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The Tsonga people inhabit the southern coastal plain of Mozambique, parts of Zimbabwe and Swaziland, and the Limpopo Province of South Africa. They numbered some 4.6 million in the late 20th century.


The Tsonga people speak the Tsonga language
Tsonga language
The Tsonga or Xitsonga language is spoken in southern Africa by the Tsonga people, also known as the Shangaan.- Classification :Tsonga belongs to the Bantu branch of the Niger–Congo languages...

 (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.

The Tsongas are a diverse population, generally including the Shangaan (VaChangana), Thonga, Tonga (unrelated to another nearby Tonga
Tonga people
The Tonga are an ethnic group living in northern Malawi. A related ethnic group also called the Tonga are found in Zambia and Zimbabwe, with some in Mozambique.-History:...

 population to the north), and several smaller ethnic groups. In the mid-1990s, they numbered about 1.5 million in South Africa and at least 4.5 million in southern Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Sometimes, the definition of Tsonga is extended to include the closely related Ronga and Tswa peoples of Mozambique.


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

During the mfecane
Mfecane , also known by the Sesotho name Difaqane or Lifaqane, was a period of widespread chaos and warfare among indigenous tribes in southern Africa during the period between 1815 to about 1840....

and ensuing upheaval of the nineteenth century, most Tsongas 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
Soshangane was a General of the Zulu King Shaka who broke away from Shaka's hegemony and carved out a Nguni empire of conquest in what is now modern-day Mozambique. Allied with the rival Ndwandwe in 1819, Soshagane fled after defeat by Shaka. He moved north into Mozambique, absorbing or...

, established his command over a large Tsonga population in the northern Transvaal in the mid-nineteenth century and continued his conquests farther north. He created the Gaza Empire
Gaza Empire
The Gaza empire was an African empire established by the powerful general, Soshangane, and was located in southeastern Africa in the area of southern Mozambique and southeastern Zimbabwe...

 with its capital in Mossurize on the present-day border with Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in the southern part of the African continent, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It is bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia and a tip of Namibia to the northwest and Mozambique to the east. Zimbabwe has three...

. Gaza comprised parts of what is now south-eastern Zimbabwe, parts of South Africa, as well as extending from the Save River down to the southern part of Mozambique, covering parts of the current provinces of Sofala
Sofala Province
Sofala is a province of Mozambique. It has an area of 68,018 km² and a population of 1.676.131 . Beira is the capital of the province. The province is named for the ruined port of Sofala.- Districts :Districts of Sofala Province include:...

, Manica
Manica Province
Manica is a province of Mozambique. It has an area of 61,661 km² and a population of 1,359,923 .Chimoio is the capital of the province.-Districts:*Báruè District*Gondola District*Guro District*Machaze District*Macossa District*Manica District...

, Inhambane
Inhambane Province
Inhambane is a province of Mozambique located on the coast in the southern part of the country. It has an area of 68,615 km² and a population of 1.412.349 . The provincial capital is also called Inhambane....

, Gaza
Gaza Province
Gaza is a province of Mozambique. It has an area of 75,709 km² and a population of 1,333,106 .Xai-Xai is the capital of the province. Inhambane Province is to the east, Manica Province to the north, Maputo Province to the south, South Africa to the west, and Zimbabwe to the...

, and Maputo
Maputo Province
Maputo is a province of Mozambique; the province excludes the city of Maputo . The province has an area of 26,058 km² and a population of 1,072,086 .Matola is the capital of the province....

 in Mozambique.

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.

After the death of Soshangane in 1856, his son Muzila came into power. After Muzila came Ngungunhane, who was imprisoned by the Portuguese
Portugal , officially the Portuguese Republic is a country situated in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal is the westernmost country of Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and South and by Spain to the North and East. The Atlantic archipelagos of the...

 in Mandlakazi (now called Manjacaze in Gaza Province in Mozambique) in 1895 resulting in the end of the Gaza Empire.

Within apartheid South Africa, a Tsonga-Shangaan "homeland", Gazankulu
Gazankulu was a bantustan in South Africa, intended by the apartheid government to be a semi-independent homeland for the Tsonga people. It was carved out of the former Transvaal Province and given self-rule in 1971, with its capital at Giyani. When Apartheid was abolished in 1994, the population...

, was created out of part of northern Transvaal Province
Transvaal Province
Transvaal Province was a province of the Union of South Africa from 1910 to 1961, and of its successor, the Republic of South Africa, from 1961 until the end of apartheid in 1994 when a new constitution subdivided it.-History:...

 during the 1960s and was granted self-governing status in 1973. This bantustan
A bantustan was a territory set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa and South West Africa , as part of the policy of apartheid...

's economy depended largely on gold and on a small manufacturing sector. However, only an estimated 500,000 people—less than half the Tsonga-Shangaan population of South Africa—ever lived there. Many others joined township residents from other parts of South Africa around urban centers, especially Johannesburg and Pretoria.


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.


Tsonga men traditionally attend the initiation school for circumcision called Matlala (KaMatlala) 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
Xibelani dance
The xibelani dance or shibelani dance is an indigenous dance of the Shangaan or Tsonga women of the Limpopo province in northern South Africa. The name of the dance comes from the native Xitsonga language.-Method:...


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