The greatest concentration of Tswa people is in the southern Mozambique province of Inhambane. Smaller concentrations live in portions of the provinces of Gaza, Maputo, Manica and Sofala. A small, uncertain number of Tswa people also live in eastern portions of the Republic of South Africa, and eastern and southern Zimbabwe. International borders were established long after the arrival of these people in this area of Africa.
There are no significant concentrations of Tswa people living in Mozambique north of the Zambezi River, which is a common dividing point for the northern and southern parts of the huge country. The capital city of Maputo is now home to quite a few Tswa people as well, despite the major people group of the city being people of the Ronga group.
It is believed that ancestors of the Tswa, who now primarily inhabit an area in southern Mozambique, originated farther north nearer the more central part of Africa. As these people moved into the southern area of Africa, they settled in places where they could carry on their traditional farming and pastoral way of life. Various clans made up the overall Tswa people group.
This social structure began to undergo changes as the influence of Portuguese colonialism increased. Portugal became a dominant power along the eastern coast of Africa in the late 1490s. Portugal established several colonies in the territory now known as Mozambique. Actual Portuguese presence was limited, but in 1951, Portugal combined all its colonies in southeastern Africa into one huge colony named Mozambique.
Some sources give the date of Portugal's claim to the area as 1752. One source, however, puts the date when Portugal established Mozambique as a colony as 1505, becoming an overseas province of Portugal in 1951. The territory was originally and formally known as Portuguese East Africa.
The Portuguese government allowed the local kings/rulers to continue ruling their respective peoples, but under the over-arching authority of Portugal. This more or less continued until Mozambique gained independence.
In 1962, Mozambican nationalists had formed the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO) to try and negotiate independence. Eventually, under the leadership of Dr. Eduardo Mondlane, FRELIMO began an armed liberation struggle in 1964. Samora Machel assumed leadership of FRELIMO in 1969 after the assassination of Dr. Mondlane.
In 1974 the fascist Portuguese regime was overthrown and Mozambique became independent on June 25, 1975. An opposition group known as RENAMO, with its own revolutionary army, continued to oppose FRELIMO for many years. Peace was attained in 1992 after the FRELIMO government took a significant change of direction in national economic policy.
The Tswa are classified in the Nguni group, speaking one of the languages in this group of southeastern Bantu languages. The Nguni language group includes cultural groups such as the Xhosa, Swati (Swazi) and Zulu. Today most of Mozambique's indigenous peoples are of this Nguni origin.
The name of the Tswa people in their language is Vatswa. The singular form is Mutswa. In English they are commonly called Tswa, following the English grammatical conventions for names, using the Bantu root Tswa. The Tswa people are part of a larger Nguni ethnic cluster called the Tsonga (Vatsonga), which is also the name of the most well-known group in this cluster. The Tsonga sub-group are also called the Shangaan.
The Tsonga cluster encompass three sub-groups: the 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.
The Tswa themselves distinguish three main Tswa groups: The Dzivi, the Hlengwe and the Mhandla. The speech of each of these three groups is classified by linguists as dialects of one Tswa language. It should also be noted that there are two smaller sub-groups who belong to the Tswa. They are the Nwanati, also called the Makwakwa, traditionally placed south of the Hlengwe; and the Nzonge, also called the Gwambe in their traditional homeland between the Dzivi and the Chopi.
It is extremely difficult to determine even an estimated population of the Tswa people. This is at least partially due to the fact that written information often confuses or overlooks the fact that the Tswa are part of the larger group of Tsonga people. They are often referred to as "Tsonga" people, blurring the distinctions made here. Thus, often when reading information, one cannot determine if a given population estimate is of the Tswa people specifically, or of the overall larger group of the Tsonga people.
Tswa is one of three very closely related Tsonga dialects, the other two being Shangaan and Ronga. Shangaan is also sometimes called Tsonga because these people are large and well known. It is believed that these variations exist at least partly because different groups of the same original people inhabited slightly different sections of southern Mozambique, therefore developing a few linguistic variations.
Linguists have assigned separate language codes to the three languages, the Ethnologue notes that the three are mutually intelligible. The people call their language Xitswa. It is an indigenous Bantu language. Linguists further identify 5 dialects of the Tswa language: Hlongwe, Tshwa (also Dzivi or Dzonga), Mandla, Ndoxonge and Nhayi.
Various sources report that during the Portuguese era, the Tswa people, along with other Mozambiquans had greatly suffered during the years of the war of independence. In the period between 1975 and the mid 1980s, the Mozambican government (under FRELIMO rule) went down the trail of Marxism, leading the country into still more political, economic and social upheaval. Food production dropped and resources were further depleted by droughts.
The attention and resources of the government were further strained and drained by war. Another nationalist movement called The National Resistance of Mozambique (RENAMO) began a guerrilla war after independence to depose FRELIMO and change the Marxist direction. RENAMO was supported by the South African government, while FRELIMO allowed ANC to use its territory as a base of operations for its actions against the non-democratic South African government. This opposition army, however, continued its struggle against the Mozambique government.
In 1984 an accord was signed by the Mozambique and South African governments which meant the loss of South African support for RENAMO. In the late 1980s, the FRELIMO government realistically acknowledged that their Marxist efforts had failed. FRELIMO on its own began reforming the government's practice and policy. RENAMO, however, continued to fight for the overthrow of the FRELIMO government. After much negotiation, a peace accord was signed in October 1992. The peace agreement merged this army into the national Mozambique army. The RENAMO party now sits as an official opposition.
Today, as with most people groups in southern Mozambique, the Tswa people are living intertwined with other peoples. Though the Tswa speech has a few differences from the speech of neighbouring peoples, their material culture is similar. The people are not easily distinguishable/differentiated from other Bantu people groups that inhabit the southern portions of Mozambique. The group of Tswa people living in South Africa and Zimbabwe are small, and no population figures were available.
Traditionally, the Tswa have been agriculturists 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. However, there are those living along the Indian Ocean coastal areas who are fishermen by trade. Also, it is not uncommon for those living inland to supplement their meat by hunting game, although wild animal numbers have been greatly diminished due to decades of war, famine and marked mismanagement.
During the last two decades of the 19th century, many of the Tswa began to be recruited to work in the mines of South Africa. This has caused the Tswa people to be influenced by cultures originally foreign to the Bantu African ways of life.
There is a certain percentage who have migrated to the cities and towns in search of employment. This was dramatically increased as a result of war and famine. Thousands of Tswa people were forced to flee their traditional way of life as farmers in the countryside to cramped conditions in the towns and cities. Because of these changes, today, many Tswa people do not practice or reflect much of their traditional livelihood and many of their customs.
Historically, the Tswa people have adhered to African traditional religions (animism/ancestral spirit worship). This is still common, especially among those living in rural areas, with 43% of the people estimated to follow traditional religion.