HOME - South African Journal of African Languages





History & Prize winners

Board members and contact details



Xitsonga is the language of the Vatsonga, who were among the first nations to occupy the eastern coast of Africa south of the Zambezi by the 13th century. They occupied the coastal strip from Kosi Bay to the Save River, which stretched up to the Mkhuze River and the Lebombo Mountains in the south and west respectively. At that time there was no single language that was referred to as Xitsonga because the Vatsonga lived as clans under different chiefs. They spoke different clan tongues such as Xihlengwe, Xinkuna, Xiluleke and Xihlave. “The term Tsonga is therefore, linguistically, only an embracing or generic name which does not indicate a specific language actually spoken, but only the totality of all the Tsonga dialects” (Baumbach:1974). In various stages of its history the language has been referred to as Xigwamba, Thonga, Changana and Shangaan-Tsonga.

Xitsonga ISO codes are: ISO 639-1 ts; ISO 639-2 tso; ISO 639-3 tso; Guthrie code: S.53

Xitsonga has two main sister languages, Xirhonga and Xitshwa, which are spoken in Mozambique. The colonial scramble for Africa and the mfecane wars in the 1800s greatly destabilised the Southern African landscape. The impact of Nguni invasions and the formation of the Gaza Empire, in particular, played a very significant role in the history of the Vatsonga and their language, with Manukosi’s invasion having the most impact. Manukosi, who was sent by Shaka to invade the land of the Vatsonga and who later named himself Soshangane, established the Great Gaza Empire and subsequently named his subjects Amashangane (Machangana) after his name. This name derives from the isiZulu stem shanga, which means “sudden appearance” or “surprise”. It also means ukuzulazula (to wander). Manukosi invaded and defeated many tribes. His strategy was to appear suddenly and take them by surprise. Therefore when he praised himself he would say, “owashanga imizi ya bantu” (one who took by surprise other people’s villages) (Jaques, 1938). However, Junod (1927:15) argues that the name Changana was there in Mozambique long before the arrival of the Nguni. He argues that possibly a Mutsonga chief called Tshangaan (Changana) had resided in the lower Limpopo valley because that area seems to have been hitherto referred to as Ka Tshangaan.

Although the Ngunis forced the Vatsonga they had subjugated to speak an Nguni dialect, their wives (who were Vatsonga) resisted and continued talking Xitsonga with their children. However, the influence of Nguni on Xitsonga resulted in a dialect that was named Xichangana, which accumulated a significant number of Nguni lexical items. In the demise of the Gaza Empire, the Machangana were forced to flee, and they settled in the current Mpumalanga province of South Africa, largely concentrated in the Bushbuckridge area. The other Vatsonga clans migrated into Northern Transvaal (currently Limpopo province), where they were united under the Portuguese trader Joao Albasini, whom the Vatsonga called Jiwawa or Juwawa, who established Joao Albasini’s empire in 1839. These clans were subsequently named Magwamba, and their language Xigwamba, by the Vhavenda and Bapedi, because (it is alleged) the clans used to swear by the name of a Mutsonga chief, Gwambe. When Xitsonga was reduced to writing in the 1800s, the Xigwamba dialect played a pivotal role in the development of the orthography.

The first people to develop Xitsonga orthography were the Swiss missionaries Revs Berthoud and Creux, with the help of Basutho and Vatsonga people. Initially Sesotho had a great influence on Xitsonga orthography because the missionaries had developed the Sesotho orthography first. For example, the vowels /e/ and /o/ were particularly problematic, hence the spelling (for example) of noye and lavayane (Berthoud 16,19)dyambo and rambo (ibid:28) instead of noyi and lavayani, dyambu and rhambu respectively.

Va ka Tembe are the first Vatsonga people to occupy the South African territory after its establishment in about 1350. By 1580, they had long learned to speak the local Rhonga language and adopted the culture of the local people and had become an integral part of the Rhonga tribe. They arrived at the Tembe River in southern Tsonga country after breaking away from the great Kalanga tribe of Mashonaland in the 12th century, led by their renowned chief from whom the name of the tribe was inherited. They included the Xonge and Konde people (Mathebula, 2002:11).

The Xika were never linked with either of the Tsonga clans based in the areas known today as Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. They were not part of a Tsonga homeland of Gazankulu. They remained part of the Kwa-Zulu Government, although they retained their identity as the Tembe. However, due to their geographic location close to the isiZulu-speaking environment, where isiZulu was a school subject and not Xitsonga, the Tembe slowly adopted isiZulu as their mother tongue, although women continued to speak Xitsonga. Children have also grown up speaking their indigenous language only to be diverted to isiZulu when they go to school, (op. cit.:23).

Over the years Xitsonga has survived being swallowed up by other languages. For instance, in 1957 Sunduza II and Kheto Nxumayo, the regent for the Shangane chieftainship in Bushbuckridge, represented the Vatsonga people at a meeting called by the then South African Prime Minister, Dr HF Verwoerd, for representatives of the Tsonga, Pedi and Venda groups, which was held at Sibasa. Verwoerd formally announced at that meeting that the Vatsonga people were not going to be granted authority to form their own territorial authority, but instead would be incorporated into the Venda and the Pedi regional authorities. Those who were based at Bushbuckridge would fall under the Basotho of Pulana, Duiwelskloof to Bolobedu, and Tzaneen to Bokgaga, while those who were based in the Louis Trichardt region would be incorporated into Venda. Those who were based in the Eastern Transvaal and Natal had already been given such an ultimatum (op.cit.:18).

After a great deal of resistance that was orchestrated by Sunduza II and Kheto Nxumayo, in November 1962 the South African government, feeling pressure from the Vatsonga chiefs, sent a delegation to gather all Tsonga chiefs at Bend Store in the present day Giyani town to officially inform them for the first time that they were going to have their own territorial authority. Sunduza II then called a meeting of all the Tsonga chiefs on 19 December 1962, which was held at Berlin farm near Tzaneen, to form the territorial authority for the Tsonga people. Chief Commissioner BJ Liebenburg chaired the meeting. Sunduza II was elected the first chairman of what became known as the Machangana Territorial Authority, the forerunner of the Gazankulu “homeland”, which was established in 1969, with Professor Hudson Ntsan’wisi as Chief Minister until the new South African democratic dispensation came into being (op. cit.:19).

During the creation of the homelands, the Xika were incorporated into the Kangwane homeland, which was created for the Swazis of South Africa. This is how they started to lose touch with the rest of the Vatsonga nation, because, like the Tembe, their school language became IsiZulu and later Siswazi, thus reducing Xitsonga to a domestic and childhood medium of communication. However, the Vatsonga women are credited with being the strong guardians of their language. A similar situation occurred in the SA homeland system, where thousands of Vatsonga were registered as part of a different nation simply because they found themselves in a homeland other than Gazankulu.

According to Census 2011, Xitsonga is the first language to 4.5 percent of South Africa’s population (2 277 148 people). Of the 11 official languages, Xitsonga is the eighth largest. It is also the largest of the four so-called “minority” languages, the others being Siswati, Tshivenda and isiNdebele. The largest concentration of Vatsonga is in Limpopo (906 325), followed by Gauteng (796 511), then Mpumalanga (416 746), North West (127 146), Western Cape (9 152), KwaZulu-Natal (8 936), Free State (8 039), Eastern Cape (3 092) and Northern Cape (1 201). In Limpopo just over half the people speak Sepedi, followed by Xitsonga and Tshivenda. Most people from the other population groups can also understand and speak Xitsonga.

Sadly, amidst the excitement of the new democracy, Xitsonga was chopped from the national anthem. For once, the Vatsonga and Machangana reached agreement and in unison registered their name as Xitsonga, and that is how it is recorded in the Constitution, Act 108 of 1996. Not only was it recorded as such, but it was also elevated to the status of “official language”.

After the missionary era, the development of Xitsonga fell into the hands of the Department of Bantu Education under the Xitsonga Language Board. In the new South Africa the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) was established to promote and create conditions for the development and use of all official languages. The Xitsonga National Language Body (Huvo ya Rixaka ya Ririmi ra Xitsonga, abbreviated as Huririxi) is a PanSALB structure tasked with the standardisation of Xitsonga as custodian of the language. Huririxi has produced a booklet of spelling and orthography rules titled Milawu ya Mapeletelo na Matsalelo ya Xitsonga (2008). It has also authenticated several standardised term lists from the Limpopo provincial arts and culture department and the National Language Service of the national Department of Arts and Culture (which can be downloaded from the internet) and the publication Multilingual statistical terminology by Statistics South Africa. The Xitsonga National Lexicography Unit (Ngula ya Xitsonga) responsible for dictionary production has so far published a Xitsonga–English dictionary (2005) and is currently working on a first ever monolingual Xitsonga dictionary. Existing ones are Tsonga–English; English–Tsonga and Tsonga–English pocket dictionary; Basic English–Tsonga across the curriculum.

Xitsonga is used as medium of instruction in primary school in Grades 1 to 4. From Grade 5 upwards English takes over and Xitsonga is learnt only as a subject. In most private schools Xitsonga is not offered. Most of the learners are forced to take an alternative African language that is offered.

In institutions of higher learning, Xitsonga is to a large extent marginalised. For instance it is not offered by such institutions as the University of Johannesburg and University of Pretoria despite there being a large number of Vatsonga in the Gauteng province.

During the time of the Gazankulu homeland, there was a magazine called Nhluvuko (Development). There was also a newspaper called Wamba which was renamed Mhalamhala. For a decade from 1987 to 1997 a magazine called Nyeleti was in circulation. Today there is no single magazine in Xitsonga. PanSALB sponsored a newspaper called Seiponi-Xivoni-Tshivhoni published in the three languages Sepedi, Xitsonga and Tshivenda respectively, in which Xitsonga almost always had less coverage. It is not surprising that today Xitsonga and Tshivenda have fallen off the paper. A great achievement is the production of a monolingual Xitsonga newspaper Nthavela, which has been in circulation since December 2008.

What started as Radio Bantu in the apartheid era later became Radio Tsonga in the 1960s with the advent of the homeland system. With the new democracy it was renamed Munghana Lonene FM (Good Friend FM).

By design, television was not for Vatsonga until the demise of apartheid. In 1994 a weekly Xitsonga/Tshivenda 30-minute programme,Swa hombe / Zwa nthensa was screened but its existence was soon nipped in the bud. After some time, another 30-minute per week programme, Mopani, was introduced for Xitsonga and Tshivenda. The independent slogan, “news in your own language” is only mockery to their Vatsonga viewers as they are forced to listen to isiZulu and isiXhosa (which are mutually intelligible) or Seeped and Setswana (which are also from the same language group). Xitsonga is allocated a 10-day news and 2-day current affairs slot per month. Some educational programmes are also run on SABC2. Xitsonga is not accommodated at all in the film category.

The first Xitsonga publication is Buku ya Tshikwembo Tsinwe na Tisimo ta Hlengeletano (God’s book and hymns for the congregation), 1883. Bill (1983) provides valuable information regarding the initial stages of publication in Xitsonga. Marivate (1985) also provides a survey of Xitsonga literature from 1883 to 1983. The area that is glaringly neglected in these publications is that of the contribution of grammar books. Although the Vatsonga have made commendable strides in creative literature, there is still a huge vacuum, particularly in the essay genre, in which Marivate (1985) recorded only one publication. M-Net annually calls for submission of novels for literary awards, but for two consecutive years (2011 and 2012) there was no submission in Xitsonga. and the M-Net support for African languages literature was subsequently discontinued.

The first Xitsonga publication is Buku ya Tshikwembo Tsinwe na Tisimo ta Hlengeletano (God’s book and hymns for the congregation), 1883. Bill (1983) provides valuable information regarding the initial stages of publication in Xitsonga. Marivate (1985) also provides a survey of Xitsonga literature from 1883 to 1983. The area that is glaringly neglected in these publications is that of the contribution of grammar books. Although the Vatsonga have made commendable strides in creative literature, there is still a huge vacuum, particularly in the essay genre, in which Marivate (1985) recorded only one publication. M-Net annually calls for submission of novels for literary awards, but for two consecutive years (2011 and 2012) there was no submission in Xitsonga.

The fact that Xitsonga is regarded as a “minority” language is a curse that has without failure always hindered the development of this language. Project after project pushes Xitsonga to the periphery with the excuse that it will be attended to later and the “later” never comes. For instance, Google has been in isiNgoni and Sepedi for some time now; spellcheckers are also in African languages other than Xitsonga. Some cellphones include services in isiZulu and Sepedi but not Xitsonga. An information band on the Gautrain also excludes Xitsonga. Xitsonga does not have a single worthwhile online dictionary although the speakers are attempting to address that lack. However, the internet provides a lot of information about Xitsonga, much of which needs serious editing.


Baumbach, EJM.1970. ’n Klassifikasie van die Tsonga dialekte van die Republiek van Suid-Afrika. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Unisa, Pretoria.

Baumbach, EJM.1987. Analytical Tsonga grammar. Pretoria: Unisa.

Bill, MC. 1983. Mbita ya Vutivi. Braamfontein: Sasavona.

Hartman, JR. 1978. Die samehang in die privaatreg van die Changana-Tsonga van Mhala, met verwysing na die administratiefregtelike en prosesregtelikefunksionering. Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Pretoria.

Hlungwani, MC. 2003. XiTsonga in South Africa today, in Prah, KK (ed). Silenced voices: Studies on minority languages of Southern Africa. Casas Book Series No. 34. Cape Town: Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS).

Jaques, AA. 1938. Swivongo swa Machangana (Vatsonga). Burgersfort: Sasavona.

Junod, HP. 1897. Matimu ya Vatsonga ni ya van’wana vaaki va matiko ya Afrika, wa Vuxa-Dzonga 1498-1650. Braamfontein: Sasavona.

Junod, HA. 1927. The life of a South African tribe. Vols. I and II. London: Macmillan.

Maluleke, MJ. Hi ya kwihi? Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Mandela, NR. 1994. Long walk to freedom. Randburg: Macdonald Purnell.

Marivate, CTD. 1985. Mbalango wa matsalwa ya Xitsonga 1883-1983. Pretoria: De Jager-HAUM.

Masebenza, BJ. 1965. Chochela-mandleni. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Mathebula, MD. 2002. 800 years of Tsonga history. Braamfontein: Sasavona.

Mathumba, I. 1993. A comparative study of selected phonetic, phonological and lexical aspects of some major dialects of Tsonga in the Republic of South Africa, and their impact on the standard language . Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of South Africa, Pretoria.

Nkuna, PH & Mabaso, XE. 2012. Xitsonga language – missing link on the South Africa's higher education language policies. In ACLL official conference proceedings. Nagoya: IAFOR.

Sihlangu, AB. 1975. Ta ka Mpisane. Braamfontein: Sasavona.

South Africa. 1996. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 108 of 1996. Pretoria: Government Printer.

Statistics South Africa. 2012. Census 2011: Census in brief. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.

Sesotho sa Leboa

ALASA (2019)