4 Fascinating South African Languages (Sotho-Venda Group)

Here’s a look at the second largest grouping of South African languages, along with the people who speak them, and the cultures they have produced.

Sep 28, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
South African languages Sotho Makua Venda
The family tree of South Africa’s Bantu languages, via South Africa Gateway


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 biggest aspects of the South African population is its extreme diversity. It is an aspect 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 11 official languages in South Africa, 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.


South African Language Groups

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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, and 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.


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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. 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, as 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. Sepedi

south african languages pedi wedding
The bride at a Pedi wedding, via beliciousmuse.com


Sepedi, also known as Northern Sotho or Sesotho sa Lebowa, is a major South African language of the Sotho-Tswana group of languages. At the time of the 2011 census, Sepedi was spoken by 9.1% (4.6 million people) of the South African population, making it the 5th largest spoken language in South Africa. Most Sepedi speakers are in the Mpumalanga, Gauteng, and Limpopo provinces.


The people with whom the language is associated are the Pedi people or the BaPedi. They originate from people who migrated southwards from East Africa over the course of many centuries. By the late 18th century, the Pedi people had established nationhood under King Thulare (c. 1780 – 1820). During this time, the Pedi came under attack from the Ndwandwe, a tribe from Zululand who were subsequently defeated and scattered by the Zulu. The attacks caused instability among the Pedi clans, but stability was restored under the leadership of Thulare’s son, Sekwati.


During the reign of Sekwati, the Pedi people came into conflict with the Matabele under the leadership of Shaka Zulu’s former general, Mzilikazi. The Pedi were also plundered by the Swazi, and there was growing tension over labor and land with the neighboring Afrikaner Boers who had settled in the region.


pedi man kilt
Scottish kilts are popular with Pedi men. There are various hypotheses, but nobody knows the reason for certain, via Romina Facchi via exploring-africa.com


In the late 19th century, the Pedi survived conflict with the Republic of the Transvaal (also known as the South African Republic), as well as the British, and during the apartheid years, the Pedi people were assigned to the Bantustan of Borwa.


Traditionally the Pedi are known for many arts and crafts such as metalworking, pottery, and making drums. There is also a rich tradition of music and dance. It is common in Pedi culture for women to dance on their knees.


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President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Queen mother Manyaku at the funeral of Bapedi King Victor Thulare III, via The Presidency via The Sowetan


Like most African nations within South Africa, the Pedi people are constituents of a monarchy. At the time of writing, there is no current king. Since the death of Thulare III in 2021 from complications with COVID-19, a successor has not been announced. The Pedi people are under the curatorship of the Queen Mother, Manyaku. Thulare III was 40 years old at the time of his death, and received a state funeral with a eulogy being given by President Cyril Ramaphosa.


2. Venda

south african languages venda dance
A Venda dancer, via africanivoryroute.co.za


Venda, also known as Tshivenda, is part of the Sotho-Makua-Venda group of languages. At the time of the 2011 census, it was spoken by approximately 2.5% of the South African population, making it one of the more minor official South African languages in terms of the number of speakers. It is spoken most predominantly in the very north of the country, on the border with Zimbabwe.


The Venda people, also called VhaVenda or Vhangona, are descendants of the 11th century Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which is today an important archeological site in South Africa. The Venda people, like the vast majority of other linguistic and ethnic groups in South Africa, profess Christianity, and like their compatriots within the Bantu linguistic sphere, have a strong respect for ancestor worship.


An interesting religious outlier within the Venda people are the Lemba, who claimed to be of Jewish descent. Genetic analyses showed that the Lemba people carried genetic markers from the Middle East. Although mostly Christian (Some Lemba in Zimbabwe are Muslim), the Lemba people practice many Judaic rituals such as observing Shabbat, refraining from eating pork, and putting the Star of David on their tombstones. They also practice their own form of Passover.


The Venda people first encountered white people in 1836 when the Afrikaner Voortrekkers / Boers came to the region. Twelve years later, Voortrekkers established a settlement near Venda territory. The Venda responded with many years of continual harassment of the Boers which led to the Mpephu-Boer War, and ultimately led to defeat for the Venda.


Like other Black South Africans, the Venda under apartheid rule, were given their own Bantustan, which was dissolved when apartheid ended.


south african languages venda musangwe
Musangwe fighting among Venda men, via vendaland.org


The Venda people have a rich culture with many aspects. Musangwe is a form of bare-knuckle boxing popular among the Venda men. The Venda people perform many traditional dances, the most famous of which is the Python Dance, whereby participants form a line by holding on to the elbows of the person in front of them.


Many rituals and practices are sacred and not discussed with outsiders. One of the most sacred places in Venda culture is Lake Fundudzi, which the Venda believe is guarded by a white crocodile. The Venda have a special relationship with crocodiles, which inhabit the waters in Venda territory. They have a (healthy) fear of crocodiles, which they regard as poisonous, and are not hunted for food. Crocodiles are always given the right of way.


As of the time of writing, there is a power struggle for the Venda throne, and there is no monarch. The last acting monarch, Toni Mphephu Ramabulana, was dethroned in November 2021 when the South African Constitutional Court ruled that his appointment had been unconstitutional. Additionally, the current South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is Venda.


3. Tswana

south african languages kgolo musical
Kgolo, a Setswana musical production set in the 1940s, explores many themes, such as the generational gap, the abandonment of culture, and the tension caused by interracial marriage, via Sanmari Marais via The Mail & Guardian.


Tswana, also known as Setswana, is a Southern African language that is widely spoken throughout the North West province of South Africa. It is an official language in South Africa, and a national language in Botswana where the Tswana people make up 79% of the Batswana population. The South African census found that out of a total population of 51 million at the time, four million spoke Tswana as a home language which represented 8% of the population. Another four million people are estimated to use Tswana as a second language.


The Tswana people or Batswana (Motswana singular) are spread across the North West province of South Africa, throughout Botswana, and in smaller minorities in Namibia and Zimbabwe. The majority of Tswana speakers reside in South Africa.


The Tswana migrated to Southern Africa around 600 AD, and by 900 AD had established a widespread iron-age culture which persisted for several hundred years into the modern era. Many cities were established, as were trade routes that reached as far away as Asia. In the mid-19th century, trade with the Cape Colony allowed many Tswana tribes to acquire horses and guns. With these powerful tools, they managed to subjugate the people of surrounding areas, establishing themselves as the dominant force over a significant part of Southern Africa.


In the latter half of the century, the Tswana people successfully dealt with conflicts with the Boers as well as the Ndebele. During the apartheid years, the Tswana people were allocated the Bantustan of Bophuthatswana, which was dissolved and incorporated back into South Africa in 1994 after the fall of apartheid.


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Tswana women wearing traditional blue blankets called mogagolwane, via theafricancreative.com


Specialized arts among the Tswana people include basket weaving and wood carving. They have a strong culture of music and dance, and choirs often compete against each other. Tswana music has also developed in the modern era, with a style of rap music known as Motswako which is popular in South Africa as well as Botswana.


Another important aspect of Tswana culture is the complex legal system that was developed with a heavy emphasis on things pertaining to agriculture.


4. Sesotho

south african languages basotho people
Sotho men wearing traditional clothing, via southafrica.net


Sesotho is also known as Southern Sotho to differentiate it from Sepedi, which is also known as Northern Sotho. Sesotho is a South African language spoken by approximately 7.6% of the South African population and virtually all of Lesotho’s population of just over two million people. In South Africa, the language is spoken mainly in the Free State province. There are marked differences in the dialects of Sesotho spoken in Lesotho and South Africa, due mainly to the borrowing of linguistic elements from other languages in South Africa.


The Sotho people are known as the Basotho. It has been a long time since any census was conducted to gauge the numbers of Basotho people in total, but it is reasonable to approximate that the number is at least six million individuals.


The Basotho nation, like many other nations, has been shaped by the same significant events that happened in South Africa during the 19th century. These were the Mfecane, the Great Trek and subsequent establishment of Boer polities, and the plans of the British colonial Office.


From 1822 to 1870, the Basotho were led by King Moshoeshoe who was an extremely shrewd negotiator. Moshoeshoe established his capital in the heart of the Drakensberg Mountains, making it easily defensible. Nevertheless, the Basotho people were driven out of the lowlands in the Free State.


south african languages sotho horse
A Sotho man and his horse in the Free State, via Google Arts and Culture, South African Tourism


As a result, Moshoeshoe appealed to Queen Victoria for assistance, and Basutoland (now Lesotho) was established and given the status of a protectorate of the British Empire. This allowed the Basotho people to escape conflict with the Boers, while maintaining their self-determination. As a result, Lesotho evolved as an independent nation, completely landlocked by South Africa. Despite this, most Sesotho speakers reside in South Africa. Moshoeshoe also employed the help of French missionaries to advise him during his reign. Because of this, Catholicism became the dominant form of Christianity in Lesotho.


The culture of the Basotho people is largely shaped by their mountainous surroundings. This makes the Basotho people unique in that they are one of the few African tribes living in cold, mountainous areas. Warm blankets form part of the attire, and horses and donkeys form an important form of transport through the mountainous regions. Gumboots and balaclavas are also commonplace.


The Basotho hat called the mokorotlo is an important symbol of the Basotho people, and appears on the flag of Lesotho. Basotho women generally wear long dresses with bright colors. They also wear a small blanket or piece of cloth as a skirt over their dress, as an extra form of insulation. It is common to see different colored flags flying above villages. These flags indicate what is being sold. A locally brewed beer called “joala” made from sorghum is popular, and is indicated by a white flag.


The Sotho-Venda Group of South African Languages

family tree south african languages
The family tree of South Africa’s Bantu languages, via South Africa Gateway


Sesotho, Tswana, Venda and Sepedi together account for 27.1% of languages spoken as first languages in South Africa. The people who speak these languages are widely varied, living in areas ranging from arid semi-deserts to snowy mountains to the urban metropoles, and they add to the rich diversity of the South African people.

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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus. 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.