The Shangaan people

Kruger National Park · April 2020
By Bernard Stigling
Field Guide

Who are the Shangaan people? If you’ve worked at or have visited Singita’s southern African lodges, the vast majority of the staff members would have been part of this group of people. There is a lot of confusion with regards to the difference between Shangaan and Tsonga people.

The Shangaan are a small group of the larger and collective Vatsonga people who consist of various independent clans and are to be found in eastern Limpopo – and Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, south-eastern Zimbabwe, south and central Mozambique and in small pockets in eSwatini.

The Shangaan people came to be when Zwide kaLanga of the Ndwandwe people was defeated by Shaka Zulu at the battle of the Mhlatuzi river in Kwa-Zulu Natal in the early 19th century. One of his generals, Manukuzi Nxumalo (or uSoshangane), fled into southern Mozambique with some followers.

There they found various Vatsonga clans, many of whom were easily defeated in battle and then assimilated into the ranks of the amaNdwandwe invaders. This new empire of usurped Vatsonga land and clans – which stretched from the Zambezi river down to the border with modern day KwaZulu-Natal – was named Gaza, after Manukuzi’s grandfather. This empire lasted up until 1895 when the Portuguese finally caught the renegade Shangaan general Magigwana Khosa at a place called Mapulangweni, no less than a few kilometres from Singita Kruger National Park. In fact, many battles against the Portuguese were fought in the euphorbia covered ridges of the Lebombo mountains. Here they executed Magigwana by cutting off his head. Before and after his capture, many of his followers and also the Gaza royal family fled to the Transvaal where they bought land later to be known as Bushbuckridge.

The word Shangaan therefore should only be used to described the people who were historically conquered and assimilated by the Gaza empire. All Shangaan are Vatsonga but not all Vatsonga are Shangaan.

As an inhabitant of a rainbow nation I find the different and diverse pasts of my colleagues fascinating, and have great respect for all cultures.

By Bernard Stigling
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