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Matimu, Tinxaka ta Vutsonga

Shangaan-Tsonga Dynamics in Mozambique

There have been many calls on the South African context, which have been made to validate the Shangaanisation (Ngunification) of Vatsonga. The argument that Vatsonga are Amashangaan, finds itself in an acute contradiction in Mozambique, especially when looking at it from a language angle. Looking into Mozambique, Shangaanism was adopted in the 1960s, by returning mine and farmworkers, who picked it up in Transvaal.

Majority of Vatsonga (in Mozambique) who refer to themselves as Machangani, are:

  1. Those who live in the proximity of the defunct Gazankulu Homeland.
  2. Those whose grandparents brought into Mozambique, the Shangaan confusion.
  3. Those who are descendants of Amabulandlela (front line soldiers of the amashangaan).
  4. Those who are just naive and confused.

Today, Shangaanism is a confusing and very divisive factor in Mozambique (and South Africa); not only does it divide Vatsonga with other ethnic groups, but it also divides Vatsonga among themselves. There is an antagonism between those who see themselves as Amashangaan and those who see themselves as Vatshwa, Vatsonga, Varhonga, Valenge/Vacopi, Vahlengwe etc. And those in Mozambique who call themselves Amashangaan, unlike their South African counterparts, vehemently refuse to be called Magaza, while in South Africa, those who call themselves Amashangaan, refer to themselves as Magaza.

Confusing right? Let us look at some of the classifications and their confusions:

Many Mozambican Tsonga people refer to themselves (in the linguistic sense) by their dialect or variant. Xitshwa and Xirhonga speakers vehemently refuse to have their variants called Shangaan variants. Those who speak Xibila will never accept that Xibila is Shangaan; the same applies to those who speak Xilenge, Xirhonga, Xitshwa, Xihlengwe, Gitonga etc. However, speakers of Xin’walungu, Xidzonga and Xihlave flirt a lot with Shangaanism.

Note that even though in Mozambique, one of the provinces inhabited by Vatsonga is called Gaza. Not ALL people who are in Gaza Province in Mozambique are Amashangaan. Provinces in Mozambique are NOT demarcated along Ethnical, Tribal, Language or Dialect lines. In most cases, provincial demarcations are rivers, railways, main roads or just simple drawn lines. The same applies with District demarcations; they don’t follow Tribal or Ethnical lines. In Gaza province there are Xitshwa and Cilenge speakers, whom, as we pointed out, NEVER classify themselves as Amashangaan. In Mozambique, there was a Portuguese colonial occupation, there were no Bantustans. As such, it becomes difficult for most South African Tsonga people to grasp this reality.



In Mozambique, the term Mugaza is used as an insult to people who speak other Tsonga variants by Xirhonga speakers. This excludes the Gitonga speakers, who are derogatorily referred to as “Manyembani”. To be referred to as Mugaza, alludes that one is, or has accepted to be called Shangaan. The term Mugaza is also used to refer to someone who is backward, uncivilized and less smart.


Mabulandlela is a political/social term, used to classify those Tsonga people who were mercenaries of the Amashangaan from 1820s to 1895 when the then Amashangaan were defeated and dispersed by Portuguese military forces, in alliance with Tsonga political entities. Mabulandlela is NOT an ethnical classification; Mabulandlela were formed by captured men, or by men who had defected from their rulers as belligerents.

Descendants of Mabulandlela tend to have Nguninised versions of their Tsonga surnames, and include Nguni words in their praise names. In Mozambique, a vast majority of Mabulandela reject and refuse to classify themselves or to be classified as Nguni, unlike their South African counterparts who “believe” they are Nguni’s from KZN. Mabulandlela from Mozambique, even though they may boast about being a Ribulandlela, they are aware of their tribe’s identity; if they are Nhlave, they will state it, if they are Hlengwe, they always state it. However, Mabulandlela tend to have a high degree of discrimination against speakers of Xihlengwe, Xitshwa, Xilenge, Xin’walungu, Xidzonga, Xibila and Xirhonga.

In the Vembe valley (Mozambique), anyone who speaks Xitsonga with Nguni words, is referred to as speaking Xibulandlela or Xithathalapha.


The term Vacopi is also a political/social classification; whether in Mozambique or in South Africa, it has been corrupted by historians and linguists who push Shangaanism. Vacopi, is a term coined to refer to certain people, who, historically, used “ku copa” (Bow and Arrow shooting) for hunting and fighting. These people do not have a single ancestor; they are not descendants of one ancestor. However, it is a fact that due to geography, majority of those people were/are Valenge;

  • Mbandze, Mparhuke and Zandamela are classified as Vacopi, but they are of the Valoyi tribe and not of the Valenge tribe.
  • The Nyalungu who are classified as Vacopi are not Valenge, they are Valambya.

This shows that Vacopi does not mean Valenge.

Those who identify as Shangaan in Mozambique, view people classified as Vacopi as different and inferior. On the other hand, those who are classified as Vacopi, tend to see the “Shangaans” as less Tsonga. They bundle Amashangaan as uncircumcised, making them non-Tsonga and “foreigners”. There is a name used mostly among Valenge, which refers to Amashangaan as “Mazwiti” – the term “Mazwiti” is derived from “Zwide”, the Ndwandwe patriarch.


The term Vatshwa or Xitshwa, in the linguistic context is very confusing. However, the Xitshwa identity is one alongside the Rhonga, Tonga and Lenge identities, which have a strong Shangaan identity resistance. Speakers of Xitshwa make it clear that Vatshwa are NOT Amashangaan, and Xitshwa is NOT Shangaan.

Due to Gazankulu’s bantustanised historification of Blacks in general, and Vatsonga in particular, Shangaan historians and intellectuals think and believe that the term “Vatshwa” denotes a Tribal classification just like Vahlengwe, Vakhosa, Valoyi, Valenge etc. Vatshwa is a language variant classification; there has NEVER been a patriarch, real or imagined of Vatshwa. Vatshwa are speakers of what progressive Tsonga language researchers classify as Coastal Hlengwe. Majority of speakers of Xitshwa are Vahlengwe, then followed by Valenge (most of these are the N’wanati of Makwakwa). Also, there are Xitshwa speakers of the Ndzonge lineages, who are of the Gwambe groupings of the Valoyi, and there are Vandzawu from upper Save River, and the Nyembani Tonga. As you can see, Vatshwa as speakers of Xitshwa are NOT a tribe, but a group of speakers of a language variant of Xitsonga.

Various historians have tried to trace the origin of the word “Vatshwa”, some say it is transition of the word “Vathwa” or “Bathwa” and some say it is a transition of the word “Vathu”/”Vanhu”. However, some historians say the word was firstly used by Portuguese colonialists, who referred to Nguni run aways as “Átuas”, which is a Portuguese version for “Bathwa”. Note that the term “Bathwa” is used to denote the Khoi-san by people designed as “Bantu”. Looking at how “Bathwa” and “Bantu” are used, we can easily notice the confusion of European classification of Africans. Looking into ancient Tsonga origin of the word, tracing it to earlier language development, the word “Mutshwa” denotes someone who is separated from the main group; either self-imposed separation or expulsion from the group. As said earlier, majority of those who are classified as “Vatshwa” are Coastal Hlengwe, who “differ” with the Hinterland Hlengwe by speech and Hlengwe awareness. Therefore, the term “Vatshwa” could have been applied to mean “Rebels”. Madzivi is known for having wanted to establish his own Hlengwe realm, bowing to none.

Shangaanism in Mozambique divides and antagonizes Vahlengwe, in particular those who were under the great Hlengwe patriarch, Madzive. Including those under the great Hlengwe patriarch Zari, they tend to be split, some accept to be Shangaanised and some reject the Shangaanisation. Those of Madzive, always refuse to be referred to as Amashangaan, this is until they are in South Africa; they succumb, because in South Africa, the term Amashangaan also means anyone coming from Mozambique, or any Black person from outside South Africa (except when they are from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland they are spared the Shangaan tag). Non-Vatshwa Hlengwes and the Tshwa Hlengwes discriminate against each other, since the non-Tshwa Hlengwes tend to refer to themselves as Amashangaan.


The term Vanyembani is used in Mozambique to ethnically describe Gitonga speaking people from Nyembani (Inhambane in Portuguese). The word Inhambane, is in itself, a Portuguese corruption of “Nyumbani”, meaning Home. Some of the Gitonga speaking people have now come to “accept” the usage of the term, but it remains derogatory for many of them who call themselves Vatsonga/Vatonga. Shangaanism in Mozambique teaches other Vatsonga that those from Nyembani are not one with them. In return, Gitonga speakers label other Vatsonga as Amashangaan in a ridiculing way.

Gitonga is, as a matter of fact, the ancient transition of all the Xitsonga variants which are spoken today. This is hidden because it defeats the lie that Xitsonga is a Nguni language. Even though the Gitonga speaking Vatsonga had had too much interaction with Arab, Swahili and Portuguese traders/people, they are well adamant in saying they are Vatsonga or Vatonga, and their language is Gitonga/Xitsonga, sometimes spelt Bitonga in Portuguese literature.

Shangaanism has proven to be a divisive factor among Vatsonga – in any country, in any province, and in any place. In Mozambique, when other ethnic groups refer to Vatsonga as Amashangaan, they regard Vatsonga as Nguni invaders who came to Mozambique as Shaka’s fugitive.

We, as Vatsonga, were not only once colonised by the Portuguese, but we were also once colonised by the Nguni. Colonialism is evil.” – Abner Muthemba, a Mozambican nationalist from ka Xikhumbane (1985)

In the run up of the 1994 Mozambican elections, Dhlakama, the opposition leader, had said that if he wins elections and become a president, he will deport ALL Amashangaan back to Zululand and Gazankulu – But did/does he really know who are the Shangaan?

Thanks to Shangaanism, Vatsonga hate and ridicule each other.

Image source: Africa Wild Trails Ltd

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