South African Ethnic Groups

The Tsonga-Shangaan Family

Within the South African ethnic context, the Tsonga are a diverse population, generally including the Shangaan, Thonga, Tonga (unrelated to another nearby Tonga population to the north), and several smaller ethnic groups. Together they number about 1.5 million in South Africa in the mid-1990s, and at least 4.5 million in southern Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

In the eighteenth century, the ancestors of the South African ethnic group the Tsonga lived in small, independent chiefdoms, sometimes numbering a few thousand people. Most Tsonga relied on fishing for subsistence, although goats, chickens, and crop cultivation were also important. Cattle were relatively rare in their economies, probably because their coastal lowland habitat was tsetse-fly infested. The Tsonga maintained a tradition of inheritance by brothers, in preference to sons, which is common in many Central African societies but not among other South African ethnic groups.

During the mfecane and ensuing upheaval of the nineteenth century, most South African ethnic groups cheifdoms such as the Tsonga moved inland. Some successfully maintained their independence from the Zulu, while others were conquered by Zulu warriors even after they had fled. One Zulu military leader, Soshangane, established his command over a large Tsonga population in the northern Transvaal in the mid-nineteenth century and continued his conquests farther north. The descendants of some of the conquered populations are known as the Shangaan, or Tsonga-Shangaan. Some Tsonga-Shangaan trace their ancestry to the Zulu warriors who subjugated the armies in the region, while others claim descent from the conquered chiefdoms. The Tsonga and the Zulu languages remain separate and are mutually unintelligible in some areas.

The Tsonga-Shangaan homeland, Gazankulu, was carved out of northern Transvaal Province during the 1960s and was granted self-governing status in 1973. This South African ethnic homeland economy depended largely on gold and on a small manufacturing sector. Only an estimated 500,000 people--less than half the Tsonga-Shangaan population of South Africa--ever lived there, however. Many others joined the throngs of township residents around urban centers, especially Johannesburg and Pretoria.

In the 1980s, the government of Gazankulu, led by Chief Minister Hudson Nsanwisi, established a 68-member legislative assembly, made up mostly of traditional chiefs. The chiefs opposed homeland independence but favored a federal arrangement with South Africa; they also opposed sanctions against South Africa on the grounds that the homeland economy would suffer. In areas of Gazankulu bordering the South African ethnic seSotho-speaking homeland of Lebowa, residents of the two poverty-stricken homelands clashed frequently over political and economic issues. These clashes were cited by South African officials as examples of the ethnic conflicts they claimed would engulf South Africa if apartheid ended.

The Venda

The South African ethnic group the Venda (also VaVenda) had a population of about 600,000 people coalesced into an identifiable social unit in the area of the northern Transvaal and in Zimbabwe over several centuries. The Venda language, tshiVenda or luVenda, emerged as a distinct tongue in the sixteenth century, according to scholars. In the twentieth century, the tshiVenda vocabulary is similar to seSotho, but the grammar shares similarities with Shona dialects, which are spoken in Zimbabwe.

Venda culture is similarly eclectic; it appears to have incorporated a variety of East African, Central African, Nguni, and Sotho characteristics. For example, the South African ethnic Venda forbid the consumption of pork, a prohibition that is common along the East African coast. They practice male circumcision, which is common among many Sotho, but not among most Nguni peoples.

Early Venda social organization consisted of small kinship groups, often dispersed among several households. These were organized into chiefdoms, and some were ruled by chiefly dynasties in the eighteenth century. Smaller chiefdoms often served as vassal states to larger and stronger chiefdoms, but they were neither entirely incorporated into them nor administered directly by a paramount chief. Venda traditional religious beliefs, like other aspects of culture, appear to have combined elements from several neighboring religious systems and Christianity.

The South African ethnic homeland of Venda became nominally independent in 1979 but was not recognized by any country except South Africa. Unlike other homelands, Venda actually drew most of the 700,000 people assigned to live there. Its economy depended on agriculture and small industry, and coal mining began in the late 1980s. Nearly 70 percent of the men worked elsewhere in South Africa, however, and at least 40 percent of the homeland's income was migrant labor wages. Facing economic collapse, Venda authorities applied for readmission into South Africa in 1991. Their petition was essentially overtaken by the political negotiations and constitutional reforms of the early 1990s, which led to the dissolution of the South African ethnic homelands in 1994.

Source: U.S. Library of Congress

About other South African Languages and Cultures:
Introduction to South African Languages  •  
The Sotho (Pedi, Sotho, Tswana)  •  Tsonga, Shangaan and Venda  •  The Nguni(Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele)  •  Afrikaners, English Speakers, and Indians  •  The Khoisan

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