VaTsonga the culture


The VaTsonga people culturally and traditionally have a strong passion for embroidery, for colour, the decorative, the fashionable and the imaginary.

In their language, they are known as Vachangana, the singular form is Muchangana and in standard English grammar we use the word-stem, Shangaan.

The Shangaan people are also part of the larger language group called the Tsonga (VaTsonga). This group, VaTsonga, encompass three sub-groups: Ronga, Tswa and Tsonga (Shangaan) which are very similar and originated from the same Bantu clan. These subgroups share basically the same language with slight linguistic variations. However, because of identity politics the three Tsonga languages are given separate codes. The language of the Shangaan people is called Xichangana and includes five different variants that are geographically determined.

Importantly, the Shangaan people are often confused with the larger Tsonga-group, which is especially confusing when one wants to determine an estimated population of specifically Shangaan people. Nevertheless it is determined that the greatest concentration of Shangaan people is in the southern Mozambiquan province of Gaza and in smaller concentrations in the provinces of Sofala, Inhambane and Manica. The capital city of Maputo is home to a large Shangaan population, while there are basically no significant concentrations of Shangaan people living north of the Zambezi River. Shangaans also form part of the population in eastern and southern Zimbabwe and a very small part of the population in Swaziland.

The South African population, with special emphasis on the people of Kaross, are located in the north eastern part of the country in the area of Gazankulu, a former homeland. Giyani, the capital of Gazankulu is within the immediate reach of the Kaross-studio.

It is in this specific area of Giyani where a tradition of needlework was partly 'invented' in the early 1960s. This tradition was, and is, mainly reflected in their use of beadwork and embroidery on garments called Minceka. Minceka consist of two rectangular cloths wrapped around the women's bodies as clothing.

Jane Arthur, the initiator of a needlework collective called Xihoko in 1981, first recognized this tradition of embroidery. With the cooperation of Reckson and Dainah Mabunda, the collective engaged in this Shangaan-tradition, re-inventing it for economic means.

According to historic studies, it is believed that the Shangaan people originated further north towards the central part of Africa, but relocated to places where they could carry on their traditional and pastoral way of life in the more southern parts of the continent.

Soshangana is one of the best-known figures within the Shangaan history. As king, he led his people to safety from the Zulu massacres of Shaka. Like Soshangana, many kings reigned over the Shangaan clans, creating a patriarchal power structure. This social/power structure changed, in terms of Mozambique, as the influence of Portuguese colonialism increased. The influence that Apartheid in South Africa had on the Shangaan speaks for itself. This traditional notion of patriarchy and monarchy explains not only the gender-relationship still existent within the social structure of the Shangaan, but also the leading role of the male within art and handwork production. Interestingly, the Kaross drawing-artists are all men, while the embroiderers are predominantly female.

...As a result of social change within the political landscape of South Africa and the re-location of its people, many traditional cultures have been changed or lost...

Traditionally, Shangaan people have been agriculturalists and to an extent pastoralists. The importance of embroidery groups such as Xihoko (1981-1993), Chivirika (1986-) and Kaross (1989-) cannot be stressed enough, as these groups establish and reconstruct the inherent talent of the Shangaan and Tsonga people, developing their skills to produce artwork on a level of excellence that empowers them both economically and socially.

...Shangaan culture needed investment, constant development and a business plan in order to make it a sustainable skill...

The recorded history of the needlework collectives and embroidery groups of Xihoko (1981-1993) and Chivirika (1986-), which preceded Kaross (1989-), proves that Irma van Rooyen rightfully saw the Shangaan culture as a jewel that needs more than just an opportunity to flourish, it needed investment, constant development and a business plan in order to make it a sustainable skill.

Kaross's imperative is more than just empowerment - its heart is in the culture of the VaTsonga as it moves towards the production of art unequalled.