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The Tswa People of Mozambique

Population:     Mozambique 1,259,000; South Africa 23,000
                        Zimbabwe 171,000; Total 1,453,000
                        (population source Joshua Project 2008)

Religion:       Chris tianity, Traditional Animism
              (about 50% Professed Christianity, 20-25% Evangelical)

Registry of Peoples code:  Tswa:  110224
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Tswa:  tsc

The greatest concentration of Tswa people is in the southern Mozambiquan province of Inhambane.  Smaller concentrations live in portions of the provinces of Gaza, Maputo, Manica and Sofala.  A small, uncertain number of Tswa people also live in eastern portions of the Republic of South Africa, and eastern and southern Zimbabwe.  International borders were established long after the arrival of these people in this area of Africa.

There are no significant concentrations of Tswa people living in Mozambique north of the Zambezi River, which is a common dividing point for the northern and southern parts of the huge country.  The capital city of Maputo is now home to quite a few Tswa people as well, despite the major people group of the city being people of the Ronga (Rhonga) group.

It is believed that ancestors of the Tswa, who now primarily inhabit an area in southern Mozambique, originated farther north nearer the more central part of Africa.  As these people moved into the southern area of Africa, they settled in places where they could carry on their traditional farming and pastoral way of life.  Various clans made up the overall Tswa people group.

This social structure began to undergo changes as the influence of Portuguese colonialism increased.  Portugal became a dominant power along the eastern coast of Africa in the late 1490s.  Portugal established several colonies in the territory now known as Mozambique. Actual Portuguese presence was limited, but in 1951, Portugal combined all its colonies in southeastern Africa into one huge colony named Mozambique.

Some sources give the date of Portugal's claim to the area as 1752.  One source, however, puts the date when Portugal established Mozambique as a colony at 1505, becoming an overseas province of Portugal in 1951.  The territory was originally and formally known as Portuguese East Africa.

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 opposition 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.

Identity among Bantu language speakers is heavily lineage oriented, though most peoples have diverse origins due to an active history of migration. The lineage and ethnic identities generally follow language identity.

The Tswa are part of a larger cluster called Tsonga (Vatsonga), which is also the name of the most well-known group in this cluster. The Tsonga cluster encompass three sub-groups:  the Rhonga, Tswa and Tsonga (Shangaan). The Tsonga sub-group are also called the Shangaan

 These three groups are very similar in practically every respect.  They originated from the same indigenous Bantu peoples who migrated from the north to inhabit much of what is now southern Mozambique and portions of several bordering countries.

The name of the Tswa people in their language is Vatswa.  The singular form is Mutswa.  In English they are commonly called Tswa, following the English grammatical conventions for names, using the Bantu root Tswa.

The Tswa themselves distinguish three main Tswa groups:  The Dzivi, the Hlengwe and the Mhandla.  The speech of each of these three groups is classified by linguists as dialects of one Tswa language.  It should also be noted that there are two smaller sub-groups who belong to the Tswa.  They are the Nwanati, also called the Makwakwa, traditionally placed south of the Hlengwe; and the Nzonge, also called the Gwambe in their traditional homeland between the Dzivi and the Chopi.

It is extremely difficult to determine even an estimated population of the Tswa people.  This is at least partially due to the fact that written information often confuses or overlooks the fact that the Tswa are part of the larger group of Tsonga people.  They are often referred to as "Tsonga" people, blurring the distinctions made here.  Thus, often when reading information, one cannot determine if a given population estimate is of the Tswa people specifically, or of the overall larger group of the Tsonga people.

Tswa is one of three very closely related Tsonga dialects, the other two being called Shangaan or Tsonga and Rhonga, also spelled Ronga.  All three languages are sometimes also referred as Tsonga, because the Tsonga are large and well known.  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.

As these peoples grew in number, they naturally developed a few linguistic variations.  The languages share important characteristics with the Shona, Choi and Karanga languages, and some with the Nguni group.  The Tsonga variety has been more influenced by Nguni, since a component of the Tsonga were Soshangane's Nguni people, who comprise a component of the Tsonga.  His name is the origina of the alternative name Shangaan.

Linguists have assigned separate language codes to the three languages, the Ethnologue notes that the three are mutually intelligible.  The people call their language Xitswa.  It is an indigenous Bantu language.  Linguists further identify 5 dialects of the Tswa language:  Hlongwe, Tshwa (also Dzivi or Dzonga), Mandla, Ndoxonge and Nhayi.

Political Situation:
Various sources report that during the Portuguese era, the Tswa people, along with other Mozambiquans had greatly suffered during the years of the war of independence.  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 resources 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 opposition 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 agreement 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 Tswa people are living intertwined with other peoples.  Though the Tswa speech has a few differences from the speech of neighbouring peoples, their material culture is similar.  The people are not easily distinguishable/differentiated from other Bantu people groups that inhabit the southern portions of Mozambique.  The group of Tswa people living in South Africa and Zimbabwe are small, and no population figures were available.

Traditionally, the Tswa have been agriculturists 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.  However, there are those living along the Indian Ocean coastal areas who are fishermen by trade.  Also, it is not uncommon for those living inland to supplement their meat by hunting game, although wild animal numbers have been greatly diminished due to decades of war, famine and marked mismanagement.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, many of the Tswa began to be recruited to work in the mines of South Africa.  This has caused the Tswa people to be influenced by cultures originally foreign to the Bantu African ways of life.

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

Historically, the Tswa people have adhered to African traditional religions (animism/ancestral spirit worship).  This is still common, especially among those living in rural areas, with 43% of the people estimated to follow traditional religion.

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), 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 of whatever form was greatly suppressed by the government, practically all of them maintained an existence and were not eliminated altogether.  In 1988, as the government was making its transition from Marxism to multi- party democracy, the Ministry of Justice created the Department of Religious Affairs (DAR).

This department was responsible for registering and establishing relations with various churches.  By the middle of 1995, approximately 300 religious groups had been registered.  The Tswa are open and responsive to the gospel.


Major Bantu Languages:  Makhuwa, Shona, Lomwe, Tsonga, Chuabo, Makonde.
Official Language:  Portuguese
Capital:  Maputo (1.5 million)
National Population: abt 19,700,000
Major Crops:  Maize, Rice, Cotton, Groundnuts, Sugar cane, Cashew nuts.

Related Profiles and Articles on this Site
The Shangaan People of Southeastern Africa
The Xhosa People

For more on the Tswa People

Mozambique Country Profile
Mozambique History and Information
Mozambique Language Map
Mozambique Country Profile (inFrench)
Portuguese East Africa
Tswa — Joshua Project
Tswa Language — Ethnologue (tsc)
Tswa Language — Wikipedia

A Guerra Dos Reis Vátuas.  Maputo, Mozambique:  Arquivo Histórico Nacional, 1995.
Anuário Estatsístico.  Maputo, Mozambique:  1992.
Brochmann, Grete and Arve Ofstad.  Mozambique:  Norwegian Assistance in a Context of Crisis, 1990.
Helgesson, Alf.  The Tswa Response to Christianity.
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.

Orville Boyd Jenkins and L. David Hooten
Original profile written September 1996
This version rewritten and posted 3 October 2008
Last edited 2 March 2022

Copyright © 1996, 2008, 2022 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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