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3— Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa
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Missionaries and the Definition of the 'Tsonga Tribe'

During the nineteenth century a number of popular stereotypes were applied in a rough way to those people living in, or originating from, the region east of the Lebombos and north of Zululand. The term 'Tonga' entered the English language as a borrowing from the Zulu who used it in the nineteenth century to refer to all the conquered peoples of the coastal areas north of Zululand.[12] It was used in a similarly pejorative way by several chiefdoms in southern Mozambique, at least one of which was later to be classified as Tsonga-speaking.[13] There are two hypotheses as to how the Nguni arrived at the term 'Tonga'. The first is that a phonetic soundshift caused the Tsonga word /ronga/, which denotes 'easterners', to be pronounced /tonga/ in Zulu. The second is that the original inhabitants of the East Coast were called 'Tonga' before waves of Bantu-speaking immigrants entered the area some time before the sixteenth century.[14] Despite the imprecision with which the Zulu used the term, the Natal colonists adopted the word as a general term applied to those people living along the coast north of the Zulu border regardless of their actual linguistic or cultural affiliations. Because of the derogatory overtones with which the term was imbued, however, it was never used by the people to whom it was applied. It was only in the twentieth century that linguists expurgated the abusive connotations from the term, initially by introducing an aspirated /h/ and finally by adopting the term 'Tsonga'.[15]

The Portuguese at Lourenco Marques distinguished between intrusive Vatua or Nguni-speakers and the indigenous Landims, a practice that has led some historians to view the terms 'Tsonga' and 'Landim' as synonymous.[16] In the Transvaal, East Coast immigrants were given various general labels by the people with whom they came into contact, such as 'Knobnoses', given to them by Europeans because of the distinctive nasal cicatrization practised by some of the coastal peoples, and 'Gwambas', a term applied by indigenous Africans living in the Zoutpansberg and Spelonken hills. This label, initially derived from the name of a chief near Inhambane whose followers had traded in the northern Transvaal,


had evolved into a synonym for 'easterner'.[17] On the diamond and gold fields, 'East Coasters' were also called 'Shangaans', a term that, correctly used, should be applied to those people who adopted the material culture of the Gaza Nguni chief Soshangane. Thus, in present-day South Africa, only the descendants of the Gaza Nguni immigrants who entered the eastern Transvaal after the second Luso-Gaza war of 1897, are officially classified 'Shangaan' or Tshangana' and in this way distinguished from the descendants of earlier immigrants, the Tsonga, who were in most cases never under Gaza rule. Yet the word 'Shangaan' has become an all-embracing term used to refer to the Tsonga-speaking peoples of southeast Africa and, in a more general way, to all Mozambicans employed on the South African mines. It is obvious that during the nineteenth century these terms were used in a generic and popular way to embrace diverse peoples and chiefdoms with no common name and, as ethnographic terms, they are of very little value.

A far more scholarly attempt to delineate an ethnic group emerged at the end of the nineteenth century out of a heated debate within the Swiss mission over the linguistic relationship between their followers in the Transvaal Spelonken and those living on the East Coast.[18] When the Swiss missionaries arrived in the Spelonken in 1873 they agreed to restrict their activities to the area south of the Levubu river so as not to compete with the German missionaries who were already conversant with Pedi (North Sotho) to the far south and the Venda-based dialects north of the river. One of the first steps taken by the Swiss missionaries to ease their work was to reduce the various dialects spoken by the East Coast refugees amongst whom they lived to a single written language. This resulted in the publication in the 1880s and early 1890s of a language primer and several religious works in a lingua franca which the missionaries named 'Gwamba'. In compiling this language the missionaries had been strongly influenced by the northern Delagoa Bay dialect spoken by their assistants and by most of the immigrants in the Spelonken.[19] Consequently when missionaries were sent to evangelize the linguistically-related people living near Lourenco Marques they were greatly disadvantaged in their competition with local Wesleyan evangelists because of the foreignness of their northern dialect.

To avoid being viewed as foreigners from the north, or 'Karangas,' Henri A. Junod, one of the missionaries in the Lourenco Marques area, started to codify another local lingua franca which he called 'Ronga'. In 1894 Junod produced a basic Ronga reader and over the following three years he completed a grammar and collection of folktales and an extensive ethnographic work on what he then referred to as 'the Ronga people'.[20] It was this division of the 'Ronga', both linguistically and socially, from the 'Gwamba' in the Spelonken area that sparked off the debate within the Swiss mission over how to categorize the people among whom they worked.[21]

Henri Berthoud, who was the mission's leading expert in 'Gwamba' and who, as a major explorer, was familiar with many of the language variations of southeast Africa, argued from a pragmatic perspective that a single language with a common grammar and orthography would reduce the mission's printing costs. He also opposed the adoption of a further grammar and orthography as he feared, with good reason, that the creation of two written languages would divide the followers of the mission. Berthoud hoped that the written Gwamba language would unify, in much the same way as Jacobine French, High German, or Castilian had in Europe linked large numbers of people who shared, however distantly, a linguistic relationship. He argued that Junod's classification of the Ronga and other peoples was as arbitrary as the mission's earlier categorization of


Gwamba. He was particularly opposed to Junod's claims to 'scientific' criteria; terms like 'Ronga' meaning 'easterners', together with other linguistic sub-groups such as 'Djonga' ('southerners') and 'Nwalungu' ('northerners') were no more precise than the single term 'Gwamba'. Junod's terms were sometimes used as points of reference by outsiders wanting to identify the people of a specific geographical area or by rootless refugees wishing to establish a claim to an area of origin; they did not refer to bounded groups with a common social organization or material culture. As Berthoud stated, 'the Ronga do not form a specific tribe and their name is a geographical designation rather than an ethnographic or linguistic one.'[22] What defined 'Ronga' as a language was the coastal missionaries' desire for a local written language as a means of spreading the Gospel. The debate between Junod and Berthoud ended with the latter's premature death in 1904.

After spending several years in the Transvaal, Junod published in 1907 an Elementary Grammar of the Thonga/Shangaan Language, which marked the abandonment of the geographically and politically imprecise term 'Gwamba'. Berthoud's defeat was honourably recognized when the following year his supporters published his posthumous Shangaan Grammar. Within a few years distinct Ronga and Thonga/Shangaan (formerly 'Gwamba') written languages had been established on the basis of separate grammars and orthographies. Ronga came to dominate southern Mozambique and Thonga/Shangaan the northern Transvaal and central-southern Mozambique. Meanwhile, American missionaries working in the Inhambane area delineated a third related language which they named 'Tswa'. Despite the defeat of the movement calling for one written Tsonga dialect, the ideal of a single unifying language is still expressed in missionary circles.[23]

Junod and the other missionaries interpreted the African world through the prism of a specific intellectual system or structure of knowledge. This demanded a classification of the myriad of new details emerging as much from the invention of the microscope and telescope as from the discoveries of explorers. Without the orderly structuring of detail there could be no clarity and no understanding, a factor that was reflected as much in Junod's entomological studies as in his desire for social classification. Junod was particularly influenced by nineteenth century concepts of nationalism and the central role of language in the classification of national groups and characteristics. This is evident in his strong criticism of Dudley Kidd's The Essential Kaffir (London, 1904), which grouped all Africans together, failing to distinguish between them on linguistic or any other grounds. To Junod, Kidd's extreme generalizations, made on the basis of race alone, were both confusing and unscientific. Junod believed that to give a scientific basis to ethnographic observation required the creation of a taxonomy of languages and related social customs. This idea was derived from the work of contemporary European classicists who sought the roots of nationalism in their continent in the languages and social customs of the early European tribes.

Encouraged by evolutionism and by Sir James Frazer, the classicist-turned-anthropologist, Junod used the same schema to make sense of the complex and confusing African world into which he had plunged. But to make African societies fit the European pattern, he resorted to pseudo-history by hypothesizing that at some time in the distant past, migrants originating from different areas had imposed themselves on an earlier proto-Thonga people and had adopted their language. Working from this shaky and, at best, historically speculative premise, Junod saw language as the common thread holding together the Thonga as a 'tribe' or 'nation'. By 1905 he ascribed the 'recognition of the Thonga as a tribe' largely to the work of the Swiss mission.[24] Seven years later in his two-volume Life


of a South African Tribe, which he published in English in order to reach an influential audience, he divided the Thonga into the 'northern clans', who spoke Thonga/Shangaan, and the Mozambican Ronga who occupied the area south of the Nkomati river. Yet Junod had never been to the southern half of what he defined as the Ronga area nor had he visited the extensive Thonga/Shangaan area north of the Nkomati river or that of the 'Tswa' to the west and north of Inhambane. But because he automatically associated language with culture he unconsciously imbued all the people who spoke these two artificially defined languages with distinctive social customs and traits. His distinction between the Ronga and Thonga/Shangaan was not always clear and, consequently, many historians and others have conflated them into a single Tsonga ethnic group.

Junod's ethnic taxonomy was further reinforced by his interest in folklore, proverbs and folk songs. Contemporary folklorists were deeply involved in European nationalist movements, the roots of whose consciousness they sought, in opposition to the nationalism imposed from above by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, in the cultural expressions of those elements of the nation least influenced by cosmopolitan worldliness—the peasantry. Junod saw songs, tales and proverbs as an expression of the bounded consciousness of the Thonga and as a means of getting at what he referred to as 'the soul of the tribe' or the pure, original culture untouched by waves of immigration or foreign contact.[25] It was partly his interest in folklore and related particularistic cultures that drove him to oppose the pragmatic centralism of Henri Berthoud's desire to create a single, unifying Gwamba or Thonga/Shangaan language. Because of his positivist approach, Junod, unlike Berthoud, failed to see that his linguistic and related social divisions were human constructs that were in no way scientifically objective. Unlike microbes or river mouths, the Ronga and Thonga/Shangaan languages were not awaiting discovery; they were very much the invention of European scholars and, perhaps even more so, of their African assistants. The linguistic borders determined by the Europeans conformed to a certain preconception of what they expected to find. This is perhaps best illustrated by analyzing the discourse of Henri Berthoud's older brother, Paul, who in 1884 wrote with reference to the Gwamba that:

As a rule a large tribe has not as such, any proper and general name. But the tribe being divided into a certain number of clans, each one of those smaller communities goes by its proper name; wherefore it is incumbent on the foreigners, either black or white, to apply a generic name to all the people and clans which belong to the same tribe. The propriety then, of such a generic name, lies in its being related to the social character of the tribe, and in its being taken from the tribe's own language.[26]

This was very much the form of ethno-linguistic classification adopted by Junod, who wrote that 'there is no true national unity amongst the Thongas. They are hardly conscious that they form a definite nation, and therefore they possess no common name for it . . .' and that 'there is no feeling of national unity in the tribe as a whole; its unity consists only in a language and in certain customs which are common to all the clans'.[27]

Contemporary observers in the Transvaal accentuated, concretized and reinforced these forms of social classification on the basis of created linguistic distinctions when they noted that Tsonga-speaking immigrants as outsiders were often different from local people in the manner of their speech, clothing, house form and settlement pattern, as well as the food they ate and the way in which they


prepared it.[28] They were even described as being physically different from the people amongst whom they settled.[29] Yet these differences were generally symbols of exclusion rather than cohesion for they were differences often shared with many non-Tsonga speakers.

In fact, there was no 'pure' Tsonga culture that could be regarded as a uniform or static entity, for Tsonga-speaking immigrants in the Transvaal did not come from a common cultural pool. The material culture expressed by an individual was not static or 'traditional', nor was it bound by linguistic affiliations. The cultural markers exhibited by Tsonga-speakers such as diet, tools, clothing, custom and language were, moreover, marked by continual adaptations to changing social and environmental situations. The division of the people of southern Mozambique into various linguistic sub-groups was therefore totally arbitrary and nowhere did they present a common bounded and static linguistic entity.

East Coast traders, hunters and later waves of refugees who entered the Transvaal at different times and from different areas brought with them elements of various material cultures which were, because of their foreign origin, distinguishable from local cultures. But here again, these were factors of exclusion rather than cohesion and the line became blurred as Tsonga-speaking immigrants adapted themselves to their new surroundings. Long distance migrations demanded that fish- or beef-eaters who moved westwards into dry, riverless or tsetse-ridden areas of the Lowveld were obliged to adapt their diet and production strategies to the new environment. In an attempt to assimilate to local norms, some Tsonga-speaking immigrants attended initiation lodges run by host chiefdoms while others adopted local totems. Some continued to practise circumcision which on the East Coast had largely been abandoned by those chiefdoms dominated by Nguni-speakers. Their music was influenced to differing degrees by the Pedi and by people today classified as Venda, Lovedu, Chopi and Ndau, many of whose instruments they have adopted. Many Tsonga-speakers were incorporated, through the ideology of kinship, into host clans in the Transvaal, alongside whose members they constituted a single production unit. This process of individual assimilation was so advanced that it led one anthropologist to speculate that an entire Venda-speaking clan had its roots east of the Lebombos, while another believed that the Tsonga-speaking Baloyi clan had once spoken a Shona-based dialect. An ecologically symbiotic relationship also existed between Tsonga-speaking agriculturalists who colonized malarial and tsetse infested river valleys and plains and the cattle-keepers living above the valley.[30]

As long as male immigrants stressed their independence by clinging to foreign customs, especially those that were related to sexuality, such as puberty rites and marriage patterns, intermarriage with local people was generally precluded. As outsiders who practised 'barbarous' customs and spoke the local language badly, they were considered inferiors and classified as such by being labelled 'Tonga'. For immigrants to benefit fully from the patronage of members of the host clan they had to resort to fictive filiation and suffer the exploitation as junior members that this often implied. When immigrants arrived in a group under their own chief, however, their position was far stronger and they were more likely to maintain their distinctive material culture.

The cultural boundaries first defined and established by missionary anthropologists at the turn of the century have been extrapolated back into the past by historians who see 'the Tsonga' as a primeval ethnic group occupying a large part of south-east Africa. This static approach to the concept of ethnicity has led to a great deal of historical imprecision such as the extension of the


geographically limited observations of shipwrecked Portuguese mariners to embrace all 'the Tsonga' or to see 'the Tsonga' in nineteenth century Mozambique as being dominated by the Gaza Nguni.[31] The use by historians of generic terms such as 'Gwambas' and 'Knobnoses' is similarly imprecise.[32]

What lies at the base of this willingness to accept such classifications is the attempt by Europeans in the nineteenth century to order the African world in their own image. Because they were unable to break from their ideological heritage, Europeans implicitly believed their concept of ethnicity to be the natural order and not merely one convention amongst others used to make sense of the world. Caught within this mental structure, Europeans applied to Africans their own system of ethnic classification and accepted without question that Africans should use the same distinctions and concepts. Thus to Henri Berthoud, 'the Gwamba is to other tribes the same as the Jew is to European nations'.[33] In this way Berthoud rightly indicated the exclusion of the 'Gwamba' because of their foreign rites and customs but then imbued an extremely diverse and fragmented conglomeration of refugees with all the political and social rites and customs of Jewry. The missionaries used their European conceptual framework to classify the two groups in terms of extreme opposites; the difference between the Venda and Tsonga was synonymous with that between Germans and French or Spartans and Athenians. Consequently, when disputes arose between Tsonga and North Sotho or Venda-speaking chiefdoms, these were interpreted not as clashes between chiefdoms in the way that intra-Tsonga disputes were, but as 'race conflicts'.[34]

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