Difference between Tsonga & Shangaan in 500 words



Vatsonga suffer from an identity crisis, and this is a result of centuries of oppression, in the form of –

  1. Christianity
  2. Slavery and Colonization
  3. Apartheid
  4. Tribalism
  5. Xenophobia

Vatsonga don’t know their basic history, and lack confidence in their ethnic identity. Vatsonga in urban areas usually convert to Zulu and Sotho, this trend began in the 1960’s and gained momentum in the 1990’s; and then in the new millennium vulungu (European culture) became a third escape.

Fortunately, there is a new wave of consciousness and pride from Vatsonga of this generation, however, they are misguided.

Let us help you make sense of this confusing identity:


  • The word Tsonga is a (Southern, Western and Northern) transition of the word Rhonga (which is Eastern), meaning Dawn/East.
  • The Tsonga ethnic group has existed for over 1000 years.
  • Tsonga is an ethnic group, made up of Clans, Phratry and Chiefdoms ta VaKaranga, VaMbayi, VaSotho, VaNgoni and other ancient identities.

Phratry: “A grouping of clans related by traditions of common descent or historical alliance based on kinship.”

  • Plural = Vatsonga (People).
  • Singular = Mutsonga (Individual).
  • Language = Xitsonga (With over 5 main dialects).
  • Way of life = Vutsonga (Also used to refer to ancient Tsonga territory)


  • The word Shangaan is a Tsonga transition of the Nguni word Changana, meaning to destroy/invade/attack (in context to;

“uSochangane, okade achanga imizi yamadoda nabafazi!”

  • The word Shangaan is derived from Sochangane, who is patriarch of Amashangaan, who was an 1800s Zwide General from KwaNongoma; real name is Manukuzi, founder of the Gaza Chiefdom. Soshangaan is his nom du guerre (Nickname).
  • The Amashangaan are of Ndwandwe lineage, they arrived to live among Vatsonga as a runaway group from the Zulu, in the early 1800s.
  • The Shangaan are part of the Tsonga speaking ethnic group and the last to be assimilated. However, the Shangaans prefer to be identified as Nguni (Ndwandwe) and not Tsonga, even though they been speaking Xitsonga and living amongst Vatsonga for over 150 years.


  • Tsonga was used interchangeably with Shangaan from the 1960’s in the Transvaal mines and spread over the years. The Gazankulu homeland made Vuchangani official as a Tsonga identity and language, and created a double barrel identity.
  • The word Shangaan has derogatory meaning to other Tsonga groups. It is politically incorrect to refer to all Vatsonga as Shangaan, as it has historical connotations of oppression and reduces Tsonga history and identity to the Mfecane era.
  • However, Vatsonga do refer to them as Shangaan, as an alternative label for Tsonga (misguided) because of the brainwash unleashed by Transvaal, Portugal, Apartheid and the Homeland.
  • To the rest of Southern Africa, Shangaan means weakling, ugly, animal and foreigner. And to the Nxumalos, Shangaan is the name of their forefather and clan. It is not a language or an identity.


  • There are 12 million* Xitsonga speakers in Southern Africa, including the Shangaan clan.
  • Shangaan are a minority clan of the Tsonga ethnic group; The Hlengwe, Lenge, Khoseni, Hlanganu and Valoyi make up majority of the ethnic group.
  • Refer to us as Vatsonga to avoid insulting anyone.

Originally published by VIVMAG 


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