The Tsonga are a group of the Bantu-speaking population who live in areas extending from St Lucia Bay on the northern KwaZulu Natal coast, up to the Sabie River, which flows through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Tsonga groups also live in the Lydenburg, Soutpansberg, and Waterberg districts of the Northern Province, where they are interspersed with the Pedi in the west and the Venda and Lobedu in the north. In Mozambique, they live in the Delagoa Bay area, Inhambane, and northwards up to the Limpopo River mouth.
Their traditional culture and customs endured until the nineteenth century when the Tsonga came under the influence of the Zulu nation. Their cultural change has been slow, but since the industrialisation of South Africa during the twentieth century, their communal and national life has been fundamentally altered by conversion to Christianity, schooling, and labour migration. The smooth functioning of the traditional pattern of life is now breaking down rapidly. The name Tsonga was given to them by Zulu invaders who enslaved many clans between 1815 and 1830.
Though there are similarities between Tsonga and Zulu, it is not merely a dialect of Zulu. Unlike Zulu there are no click sounds, for the Tsonga apparently had no contact with the San. The Tsonga language has some affinities with Sotho, particularly with the Pedi dialect.
Little is known of their early history. Some Tsonga think they came from the north in remote times 'along a wide, white straight road' until they reached the sea. Other clans believe they came from Natal or Swaziland.
By the nineteenth century historical facts about the Tsonga were more accurate. Events were dominated by the devastation of Shaka and the migrations of other warriors, who fled from Shaka with their supporters during the mfecane.
Tsonga traditional societies, though regulated by strict laws, are less formalised than that of the Nguni or Sotho peoples. The traditional chiefdom comprises some hundreds or thousands of individuals who have collected around a chief. Every man is welcome to air his views, but the chief's advisers are those who can speak authoritatively on social order and the observance of customary laws.
A traditional patriarchal Tsonga kraal is a self-sufficient, well-defined, extended family community. It usually composes a head, his father, wives, children, and the aged who depend on him. Sometimes his younger brothers with their wives and children live with him.
The Tsonga are traditionally an agricultural people. Cattle are valued but do not thrive for the Tsonga live in areas that are prone to stock diseases. Goats and fowls are kept for food and for ritual sacrifices. The Tsonga also enjoy fish and Tsonga men build weirs at the river mouths, placing the baskets with the mouths leaning against the outgoing tide. Tsonga boys shoot fish with bows and arrows.