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12 June2019

by Greg Cooke

Conservation and communities in Africa are inextricably linked. Understanding the local culture is a critical first step in building a sustainable tourism industry.

The black population of South Africa is divided into four major ethnic groups namely Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi), Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. To add to this cultural melting pot, there are eleven official languages in South Africa. These are English (9.6%), Afrikaans (13.5%), Ndebele (2.1%), Sepedi (9.1%), Xhosa (16%), Venda (2.4%), Tswana (8%), Southern Sotho (7.6%), Zulu 22.7%), Swazi or SiSwati (2.5%) and Tsonga (4.5%).

At Royal Malewane, the local community is predominantly Sotho and Shangaan and there is a strong emphasis on sharing local customs and traditions with our guests such as community visits, language lessons, history talks and dancing.

The Shangaan culture has a complex history that has had a unique and interesting impact on many communities within South Africa.

The Tsonga people are a diverse group of tribes that include the Shangaan people. It’s important to understand that Tsonga people share one origin, but each tribe has assumed different identities. Tsonga people can be found in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The Tsonga people speak Xitsonga. Much like the history of many southern African groups, the formation of the Tsonga and Shangaan groups was influenced by Shaka Zulu, the famously fierce and successful Zulu King.

Shaka Zulu’s uncle, Dingiswayo, the leader of their small chiefdom, was killed by an enemy warrior. Shaka, assuming control of his people, took the reins and appointed a warrior called Shoshangane as his General. Wishing to absorb surrounding chiefdoms and grow his army of warriors, Shaka sent Soshangane to Mozambique to defeat the Tsonga people living there.

In South Africa the name “Shangaan” or “Machangane” is regularly applied to the entire Tsonga population, however, this is a common misconception and may even cause offense in terms of tribal affiliation. What can be identified as the Shangaan tribe only forms a small fraction of the entire Tsonga ethnic group, meaning that the term “Shangaan” should only be applied to that tribe which is directly related to Shoshangane.

Below: Sketches of Shaka Zulu and life in traditional communities at the time.

Shoshangane was amazed by the communities of peaceful people and fertile land he came across on his , and so decided to settle and create his own tribe. This new tribe, now known as the Shangaan tribe, absorbed many of the surrounding communities as well as some of the Tsonga and Nguni people.

At the time they resided in what we know today to be Mozambique, but subsequently expanded to parts of South-eastern Zimbabwe and South Africa. Historical word of mouth is relied on for a great deal of information, and an alternative narrative of the story states that Shoshangane fled from Shaka’s reign to start his own chiefdom.

Below: A sketch of a traditional kraal setup.

In Shangaan-Tsonga culture the powers of ancestors, who are believed to have considerable effects on the lives of their descendants, are an integral part of their day to day lives. Some spirits or ancestors are believed to live in certain sacred places where ancient chiefs have been buried. Each clan has several burial grounds. The spirit of the deceased family member will be buried at home.

Occasionally the father of a family that passes will be buried inside the family’s cattle kraal. A kraal is a closed off safe area where the cattle are kept at night. This is believed to ensure peaceful rest as the father’s passion or pride was in his cattle. By paying respect to the deceased, the present and future generations can thrive.

Today the Shangaan tribe lives in areas within The Northern Province and Mpumalanga, South Africa, while the majority of the Tsonga tribe lives in Southern Mozambique.

Support for the community and conservation of the environment are inextricably linked. It’s critical to involve the local community who need to realise the financial gains of tourism in order to see the value in protecting wildlife and the environment and to share their culture with visitors. 

Communities are starting to see how conservation and sustainable tourism can permanently uplift a community while subsistence poaching and trophy hunting offer only ephemeral rewards.

An example of this sustainable approach is The Farmstead at Royal Malewane. The Farmstead land is leased from the local community. Not only do we employ and develop members of the community, but at the end of that long lease both the land and the asset will revert to the community with the option to continue working with The Royal Portfolio in perpetuity.

Find out more about The Royal Portfolio’s sustainable approach to tourism and discover the wonderful conservation and community project supported by The Royal Portfolio Foundation.

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