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The Shangaan/Tsonga People of Southeastern Africa

Population:      2,004,000 South Africa; 1,500,000 Mozambique;
                      24,000 Swaziland, 4,700 Zimbabwe (population source Joshua Project)

Religion:        Christianity (about 60%); Traditional Animism

Registry of Peoples code:  Tsonga  110220
Registry of Language code (Ethnologue):  Tsonga  tso


Over half of the Tsonga or Shangaan people live in Limpopo Province of the Republic of South Africa.  In recent years many Mozambican Shangaan have gone to South Africa for work.

In Mozambique, we find the greatest concentration of Shangaan people in the southern Mozambican province of Gaza.  Smaller concentrations live in the provinces of Inhambane, Maputo, Manica and Sofala.  There are no significant concentrations of Shangaan people living in Mozambique north of the Zambezi River, which more or less divides the country in two.

The Mozambican capital Maputo is now home to large numbers of Shangaan people as well, despite the major people group of the city being people of the related Ronga group.

About 20,000 speakers of Shangaan also live in Swaziland.  A smaller, uncertain number of Shangaan also live in eastern and southern Zimbabwe.  Current international borders were established long after the arrival of these people in this area of Africa.

It is believed that ancestors of the Tsonga people, who now primarily inhabit an area in southern Mozambique, originated farther north in central Africa.  They were a group of the large closely-related Bantu-speaking peoples that cover about 2/3 of Africa south of the Sahara.  As these people moved into the southern area of Africa, they settled in places where they could carry on their traditional pastoral way of life.

In the early 1800s, the Bantu clans farther south called Nguni were being disturbed as a new leader named Shaka rose to prominence in one of the Nguni clans called Zulu.  All the peoples in the Southeastern area of Africa were affected by eventr sover the next few decades as Shaka unifed the Nguni clans by force through his revolutionary military methods.  He sent one of his generalsnamed Soshangane to conquer the Tsonga people.  Soshangane decided to establish his own kingdom which he called Gaza.

Thus he became an enemy of Shaka, but his hegemony affected the Tsonga people.  Gradually, his Zulu faction merged with the Tsonga and took up their lanaggue, but contributed changes to the langague.  Thus the Tsonga are also called by the name Shangaan, spelled different ways in various sources, derived from the name Soshangane.

Various clans made up the overall Shangaan people group.  These clans were ruled by a king who held absolute authority.  All the members of the clan were subject to him and he made all the major decisions.  This social structure began to undergo changes as the influence of Portuguese colonialism increased.

Portugal claimed Mozambique as its colony in 1752.  The Portuguese government allowed the local kings/rulers to continue ruling their respective peoples, but under the over-arching authority of Portugal.  This more or less continued until Mozambique gained independence.

In 1962, Mozambican nationalists had formed the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO) to try and negotiate independence.  Eventually, under the leadership of Dr. Eduardo Mondlane, FRELIMO began an armed liberation struggle in 1964.

Samora Machel assumed leadership of FRELIMO in 1969 after the assassination of Dr. Mondlane.  In 1974 the fascist Portuguese regime was overthrown and Mozambique became independent on June 25, 1975.  An oppostion group known as RENAMO, with its own revolutionary army, continued to oppose FRELIMO for many years.  Peace was attained in 1992 after the FRELIMO government took a significant change of direction in national economic policy.

The name Tsonga is teh older primary name of this people.  The name of the people in their own language is Vachangana or Vatsonga.  The singular form is Muchangana.  In Bantu languages, grammatical markers are prefixes.  Thus standard English grammar uses the word stem, Shangaan or Tsonga, as the name.  The name Tsonga is used for the Shangaan and also for the larger cluster of related peoples of which they are a part.

Shangaan is another name for the Tsonga people, a southeastern Bantu people.  Various articles and databnases will use one name of the other.  But they will commonly have the other as an alternate name.  The Shangaan people are part of a larger language/people group also called the Tsonga (Vatsonga) because of the fame of the Tsonga (Shangaan) people.  Some Tsonga are of the people are descended from Soshangane's Nguni people that came as conquerors and merged into the Tsonga identity.

The Tsonga or Shangaan are part of a larger group of clans or tribes of Bantu speakers whose languages are basically mutually intelligible.  The Tsonga cluster encompasses three sub-groups: Ronga, Tswa and Tsonga (Shangaan).  These three groups are very similar in practically every respect.  They originated from the same indigenous Bantu peoples who came down from the north to inhabit much of what is now called southern Mozambique and portions of several bordering countries.  They share a similar culture.

 Like most peoples of Africa, the Tsonga are a genetic mix of these and various groups that have migrated over the same areas at vaiorus times.  The Shangaan developed from a mixture of different Bantu-speaking peoples.  The original Tsonga were directly related to the Nguni, though they were all Bantu-speaking.  The Nguni leader Soshangane subjugated the scattered communities of peace-loving Tsonga speakers living in the area he led his people to.

Others incorporated into Soshangane's people were people of Shona and Chopi origin.  The Tsonga are associated wiht the name Gaza, the name Soshangane gave his kingdom, after his grandfather.

It is extremely difficult to determine an estimated population of the Tsonga people.  This is at least partially due to the fact that written information often confuses the Shangaan with the larger group of Tsonga people.  Often when reading information, one cannot determine if a given population estimate is of the Shangaan people specifically, or of the overall larger group of the Tsonga people.

Ethnicity among Bantu lanaguage speakers is commonly lineage oriented, following the language they speak.  The Tsonga speech is classified as a member of the Tsonga-Tswa-Rhonga branch of Southeastern Bantu languages.

Shangaan is one of three very closely-related Tsonga dialects.  It is believed that these variations exist at least partly because different groups of the same original people inhabited slightly different sections of southern Mozambique, therefore developing a few linguistic variations.  For historical and cultural reasons, the three Tsonga languages – Tsonga, Ronga and Tswa are given separate language codes.  there is Nguni influence in the Tsonga variety.  These groups also share important characteristics with the Shona-Kalanga bantu group farther west.

The language of the Shangaan people is called Xitsonga (pronounced Shitsonga) or Xichangana (or "Shangaan," using English syntax), designated by the langauge code tso.  This language has at least five different variants:

Hlanganu (Ihlanganu)
Dzonga (Xidzonga)
N'walangu (Xin'walungu)
Bila (Xibila)
Hlengwe (Xihlengwe)
(The xi, pronounced shee, is a Bantu grammatical prefix denoting "language of.")

Shangaan people living in different areas of the overall Shangaan region speak an understandable variant of the same language.

Political Situation:
Various sources report that during the Portuguese era, the Shangaan people, along with other Mozambicans, suffered greatly.  In the period between 1975 and the mid 1980s, the Mozambican government (under FRELIMO rule) went down the trail of Marxism, leading the country into still more political, economic and social upheaval.  Food production dropped and resoruces were further depleted by droughts.

The attention and resources of the government were further strained and drained by war.  Another nationalist movement called The National Resistance of Mozambique (RENAMO) began a guerrilla war after independence to depose FRELIMO and change the Marxist direction.  RENAMO was supported by the South African government, while FRELIMO allowed ANC to use its territory as a base of operations for its actions against the non-democratic South African government.  This oppostion army, however, continued its struggle against the Mozambique government.

In 1984 an accord was signed by the Mozambique and South African governments which meant the loss of South African support for RENAMO.  In the late 1980s, the FRELIMO government realistically acknowledged that their Marxist efforts had failed.  FRELIMO on its own began reforming the government's practice and policy.  RENAMO, however, continued to fight for the overthrow of the FRELIMO government.  After much negotiation, a peace accord was signed in October 1992.  The peace agreemant merged this army into the national Mozambique army.  The RENAMO party now sits as an official opposition.

Today, as with most people groups in southern Mozambique, the Shangaan people are living intertwined with other peoples.  Though the Shangaan dialect has a few differences, the people are not easily distinguishable/differentiated from other Bantu people groups that inhabit the southern portions of Mozambique.

In Zimbabwe the Shangaan people have been a small community.  In 1966, the colonial government removed Shangaan people from their ancestral homes to make way for the establishment of the Gonarezhou National Park.

In South Africa during the Apartheid era, there was strong, often violent resistance against government policies and the discrimination against the Shangaan and other black African peoples.  In the 1980s Shangaan and Sotho residents of northern South Africa clashed frequently over political and economic issues.  The poverty of the area, as well as ethnic differences, was exacerbated by the Apartheid government's policies.

An important figure in traditional Shangaan culture, as with all the Nguni peoples of southeastern Africa, is the sangoma, a healer and spiritual guide.  The sangoma's medicine gourd, called nhunguvani, has become a symbol of the traditional cultural heritage of the Shangaan.  A well-known traditional art form is beadwork, formulated into geometric patterns.

Traditionally, the Shangaan have been agriculturalists and to some degree pastoralists.  For the most part, they are no different from the vast majority of all southern Bantu peoples.  Their way of life and customs run very parallel.

Each family would traditionally live in a family village, as is common with many Bantu-speaking cultures.  The Shangaan lived in these lineage groups of polygamous extended families.  From 1964, the South African government began redesignating certain living areas for certain races or tribes.  This included resettlement of many Shangaan and others into rural villages of up to 400 residents.

The Shangaan people were among the first to be used as laborers in the diamond and gold mines of South Africa.  The Shangaan were considered superior to other peoples in this type of work.

A certain percentage have migrated to the cities and towns in search of employment.  This migration was dramatically increased as a result of war and famine.  Thousands of Shangaan people were forced to flee their traditional way of life as farmers in the countryside to settle in cramped conditions in the towns and cities.  Because of these changes, today, many Shangaan people do not practice or reflect the traditional livelihood and customs.

Historically, the Shangaan people have adhered to African traditional religions (animism/ancestral spirit worship).  This is still common, especially among those living in rural areas.  It is estimated that, like other Tsonga people, about 43% of the Shangaan in Mozambique are followers of traditional religion, a lower percentage in other countries.

Both Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity have received a high response, with over half the people claiming some form of formal Christian commitment.  Perhaps 1-2% of the Shangaan are Muslims.

It is reported that up to 50-70% of the Shangaan people claim to be Christian.  Joshua Project reports different percentage for Christianity among the Shangaan in each country.  JP suggests 51.8% of the Shangaan in Swaziland are Christian Adherents, 56% in Mozambique and 68% in South Africa and Zimbabwe.  In South Africa, there is an additional report that about 22% of the Shangaan are evangelical Christians.

Even though many began identifying with Roman Catholicism or one of the Protestant denominations many years ago, a large percentage remain faithful to some form of animism or ancestral spirit worship.  During the Marxist years (1975 - mid 1980s) in Mozambique, the practice of religious beliefs was outlawed and made very difficult to the point of widespread severe persecution and suffering.

Those who adhered to animism and ancestral spirit worship, especially in the rural areas, continued to a certain degree with their practices.  Even though religious practice in any form was greatly suppressed by the government, practically all religious practices survived to some extent.  It is estimated that about 42-3% of the Shangaan follow traditional religious practices and beliefs.

In 1988, as the Mozambique government was making its transition from Marxism to multi-party democracy, the Ministry of Justice created the Department of Religious Affairs.  This department was responsible for registering and establishing relations with various churches.  By the middle of 1995, approximately 300 religious groups had been registered in Mozambique.

Related Profiles
The Tswa People
The Xhosa People
The Swazi (Swati) People of Southeastern Africa

See also on the site
Yemenis in Southern Africa: How Nguni South African and Yemeni Arab Streams Combined in Central Africa
Genetics Out of Africa

For more on the Shangaan (Tsonga)

Shangaan — Siyabona
Shangaan — Wikipedia
Tsonga — Ethnologue
Tsonga Language — South Africa Venues
Tsonga/Shangaan — Joshua Project


A Guerra Dos Reis Vatuas.  Maputo, Mozambique:  Arquivo Histórico Nacional, 1995.

Anuário Estatístico.  Maputo, Mozambique, 1992.

Brochmann, Grete and Arve Ofstad.  Mozambique:  Norwegian Assistance in a Context of Crisis, 1990.

História de Moçambique.  Maputo, Mozambique:  Departamento de História da UEM e Tempo, Vol. 1, 1988.

Chigwedere, Aeneas.  Birth of Bantu Africa.  Bulawayo, Zimbabwe:  Books for Africa, 1982.

Henriksen, Thomas H.  Mozambique:  A History, 1978.

Johnstone, Patrick.  Operation World.  Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

Moçambique Em Numeros, 1993.

Moçambique:  Informação Estatística.  Maputo, Mozambique, 1980/1.

Besides written sources shown here a source for this profile was an interview conducted by David Hooten with Rev. Felix Khosa, Professor of Shangaan at the University of Eduardo Mondlane, Maputo.  Research was also done by David at the Arquivos Históricos Nacionais and the Bureau de Informação Pública in Maputo.

Orville Boyd Jenkins and L. David Hooten
Original profile written September 1996
Rewritten in September 2008; posted 2 October 2008
Revised 13 July 2015

Copyright © 1996, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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