5 South African Languages and Their Histories (Nguni-Tsonga Group)

Here are the five Nguni-Tsonga South African languages with official status, and the people who speak them.

Oct 2, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
south african languages history Nguni Tsonga
South Africans celebrating Heritage Day, via cfr.org


South Africa is a large country. It is almost twice the size of Texas and has a population of over 60 million. One of the most important aspects of the South African population is its extreme diversity, mirrored in the country’s motto: “! ke e: /xarra //ke”, or in English, “Diverse People Unite.” The motto appears on the coat of arms and is written in the Khoe language used by the /Xam people. Given the large number of ethnic groups, as well as South Africa’s divisive history, it was necessary to implement a new strategy of unity when the country held its first racially inclusive elections in 1994. There are many South African languages. Eleven of them are official, with another likely to be added in the near future: South African Sign Language. Having so many official languages is an attempt to create a fair and equitable society whereby all South Africans can have access to education, governmental matters, and information. It is a monumental task to present society to the citizens in all the desired languages.


The Nguni-Tsonga languages and dialects form an integral part of South African society, forming a demographic majority. Five of the eleven official languages are from this language group.


A Note on South African Languages

language map south africa
Linguistic distribution of South Africa’s official languages, via mapsontheweb.zoom-maps.com


Nine of the 11 official languages in South Africa are African languages which belong to the Bantu family of languages. This family is subdivided into the Nguni-Tsonga language group which includes five of the official languages, and the Sotho-Makua-Venda languages of which four of the official languages belong.


The other two official languages, English and Afrikaans, are European, from the Germanic family of languages. Although Afrikaans evolved in South Africa, it is considered European on account of it evolving from Dutch.


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In the northwestern part of the country extending north into Namibia and Botswana, where the country becomes arid semi-desert, there are the Khoisan languages which are completely unrelated to the Bantu languages or the Bantu parent family of the Niger-Congo language group.


While the term “Bantu” is perceived in a pejorative sense in South Africa since it was a word used by the apartheid government to denote “Black people,” it is the accepted terminology within the field of linguistics. Additionally, many other South African languages exist within and outside these main groups.


1. Zulu

south african languages zulu people
Zulu people in traditional clothing, via The Daily Maverick


Of all the South African languages, Zulu (often referred to as isiZulu in South Africa) is the most widely spoken home language. According to the 2011 census, Zulu is the home language of over 22% of the population and is understood by 50% of the population. Linguistically, Zulu is part of the Nguni-Tsonga family of languages along with four other official South African languages. Zulu is also one of the South African languages that have a significant number of click sounds.


Unsurprisingly, the Zulu language is the language of the Zulu people and is concentrated around the KwaZulu-Natal province on the eastern seaboard of the country. The Zulu people trace the origins of their clan back to the 16th century when the Zulu clan was formed. It existed as part of a federation of clans until the early 19th century when Shaka united the clans by military force and formed a powerful empire. This event was known as the “Mfecane” which means “crushing; scattering; forced migration” in English.


The reasons for the Mfecane are controversial and subject to a lot of debate over why it happened and who was to blame. During this time however, there was genocide, as the Zulu absorbed the women and young men into their clan and executed the older men. Many clans were forced to flee the onslaught, and it is estimated that between one and two million people died, although these numbers are controversial and are educated guesses at best.


south african languages zulu beadwork
Zulu fashion that is both modern and formal, photo by @zuludresscode from Instagram, via briefly.co.za


In the wake of the formation of the Zulu Kingdom, the Zulu came into conflict with the Boers in the 1830s, and later with the British in 1878 during the Anglo-Zulu War. This war saw the capture of the Zulu capital of Ulundi, and complete defeat for the Zulu Kingdom, and although it ended the threat of Zulu military force, the Zulu nation persists and has a symbolic monarchy recognized by the South African government. The current king is Misuzulu Zulu.


The Zulu aren’t only known for their bloody and militaristic past, however. Zulu culture is vibrant and fashionable. The Zulu people, like most South Africans, wear a variety of attire from traditional and more modern ceremonial clothing to western clothing for everyday use. Of particular note is the intricate beadwork that is unique to the Zulu people and is created in various color schemes which signify different things.


2. Xhosa

south african languages xhosa women
A group of Xhosa women, via buzzsouthafrica.com


Xhosa or isiXhosa is the second most popular South African home language, with approximately 16% of the population speaking it as their mother tongue. It is part of the Nguni-Tsonga language group which is a subdivision of the Bantu family of languages. Its closest relative on the language tree is Zulu, and the two South African languages are, to a great extent, mutually intelligible.


Of all the Bantu languages in South Africa, Xhosa is the language with the most click sounds. This is because of the Xhosa people’s geographic proximity to the areas of South Africa historically inhabited by the Khoekhoen people. Many linguistic sounds were borrowed from their neighbors. It is estimated that about 10% of Xhosa words contain a click sound. The language is primarily spoken by the Xhosa people and is centered around the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.


The Eastern Cape has been the homeland of the Xhosa people for at least 400 years. Some evidence suggests they may have lived there since the 7th century. With their language being the second-most popular home language, the Xhosa people form the second biggest ethnic group in South Africa after the Zulu people. The lineage of the Xhosa Kings can be traced back to the first leader, King Mithiyonke Kayeyeye who ruled from 1210 to 1245.


According to oral tradition, the modern Xhosa Kingdom was founded in the 15th century by King Tshawe, who overthrew his brother, Cirha. After Tshawe’s ascension to the throne, the Xhosa nation underwent rapid expansion, incorporating several other independent clans, including those of Khoi and Sotho origin.


south african languages xhosa wedding
The bride and groom at an authentic Xhosa wedding by Thunder & Love, via brides.com


During the reign of King Phalo in the mid 18th century, the lineage of the kings split into two when two royal brides arrived to marry King Phalo. As not to insult either of the families, it was decided that the king would marry both women. As a result, the royal lineage split into the Great House of Gcaleka and the Right Hand House of Rharhabe. Gcaleka has seniority, and the current king is Ahlangene Sigcawu, while the head of the Rharhabe branch is King Jonguxolo Sandile.


The Xhosa people suffered many conflicts with Europeans encroaching from the west, and tribes fleeing the Mfecane and the Zulu to the North. Nevertheless, the Xhosa unity survived wars, disasters, and apartheid to become one the most influential nations within South Africa, producing many historically important people such as Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki (2nd president of South Africa), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and activist Steve Biko.


The Xhosa culture is known for its distinctive fashion which includes symbolic beadwork. The Xhosa people are also known as the Red Blanket People because of their custom of wearing red blankets dyed with ochre. They also have a long history of pastoralism and growing crops such as maize.


3. Swazi

south african languages swazi dance
Swazi dancing, via thekingdomofeswatini.com


The Swazi language, also known as siSwati, is part of the Nguni group of languages and is closely related to Zulu, Xhosa, and Ndebele. There are approximately three million Swazi home-language speakers. Most of them are native to South Africa while the remaining speakers are native to the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) which is an independent country on the border between South Africa and Mozambique, the ancestral home of the Swazi (or Swati) people.


Through archeology as well as linguistic and cultural comparisons, it is evident that the Swazi people can trace their history back to East Africa as part of Nguni-speaking clans who migrated south during the 15th century. They migrated through Mozambique and settled in what is now Eswatini. Ngwane III who ruled from 1745 to 1780 is considered the first king of modern Eswatini.


In 1815, Sobhuza I was inaugurated as king of the Swazi nation. His rule happened during the Mfecane and, taking advantage of the strife, Sobhuza expanded the borders of the Swazi nation by incorporating neighboring Nguni, Sotho, and San tribes into his kingdom.


swazi reed dance
Swazi women take part in the traditional Reed Dance, via Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images, via npr.org


Thereafter, contact was made with the Boers who had beaten the Zulu at Blood River. The Swazi ceded substantial portions of their territory to Boer settlers, and later ceded even more to the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic). As a result, many Swazi people, who are descended from those who lived in these ceded territories, are South African citizens. Like the country of Lesotho, Eswatini was not incorporated into South Africa, but became an independent nation. The current king and ruler of Eswatini is King Mswati III.


The Swazi people have many arts and crafts in their society. These include beadwork, clothing, pottery, woodwork, and notably arts involving grasses and reeds. Baskets and brooms are popular examples of the latter. The Umhlanga Reed Dance is perhaps the best-known cultural event. It lasts for eight days and is focused on unmarried, childless women. The Incwala is another important annual ceremony in which the king tastes the fruits of the new harvest.


4. Southern Ndebele

ndebele people africa
Ndebele people, photo by Margaret Courtney-Clarke, via buzzsouthafrica.com


Although generally referred to as “Ndebele” in South Africa, the Ndebele language is actually two distinct languages (or three, depending on who you ask), with Northern Ndebele being spoken in Zimbabwe, while Southern Ndebele is a South African language spoken mainly in the Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga provinces.


Sumayele Ndebele is also a language (or dialect) spoken in South Africa. It shows distinct Swazi influence, while Northern Ndebele is closer to Zulu, and Southern Ndebele has significant Sotho influence. Like Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi, Ndebele is part of the Nguni group of languages.


The Ndebele arrived with other Nguni speaking peoples around 400 years ago. Shortly after breaking from their parent clan, the Ndebele suffered civil strife as the sons of King Mhlanga quarreled with each other over who would succeed their father to the throne. Ndebele established themselves in the area east of present-day Pretoria and again suffered a civil war over succession.


In 1823, Shaka Zulu’s lieutenant, Mzilikazi was given cattle and soldiers and given leave to start his own tribe, separate from the Zulu. He immediately set out on a series of attacks and conquests during the Mfecane, and in 1825, attacked the Ndebele. Although defeated and their king killed, the Ndebele fled and resettled, entering into an alliance with a Pedi chief.


ndebele house decoration
A house decorated in the typical Ndebele style, via Claude Voyage, Flickr, via re-thinkingthefuture.com


Half a century later, the Ndebele came under pressure from the newly formed South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), and the two belligerents entered into a war. After eight months of fighting and burning crops, the war came to a close with victory for the South African Republic. The war was not one of conquest. The Transvaalers only wanted the extradition of certain chiefs for incitement to violence, murder, and rioting.


During apartheid, the Ndebele, like all non-white South Africans, suffered at the hands of the government, being forced to live in their own Bantustan (homeland).


The Ndebele are well-known for their strikingly colorful and geometric artistic style, especially with the way they paint their homes. The women are also known for wearing rings of brass and copper around their necks, although in modern times, these rings are no longer permanent.


5. Tsonga

tsonga art wooden staff
The head of a Tsonga staff, 19th – 20th century, via Artkhade


Tsonga, also known as Xitsonga is a South African language spoken in the far northeast of South Africa in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces bordering Mozambique. It is closely related to Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele, but it is part of a subgroup of the Nguni languages all on its own. The language is mutually intelligible with the languages Tswa and Ronga, both spoken in neighboring Mozambique. “Tsonga” or “Tswa-Ronga” are often used as terms to denote all three languages together.


The Tsonga people (or Vatsonga) of South Africa share a similar culture and history with the Tsonga people of Southern Mozambique. According to the 2011 census, approximately 4.5% (3.3 million) of South Africans used Tsonga as their home language.


The history of the Tsonga people can be traced back to Central and East Africa where their ancestors lived before migrating southwards towards their present location. The structure of the Tsonga tribes is historically one of a confederacy where each tribe exercises their own decisions, but often work together.


A commonly held belief among the Tsonga people is “vukosi a byi peli nambu” or “kingship does not cross territorial or family borders.” During apartheid, the Bantustan of Gazankulu was reserved for the Tsonga people, although most Tsonga people did not live there. Instead, they lived in townships around the urban centers of Pretoria and Johannesburg.


Traditionally, the Tsonga economy is one of pastoralism and agriculture, with the main crops being cassava and maize. While traditional music and dancing are an inalienable part of Tsonga culture, in recent years a new form of music has emerged. High-tech lo-fi electronic dance music created by Tsonga DJs has become popular and has even found popularity in Europe. This music is promoted as Tsonga Disco and Shangaan Electro.


south african tsonga dancers
Tsonga dancers, via kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.com, via afrikanprincess.com


The Nguni and the Tsonga South African languages and dialects are spread throughout the entire eastern half of South Africa and together represent the majority of spoken languages. These languages are not just diverse linguistically but represent people who are ethnically and culturally diverse too. As such, they are an inalienable and essential part of South African identity.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus and has written over 100 articles for TheCollector. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.