HOME - South African Journal of African Languages





History & Prize winners

Board members and contact details


Prof TM Sengani   


A people’s language starts with the people themselves. Vhavenda, according to Nemudzivhadi (2006; 2011), are traced to an area along the East Coast in Somalia and the great lakes and seem to have links with Zenj/Zanj/Zinj who was the son of Kush. The term Zenj is said to mean Black people (Theal, 1910; Torrend, 1891; Tolmacheva, 1975). Historians agree that some of their groups among them Vhangona, Vhanyai, Vhatwanamba, Vhambedzi and Vhatavhatsindi left the area called Azania earlier and travelled south (Ralushai, 1977; Nemudzivhadi, 1998). Records reveal that they met Vhalemba around Ethiopia and they travelled together for ages until they reached Vhukalanga and later the areas called Venda. Tshivenda is one of the languages spoken by the people of Zenj of Azania which scholars say covered a larger area than some European scholars write about. The people of Zenj are said to have spoken Zangijah a term covering all their languages (Doke & Cole, 1969). Later European scholars referred to their languages wrongfully as Bantu instead of the languages of Zenj, Azania or Central Eastern African Languages just like they did with European languages which were known by their national/tribal affiliates such the Germanic languages, English, Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages as the people are from the Germanic tribe; Romance languages which covers French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Greek because they are associated with the Roman empire. Unfortunately African languages were named after a lexical item Bantu which happened to be the most common and yet it was not the case with father/vader/pater of the Germania and Romance languages. Though Tshivenda is spoken in South Africa and some parts of Zimbabwe, it has common features with Kiswahili, Chisena, Chinyanja and many languages in Central Africa.

Mission stations

According to the Benso (1979) the first missionaries to preach among Vhavenda were those of the Dutch Reformed church lead by one Mackidd as early as 1863. They established the first mission station along the Vhuilausumbwa mountain range, later named the Soutpansberg, with the Voortrekkers naming it Goedgedacht. They are also said to have established the first school in Venda.  There were others such as Swiss Mission which catered for Tsonga, but it was the Missionary Koen who started a school in 1878 that catered for Tshivenda at Mavhola. It was the Presbyterian Church which started work at Gouldville with MacDonald. Another mission, Getrusberg, was established in 1899 and another at Khalavha in 1902. Most of these also established schools, though much work on the language was done by the Lutheran missionaries. It is therefore important to know that in 1918 the Seven Day Adventist started a missionary station called Muruba, the Anglican Church at Mukula in 1912 and the Savation Army one in Gaba and Tshidimbini. The Dutch Reformed Church established another mission, Siloam, having started at Matshisevhe and the last one, Tshilidzini, at Tshisaulu (Benso, 1979:43-5). Most of these churches established schools were Tshivenda was taught.

The first writers of Tshivenda

The first people to have reduced Tshivenda to paper are said to be missionaries of the Lutheran Church. The idea is said to have developed in Berlin in 1824, when nine men decided to forsake everything to go to preach the Word to all nations. The founded the Berlin Mission Society in 1829. After building a Seminary to train preachers and missionaries, some set for Africa in 1833 for a journey that took 11 months and later spread themselves among African nationalities of different languages. Wherever they went they built churches, schools and hospitals. Both Nemudzivhadi (2006) and Kirkaldy (2005) speak of Beuster, Stech, Schwellnus, Bertoud and Kuhn who came around 1972, 1874 and 1877. Work started at Tshimboni, where Beuster is said to have gone around and every time he met people his message was, No tshidzwa! ‘Are you saved?’ Netshiongolwe from Tshiheni, (whose name became Johannes Mutshaeni, who got converted in Natal and his wife Mufanadzo), was joined by others mentioned in the records as David Denga, Solomon and Piet Totani. Much work developed through the preaching of the gospel as these missionaries travelled around with the Vhavenda speakers mentioned above, who acted as interpreters. It should be noted that these first Vhavenda preachers rarely appear in most works, as scholars always focused on the European missionaries. Nemudzivhadi (2006; 2011) further enlist a number of books that were written by Carl Beuster as;
•    Thalusamaipfi, Matshimbidzele a kereke, Tshipele tsha Tsevenda (1883)
•    Katexima thuku ea Matinus Luther (1884)
•    Dziepistola dzevangeli dza dzizondaha na dza Votambo dza Moaha oote (1884).
•    Evangeli ya Yohannes dza dziepistola 3 dza Yohannes na dzipisalema, Dzimoe dzo khetheoaho nga Tsevenda (1895)
In 1888 Beuster is said to have visited Khosi Ravhura and wrote a song about Thohoyandou.    It was in the book Bawenda Mission in Nord Transvaal by Gundler where everything he wrote was written in 1897.
Another chapter of Tshivenda development took place Tshakhuma where the missionary Schwellnus found the language very difficult. However, among his children Theodore, Paul, George, Hans and Edmund, it was Paul who was identified as being more advanced in the languages than his siblings. 
Much work was done by Schwellnus after the death of Beuster.  His children met the German scholar Carl Meinhof, who assisted with the Lepsius system of writing. It was this encounter which lead him to publish Das Tsevenda in 1901. After this there were more publications when Theodore Schwellnus revised his father’s Tsepele tsa Tsevenda, which had a new title Mikanzwo. This was followed by Ndede in 1912 which included the letters of the alphabet, sounds and sentences and some Tshivenda tales. Furthermore it was Paul and Theodore, together with Enndeman, Lalumbe, Dzivhani and their sister Edmund Giesekke, who compiled Nyimbo dza Vhatendi (Mathivha, 1972, Kirkaldy 2005, Nemudzivhadi, 2006;2011).
According to Mathivha (1972), Schwellnus published Katekasim duku ya Dr Martin Luther in 1902 and Tshivenda hymn book in 1903. It is easy to notice Northern Sotho or Sepedi in the early Tshivenda writings because these missionaries did missionary work before writing Sepedi books. These included:
•    Die verba des Tsivenda was published in 1904 in which Tshivenda speech sounds were compared to the German ones. Mathivha.
•    Mikanzwo ya vhuswa ha vhutshilo ya maduvha a Murena othe a nwaha (1911). This book contained translations from the New Testament which Mathivha maintain had good Tshivenda idiomatic expressions.
•    In 1918, Schwellnus produced Ndede ya luambo lwa Tshivenda using new orthography.
•    In 1918, ED Giesekke wrote Mafhungo a buguni ya Mudzimu which, according to Mathivha, had the same orthography as in Mikanzwo.
As an attempt towards forging linguistic links between Tshivenda and German, TH and PE Schwellnus wrote Worterverzeichnis de Venda-sprache, which had equivalents of both languages in 1919. In other words, speakers from both languages could use it to learn the languages.
In 1920, PE Schwellnus wrote Evangeli ya mishumo ya Vhaapositola using new orthography. Again in 1923 he produced a New Testament translation with new orthography and in 1924 he wrote the modern Venda hymn book called Nyimbo dza Vhatendi. Another chapter was opened with the coming of C Endemann, who wrote Midzimu ya malombo, in which he showed some cultural elements of Vhavenda (Mathivha, 1972). A series of readers by Schwellnus followed:
•    Mudededzi 1 (1930)
•    Mudededzi 11 (1938) in which he added legendary stories, folktales, proverbs and some stories he got from Vhavenda speakers.
•    In 1930 Schwellnus wrote Luvenda grammar which deals with parts of speech, syntax, rules of writing poetry and language analysis.
Another milestone came with the writing of Phendaluambo ya zwikolo zwa Venda by TH Endemann and EFN Mudau in 1940. This was followed by PR Ngwana‘s Kha ri ambe Luvenda, which had exercises and proverbs for students and later by HM Mulangaphuma. Later E. Mukhuba wrote Ndilana dza Luvenda for lower classes.
Ziervogel and Dau produced a handbook of the Venda language in 1960 which was later revised by Ziervogel, Wentzel and Makuya in 1972. This grammar book was meant for students of higher education and deals with phonetics, phonology, morphology and semantics. MER Mathivha and JT Makhados’ Thahulela Luvenda came at an opportune time for high school students in 1966. There was also Maumela’s Thikho ya Luvenda, Makuya’s Luvenda  (1983) and Ngoma ya Vhatei by NA Milubi (1996 ).

Historical, anthropological and archaeological material

•    In 1908, Wasseman produced The Bawenda of Spelonken.
•    In 1931, HA Stayt wrote The Bavenda
•    In 1932, NJ Van Warmelo produced Contributions towards Venda History, Religion and Tribal ritual.
•    In 1940 NJ Van Warmelo, SM Dzivhani, EFN Mudau, MM Motenda and Mamadi produced The copperminers of Musina and the early history of the Zoutpansberg.
•    In 1966 Marole produced Makhulukuku, Raluvhimba and Lushaka lwa Vhalemba.
•    WMD Phophi produced the following: Phusuphusu dza Dzimauli (1970, Educum), Mafhungo a Mbilwi 1 & 2 (1989, Educum); Mafhungo a Tshulu (1991, Educum), Nganea dza Linzhelele (1989, Macmillan Boleswa) and Phunzhavhunzha dza Ha Tshivhasa (1989, Educum0, Nganea dza Mutale (1990, Macmillan Boleswa).
•    In 1989, JHN Loubser published Archaeology and early Venda history, followed by Oral traditions, archaeology and the history of Venda Mitupo in 1990.
•    In 2005, A Kirkardy published Capturing the Soul: The Vhavenda and the Missionaries, 1870-1900.


•    ED Giesekke, Lwendo lwa Muendi (1960)
•    MH Nemudzivhadi, Makhaulambilu a Julius Ceasar (1976)
•    In 1958 a series of books entitled Muratho were produced by PR Ngwana, while his brother DM Ngwana produced Vhakale vha Hone, in which a number of Vhavenda poets contributed texts.
It is also crucial to point out that much was done in the development of Tshivenda through the involvement of the first trained teachers among them, like SM Dzivhani in 1913, SR Rabothata and I Dau in 1915, which were later increased by J Mavhusha, I Phaswana and N.R Masekela during 1924.
Most Vhavenda are filled with pride when the missionary Karl Drescher is mentioned because, whereas others gave Vhavenda converts new European names (said to be of Christian origin), he did not change their names, allowing converts kept their Tshivenda names. According to Nemudzivhadi (2011) it was Forbes, who sealed the deal when he gave his children Tshivenda names; something that was unusual in Christian circles.
Among the first Tshivenda dictionaries was one written by the Rev Westphal. Both Nemudzivhadi and Kilkardy are full of praise of Thovhele Makwarela Mphaphuli, who over the years challenged Paul Schwellnus to write the Tshivenda Bible. Again, Nemudzivhadi  points out that Paul Schwellnus was reminded by the first Muvenda, trained reverend and teacher Stefanus Makhado Masiagwala Tshivhase, about the issues of the Tshivenda Bible that THovhele Makwarela Mphaphuli had requested from him.
The major challenge to Schwellnus came when GP Lestrated, the Government Ethnologist, announced that since Tshivenda was not a fully-fleshed language but a mixture of Chikalanga and Tshibeli, there was no need for it to be taught in schools.  Schwellnus used his own background, as he was born in Venda and spoke it as a first language, to take it seriously; starting in 1933 and finishing in 1937. Of course, speakers of the language such as J Mavhusha his sister Edmund (who was also a typist) to assist. Besides, he had been told of the passing on of Thovhele Makwarela Mphaphuli in 1927 with a copy of the new testament in his hands. This very Bible was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1937 and was launched at a huge event at Tshakhuma in 1938. After this a number of publications by Schwellnus followed, including Ndededzi A-VI, Mafhungo a mutakalo, and Phendaluambo.
More books followed written by NJ Van Warmelo and WMD Phophi. Most of these were books on Venda law and a dictionary, though no credit was given to Mr Phophi. Again, Lestrated openly confesses that he compiled a book entitled Some Venda Folktales, which he got from Mr Phophi, but the latter’s name does not appear on the cover page. On the other hand, TH Endemann produced a grammar book with E Mudau. In 1938 a competition was sponsored by International Institute of African Languages and three books were published written by SM Dzivhani, E Mudau and MM Motenda. Later on LM Marole produced the following; Vocabulary, Raluvhimba, Lushaka lwa Vhalemba, Makhulukuku and Bugu ya Dzinyimbo.
The government introduced magazines for Africans such as Wamba and Mvelaphanda, with TN Maumela later editing Muvenda. These were followed by the Venda Home Governemt-sponsored Thohoyandou newspaper, which ran until they were deposed.


A few tired their hands to collect folklore material. Besides folktales appearing in PE Schwelluns earlier books, Lestrade collected some folktales from WMD Phophi and translated them into English in Some Venda Folktales.
•    Maumela, T.N with Mavhina, Muedi and the Rev Mbuwe, Dzingano na dzithai dza Tshivenḓa, (1969, JL Van Schaik)
•    Rananga, N.C (2001) Zwila kale published by Lobelia Publishers.
•    Ramaliba, T. Z: (1996) Makhulu wanga Vho-Nyatshavhungwa. Published by JL Van Schaik.
•    Mafela M.J and Raselekwane N.R: Ri a dzedza (1991)  published by NAM Publishers.

Literary works: Novels and dramas

It was in the 1950’s when Tshivenda speakers started to produce literary works with TN Maumela‘s Elelwani, followed by ES Madima’s A si ene.  These were followed by many others like Makamu’s Nyabele muthia vivho and MER Mathivha’s Mabalanganye. Maumela was to become the foremost Tshivenda writer with almost 62 books, among them novels, drama, essays, folktales and grammar books. Many other writers followed, such as PSM Masekela’s Nungo dzi mulomoni, followed by R.R Matshil’s Ndo lata.
Therafter, with Maumela, Madima and Mathivha continuing to write, a new breed of writers appeared among them, including TN Makuya,  IP Demana, ET Maumela, AM Mahamba,  AW Magau, NG Magwabeni, JM Netshivhuyu, MJ Mafela, RN Madadzhe, M Nevhutalu, TT Netshirando, TT Mudau,  TM Sengani, EN Phaswana, TJ Manenzhe, SN Mahamba, AE Maisha, T Madima, MR Madiba, NW Tshamano, IP Mandende Sigogo, KY Ladzani. Except for the last two who are females, the rest are males. MJ Mafela (2005)went on to write Tshivenda Literature: A historical sketch with special reference to its bibliography. In the book, he sketches on Folklore, missionary adventurers, Tshivenda literature from 1954-70, literature and the homeland system from 1971-89 and literature and the winds of change between 1990-1994.


A collection of poetry was made into a book by DM Ngwana with poems of PR Ngwana, Z Mutsila, A Babane, AP Sigame, D Nesengani, ES Madima (1958). For some years there was a break after Ngwana’s Vhakale vha hone until Sigwavhulimu broke through with Tsiko Tshiphiri and Mirunzi ya Vhuvha and the Ratshitanga brothers Tendamudzimu and Rashaka with Vhungoho and Tsengela tsiwana. M Tshindane, Milubi and a group among them M.R Nevhutalu, M. Netshirando, L.Ndlovu, P.M. Nefefe, E.T. Thangwane and KY Ladzani produced poetry volumes. Mulubi’s doctoral thesis was later transformed into a book entitled Aspects of Tshivenda poetry and has been very valuable to students and lecturers alike.
Generally, the themes seem to vary with poetry. From the beginning, poets recorded songs, children’s rhymes and poetry on ordinary property and as time progressed others, especially Sigwavhulimu, started to write poetry that used poetic devices, with many following him in this direction. The Ratshitanga brothers and Milubi wrote protest poetry which consummated with the political period.
Though many continued to write novels and dramas, many with the exception of Magwabeni’s Zwi do fhela ngani, and Phaswana’s Tshi do lilwa  tended to be rather small in size and focused still on general themes with very few crossing over to political ones. It was in drama where Milubi excelled with political themes. Very little is heard on much is being written because writers’ groups have not been as active of late.


Bureau for economic research: Co-operation and development (Benso). 1979. Independent Venda. Pretoria: Rau.
Doke, C.M & Cole, D.T. 1969. Contributions to the history of Bantu linguistics. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Kilkardy A. 2005. Capturing the soul: The Vhavenda and the missionaries, 1870-1900. Pretoria: Protea Book House.
Mafela MJ. 2005. Tshivenda Literature: A historical sketch with special reference to its bibliography. Pretoria: Khande Publishers,
Mathivha MER. 1972. A survey of the literary achievements in Venda: A descriptive study from the earliest beginning up to 1970. D.Litt thesis, University of the North, Pietersburg.
Milubi NA. 1996. Aspects of Venda poetry. Pretoria: JL van Schaik.
Nemudzivhadi MH. 1998. The attempts by Makhado to revive the Venda kingdom. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Potchefstroom University of Christian Higher Education, South Africa.
Nemudzivhadi MH. 2006. Histori ya luambo lwa Tshivenda (Unpublished paper).
Nemudzivhadi MH. 2011. Minwaha ya 75 ya Bivhili ya Vhavenda 1936-2011.  (Unpublished paper).
Ralushai VNM. 1977. Conflicting accounts of Venda history with particular reference to the role of Mitupo in social organization. D.Phil thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast.
Theal, G.M.1910. The yellow and dark-skinned people of Africa South of the Zambezi: A description of the Hottentots, and particularly of the Bantu with fifteen plates and numerous folklore tales of the different people. London: S. Sonnenchein & Co.
Tolmacheva M. 1975. The Zanj language. Azania 45(1):16-24.
Torrend, J. 1891. A comparative grammar of the South-African Bantu Languages. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd.
Sesotho sa Leboa

ALASA (2019)