Unlike some of the other larger ethnic groups of Southern Africa, the Venda constitutes a well• defined homogeneous entity. Before the arrival of the Whites in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Venda led an isolated life in the fertile Soutpansberg area. They are linguistically related to the Shona tribes of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and the Sotho tribes of the Limpopo Province. The Venda nation consists of 27 tribes, each under the leadership of an independent chief; through intermarriage these tribal chiefs also represent a number of dynasties. The dynasties have traditionally co-operated with one another and have helped to cement Venda unity.
The territorial authority was instituted in 1962, and more comprehensive executive powers were granted in 1969. Autonomous Government was attained on 1 February 1973. 13 September 1979 the territory became fully independent as the Republic of Venda. The Legislative Assembly comprised of 42 elected members and 42 nominated members. The chief of the Mphephu tribe, Patrick Ramaano Mbhulaheni Mphephu was also the chief minister.
The region North of Tzaneen is the heart of Venda with the main town Thohoyando. Independence was granted to Venda in 1979 under the previous government’s policy of separate development. After 1994 the region was once again incorporated into the republic of South Africa.
The total area of Venda is more than 6500km2 The land is basically fertile and the climate lends itself to the cultivation of a large variety of crops. The area is practically frost-free, with a tropical to sub-tropical climate. The rainfall varies between 350mm to 500mm. The largest industrie are the Tshivase Tea estate as the Phaswana coffee plantations has closed down due to lack of water caused by irregular rainfall.
Many hundreds of years ago the beautiful mountain country, peaceful valleys and abundance of clear water with beautiful indigenous forests of Venda, became the settlement of the mysterious VhaNgona people. They were a peace loving people who allowed strangers from the North of the Limpopo to live amongst them.
At the beginning of the 18th century people belonqinq to the Karanga-Rozvi group also known as the VhaSenzi and VhaLemba, from what is now Zimbabwe, migrated south of the Limpopo River, led by a chief named Dimbanyika. They wandered up the valley of the Nzhelele River, a tributary of the Limpopo, and eventually reached its headwaters in the mountain range the named Venda (‘the pleasant plece’). They encountered more clans, but by the end of the is’ century they became united under Popi, the great Thoho ya ndou, “the head of the elephant” and the Venda came into being.
Although small in number, they are a fiercely independent group who successfully resisted and repulsed the unfriendly attentions of the Pedi, Tsonga and Swazi. Thoho ya ndou led his people away and built a stronghold in the Soutpansberg mountains and called it Dzata, the name taken from their earlier home in Zimbabwe. They also built impressive walls of stone – ruins of these are still to be seen. Thoho ya ndou was a powerful chief and ruled over a large area. His death remains a mystery. He set out one day, with a few companions, to gather support against his three jealous brothers who were trying to overthrow him. He was last seen crossing the Nzhelele River and disappeared without trace. Legend has it that he will return one day to lead his people to greatness once more. His grandson Makhado became known as “the lion of the north” because of his firm opposition to white settlement.
An intensely spiritual and superstitious people, their landscape abounds in sacred sites. Possibly the most sacred spot of all is Lake Fundudzi, “the lake that covers a kraal”, a supposedly enchanted body of water formed by a massive landslide which blocked the valley of the Mutale River. They believe the lake is the home of the great Python god who cares for their crops and whom they have to placate annually by pouring sacrificial beer on the water. The lake is 5km by 3km and is infested with crocodiles, regarded as holy by the Bavenda. They believe that the brain of the crocodile is poisonous. No one is allowed near the lake except with special permission from the Chief and the Priestess of the lake. The name refers to the ritual, which must be performed to newcomers to the lake: they turn their backs to the lake and view the waters between their legs! Such is the influence of this lake that it has percolated through to Venda rituals and customs. In Venda one encounters the past at every turn. This is most clearly demonstrated by that most erotic of African dances, the domba, which is the proud heritage of the Venda. Young women initiates in preparation for marriage perform this distinctive sacred python dance. The dance emulates the sinuous wave motion of a snake. A ritual fire is lit and kept alive for the duration of the initiation.
The circumcision lodge for boys, the Murundu, was introduced into Venda life, only this century. The initiation hut is surrounded by a wall and built by the elderly men of the kraal on a site selected by the medicine man and approved by a chief. The main feature is to be circumcised. After this ceremony the boys must squat in an icy river for six consecutive nights – to wash away their boyhood and to relieve the pain. The ceremony ends with each boy climbing a symbolic pole and shouting out in triumph. After initiation boys and girls are regarded as adults and are ready for marriage.
Women always wear skirts of striped blue material. Ancient beads are worn by women and handed down through generations. The most valuable are small blue beads (vhulungu hamadi – beads of the sea). Wives of important men and chiefs wear these. The long opaque white beads (limanda) “powerful ones” are believed to possess magical strength.
Lake Fundudsi is the only inland lake of any size. Most other ‘lakes’ are either freshwater lagoons, such as the wilderness ‘lakes’ on the south coast, and St Lucia on the KwaZulu-Natal north Coast, or pans.
The name Fundudzi (‘the lake that covers a kraal’) is derived from legend, which accounts for the origin of the lake. One day a leper begged for food and shelter from the tribe whose kraal was where the lake is now. When refused, the leper cursed the kraal, which was suddenly submerged with the loss of all life. Even to this day, the legend continues, one can sometimes hear the shrieks and moans of the victims of the curse. The lake is from time immemorial regarded as a spirit world.
Beer is used as an offering to the spirits of the ancestors in many stories. One of these concerns Lake Fundudzi, which was inhabited, according to the story, by a python whose wife was a beautiful maiden named Nengomi. One day the waters began to dry up and only Nengomi knew the real reason. “So the chiefs gathered and asked Nengomi to tell them all, and then ordered the people to prepare beer, so that they could offer it to the python in Lake Fundudzi. The young wife was told that the only way to save the people was for her to go into Fundudzi with a pot of beer. When the appointed day came, she was given a pot of beer to carry, and all the men played the tshikona to encourage her on her way. She stepped into the lake singing a song:
My sister farewell!
And play with a roaring sound!
My father farewell!
Play with a roaring sound!
My mother farewell! Play with a roaring sound!
As the tshikona was played louder and louder, she flung herself into the depths of the lake, and immediately the water in the streams and water holes and rivulets began to rise, and the people; animals and cattle drank joyfully.
The water spirits, the Zwidutwane, have their home in Lake Fundudzi and many other watery places. They are strange half creatures, having only one eye, one arm and one leg, elusive and to be avoided by humans. It is necessary to keep them satisfied with offerings of food, beer, ornaments and even tufts of hair if anyone has to cross a stream or water hole.
The Lwamondo people did not know that the Swazi who were intending to attack them were following them. The baboons started throwing stones at the Swazi. This gave a warning to the Lwamondo who were then able to ensconce themselves on the mountain and beat off the Swazi, thus they declared the Baboons sacred. This baboon troop still keeps watch over the Lwamondo clan and are protected to this day.
The Sacred Forest
Thathe Vondo Forest – is a place where no one may walk for fear of angering the ancestral spirits. Not even the Venda could go into the forest because the burial place of the chiefs of the Thathe clan is there. Nethathe, an important chief, was also a magician and could turn himself into various animals – all the better to watch his people. When he died, his spirit turned into a white lion that prowls the forest and keeps guard over his burial place.
It is a sacred place for the Venda. They would make offerings just below the falls to the spirits in the pool. It is named after a chieftainess.
The Venda built extensive stonewalls. Many ruins remain, the largest being at Dzata in the Nzhelele valley. These ruins are in the “Zimbabwe” style. The place has great significance for the Venda – the faces of their chiefs are always turned towards it when they die.
The former independent state of Venda was 6 500km2 in extent and the principal town is Thohoyando.
Musical Instruments of the Venda
For centuries the Venda have made and used a variety of musical instruments. Their whole culture revolves around music in some form or another and music is inherent in everyday life in Venda. From early childhood a Muvenda is taught to play different musical instruments. Boys mostly play some of these, such as the dende, tshihwana, tshizambi and mbila, whereas girls play others such as the lugube. The most important ritual instrument is the drum (ngoma), which is found only in a chief’s kraal. Drums are essential to chiefs and headmen in the fulfillment of their traditional and cultural obligations towards their people.
Mbila – This instrument is used only in a chief’s kraal. It is a type of xylophone, made of strips of teakwood attached to a frame beneath which is fitted a series of calabash that serve as resonators. Striking the strips of tuned wood with rubber-headed sticks, a favourite pastime of the old men whose duty is to welcome visitors to the chief’s kraal, plays the instrument.
Phalaphala – The phalaphala is a wind instrument made of the horn of a kudu or and eland. It is blown by the chief’s messenger to summon his people to meetings, or for the ploughing of the chief’s fields (dzunde).
Tshizambi – This string instrument is made of a carved stick bent to form a bow, with a playing string made of plaited strips of dried palm leaf (mu/ala).
Ngoma – The ngoma is a set of drums in three sizes, the large dumbula (bass drum) and the smaller mthungwa and murumba. The drums are carved from the wood of the marula (Sclerocarya caffra), a tree that grows throughout Venda. The first and second mentioned are played by women at a chief’s kraal.
Dances of the Venda
The Domba – Performed at the initiation Ceremony. Young girls dance in single file, hands clasping the forearms of the girl ahead, to the insistent beat of the powerful domba drum. They
move with sinuous rhythm – it is aptly named the ‘python dance’. The initiation can last from 3 to 9 months. The girls must assume an attitude of submission and humility and are not allowed to stand upright. They receive sex education in preparation for marriage.
The ritual fire is lit and kept alive for the duration of the initiation. Till today a young pregnant expendable girl will be fed (sacrificed), after the birth of her child, to the sacred lake Fundudzi. This lake was from time immemorial regarded as a spiritual world. Legend has it that a great white python lives in the waters.
These are caught on the Mopani trees and stripped of their intestines, dried and put into sacks for sale or later use. It is an important source of protein for the people. They are prepared by boiling.
They come out in the spring and spread out to form new colonies. They are caught and cooked in fat. Usually eaten with maize meal pap.
This is a bean grown in the region and a source of cheap protein for the people, very popular with maize meal.
It is wild spinach that is cooked with water or milk and eaten with porridge.