views updated


ETHNONYMS: Tsonga: collective noun for related ethnic groups in Mozambique and the Northern Province of South Africa; also called Shangana, Changana, Shangana-Tsonga, Changana-Tsonga. Smaller Tsonga groupings refer to themselves by their tribal names.


Identification and Location. The name Tsonga comes from the Mozambican "Ronga," meaning "from the east." Some Northern Province Tsonga call themselves Shangana. Others refer to themselves as Tsonga. The confusing compound term Shangana-Tsonga is to be avoided.

About 700,000 Tsongas still live in the rural communal territories comprised of three areas (northern, central, and southern) in the east of the Northern Province of South Africa, divided into seven districts (Giyani, Malamulele, Hlanganani, Ritavi 1, Ritavi 2, Lulekani, and Mhala) with a total area of 2,535 square miles (6,565 square kilometers).

These areas lie between 1,575 and 1,800 feet (480 and 550 meters) above sea level. The terrain varies between the fairly mountainous north and the level mopane (colophospermum mopane) woodland south with its granite hillocks. Of the eight rivers in these areas, only the Levubu and the Great Letaba rivers are perennial.

The summers tend to be hot (86°F-109°F) and the winters cooler (73°F-95°F) and drier. Rainfall is mostly in October through March and averages 20-28 inches (50-70 centimeters). Soil fertility is generally low and the soil has a low water retaining capacity. Most of the land (87 percent) is used for stockbreeding, with a small proportion for agriculture (4 percent). Gold, clay, and sand reserves are mined on a limited scale.

Demography. The rural population was estimated in 1995 at 690,000 (6 percent in the eight proclaimed towns in these territories). More than one million Tsonga live permanently in other parts of South Africa. The population growth rate is about 4.8 percent (12 percent in the proclaimed towns); the birth rate is 30-40 per 1,000, and the mortality rate 20 per 1,000. More than half the population is younger than 15 years old.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tsonga is a South Bantu language, part of the larger Niger-Congo family of languages. It developed from Zulu, southern Mozambican Thonga, and Tembe and forms a bridge between Shona and Nguni. There are four Tsonga language groups: Tshwa (spoken in Mozambique); Ronga dialects (Mozambique) ; the Northern Province Tsonga dialects; and Maputsu or Tembe (Ingwavuma-district of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa).

History and Cultural Relations

The Tsonga tribes lived peacefully in southern Mozambique from the sixteenth century until 1824, when the Shangana (named after their leader Soshangana) fled from Zululand after their defeat by the Zulu king, Shaka. The Shangana subjugated and assimilated Tsonga tribes. Some tribes fled to the northeastern parts of what is now the Northern Province of South Africa to settle under Venda/Sotho rule during the late 1830s. There was a second migration from Mozambique to the northern parts of South Africa after 1858 (due to a succession struggle between Soshangana's sons), and a third after the 1895 defeat of the Shangana by the Portuguese.

The ethnic composition of the South African Tsonga in 2001 consisted of Tsonga groups who fled to the Northern Province, including all the tribes in the northern and central areas, and Shangana tribes, mainly in the southern area.

In South Africa, legislation in 1913 and 1936 designated areas for exclusive Black occupation. Eventually, a homeland (Gazankulu) was established for the Tsonga. After 1994, Gazankulu became part of the Northern Province. The Tsonga are represented in the provincial government in a House of Traditional Leaders.


Mozambican Tsongas still live in dispersed traditional homesteads (kraals) in round walled huts with conical thatched roofs. Circular kraals enclose central cattle byres. Each wife has her own hut. Unmarried boys share a hut, as do unmarried girls.

South African rural villages feature a western-style grid pattern (street blocks with square stands). Structures vary from typical round to square thatched huts, rectangular flat-roofed houses, and modern western-style houses. Traditionally, huts were built with natural materials. Modern dwellings are built with sun-dried bricks and corrugated iron roofs. Traditional layouts are still found outside villages.


Subsistence. Rural Tsonga still depend largely on a subsistence economy. The main economic activity is agriculture practiced by women. In South Africa the diet includes home-grown crops, goat meat, chicken, occasionally beef, game and wild fruit. In Mozambique fish also forms part of the diet. Women grow cassava, grain sorghum, and maize as a staple food. They also grow other vegetables and fruitjust enough to satisfy their own needs. They purchase additional food-stuffs.

Fields are seldom fertilized, but Mozambicans practice shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn. Leaves, berries, herbs and medicinal plants are collected. People make marula beer (sclerocarya birrea) and lala palm beer (hyphaene coriacea).

Commercial Activities. Commercial Tsonga farmers in South Africa grow tomatoes, bananas, mangoes, avocados, pineapples, litchis, oranges, pawpaw, maize, cotton, nuts, and tobacco, mainly for the local market.

Labor migration is important to rural households. Many people in the communal rural areas of South Africa work for local commercial farmers or in the proclaimed towns. Most Tsonga have been in contact with the western monetary system, resulting in some individualization.

In proclaimed towns, government has stimulated industrial growth points and cooperative groups, manufacturing products including fencing wire, sisal mats, ceramics, baskets, and wooden articles. Most industrial products are exported, but some are marketed locally.

The business sector (butcheries, filling stations, printers, nurseries, retail enterprises, transport, catering, and accommodation services) is growing steadily. The Mozambican civil wars have left these Tsonga poor.

Industrial Arts. Women manufacture household articles such as sleeping mats made of grass, different types of baskets, clay pots, and strainers for beer making. The production of household articles from wood, of which the mortar and pestle used to pound maize are best known, is mainly the task of men.

Cultural tourism in rural communal areas in South Africa has stimulated the curio market, resulting in new products. Clay pots of different shapes with handles, wild animals carved from wood and soapstone, wooden pots with lids, and embroidery work on pillows are all new forms of art aimed at the curio market.

Trade. Tsonga women extract salt from salt-saturated soil according to a 1,700 year-old method for sale to other ethnic groups.

Division of Labor. Married women are entitled to arable land where they cultivate crops. Harvesting is usually cooperative. Men clear the land, while children guard crops from birds and animals. Women process crops, prepare food, make beer, collect firewood, carry water, and maintain huts.

Land Tenure. In South Africa, married men must apply to the ward headmen (ndhuna) for residential stands and arable land for their wives to tend. The stands are registered by the tribal secretary in the name of the applicant. Private land ownership outside proclaimed towns is impossible. Only the right of use applies to communal areas out of towns.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Tsonga tribes are composed of hierarchical patrilineal exogamic clans (sing. xivongo, pl. swivongo ). Each clan consists of various hierarchical patrilineages. Children always belong to the father's lineage.

Kinship Terminology. There are at least six Tsonga dialects with terminological differences between blood relatives on both parents' sides. Paternal relatives are called vakweru "those with us," "in our home." These include the father's sister, hahani. The father is called tatana.

The term makweru ("my brother") is also used to indicate first and second cousins who have the same paternal grandfather or great-grandfather, and maternal cousins, particularly the mother's sister's children. The mother (and her sisters, mothers in the second degree) is known as mamona. The mother's brother (kokwana/malume) is not a father. Kokwana has three meanings: paternal grandfather, all the ancestors on the father's side, and all maternal male relatives.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Those who want to marry must be competent to do sothe bride and groom must reach puberty (in Mozambique and for some South African Tsonga people, this includes puberty rites). The groom must have his own income. There must be voluntary concurrence between the two family groups involved. A father can no longer negotiate a marriage without his child's consent or refuse consent without valid reasons. Marriage goods are delivered by the groom's father to the bride's father. The bride is transferred to the bridegroom's family. Couples commonly marry according to indigenous law and civil law. Church weddings are also fashionable.

Clan exogamy is practiced. As a second wife, the first wife's younger sister or wife's brother's daughter is preferred. Patrilocal residence after the wedding is traditionally preferred, but is no longer common after three months for older sons. The youngest brother must stay to look after his parents and inherits his father's homestead.

Divorce is agreed between the parties (the families, not the individuals) concerned. Only if the parties are unable to reach an agreement does the case go to a higher indigenous public court on appeal. Divorce terminates the parties' reciprocal duties of support. The wife's father retains the marriage goods if the husband caused the divorce, but has to return them if the wife caused the divorce. A divorced woman again becomes subject to her father's guardianship.

Domestic Unit. The basic household consists of husband, wife, and children, functioning as a separate local unit with specific reciprocal obligations.

Polygyny still occurs, but is declining among the younger generation. In Mozambique and South Africa, polygynous families occupy one homestead, or kraal. The different households in a homestead are ranked according to the order in which the various wives were married. The first wife is normally the principal wife.

Inheritance. Only the head of a homestead's estate is specified. General kraal property is separated from house property belonging to different wives' houses.

The eldest son of the principal wife normally inherits the bulk of general kraal property (cattle, ploughs, etc.), with smaller portions going to the principal heirs of the lesser households. The basic rule is that the widows and unmarried children of the deceased must be assured of continued support. House property must eventually be inherited by the sons of that house. Women are not entitled to inherit.

Socialization. No two children in a family have the same status. The ranking differences between children in a polygynous family are determined by sex, age, and the mother's rank. All boys are senior to all girls. Fathers concern themselves mainly with educating boys while mothers focus on girls.

After the age of seven, boys look after their fathers' goats. Boys hunt birds and small game, and play games, increasing their knowledge of plant and animal life through direct observation. At puberty, some rural boys undergo initiation (no longer among all Tsonga tribes), where they are educated about tribal history and the duties and responsibilities of a married man.

At the age of six, girls undertake small tasks, increasing in number as the girls grow older, including sweeping the homestead, fetching water, gathering wood, hoeing, and cooking. Between the onset of puberty and her daughter's marriage, the mother informs her of her sexual responsibilities, explains the taboos to which a girl or woman is subject, and trains her to be a good wife.

The introduction of formal education has had a considerable influence on the way Tsonga parents educate their children, widening the range of knowledge available to children but also making it difficult for children to carry out their traditional duties.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The smallest tribal social unit is the nuclear family where authority rests with the father. Polygynous and extended families (married man with married brothers and/or married sons and their dependents) are larger social units. Other social units are lineages that can in turn be grouped into clans, descendants of a common progenitor in the distant past. There is a lineage and a clan hierarchy within a tribe.

Political Organization. The hereditary chief (hosi) is generally the most senior member of the most senior lineage and clan within the tribe. He has to be appointed (by the ruling family council), trained, and inaugurated as chief. In South Africa, the tribal chief is also statutorily recognized. If he has not yet reached maturity when his father dies, a paternal uncle is normally appointed as regent.

The chief must rely on the personal advice of his senior relatives and of the tribal council (a closed council consisting of ward headmen, the senior relatives of the chief, and experts). Tribal chiefs perform statutory, tribal, and ritual functions (the allocation and utilization of tribal land, administration, maintaining law and order, and settling disputes brought to his court on appeal from the ward headmen [tindhuna] of the different wards).

For administrative purposes the total tribal area is divided into a number of smaller administrative units or rural villages or wards (pl. miganga ), designated by the chief-in-council, with the tindhuna appointed on ability. The ndhuna is responsible for allocating land, collecting taxes, and settling disputes in the ward or rural village (muganga/malayini). He also represents the inhabitants of his ward on the tribal council. He is assisted by his family members and specific functionaries.

Social Control. All figures of authority among the Tsonga have the right to administer law in disputes between individuals. A distinction can be made between family trials and trials in indigenous public courts (the courts of the ward headmen and the tribal chief). The same legal principles are used as the norm in all trials.

All trials are first heard in the family court. If the matter cannot be resolved, the case goes on appeal to a ward court, and from there to the tribal court. Only if the case cannot be resolved in the tribal court will the matter be referred to a (western) magistrate's court. The family, ward, and tribal courts can only deal with private cases; all criminal cases must be referred to the national or western court system. The aim in these trials is always to bring about reconciliation between the conflicting parties rather than to inflict punishment.

Conflict. The most important causes of conflict between ethnic groups are land issues and competition for scarce natural resources (primarily water and grazing). Intergroup conflict is resolved by strategic royal marriages and alliances, while intragroup conflict is resolved by the indigenous court systems.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Tsonga believe in a supreme being, Shikwembu, who created humans. He is not directly worshiped. The central theme in Tsonga religion is belief in and veneration of the spirits of the dead. A distinction is made between family (maternal and paternal) and alien ancestral spirits. The wishes of the ancestral spirits are generally revealed by means of divination after illness, misfortune, or dreams. The homestead of every senior family head has a platform that serves as an altar (gandzelo) for sacrifices (at the behest of a diviner) of food and beer to the family spirits.

Spirit possession occurs when the ancestral spirits call someone by means of symptoms of body pain, often in the legs. An alien spirit may also possess the person. The possessed person goes to a spirit medium for initiation and training as a spirit medium. Initiation is directed at accommodating the possessing spirit rather than exorcising it.

Of the Tsonga, 29 percent belong to Protestant or Roman Catholic churches and 13 percent to the Zionist separatist churches. A further 9 percent belong to the Pentecostal and Adventist churches. Of the remaining population, 48 percent do not belong to any church. More women than men belong to a church. Despite affiliation to various Christian denominations, many continue to hold traditional beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Magic is used for evil purposes (vuloyi) by evil sorcerers (valoyi) to harm the community. Conversely, magic is applied to the advantage of the community by the traditional practitioners (tin'anga; sing. n'anga ) who are usually both specialized herbalists and diviners.

Diviners consult the ancestral spirits using their divination instruments, especially the tinholo, a set of bones, to reveal the cause of misfortune and to determine what action (usually rites, sacrifices, or the use of potions) must be taken to rectify it. Healing prescriptions by a spirit medium are given while in a trance.

The eldest man in the family acts as priest when sacrifices are made to the ancestral spirits. When an illness is caused by the ancestral spirits in the lineage of the mother, the child's mother's brother (kokwana/malume) acts as priest.

Ceremonies. At birth a baby is cleansed and shown to his father before receiving a forename from the grandfather (if it is a boy) or grandmother (if it is a girl). The name is announced about a month after the birth. No special ceremony is involved.

In South Africa, initiation rites symbolizing the reaching of physical maturity and assimilation into the tribe have fallen into abeyance for both Tsonga boys and girls.

Cultural festivals feature traditional dances, choirs and drum majorettes, and speeches. Festivities may conclude with a sacrifice at royal graves.

Arts. Women make potteryutilitarian objects bartered for food products or sold to tourists. There are Venda influences, and pots are increasingly decorated with shop-bought paint. Most women make grass mats to be used as sleeping mats or to sit on during the day. Tsonga women's beadwork does not convey messages, but indicates the status of the wearer.

Men make artistic but practical objects such as wooden bowls, calabashes, baskets, winnowing baskets, musical instruments, and mortars and pestles for pounding maize. Near towns, enamel basins and bowls have largely replaced wooden bowls, but most homesteads still pound maize, except people who stay near mills.

Medicine. The Tsonga believe that all phenomena, including humans, have particular power qualities. Such magical properties can be transferred to humans by taking potions or using amulets made of the parts of plants or animal organs in which the magical property resides. The people use western hospitals and clinics as well as diviners.

Death and Afterlife. Purification ceremonies are required from the family at various stages after the death. The official period of mourning for spouses is one year, during which period sexual intercourse is prohibited. Men are usually buried in the cattle-kraal and an ox is slaughtered to convey the deceased man's soul to the realm of the ancestral spirits.

Ideas about the afterlife are very closely related to views about life. Humans consist of a physical body (mmiri) which is discarded when one dies, and two non-material attributes (the moya and the ndzhuti ). The moya is a general human attribute, associated with wind or breath, and enters the physical body at birth and leaves it at the moment of death. The ndzhuti is an individual personal attribute associated with a person's shadow or reflection and with the specific character of that person. Both attributes continue to exist after death, so that the spirits of the dead (swikwembu) not only have general human characteristics, but keep their individual characteristics as well.

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.


Baumbach, E. J. M. (1979). "A Classification of Tsonga Dialect in the Republic of South Africa." (Topic translated, thesis only in Afrikaans). Unpublished D Litt et Phil thesis, Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Boonzaaier, C. C. (1980). "The Indigenous Administrative and Judicial System of the Nkuna of Ritavi with Reference to Their Origin." (Topic translated, dissertation only in Afrikaans). Unpublished Masters dissertation, Pretoria: University of Pretoria.

(1990). "Family Law and the Laws Governing Inheritance and Succession among the Nkuna, with Reference to other spects of Private Law." (Topic translated, thesis only in Afrikaans). Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Pretoria: University of Pretoria.

Hartman, J. B. (1978). Aspects of Tsonga Law. Pretoria: University of Pretoria. J. B. Hartman.

Hartman J. B., J. D. Kriel, C. C. Boonzaaier, H. Els, and I. Wassermann (1993). Report on the Development of Tribal Authorities in Gazankulu. Pretoria: The Authors.

Jaques, A. A. (1927). "Terms of Kinship and Corresponding Patterns of Behaviour among the Tsonga." Bantu Studies 3 (pp. 327-348).

Junod, H. A. (1927). The Life of a South African Tribe (Vols. I and II). London: Macmillan & Co.

Kriel, J. D. and J. B. Hartman (1991). Khindlimukani Vatsonga. The Cultural Heritage and Development of the Shangana-Tsonga. Pretoria: Promedia.

Liesegang, G. J. (1967) "Beiträge zur Geschichte des Reiches der Gaza Nguni im südlichen Mocambique, 1820-1895." Unpublished doctoral thesis, Cologne: Cologne University.

Shilubane, P. X. (1990). "The Nature and Implications of Spirit Possession among the Tsonga." Unpublished Masters dissertation, Pietersburg: University of the North.

Terblanche, H.-P. (1994). "Selected Items of the Material-Culture of Tsonga Women with Specific Reference to the Tsongakraal Open-Air Museum." (Translated topic, dissertation only in Afrikaans). Unpublished Masters dissertation, Pretoria: University of Pretoria.