade was tentative, but it increased dramatically, changing an agropastoralist lifestyle into one dominated by trade. Initially, the local people measured wealth and status by the number of cattle, sheep, and goats a person owned, but over time this changed, with livestock being replaced by the possession of exotic goods acquired through trade as a status symbol.

During that period three capital towns developed in the Shashe-Limpopo Valley, each larger than the previous one, culminating in Mapungubwe, the capital of a kingdom stretching from the Soutpansberg Mountains in the south northward to the Matopo Hills near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. At the time of Mapungubwe (1220-1300) a system of divine kingship developed in which the royal family became physically separated from the commoners by living on top of an elongated hill with steep cliffs and a limited number of routes to the top, all of which were guarded. Neatly built stone walls were constructed at this site. Between 1933 and 1940 a royal burial ground was excavated, containing skeletons buried with golden beads, bangles, and other ritual ornaments, including the well-known golden rhinoceros.

When Mapungubwe ceased to exist, the center of power for the region moved to the Masvingo area in modern Zimbabwe, where the extensive walls of the Great Zimbabwe (an ancient state) settlement were built around 1300. Here the trade links were extended and the system of divine kingship was magnified, with the king living on top of the Acropolis hill. The royal area was divided into several enclosures that were used for meeting visitors of high rank and for veneration of the tribal ancestral spirits and rainmaking. Ivory and gold were the main trade commodities and were not made into figures or figurines for exchange purposes. The ancient Zimbabwean state collapsed around 1450 with movements away from Great Zimbabwe to the north, west, and south. The westerly and southerly migrations are important in Venda history.

The southerly migration into the Soutpansberg resulted in communities erecting small Zimbabwe-type settlements that relate to the Vhatavhatsinde and MaKwinde groups.

The westerly movement away from Great Zimbabwe led to the rise of the Khami state in the Matopo Hills. While settlement layout and interpretations were the same as in Great Zimbabwe, the building style changed from the large, high walls characteristic of Great Zimbabwe to smaller, lower, more highly decorated stone walls and terraces. After about 1500 new trading partners appeared on the scenethe Portuguese and Dutchwho broke down the centuries-old networks that had been maintained by the Arab-Islamic traders. Portuguese documents record the customs prevalent at the time and show that the system of divine kingship was still entrenched. Portuguese chronicles refer to a walled settlement known as Danangombi, northeast of Bulawayo, where around 1690 a struggle for succession led to the breakaway of two members of the royal family and their followers. Oral tradition among the Karanga speaks of one group moving northward while the other group went south.

The second group was the Singo, who moved across the Limpopo River around 1700 and settled in the Nzhelele River valley, where they moved into an existing village, enlarged it, and named it Dzata. This became the capital, where the different clans living in the mountains were united for the first time under a single ruler. This state of affairs lasted for about sixty years, until the death of the legendary leader Thoho-ya-Ndou (Head of the Elephant). A war of succession ensued that has divided the Singo to this day.

Under the former white nationalist government of South Africa, Venda was developed as a homeland that gained its "independence" in 1979 and continued to exist until 1994, when under the newly elected democratic government all discriminatory laws were repealed; the Venda then reverted to being part of South Africa.


Attacks by marauders in the first part of the nineteenth century changed settlement patterns. Most chiefs and headmen relocated their villages from the low-lying regions to areas high on the mountain slopes, directly under cliffs. For protective purposes the chief's residence was located at the highest point of the village under the cliffs, royal households were placed immediately in front, and the houses of the commoners spread out lower down and in front. This pattern continued well into the 1900s, when diminished hostilities and new forms of government administration allowed the return of villages to the valleys; the old ones under the cliffs gradually became deserted.

Villages are built around the musanda, or royal residence. Adjacent to the musanda is the public meeting place (khoro) where visitors are met and court meetings, dances, and other social events are held. Houses are traditionally wattle-and-daub constructions with thatched roofs. Several houses are linked together with mud brick walls and arranged around an open central courtyard with a central fireplace where the family sits in good weather. Traditionally, homesteads were partitioned off by hedgerows, wooden palisade fences, or stone walls. Most of the older settlements are reminiscent of miniature Great Zimbabwe ruins with their walls, stones steps, passageways, and terraces.

Since the 1950s and in particular since 1979, development has brought changes to the villages. Villages are accessible by vehicle, with a network of dirt roads linking most of them. Two tarred roads traverse large sections of Venda, and since their construction in 1978 and 1984, villages along their lengths have expanded dramatically, with many people moving away from the remote areas for better access to public transportation and job opportunities.

Modern building materials have replaced traditional ones in many instances. Customary homesteads are being replaced by houses of Western design, and settlement layout favors a grid system instead of the haphazard arrangement of the past. Most villages have access to electricity, piped water, and telephone communications.


Subsistence. Most households in the villages maintain gardens during the summer months to grow the staple crop, maize. Other crops include pumpkins, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, sorghum, and finger millet, with the latter two grains frequently used to make beer. Vegetable gourds (marankas) are grown for use as containers, scoops, or spoons. Communal land, which is held in trust by chiefs and headmen, may be used for summer crop production if permission is given. After the first and subsequent rains, women gather the new leaves and flowers of certain plants to be used as a vegetable relish (maroho). There are fruit trees in most gardens; the most commonly grown fruits are mangoes, papayas, avocados, bananas, and plantains.

Commercial Activities. Commercial irrigation farms have developed on a small to medium scale along many of the rivers; on those farms, vegetables are grown and orchards of mangoes, avocados, litchis, and citrus flourish. Tea is well suited to the climate and soils of the eastern mist belt of the Soutpansberg Mountains, and around 2,200,000 pounds (1 million kilograms) of tea is produced annually for blending with imported Ceylon teas. Informal markets exist in the main towns and along the major roads where women sell fruit and vegetables that are produced in Venda or come from the neighboring Levubu commercial farms. Animal husbandry was traditionally limited but is on the increase, with many royal families building up large herds of cattle and goats.

Tourism is becoming a major currency earner, and the unique culture of the Venda and the beautiful scenery are attracting many overseas visitors. The early Zimbabwe-style stone-walled archaeological sites are particularly popular with tourists.

Industrial Arts. Woodcarving, traditional pottery, baskets, and beadwork are the main Venda handicrafts and are sold locally to tourists or sent to the major cities in South Africa, where there are large markets for these items. Mat weaving by hand using traditional motifs is commercially practiced. The traditional brightly colored clothing of Venda women has become a home industry in many villages.

Division of Labor. As a general rule, women work with clay and soil and men work with animals and wood, but there are exceptions, such as women collecting firewood as part of their domestic duties. Hand hoeing of land in preparation for planting and keeping the land clear of weeds are the work of women, but in commercial operations the mechanical preparation of land by means of cattle-drawn plows or tractors is a man's job, as is crop spraying.

Land Tenure. All land is communal under the trusteeship of the chief, who allocates the use of land in the interests of his community. The fact that these chiefs do not have title deeds to the land that they traditionally claim has led the government to state that such communal land is state-owned and that the state need not pay royalties to the chief and his community for using resources on communal property.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is unilineal through the male line, with one complicated and rare exception: In cases where a woman has married a wife or wives and children are born (fathered by the spouse's husband or other men she has allowed to sleep with her wives), technically, descent is on the female side. However, in practice the spouse is metaphorically seen as the "husband" because she married the wives and thus is addressed as "father" by the children; descent therefore is still on the "male" side.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is similar to that in the Iroquois system. The father's sister, however, has a higher status than is customary in that system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Cross-cousin marriages are preferred but not compulsory, and a young man's choice of a wife may differ from that of his parents. If a girl vehemently dislikes the man to whom she is betrothed, subject to the consent of the man, the betrothal may be broken and other arrangements made. Bargaining, usually through a third person, about the bride-price and marriage arrangements can take a long time.

With more young persons moving to the major industrial towns and cities, traditional marriage practices are diminishing, with young men and women marrying for love. Cross-cultural marriages have become more common.

Polygyny is practiced; the number of wives depends on the wealth and status of the husband. The higher a man's traditional status is, the more wives he can marry. Chiefs and headmen generally are wealthier than commoners, and for them caring for multiple wives is seldom a problem, with headmen having up to six wives and chiefs being entitled to many more. A wealthy commoner may marry more than one wife, as tends to occur with businessmen. Men past the age of fifty frequently take a young woman as a wife to bear children and take care of them in their old age.

An unusual form of marriage occurs when a wealthy woman, normally a headwoman, marries a wife or wives. She usually is already married to a man. Her husband or other chosen men may be the biological fathers of the children who are born, but metaphorically she is the "father" of those children. The children must address her as "father," while her biological children call her their mother.

A new wife is expected to live with her mother-in-law, who teaches her about her husband's likes and dislikes and his family. This continues until the birth of the first child, when she moves into her own house close by. Marital residence thus is patrilocal.

Domestic Unit. A household has one wife and her offspring, who share a single hearth and eat together. In polygynous marriages each wife is given her own house and courtyard, which is physically separate from those of the other wives. The husband has his own sleeping area (pfamo), which is usually adjacent to the household of the senior wife, who keeps order among the other wives. The husband's relatives generally live in the surrounding homesteads, and this system gives children access to their aunts and uncles.

Inheritance. Traditionally, all land is communal, under the trusteeship of the chief. However, every man has indisputable rights to the land he occupies and uses. His sons are entitled to the use of his land but may also ask the local headman to allocate fresh portions of land. Movable propertylivestock, household utensils, and the proceeds of agriculture and tradepasses to the oldest son or, in the case of a polygynous marriage, the oldest son of the senior wife. This son becomes the undisputed head of the family unless he has disgraced himself in the eyes of the family, in which case the son next in line is appointed by the deceased's oldest sister with the consent of his brothers.

A woman may possess property, normally the surplus proceeds of her labors, and may dispose of it freely. Usually in the case of her death, her youngest son inherits. In a polygynous marriage, if the senior wife does not have a male heir, the oldest daughter is recognized as the legal heir but may not become the head of the family; that duty usually passes to her late father's oldest surviving brother. An exception to this practice occurs when a woman marries wives and no male heir is born; then the oldest daughter becomes the head of that family. Brothers may inherit the wives of a deceased man.

Socialization. Infants and children are looked after by their parents and grandparents as well as by uncles and aunts who frequently assume the duties of parents in loco. Children frequently refer to these relatives as their father and mother. Children are introduced to responsibility and preparation for their later roles in life at an early age, with boys being sent out to herd goats at about the age of five and girls accompanying their mothers or aunts to collect water or firewood or caring for their baby brothers or sisters while the mother is working on the land. There is always sufficient time for play after the allotted tasks are correctly done. Corporal punishment is rare.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Positions of traditional leadership are hereditary, passing normally from the father to the oldest son of the senior wife. At the death of the father, it is the duty of his oldest sister (makhadzi) to introduce the heir to the family or suggest a new heir if that son proves to be incapable. If the heir is too young to become the head of the family, she fulfills that role as a regent.

The makhadzi of a royal family is frequently one of the main advisers to her brother, the chief. She may act as a regent in his absence or after his death. Her participation in many of the traditional rituals is essential for the well-being and prosperity of the community. For many activities, the chief's younger brother or oldest surviving uncle may appear on his behalf.

Access to chiefs by those who are not family members is normally difficult, and persons with problems have to work their way through a hierarchy of counselors before being granted an audience with the chief. This is a remnant of the system used to guard divine leaders in the past.

Political Organization. After 1910 Venda was governed by the central government of the Union of South Africa (later the Republic of South Africa) under a system of commissioners until it received independence from the South African government in September 1979. Independence was rescinded in 1994, when all homelands and independent states created by the apartheid government became part of the democratically elected government of South Africa.

Venda is divided into thirty-two chieftaincies with different status levels, of which several are disputed, with these chieftaincies having been created in the past for political expediency and the smoother running of an "independent" Venda. Traditionally, the status levels were paramount chief (khosikhulu), senior chiefs, petty chiefs, and headmen. During the black liberation struggle and particularly since the late 1980s, traditional leadership has been undermined by resistance organizations, because traditional leaders were considered puppets of the white nationalist government. Civic organizations developed in many towns and villages and ruled through intimidation. In the early twenty-first century a system of mutual tolerance is maintained between Venda traditional leaders and civic organizations. Villages and towns have been combined to form local councils to deal with issues relating to local government.

Social Control. In the past persons involved in antisocial activities were taken to the court of the headman for minor infringements or to the court of the chief for serious issues, where usually a fine would be imposed. The size of the fine depended on the seriousness of the transgression as well as the numbers of previous offences committed by the accused. Witchcraft usually was punished by death, and murder by banishment or death. When the accused was pronounced innocent, the plaintiff would be fined.

As the concepts of Roman-Dutch law became entrenched in Venda society, many issues were no longer taken to traditional courts but instead were reported to the police. Today a person accused of a serious crime is apprehended, imprisoned, brought to trial, and sentenced, usually with a term of imprisonment. Judicial courts are becoming more sympathetic toward common law, and judgments may be based on fundamental traditional norms and values rather than purely on Roman-Dutch law.

Conflict. Although there is evidence of internecine warfare in the past, physical conflict between clans no longer occurs. However, people seen as opponents have been killed under the guise of ritual murder. Between 1820 and 1850 many raids by BaPedi (Sotho), Swazi, and Zulu marauders took place. The coming of the first white colonialists was met with resistance, including the burning of the first white town in the Soutpansberg region in 1867. Further clashes with traders and government administrators continued until around 1900. Since 1994 many Vhavenda have been dissatisfied with the activities of the predominantly Sotho government of the Northern Province, and periodically talk of creating a separate province occurs.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although the majority of Vhavenda profess Christianity, there is a strong belief in ancestor spirits and a supreme deity known as Raluvhimba that is equivalent to the Shona deity Mwali. This deity is seen in the form of eagles soaring aloft during the day, a shooting star is Raluvhimba traveling at night, his voice can be heard in the thunder, and he is at rest when Tswime Mountain is covered by clouds. During thunderstorms Raluvhimba appears as fire that can never be reached and makes his demands known to the chief in a voice of thunder.

Raluvhimba /Mwali controls the rain. It is an important function of the chief to bring rain through appropriate sacrifices and rituals to the tribal ancestors as well as the supreme deity. Some witch doctors also specialize in this activity.

For the average person, good or ill fortune, including sickness, often is controlled by his or her immediate ancestors. When there is trouble or an unexplained death in the family, a diviner (mungome) is consulted, the magical divining dice are thrown, and a prognosis is made. In many cases the interpretation will be that one of the ancestors must be appeased, usually through the ritual sacrifice of a black goat for commoners or a sheep for royals at the grave of the troublesome ancestor.

A mungome uses an intricately carved wooden divining bowl (ndilo) to discover witches. Belief in witchcraft is very prevalent even among the educated, and although the killing of witches is considered murder, it occurs regularly. When the diviner is unsuccessful, a witch doctor (nanga) is consulted. Such witch doctors are thought to have magical powers in addition to divining skills and can place spells on people, who believe that they can die unless they are cleansed by the nanga who cast the original spell.

The taking of human life for ritual purposes has long been part of Venda tradition. Ritual murder is acceptable when it is used to attain peace and general prosperity for families that are plagued by troubles or for the safety and prosperity of the community, the clan, or the Vhavenda nation. It is not acceptable when it leads to personal gain in the form of monetary enrichment.

Religious Practitioners. Other than ministers of the many Christian secular churches, the mungome and the nanga are the main practitioners for the majority of the population. Chiefs, however, also play specific roles, particularly in regard to the tribal ancestors. Heads of households may perform ancestral veneration rituals, using libations of traditional beer at the sacred stones (elongated, highly polished river pebbles) that are planted in the ground with a bulbous plant, luhomo, at the rear of the homestead.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies usually are accompanied by chanting, singing, music, and dancing. Rites of passage are important, particularly the passage from childhood into adulthood. They are conducted as a series of initiation ceremonies at the age of puberty for boys and girls. Such ceremonies are separate, except for the final one, the domba, in which the sexes come together for certain rituals. Births, marriages, and funerals are ceremonial occasions involving families, but there also are ceremonies to ensure the fertility of the land, good harvests, good rains, and the well-being of Vhavenda society.

Arts. Itinerant musicians known as zwilombe travel from village to village and can be found where beer is available. Their songs comment on life in general but frequently are very critical of chiefs and politicians, often voicing what the people feel but are afraid to say aloud. These musicians are considered slightly insane and therefore are protected from retribution. The instruments used are single-string bows with calabashes as resonators and the thumb piano. Groups play a variety of drums, including the large ngoma drum with its throbbing bass sound; flutes made from special reeds that must be ritually cut; trumpets made from animal horns; stringed instruments; and rattles that usually are attached to the legs of dancers. The most unusual instrument is the large wooden xylophone (mbila).

Most ceremonies are accompanied by dancing. The best-known dances are the tshigombela performed by women and girls during the winter months and the reed flute dance of the men (tshikona), which is frequently performed to welcome important visitors (including tourists) to villages. The python dance of young women during the domba is well known; the dancers move one behind the other, with the hands resting on the hips of the girl in front, emulating the movements of a snake.

Pottery utensils made by women and wooden utensils carved by men have become curios for the tourist trade. This trade has led to men becoming sculptors, creating a variety of nontraditional sculptures for the lucrative overseas art market.

Medicine. Traditional medicines are made from a variety of plants whose leaves, bark, roots, and juice are used for that purpose. These materials are combined with animal fat, brains, entrails, or genitals. Exceptionally powerful medicine is made by replacing the animal ingredients with ingredients from human beings. Herbalists work only with plants, while witch doctors use all of these ingredients. Modern clinics are found in most villages. When Western medicine does not provide the desired results, people resort to traditional medicines.

Death and Afterlife. The traditional belief is that after death a person enters the world of the spirits as long as he or she has undergone the initiation rites that make persons full members of adult society. The highest status after death is that of an ancestor (when the deceased has had children), and it is usually the ancestor spirits of the mother's family that have the greatest influence over the living. The spirit world generally is perceived as being below, under the ground, in caves, or under deep pools of water such as Lake Fundudzi, where certain clans believe there is a complete village under the water where on a still, dark night the household fires can be seen and singing and dancing can be heard as well as the sounds of cattle and sheep.

For other cultures in South Africa, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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Blacking, John A. R. (1977). "An Introduction to Venda Traditional Dances," Dance Studies 2: 34-56.

Huffman, Thomas N. (1996). Snakes and Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Stayt, Hugh A. (1968, reprint). The Bavenda. London: Frank Cass and Co.

Van Warmelo, Nikolaas J. (1932). "Contributions towards Venda History, Religion and Tribal Rituals," Ethnological Publications, vol. 3. Pretoria: Department of Native Affairs, Government Printer.