Traditional Tsonga Dancing
Total population
4.6 million (late 20th century estimate)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland
Tsonga, Portuguese, English
African traditional religion, Christianity

The Tsonga people (Tsonga: Vatsonga) inhabit the southern coastal plain of Mozambique, parts of Zimbabwe and Swaziland, and Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province of South Africa. They numbered some 4.6 million in the late 20th century.[1]


The Tsonga people speak the Tsonga language (Xitsonga) Although many Tsongas are Christian, many also adhere to their own traditional religion, which entails constant attention to the propitiation of ancestral spirits. Illness and other misfortunes are usually attributed to the breaking of a taboo, to the anger of an ancestor, or to sorcery.[1]

The Tsongas are a diverse population, generally including the Shangaan (VaChangana), Thonga, Tonga (unrelated to another nearby Tonga population to the north), and several smaller ethnic groups.

Sometimes, the definition of Tsonga is extended to include the closely related Ronga and Tswa peoples of Mozambique.[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. I quote:[3]

"I've summed up some numbers from [4] according to how they divert from central Tswa-Ronga. I started by summing up Tswa, Ronga and Tsonga. Then I added Chopi, which is sometimes referred to as a group of its own. I then added Ndau, which is sometimes referred to as a Shona language. Then I added the Tonga languages, linguistically different from the aforementioned but culturally similar. I started with Mozambican Tonga, then went to Zimbabwe and Zambia, and lastly went to Malawi. This is according to my understanding and sureness. The reason I went all out to do this population survey is that Tsonga people are ususally kicked to the curb as a minority forgetting that although they may be a minority in one country, they are a majority in the subcontinent. Now follows my synopsis.

  • Tswa-Ronga: Ronga 848,000 + Tsonga 4,954,000 + Tswa 1,549,000 = 7,351,000.
  • Enter Chopi 893,000 = 8,244,000.
  • Enter Ndau 2,348,000 = 10,592,000.
  • Enter Tonga (Moz) 441,000 = 11,033,000.
  • Enter Tonga (Zam and Zim) 1,739,000 = 12,772,000.
  • Enter Tonga (Malawi) 221,000 = 12,993,000.

That sums up the Tswa-Ronga and Tonga populations in southern and eastern Africa.``


It is believed that ancestors of the Tsonga, who now primarily inhabit an area in southern Mozambique, originated further north in central Africa.[2]

Within apartheid South Africa, a Tsonga "homeland", Gazankulu, was created out of part of northern Transvaal Province during the 1960s and was granted self-governing status in 1973.[5] This bantustan's economy depended largely on gold and on a small manufacturing sector.[5] However, only an estimated 500,000 people—less than half the Tsonga population of South Africa—ever lived there.[5] Many others joined township residents from other parts of South Africa around urban centres, especially Johannesburg and Pretoria.[5]


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.[1]


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. Tsonga electro has been pioneered by South African producer 'Dog'. The Tsonga's are also known for a number of traditional dances such as the xibelani dance.

Traditional Belief and Healers

Like most bantu cultures, the Tsonga 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.[6] 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).[6] 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.[6] Nkomo We Lwandle and Dunga Manzi became famous healers and trained hundred of women and men as diviners.

Among the Tsonga, 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.[6] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Once the spirit has been converted from hostile to benevolent forces, the spirits bestow the powers of divination and healing on the n'agna.[6]



  • 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]

External links

  • Ethnologue entry on Tsonga language
  • Shangaan – Tsonga
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