Tsonga people


Tsonga / Shangana / Changana

The Tsonga people are a Bantu ethnic group native mainly to Southern Mozambique and South Africa (Limpopo and Mpumalanga).

A very small number of Tsonga people are also found in Zimbabwe and Northern Eswatini.

In Mozambique, we find the greatest concentration of Shangaan people in the southern Mozambican province of Gaza.  Smaller concentrations live in the provinces of Inhambane, Maputo, Manica and Sofala.  There are no significant concentrations of Shangaan people living in Mozambique north of the Zambezi River, which more or less divides the country in two.

The Tsonga people of South Africa share some history with the Tsonga people of Southern Mozambique, and have similar cultural practices; however they differ on the dialects spoken.

Tsonga people Map

They speak Xitsonga, a Southern Bantu language.

The Mozambican capital Maputo is now home to large numbers of Shangaan people as well, despite the major people group of the city being people of the related Ronga group.

About 20,000 speakers of Shangaan also live in Swaziland.  A smaller, uncertain number of Shangaan also live in eastern and southern Zimbabwe.  Current international borders were established long after the arrival of these people in this area of Africa.



The name Shangaan derives from the name of their founder Soshangaane.  The name of the people in their own language is Vachangana.  The singular form is Muchangana.  In Bantu languages, grammatical markers are prefixes.  Thus standard English grammar uses the word stem, Shangaan, as the name.  The name Tsonga is used for the Shangaan and also for the larger cluster of related peoples of which they are a part.

Shangaan is another name for the Tsonga people, a southeastern Bantu people.  The Shangaan people are part of a larger language/people group also called the Tsonga (Vatsonga) because of the fame of the Tsonga (Shangaan) people.

The Tsonga cluster encompasses three sub-groups: Ronga, Tswa and Tsonga (Shangaan).  These three groups are very similar in practically every respect.  They originated from the same indigenous Bantu peoples who came down from the north to inhabit much of what is now called southern Mozambique and portions of several bordering countries.

Tsonga people

Tsonga people

The Shangaan developed from, a mixture of different Bantu-speaking peoples.  First were the Nguni people who had moved north away from the domination of Shaka Zulu.  The Nguni leader Soshangane subjugated the scattered communities of peace-loving Tsonga speakers living in the area he led his people to.

Others incorporated into Soshangane's people were people of Shona and Chopi origin.  The Nguni speech and customs remained dominant.  Soshangane named his kingdom Gaza after his grandfather.

It is extremely difficult to determine an estimated population of the Shangaan people.  This is at least partially due to the fact that written information often confuses the Shangaan with the larger group of Tsonga people.  Often when reading information, one cannot determine if a given population estimate is of the Shangaan people specifically, or of the overall larger group of the Tsonga people.



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.



The Tsonga people speak the Xitsonga language, which is one of the official languages of the Republic of South Africa. According to historians, the Xitsonga language had already developed during the 1500s with its predecessor the "Thonga language" identified as the main origin. It was mostly through the missionary work of the late 1800s to mid-1900s that led to a cohesive study of the Tsonga people's dialects and language features. The work carried out by Henri Junod and his father left a lasting legacy for the Tsonga people to rediscover their past history. It was however Paul Berthoud and his companion Ernest Creux who actively engaged with the Tsonga people of the Spelonken region to eventually produce the first hymn books written in the Xitsonga language at around 1878. These Swiss Missionaries, however, did not understand the Xitsonga language at all and had to depend on the guidance of native speakers for the translations. The first book written in the Xitsonga language was published in 1883 by Paul Berthoud after dedicating enough time to learning the language. The Tsonga people themselves had then begun to learn to read and write in Xitsonga, however that the Tsonga people had already been well affluent in the Xitsonga language or one of its dialects long before the arrival of the Swiss Missionaries. There is evidence to indicate that the "language was already-spoken by the primitive occupants of the country more than 500 years" before the arrival of Swiss Missionaries. (Junod 1912, p. 32)



Tsonga men traditionally attend the initiation school for circumcision called Matlala (KaMatlala) or Ngoma (e Ngomeni) after which they are regarded as men. Young teenage girls attend an initiation school that old Vatsonga women lead called Khomba, and initiates are therefore called tikhomba (khomba- singular, tikhomba- plural). Only virgins are allowed to attend this initiation school where they will be taught more about womanhood, how to carry themselves as tikhomba in the community, and they are also readied for marriage.


Traditional beliefs and healers

Like most Bantu cultures, the Tsonga people have a strong acknowledgement of their ancestors, who are believed to have a considerable effect on the lives of their descendants. The traditional healers are called n'anga. Legend has it that the first Tsonga diviners of the South African lowveld were a woman called Nkomo We Lwandle (Cow of the Ocean) and a man called Dunga Manzi (Stirring Waters). A powerful water serpent, Nzunzu (Ndhzhundzhu), allegedly captured them and submerged them in deep waters. They did not drown, but lived underwater breathing like fish. Once their kin had slaughtered a cow for Nzunzu, they were released and emerged from the water on their knees as powerful diviners with an assortment of potent herbs for healing. Nkomo We Lwandle and Dunga Manzi became famous healers and trained hundred of women and men as diviners.

Among the Tsongas, symptoms such as persistent pains, infertility and bouts of aggression can be interpreted as signs that an alien spirit has entered a person's body. When this occurs, the individual will consult a n'anga to diagnose the cause of illness. If it has been ascertained that the person has been called by the ancestors to become a n'anga, they will become a client of a senior diviner who will not only heal the sickness, but also invoke the spirits and train them to become diviners themselves. The legend of the water serpent is re-enacted during the diviner's initiation, by ceremoniously submerging the initiates in water from which they emerge as diviners.

The kind of spirits that inhabit a person are identified by the language they speak. There are generally the Ngoni (derived from the word Nguni), the Ndau and the Malopo. The Ndau spirit possesses the descendants of the Gaza soldiers who had slain the Ndau and taken their wives.

Once the spirit has been converted from hostile to benevolent forces, the spirits bestow the powers of divination and healing on the nganga.


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.

Tsonga people



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.



An important figure in traditional Shangaan culture, as with all the Nguni peoples of southeastern Africa, is the sangoma, a healer and spiritual guide.  The sangoma's medicine gourd, called nhunguvani, has become a symbol of the traditional cultural heritage of the Shangaan.  A well-known traditional art form is beadwork, formulated into geometric patterns.

Traditionally, the Shangaan have been agriculturalists and to some degree pastoralists.  For the most part, they are no different from the vast majority of all southern Bantu peoples.  Their way of life and customs run very parallel.

Each family would traditionally live in a family village, as is common with many Bantu-speaking cultures.  The Shangaan lived in these lineage groups of polygamous extended families.  From 1964, the South African government began redesignating certain living areas for certain races or tribes.  This included resettlement of many Shangaan and others into rural villages of up to 400 residents.

The Shangaan people were among the first to be used as laborers in the diamond and gold mines of South Africa.  The Shangaan were considered superior to other peoples in this type of work.

A certain percentage have migrated to the cities and towns in search of employment.  This migration was dramatically increased as a result of war and famine.  Thousands of Shangaan people were forced to flee their traditional way of life as farmers in the countryside to settle in cramped conditions in the towns and cities.  Because of these changes, today, many Shangaan people do not practice or reflect the traditional livelihood and customs.



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 fruit—just 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 so—the 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 pottery—utilitarian 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.

Tsonga tribes

Ronga land close to AmaTongaland of the VaTonga va Nyembana, Swaziland and Vangoni (Zulu Land), it is in Mozambique. Famous Ronga surnames are Mpfumo, Hon’wana, Tembe, Livombo and Maxava.

This name was given to them by tribes from the east and the north, Dzonga means people from the South. Khosa is the father of Vandzonga, he originates from the Xhosa’s and came a long time ago to Tsonga land, where he expanded and gave birth to clans such as Mavone, Xikhotana (Masiye), Ntimane,  Masuluke, Mahlawule, Rikhotso, Xivuri (from Sotho land), Sambo, Ngoveni and Manganyi.

In North-east Mozambique we find the Vanhlave tribe, one of the biggest Tsonga tribes. Famous surnames are Makamu, Nkwinika, Mavundza, Mawila and Mathye. Xivumba-Makhuvele is a Nhlave tribe that split and formed Xivumba (South tribe) and Makhuvele (known as Mugwena).
Nkuna is a tribe that joined the Vanhlave from Zulu land, Nkuna settled on Rikhotso’s land then moved to Bokgaha land where he expanded and gave birth to clans such as Risimati, Xikwambana, Mbalati, Maxele, Mboweni and Mukhari.

The name “Vatshwa” does not appear in Tsonga historical writings, yet according to Dr. Junod, Vatshwa are Tsonga and have accepted this. The Tshwa people believe majority of Tsonga tribes should be classified as Vatshwa excluding Vacopi and Vatonga va Nyembana.  Mukhombo states Vatshwa are a branch and/or split from Hlengwe tribe, yet the Hlengwe and Vatshwa people dispute this. Vatshwa was introduced by the Portuguese describing Zulu “first line warriors” “vatua”. Famous Tshwa surnames are Bilankulu, Yingwana, Hlabangwana, and Savangwana.

Vatsonga va N’walungu
This tribe originates from the North, they are a large group, and with the Valoyi tribe being one of them (The Valoyi have managed to be part of a lot of tribes within Tsongas). The N’walungu are strictly Valoyi, linked with the Copi tribe, we have clans such as Lowana, Makaringe, Nyathi, Maringa, and Mavilani. Within the N’walungu tribe we find Van’wati, Vanyayi.

This tribe is the rightful owners of Kruger National Park, they used to habit the location until removed by the then government, and before it was called Kruger National Park it was called “Ka Nyamazana”. The Hlanganu was swallowed into other Tsonga tribes after losing their land, however, they still hold up Hlanganu ways. Famous surnames are Mnisi, Lamula, Mueche, Mukhombo and Xiluvana.

They dominate Mozambique, Vembe Land until Gijani by the sea, their main land is known as Bileni. Famous surnames are Manyike, Henhla, Comana, Xituvana, Xikonela, and Xisano.

The biggest tribe and original tribe of all Tsonga tribes, I am not biased because I am a Hlengwe, I am stating a fact. Dr. Junod stated that the Hlengwe tribe makes up half of the Tsonga population, this may have not changed, and this can only be disputed with statistics. Their main land is in Mozambique, Nhlengweni, the Hlengwe’s are all over including South Africa (In KZN known as Mabaso) and Zimbabwe. The Hlengwe tribe is divided into three, namely