Venda woman singing about a successful trip to collect stinkbugs.
|1,2 million  – 1,2 million |
|Regions with significant populations|
|African traditional, Christian|
The Venda (Vhavhenda or Vhangona) are a Southern African people living mostly near the South African-Zimbabwean border. When the bantustan of Venda became nominally self-governing in 1973, their population stood at 200,000. In 1996, there were 500,000 Venda speakers. The 2001 census revealed that there were 800,000 Venda speakers in South Africa, while the 2011 census indicated 1.2 million speakers of the language in South Africa.. According to "South Africa Info". there were 1 209 388 Venda speakers in 2011.
The Venda of today are descendants of many heterogeneous groupings and clans such as:
- Dzindou dza Vharundwa / Dza Mitshetoni /Dza Manenzhe
- Masingo; and
Vhadau, Vhakwevho, Vhafamadi, Vhania, Vhangona, Vhalea, and Vhaluvhu were collectively known as Vhangona. The Vhangona and Vhambedzi are considered to be the original inhabitants of Venda.
The land of Vhangona was later settled by Karanga-Rodzvi clans from Zimbabwe: Vhatwanamba, Vhanyai, Vhatavhatsindi, and Vhalembethu. Masingo, Vhalaudzi, and Vhalemba are late arrivals in Venda.
According to one version of Vhangona oral history the capital of Vhangona was Mapungubwe with the Raphulu Royal House as the most senior royal house of the Vhangona. According to this version the Vhangona Kingdom had +-145 chiefdoms and a King (Thovhele). It is said that the Kingdom was divided into seven districts:
- Tshamanyatsha; and
These districts were ruled by District Chiefs (Mahosi):
- Mudzanani/Nesongozwi Dzanani);
- Nembilwi (Mbilwi);
- Netswime (Tswime);
- Netshiendeulu (Tshiendeulu);
- Netshakhuma (Tshakhuma);
- Netshamanyatsha (Tshamanyantsha); and
- Makhahani (Thulamela).
Each district had Vhamusanda (Junior Chiefs) who paid tribute to Mahosi. This tradition states that one of the Vhangona Kings was King Shiriyadenga whose royal kraal was at Mapungubwe. It is not clear if this Shiriyadenga is the same Shiriyedenga of the Sanga dynasty, a Karanga-Rozvi branch. The Sanga dynasty, in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands, was founded by Chiphaphami Shiriyedenga who died in 1672. Could it be that at one point the Karanga-Rodzvi Empire extended beyond the Vhembe (Limpopo) River, and that the Vhangona, though not Karanga speaking, were at one point under Karanga-Rodzvi rule?
The other version of Vhangona history disputes that the Vhangona were ever united under one chief or King. It says that the Vhangona had different independent chiefdoms and that the Vhangona chief of Nzhelele valley was Tshidziwelele of the Mudau clan. What is clear, however, is that the Vhatwanamba, who were of Karanga-Rodzvi origin, conquered Vhangona clans who lived in Mapungubwe, Musina, Ha-Tshivhula, Ha-Lishivha, Ha-Matshete, Ha-Mulambwane, and Ha-Madzhie (the areas of Ha-Tshivhula, Ha-Lishivha, Ha-Matshete, and Ha-Mulambwane are known today as Alldays and Waterpoort).
Mapungubwe was the center of a kingdom with about 5000 people living at its center. Mapungubwe as a trade center lasted between 1030 and 1290 AD. The people of Mapungubwe mined and smelted copper, iron and gold, spun cotton, made glass and ceramics, grew millet and sorghum, and tended cattle, goats and sheep.
The people of Mapungubwe had a sophisticated knowledge of the stars, and astronomy played a major role not only in their tradition and culture, but also in their day-to-day lives. Mapungubwe traded with ancient Ethiopia through the ports of Adulis on the Red Sea and the ports of Raphta (now Quelimani) and Zafara (now Sofala) in Mozambique.
Mapungubwe predates the settlements at Great Zimbabwe, Thulamela and Dzata. It is believed that people left Mapungubwe for Great Zimbabwe because Great Zimbabwe was judged to have a more suitable climate.
Social & Cultural life
Trade, warfare and intermarriage with Tsonga, Lobedu, Zulu, Swazi and other people, have also left their imprints on Venda culture. The Venda were a protective people, many of whom still practised polygamy and worshipped their families' ancestors.
Members of the different clans could, and did, live in any of the tribal territories, because the tribe was purely a political and territorial unit, consisting of people who chose to owe allegiance to a particular dynasty.
It was quite common to find a ruler attracting members of his own clan after his accession. There was no paramount chief each tribe was ruled by an independent chief, who had under him headmen, responsible for the government of districts within the tribal territory.
Most of the chiefs belonged to lineages of the same clan, which crossed the Limpopo River and controlled those whom they found living in the Zoutpansberg in the latter half of the 18th century. Thus there was an important social division in Venda society between commoners (vhasiwana) and the children of chiefs and their descendants (vhakololo).
In the Sibasa district (located in Limpopo) there were 12 Venda chiefs some were the descendants of brothers, who were the sons of a ruling chief but broke away and established independent chiefdoms elsewhere. There were a number of differences in the customs of the various clans, especially in religious ritual, but there were no distinct differences between the tribes.
Venda Belief System
The Venda culture is built on a vibrant mythical belief system, which is reflected in their artistic style. Water is an important theme to the Venda and there are many sacred sites within their region where the Venda conjure up their ancestral spirits.
They believe zwidudwane, (water spirits), live at the bottom of waterfalls. These beings are only half-visible; they only have one eye, one leg, and one arm. One half can be seen in this world and the other half in the spirit world. The Venda would take offerings of food to them because the zwidudwane cannot grow things underwater.
One of the most sacred sites of the Venda is Lake Fundudzi. Suspicion surrounds the lake, which is fed by the Mutale River yet does not appear to have an outlet. It is also said that you can sometimes hear the Tshikona song although no one appears to be there.
The Venda people have a very special relationship with Crocodiles. The area where they live is filled with these dangerous reptiles. The Venda believe that the brain of the Crocodile is very poisonous, therefore they are given right of way by the Venda who do not even hunt them for food.
The Domba is a pre-marital initiation, the last one in the life of a Venda girl. The chief or sovereign will 'call' a domba and preparations are made by the families for their girls to be ready and to prepare what’s necessary to attend the ceremony (entry fees for the ruler, clothes and bangles).
Historically girls used to stay with the chief for the whole duration (3 months to 3 years) of the initiation; nowadays because of schooling, girls only spend weekends at the ruler’s kraal.
This rite of passage was attended by both girls and boys after each individual had previously attended other separated initiations dedicated to one’s gender; Vhusha and Tshikanda for girls and Murundu for boys (the circumcision done during this rite has been introduced by Vhalemba). Since the missionaries decided that mixing males and females in the same ceremony was immoral.
Only girls attend the Domba which has two main functions teaching girls how to prepare themselves to become wives (birth planning, giving birth and child care, how to treat a husband, and nowadays the teaching of AIDS risks); and bringing fertility to the new generation of the tribe.
Music and dance
Various rituals are particular to the Venda and certain aspects are kept secret and not discussed with westerners, however, it is known that the python dance, conducted at the female coming of age ceremony (iconic to the Limpopo region) is usually where the chief chooses a wife.
Girls and boys dance fluidly, like a snake, to the beat of a drum, while forming a chain by holding the forearm of the person in front. Once a wife has been chosen a set of courtship and grooming rituals take place over a number of days.
The tshikona is traditionally a male dance in which each player has a pipe made out of a special indigenous type of bamboo growing only in few places around Sibasa and Thohoyandou (which are rarely existing). Each player has one note to play, which has to be played in turn, in such a way as to build a melody.
The tshikona is a royal dance, each sovereign or chief has his own tshikona band. Tshikona is played at various occasions for funerals, wedding or religious ceremonies, this can be considered as the Venda 'national music / dance', which is particular to Venda in South Africa.
The tshigombela is a female dance usually performed by married women, this is a festive dance sometimes played at the same time as tshikona. Tshifhasi is similar to tshigombela but performed by young unmarried girls (khomba).
The Mbila is played in the north of South Africa and more particularly by the Venda. It can be described as a keyboard made out of a piece of wood, which is the resonator, and with metal blades (made out of huge nails hammered flat) which are the keys.
While the Mbila is still widely played in Zimbabwe, in South Africa it is only played by a few old people, who sadly notice that most youngsters are uninterested in their own culture and let it die. The playing of the Mbila is one of the most endangered Venda traditions. The Venda style of playing Mbila is quite different from that of Zimbabwe or Mozambique.
Drums are central in Venda culture and there are legends and symbols linked to them. Most sets of drums are kept in the homes of chiefs and headmen, and comprise one ngoma, one thungwa, and 2 or 3 murumba.
Drum sets without the Ngoma may be found in the homes of certain members of the tribe, such as the doctors who run girls’ ’circumcision’ schools. Drums are often given personal names. Drums are always played by women and girls, except in possession dances, when men may play them.
Venda Education Transformation
In the 70's at independence Vhavenda people were the poorest and least educated black group in South Africa. To entice them to accept independence the Afrikaner government built a parliament,administrative offices and ministers houses which were the only "good " houses at the time. An atlas map of 1981 clearly indicates the poverty and lack of development that was in this region.
The old government under Mphephu heavily subsidized education in the form of free text books and near zero school fees, even though the government lacked sufficient funds to build proper schools and more emphasis was on excellence and hard work. Today Vendas are one of the most distinguished black South Africans when it comes to education. Venda people are somewhat educated but most come from rural areas.
Notable Venda people
- E.S. Madima
- Tenda Madima
- Professor Tshilidzi Marwala
- Phillip N'dou
- Joel Netshitenzhe
- Cyril Ramaphosa
- Professor Ernst Oswald Johannes Westphal, b. 1919 in Khalava, whose tomb in Port Appin carries the words, 'A true son of Venda'.
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- Wende, Hamilton (5 February 2011). "South African boxing that 'makes the heart strong'". BBC. Retrieved 2011-02-06.