What is Xitsonga, and what does Xichangaan mean?

By Nzama Madzenga

The recent airing of the new telenovela ‘Giyani – Land Of Blood’ on SABC 2, has sparked an important debate around the Xitsonga language (including its dialects), and culture – mainly because this is the first (in the history of South African television) telenovela that uses the Xitsonga language. As expected, some viewers (mainly nonXitsonga speaking viewers) are still confused on the usage of, and the command of the language and this is because it is the first time they are being exposed to these – on a national platform.

Some feedback has been mainly positive, and some has been negative. Xitsonga is one of the official languages in South Africa – South African Constitution, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996), and majority of Xitsonga speaking people are found in Limpopo province, and some in Southern Mozambique. There has been a lot of confusion between the usage of the terms “Tsonga” and “Shangaan”, which has created an identity crisis among some of the Vatsonga. Academicians and researchers agree that the confusing double-barrelled term “Vatsonga-Machangani” should be completely avoided (Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement, 2016). However, some researchers point out that all “Shangaans are Tsongas, but not all Tsongas are Shangaans” (Mathebula 2002: 21).

It would offend some Vatsonga to call them “Shangaan”, while others have become accustomed to it over the past 120 years. The word “Xichangani” in reality should not be used to refer to a particular language. In South Africa it is therefore incorrect to say “I speak the Shangaan language”.

This article aims to unpack the different dialects within the Xitsonga language and to educate those that are not familiar with our language and culture, and most importantly to dispel the stereotypes that are causing division amongst our people of double barrel Vatsonga-Machangani’.

Firstly, Xitsonga has various dialects like any other language – a Mutsonga from Giyani has a different dialect to that of a Mutsonga from Elim, Malamulele, Mokopane, Mozambique, and other places.

Xitsonga has some major dialects, namely Valoyi, Machangani, Vabila, Vahlave, Vahlengwe, Vakhosa, Valambya, and many more.

Secondly, I would like to focus on the epicentre of this debate – which is around Xitsonga Vs Xichangaan. Though there are myriad views on the two, we ought to talk about this as a way of trying to educate ourselves and the people around us. My point is not to divide but to correct what seems to be an incorrect narrative across the board. Indeed, there are those who do not mind being referred to a ‘Mutsonga’ or a ‘Muchagaan’, but there are some that take offense to this.

It important to understand the word Shangaan and its origin.

The word is derived from Sochangane, who is a patriarch of Amashangaan, who was a 1800s Zwide General from Kwa-Nongoma; his real name was Manukuzi, and was the founder of the Gaza Chiefdom. Soshangaan is his Nickname.

  • The Amashangaan are of the Ndwandwe lineage, they arrived to live among Vatsonga as a runaway group from the Zulu Tribe, in the early 1800s.
  •  Machangani are a Xitsonga speaking group of Ndwandwe origin. Xichangani is not a language according to linguistics and Hosi Eric Nxumalo, leader of the Amashangaan Royal Authority. Machangani in the Tsonga ethnic group are an independent group, and Machangani in the Swazi Kingdom are subjects of the Kingdom. Let me say that Vatsonga is inclusive of Machangani and 13 other major groups.

The origin of the double barrel name Vatsonga-Machangani

The year was 1964, at a place called Ben Store – famously known as Giyani town (Mopani district, Limpopo) today about 400km away from Tshwane (Union Buildings). A meeting was convened under the leadership Hosi Adolf Sudhuza Mhinga who was the Vanwanti Leader. The Ritavi River Giyani Bridge between the R81 on GiyaniMalamulele Road, was named after this great leader.

The meeting was attended by the following:

  • Maluleke’s (Dzavani clan)
  • Mathebula’s (Gwambe clan) 
  • Nxumulo’ (Ngungunyani clan)

The motto was created which was made famous “Vatsonga ‘Ndzi MutsongaMuchagani wa Ngwambe na Ndzavani Swihluke swa Nghungunyani” it was solely created to forge unity and as a way to strengthen the Gazankulu homeland then.

Thirdly, I can confirm that referring to all Xitsonga speakers as ‘Vatsonga’ is politically and historically correct. The Shangaans are part of the Tsonga speaking ethnic group and the last to be assimilated. However, the Shangaans prefer to be identified as Nguni (Ndwandwe) and not Tsonga, even though they have been speaking Xitsonga and living amongst Vatsonga for over 150 years. Let me emphasise that Vatsonga are an ethnic group linked by a common language and culture, thus the saying, ‘Mutsonga a hi wa rimhondzo’ (Tsonga is not a lineage).

This is how everything is differentiated:

1. Vatsonga – People

2. Mutsonga – Person

3. Xitsonga – Language

4. Vutsonga – Ways of life

Important to note:- In conclusion we need to understand that the term Shangaan is used socially to mean Tsonga; it is also used to specify which Tsonga tribe one is from.”.

Nzama Madzenga is a Cultural Activist and Chairman of Ndhavuko Makomba-Ndlela

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  2. This is a very nice article. The author has demonstrated a good in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. This article is educative to many if us.

  3. Very informative,but you did not delve further into what to do with perceptions and name calling by those who don’t understand what this means and what it does to those affected by it. Which i think should be on a follow-up article. My op

  4. I think now is the time to educate people that a mutsonga know where he come from and we are proud of ourselves keep the good job

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