Tsonga people

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Tsonga people
Tsonga languages and dialects.jpg
Traditional location of Tsonga people with dialectical differences and before the borders between South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were erected and the people separated.
Total population
5,370,000 (late 20th-century estimate)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Mozambique 3.1 million
South Africa 2.1 million
Swaziland 27 thousand
Zimbabwe 5 thousand
Tsonga, Portuguese, English
African Traditional Religion, Christianity

Tonga, Thonga or Tsonga people (Tsonga: Vatsonga) and languages span most of southern Africa, notable countries being South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In these countries, there are regions where one or more languages and/or dialects are more dominant. For example, in South Africa, Tsonga people are mainly found in the Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, with smaller populations in North-West and Free State. Within these provinces, there are towns and cities where they are most prevalent, although this is continually changing in the new South Africa as black people can now move freely. Most or all of southern Mozambique is inhabited by Tsonga people, variously named as Copi, Rhonga, Ndzawu, Tonga, Shangana, and Tshwa. Historically and currently the Tsonga people in Mozambique are between the Limpopo and Save rivers. Their density lowers between Save and Zambezi, where the Tsonga/Shona group of Ndau starts to dominate. The provinces are Maputo, Maputo City, Inhambane, Manica, Gaza, and Sofala.

The Tsonga grouping is sometimes known as Tswa-Ronga. "Double-barrel" names have caused more problems and confusion in the past, instead of fostering union. The creation of the Gazankulu Bantustan in Apartheid South Africa, led to a social cohesion drive between a former invading clan, the Gaza-Ngoni-Ndwandwe, and the original Tsonga speakers, who had fled Mozambique when the Gaza-Ngoni-Ndwandwe first arrived. This brought about the name Vatsonga-Machangana or Tsonga/Shangaan. The Gaza-Ngoni-Ndwandwe went to what is now South Africa after 1897, whereas the Tsonga group went there from 1820. The Gaza-Ngoni-Ndwandwe later tried to claim to be Tsonga kings in South Africa, when in fact, they had never ruled the Tsonga in what later became South Africa. For this reason, the name Tsonga should be preferred over Tswa-Ronga. For example, the largest clan among the Tswa is the Hlengwe clan, and so Tswa-Ronga could have easily been Hlengwe-Ronga. At the same time, the largest clan among the Ronga is the Tembe, and as such, Tswa-Ronga could have been easily Tswa-Tembe. In light of that, the more recent form of Thonga, which is Tsonga, is more preferred as it refers to the entire ethnic group, and is not likely to create dominant clans in the future. This also means that the name Tsonga includes the Chopi, Tonga and Ndau, and is beyond the Tsonga language heavily influenced by the Dzonga dialect.

Languages and Dialects[edit]

Tswa-Ronga people and languages are: Chopi, Ndau, Ronga, Tsonga, Tonga, Tswa and Thonga.

  1. Chopi (Chope, Copi, Tshopi, Txopi) dialects are Copi, Khambani, Lambwe, Lenge (Lengue), Ndonge and Tonga.
  2. Ndau (Ndzawu, Njao, Sofala, South-East Shona) dialects are Changa (Shanga, Xanga), Danda, Dondo, Gova, Ndau, and Senji.
  3. Ronga (Rhonga) dialects are Kalanga, Konde, Putru, and Ssonge.
  4. Tsonga (aka standard or South African Tsonga) dialects are Bila (Vila), Changana (Shangaan, Shangana), Dzonga (Jonga), Gwamba (Gwapa), Hlanganu (Langanu, Nhlanganu), Hlave (Nhlave, Mbayi, Nkuna, Pai), Kande, Khosa, Luleke, Lubimbi, N'walungu (Ngwalungu), Nkuma, Songa, Xika, and Xonga.
  5. Tswa (Tshwa) dialects are Dzibi (Dzivi), Dzibi-Dzonga (Dzivi-Dzonga), Tshwa, Hlengwe (Lengwe, Lhenge), Khambani, Makwakwe-Khambani, Mandla, Ndxhonge, and Nhayi (Nyai, Nyayi).
  6. Tonga can be divided into Valley Tonga and Plateau Tonga, and is spoken by Ila, Iwe, Leya, Toka and Tonga people.

Tswa-Ronga dialects not considered part of the family include Pulana (Xipulana, Sepulane). In Tsonga literature, Pulana is represented by the Mbayi (Pai) sub-dialect of Hlave. It has been said that the two dialects that unite all Tswa-Ronga languages are Nkuna and Khosa (HP Junod, Matimu ya Vatsonga). For "language of", the various languages and dialects may use one or more of the prefixes: Bi-, Chi-, Ci-, Gi-, Ici-, Ki-, Ma-, Shee-, Shi-, Txi-, Va-, Wa-, and Xi-. For "people of", they use either "Ba-" or "Va-".


Like other Bantu people in South Africa, the Tsonga people originate from Central Africa and arrived in South Africa some 1000 years ago. Initially, the Tsonga people settled on the coastal plains of Southern Mozambique but later migrated to the Transvaal Province in South Africa during the early 1800s. Within apartheid South Africa, a Tsonga "homeland", Gazankulu, was created out of part of northern Transvaal Province (Now Limpopo Province and Eastern Transvaal (Now Mpumalanga) during the 1960s and was granted self-governing status in 1973.[2] This bantustan's economy depended largely on gold and on a small manufacturing sector.[2] However, only an estimated 500,000 people—less than half the Tsonga population of South Africa—ever lived there.[2] Many others joined township residents from other parts of South Africa around urban centres, especially Johannesburg and Pretoria.[2]


The problem with Tsonga population counts is that they don't include all Tsonga people. They are usually just counts of the Tsonga people in the Gaza Province of Mozambique and the Tsonga people in the former Gazankulu homeland of South Africa. This leaves out a great number of Tsonga people. The reason why this happens is that Tsonga people are called by so many different names: Shangani (Gaza Province, Zimbabwe and Swaziland), Ronga (Maputo Province and Maputo City), Tswa, Chopi, Tonga, Ndau, Hlengwe, and the list goes on. Also, the Tsonga (Ronga) people of northern KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) have been reclassified as Zulu.

There are 5,370,000[3] standard Tsonga speakers, 945,000[4] Ronga speakers and 1,546,000[5] Tswa speakers in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They constitute the central Tswa-Ronga family and are mutually intelligible. There are 995,000[6] Chopi speakers and 491,000[7] Coastal Tonga speakers in Mozambique. This is the Chopi family of languages. There are 2,984,000[8] Ndau speakers in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Ndau is somewhere between Tsonga and Shona, but different enough from both to constitute a separate language branch. There are 737,000[9] Plateau Tonga and 1,154,000[10] Zambezi Valley Tonga speakers in Zimbabwe and Zambia. There are 242,000[11] Lake Malawi Tonga speakers. That makes for 14.5 million of the people variantly known as Tonga, Thonga or Tsonga in Southern and Eastern Africa.

In South Africa, Tsonga people are concentrated in the following Municipal areas; Greater Giyani Local Municipality 248 000 people, Bushbuckridge Local Municipality 320 000 people, Greater Tzaneen Local Municipality 195 000 people, Ba-Phalaborwa Local Municipality 80 000 people, Makhado Local Municipality 170 000 people and Thulamela Local Municipality 220 000 people, City of Tshwane 280 000 people, City of Johannesburg 290 000 people and Ekurhuleni 260 000 people. In the following municipalities, Tsonga people are present but they are not large enough or are not significant enough to form a dominant community in their shere of influence, in most cases, they are less than 50 000 people in each municipality. At the same time, they are not small enough to be ignored as they constitute the largest minority language group. They are as follows; Greater Letaba Local Municipality 28 000 people, Mbombela Local Municipality 26 000 people, Nkomazi Local Municipality 28 500 people, Mogalakwena Local Municipality 31 400 people, Madibeng Local Municipality 51 000, Moretele Local Municipality 34 000 and Rustenburg Local Municipality 30 000. The provincial breakdown of Tsonga speakers, according to 2011 census, are as follows; Limpopo Province 906 000 people, Mpumalanga Province 415 000 people, Gauteng Province 800 000 people and North West Province 110 000 people. Overall, Tsonga speakers constitutes 4.4% of South Africa's total population.[citation needed]


The Tsonga traditional economy is based on mixed agriculture and pastoralism. Cassava is the staple; corn (maize), millet, sorghum, and other crops are also grown. Women do much of the agricultural work, although some men grow cash crops. Most Tsongas now depend on wage labour for cash, many migrating to Zimbabwe or South Africa to find work.[12]


Tsonga men traditionally attend the initiation school for circumcision called Matlala (KaMatlala) or Ngoma (a Ngomeni) after which they are regarded as men.

The Tsonga people living along the Limpopo River in South Africa have recently gained a significant amount of attention for their low-tech, lo-fi electronic dance music. Shangaan electro has been pioneered by South African producer 'Dog' (also known as Nozinja). The Tsongas are also known for a number of traditional dances such as the Mchongolo, Xigubu, Makwaya and Xibelani dance.

Traditional beliefs and healers[edit]

Senior n'angas relax and celebrate after an initiation dedicated to the Ndau spirit.

Like most Bantu cultures, the Shangaans have a strong acknowledgment of their ancestors, who are believed to have a considerable effect on the lives of their descendants. The traditional healers are called n'anga.[13] 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).[13] 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.[13] Nkomo We Lwandle and Dunga Manzi became famous healers and trained hundred of women and men as diviners.

Senior N'angas help a new n'agna out of the water during an initiation

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.[13] When this occurs, the individual will consult a n'anga to diagnose the cause of illness. If 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.[13] 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.[14]

Once the spirit has been converted from hostile to benevolent forces, the spirits bestow the powers of divination and healing on the n'agna.[13]

Notable Tsonga People[edit]

  1. Cassius Baloyi (South African Boxer)
  2. Collins Chabane (South African politician)
  3. Eduardo Mondlane (Founding President of FRELIMO)
  4. Gito Baloi (Mozambicam musician)
  5. Graça Machel (Former South African and Mozambican First Lady)
  6. Herman Mashaba (Founder of Black Like Me)
  7. Joaquim Chissano (Former President of Mozambique)
  8. Jomo Sono (South African Football Legend; Owner of Jomo Cosmos)
  9. Lizha James (Mozambican musician and celebrity)
  10. Mbhazima Shilowa (former Gauteng Premier)
  11. Pansy Tlakula (IEC Chairperson)
  12. Samora Moisés Machel (Former President of Mozambique)
  13. Samuel Dickenson Nxumalo (Third Chief Minister of Gazankulu)
  14. Sam Nzima (Photographer of famous Hector Pieterson, his sister Anotinette Sithole and Mbuyisa Makhubo picture)
  15. Tito Mboweni (Former South African Reserve Bank Governor)


  1. ^ "Tsonga joshuaproject.net". Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d Rita M. Byrnes, ed. (1996). "Tsonga and Venda". South Africa: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress. Retrieved 15 July 2011. 
  3. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/15596
  4. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/14576
  5. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/15600
  6. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/11368/MZ
  7. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/19123/MZ
  8. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/13273
  9. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/19619/ZA
  10. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/16082
  11. ^ http://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/18890/MI
  12. ^ "Tsonga People". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 31 July 2015. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f Liebhammer, Nessa (2007). Dungamanzi (Stirring Waters). Johannesburg: WITS University Press. pp. 171–174. ISBN 1-86814-449-6. 
  14. ^ Broch-Due, Vigdis (2005). Violence And Belonging:The Quest For Identity In Post-Colonial Africa. Psychology Press. p. 97. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 


  • Junod, Henri Alexandre. (1927). The Life of a South African Tribe. London (second edition).
  • The Fader – Ghetto Palms 90: New Styles/Shangaan Electro/South Africa Road Epic! [1]
  • Mandla Mathebula, et al. (2007) "Tsonga History Perspective." [2]
  • "First Online Tsonga Dictionary". [3]

External links[edit]