Bushwise Field Guides

Limpopo is divided into five regions, strategically located according to the cultural inhabitants. Capricorn is the central region predominantly occupied by the Bapedi People. Waterberg is the largest region in the province with most people being the Batswana people. The Vhembe region in the far north is dominated by the Vhavenda (who the writer is focusing on in this blog) and the Vatsonga people. The Mopani region towards the Kruger National Park is dominated by Vatsonga, whereas the Sekhukhuni region is dominated by Bapedi and Ndebele people.

The Mfecane disturbances of the 19th century was responsible for the settlement of the escarpment region by fragments of Sotho-speaking tribes, who once lived on the highveld. The Bakwena tribe under chief Kowyn settled on the Graskop escarpment, and the Mapulana tribe settled in wretched circumstances in the lowveld. Everywhere south of the Oliphant’s River and North of the Crocodile River, these refugees of the Mfecane disturbances were harried and looted by the Swazi raiding parties of Mswati II.

As with most of the other peoples of South Africa the Venda (Vhavenda) came from the Great Lakes of Central Africa. They first settled down in the Soutpansberg Mountains. Here they built their first capital, D’zata, the ruins of which can still be seen today. The Venda language, TshiVenda or LuVenda is like SeSotho, but the grammar shares similarities with Shona dialects, which are spoken in Zimbabwe, thus the history of the Venda starts from the Mapungubwe Kingdom (9th Century).

According to historical studies King Shiriyadenga was the first king of Venda and Mapungubwe from 800AD when the Mapungubwe Kingdom emerged, stretching from the Soutpansberg in the south, across the Limpopo River to the Matopos in the north. The Mapungubwe Kingdom declined from 1240AD, and the centre of power and trade moved north to the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom. There are no stonewalled ruins comparable in size to Great Zimbabwe in the northeastern part of Northern Province, but those in the mountains show a link due to the similarities in their construction.

Accompanying the development of these centres, from about 1400, waves of Shona-speaking migrants from modern Zimbabwe settled across the Lowveld and together with the Venda are generally regarded as one of the last black groups to have entered the area south of the Limpopo River. Their history is closely related to their legendary ancestor, Thoho-ya-Ndou meaning “Head of the Elephant”.

Thoho-ya-Ndou’s kraal (home) was called D’zata and the remains of which have been declared a National Monument. D’zata had great significance for the Venda as they buried their chiefs facing towards it. When Thoho-ya-Ndou died, divisions arose between the different factions within because of disputes regarding the question of who was to succeed him. In Venda tradition, succession to the throne is a complex matter and thus their history has been influenced by many disputes over occupancy of the throne

The Venda culture is built on a vibrant mythical belief system which is reflected in their artistic style. Water is an important theme to the Venda and there are many sacred sites within their region where the Venda conjure up their ancestral spirits. They believe water spirits live at the bottom of waterfalls. These beings are only half-visible; they only have one eye, one leg, and one arm. One half can be seen in this world and the other half in the spirit world. The Venda would take offerings of food to them because they cannot grow things underwater, with one of the most sacred sites of the Venda being Lake Fundudzi.

The Venda people therefore have a very special relationship with Crocodiles as the area where they live is filled with these dangerous reptiles. They believe that the brain of the Crocodile is very poisonous, and are therefore given right of way by the Venda who do not even hunt them for food…

Another interesting fact that came up in the writers’ research is the Venda peoples’ version of Bare Knuckle combat known as Musangwe!

Musangwe is said to have started in the late 1800s which pitted villages such as Gaba, Tshifudi, Tshaulu, Ha-Lambani, and Tshidzini against one another. There are no prizes awarded to the winners, the fighters simply fight for personal pride and the bragging rights for their villages. The ground where Musangwe takes place is prepared with charms and herbs obtained from the Maine or traditional healer. The preparation with herbs and charms is prepared by the president of the Musangwe thus the ancestors are alerted that the tournament is officially on. It is said that only one fighter has died in a Musangwe tournament since the tournament started in the late 1800s. The unfortunate fighter died in 1929, and his spirit is summoned at the commencement of each tournament to protect all participants.

There are no rounds in Musangwe, but there are rules. One of the rules is that if a fighter is bleeding he should be allowed to wash the blood from his face. The other rule is that if a fighter is down and still wants to continue fighting, his challenger must give him an opportunity to stand up and fight again.

Hopefully the reader has enjoyed this part of the History of the Lowveld series, in the next, the writer will cover the origins and history of the VatSonga people of the Lowveld who have also played a part in the history of the area! Until next time…

Blog by Trevor Myburgh