Venda or Vahvenda


Venda or Vahvenda, meaning the people of Venda, are a Bantu-speaking people wholiveinthe northernTransvaalin South Africa and in southern Zimbabwe in the region also known as Venda, though the majority of them live in South Africa. The Venda language is called Tshivenda or Luvenda, and it is estimated that there are over 550,000 speakers. Thsivenda seems to be transitional between Shona (one of the main languages in Zimbabwe) and Sotho, and the Venda represent only about 2 percent of Bantu speakers in South Africa.OthersnotetheVendamayhave Nilotic ancestry rather than Bantu and have adopted Bantu language over their original Nilo-Saharan language.

The Venda migrated from the central African Lakes Region to their current homeland near the Limpopo River in a series of waves starting around 1100. They crossed the Limpopo perhaps around 1600 and were able to dominate the Ngona peo-ples who already lived there. The Venda arrived in two main waves; the first of the Venda to arrive were the Vhatavhatinde, followed by the MaKhwinde. The MaKh-winde came to dominate, and their leader Dimbanyika placed his sons as local chiefs over the various districts. Around 1720, Dimbanyika died, and his son Phophi took his place as the paramount chief and changed his name to Thoho-ya-Ndou, meaning Head of the Elephant.

Thoho-ya- Ndou moved the capital to Dzata, which “isregardedastheancestralhomeof the BaVenda” (Fokwang, 23). Rivalry between the descendants of Thoho-ya-Ndou broke the Venda into a number of chiefdoms. The mountainous nature of their land helped them repel an invasion by the Swazi (Nguni) and later by the Afrikaners.The Venda are mainly Christians or belong to the Apostolic Zionist Church, though there are still a small minority who hold to their traditional religion, which is based on the wishes of the ances-tors or midzimo. There is a strong belief in magic among the Venda, and they have a reputation for powerful magic by other groups in South Africa. Many Venda believe in the existence and power of witches, and their priest-diviners use the bones to help them in divination.

The Venda have maintained the puberty celebration for girls called the vhusha, which lasts six days. They attend the initia-tion school called the domba, which used to be for both boys and girls, but today the boys no longer attend. The school can last up to three months in which the girls are instructed on their future duties as women. The girls dance the python dance, which is unique to the Venda. They form a line, each girl body tight to the girl in front of her, and the entire line moves to the rhythms of massive drums played by men.

The Venda was able to maintain their independence from white domination, and various chiefdoms were recognized and made agreements with the whites. Finally, in 1896–1897, the Boer Republic of Transvaal was eventually able to defeat the various chiefdoms. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed, and the Venda, like all other African peoples, were more and more subject to a series of racist laws. The Venda’s relative poverty and isolation meant that they were generally ignored, especially after the 1948 election of the National Party government.

In 1913, the Venda were forced onto a much reduced native reserve and, in 1979, the “independent” Venda homeland was created around the families of the rul-ing chiefs and the first president was the Venda paramount chief Patrick Mphe-phu, who was a direct descendant of Thoho-ya-Ndou. The economy was pri-marily based on traditional agriculture and lacked any real investment other than a gambling casino that opened in the early 1980s. South Africa under apartheid did not allow gambling casinos to operate and many of the “Bantustans,” technically no longer under South African law, did allow organized gambling, which fre-quently became an important source of revenue.

Patrick Mphephu was followed by Frank Ravele as president in 1988, but in 1990, a military coup toppled the government. Venda was reabsorbed into South Africa in 1994. In that same year, the new province of the Northern Province was established, which changed its name to Province of Limpopo in 2003. Tourism was developed and is now the third pillar of the province’s finances. The natural beauty of the Venda homeland has helped the development of ecotourism, and the growth in cultural tourism brings in needed foreign capital. Some 5 percent of all foreign visitors to South Africa spend time in the province.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Fokwang, Jude. Mediating Legitimacy: Chief- taincy and Democratisation in Two African Chiefdoms. Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Research and Publishing CIG, 2009.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Tyrrell, Barbara, and Peter Jurgens. African Heritage. Johannesburg: Macmillan South Africa, 1986.