Hami amukelaXewani Avuxeni



Xitsonga is the language of the Vatsonga, who was 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, stretching up to the Mkhuze River and the Lebombo Mountains in the south and west. At that time, no single language was referred to as Xitsonga because the Vatsonga lived as clans under different chiefs. They spoke other 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 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, 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. Manukau, who was sent by Shaka to invade the land of the Vatsonga and 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 change, which means “sudden appearance” or “surprise”. It also implies 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 referred to as Ka Tshangaan.Setswana is an official language and lingua franca of Botswana, spoken by a little over two million inhabitants. The majority of Setswana speakers are found in South Africa, where a little over four million people talk about the language and where an urbanised variety known as Pretoria Sotho is the principal language of that city. Until 1994, South African Tswana people were notionally citizens of Bophuthatswana, one of the bantustans of the apartheid regime. Although Setswana is significantly spoken in South Africa and Botswana, a few speakers are also found in Zimbabwe and Namibia, where 29 400 and 12 300 people talk about the language.

Although the Ngunis forced the Vatsonga they had subjugated to speak a Nguni dialect, their wives (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, primarily 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 families 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 orthography.
The first people to develop Xitsonga orthography were the Swiss missionaries Revs Berthoud and Creux, with the help of the Basutho and Vatsonga people. Initially, Sesotho had a significant influence on Xitsonga orthography because the apostles 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 were 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 Rhonda language, adopted the local people's culture, and became an integral part of the Rhonda 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 chef from whom the name of the tribe was inherited. They included the Xonge and Konde people (Mathebula, 2002:11).The British missionary Robert Moffat carried out the first significant work on Setswana, who had also lived among the Batlhaping and published the Bechuana spelling book and A Bechuana catechism in 1826. In the following years, he published several translations of books of the Bible, and in 1857 he was able to post a complete translation of the Bible.

The Xika was never linked with either of the Tsonga clans based in the areas known today as Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. They were not part of the 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 would not be granted authority to form their territorial control but 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. At the same time, those who were established in the Louis Trichardt region would be incorporated into Venda. Those based in the Eastern Transvaal and Natal had already been given such a request (op.cit.:18).
After a great deal of resistance that Sunduza II and Kheto Nxumayo orchestrated, 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 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. As a result, 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 of 4.5 per cent 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. However, most people from the other population groups can also understand and talk to Xitsonga.
Sadly, amidst the excitement of the new democracy, Xitsonga was chopped from the national anthem. For once, the Vatsonga and Machangana reached an 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 “official language” status.

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 developing and using all official languages. The Xitsonga National Language Body (Huvo ya Rixaka ya Ririmi a Xitsonga, abbreviated as Huririxi) is a PanSALB structure tasked with standardising 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, 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. In addition, the Xitsonga National Lexicography Unit (Ngala ya Xitsonga), responsible for dictionary production, has 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 a 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 provided.
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 the University of Pretoria despite 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. From 1987 to 1997, a magazine called Nyeleti was in circulation for a decade. 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. Unsurprisingly, today Xitsonga and Tshivenda have fallen off the paper. Outstanding achievement in producing a monolingual Xitsonga newspaper Nthavela, which has been circulating 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 e.tv slogan, “news in your own language”, is an 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 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 has 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 the 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 language 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 has 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 the 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.

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