In the 1890s Lowveld farms were suitable for little more than hunting and subsistence agriculture, and the owners soon sold them to speculators looking for mineral deposits.
Tsonga-speakers in the area paid rent to the absent speculators; where owners worked the land, tenants paid in kind - often half the harvested crop - or labour, as much as six months per year. As land prices rose, and large parts of the Lowveld were cleared of malaria and sleeping-sickness, tenants were forced to become contracted labourers or leave the farm.
Restricted by pass laws from moving to cities, many families settled on land reserved for African occupation. But they were again moved as 'betterment' campaigns in the 1940s sought to consolidate scattered homesteads into large villages, erect fencing and separate arable from cultivable land. In the 1960s and 1970s communities were torn apart as families were moved to the Tsonga 'homeland', Gazankulu.
Taxation and overpopulation in the reserves made people increasingly dependent on migrant labour. This caused men to leave their families for long periods, and today even women in rural areas seek seasonal work on nearby farms. Combined with the tedium of life in the villages, this long assault on the structure of the family has led to many ills: alcoholism, AIDS, teenage pregnancies and unemployment are rife.
A traditional Tsonga homestead 'muti', a typical settlement, consists of a man, his wife or wives, their children and the families of their married sons. The construction of the houses, cylindrical with earth walls and conical thatched or reed roofs, reflects their Tsonga origins. While the layout of the muti varies from area to area, they all share certain characteristics.
The homestead is generally circular with a perimeter wall or fence, made from branches and tree stumps. In the centre is the cattle byre - xivaya or tshanga - opposite the main entrance, which strangers must use, on the eastern side of the homestead. Other entrances leading to fields and water points are used by members of the muti.
The homestead of the principal wife 'yindlu lonkulu' is behind the xivaya at 12 o'clock, and those of other wives flank it. Each has her own cooking area, in a hut or an area screened by reed, stone or earth walling. The yindlu lonkulu has her own granary, usually a small structure raised on stilts. Children are housed separately by sex — girls well within the muti and boys between the main gate and the xivaya.
A special area 'huvo', usually enclosed by logs and branches and situated under a tree, is used for meetings; another area 'gandzelo', which may be anywhere in the muti, is for sacrificial purposes. The vandla, which may be inside or outside the muti, is where the men meet to discuss the administration and the affairs of the muti.
No woman or child is allowed in this area. Authority in the family rests with the father, who is treated with great respect by his wife and children. Within an extended family, the ranking and status of wives are determined by the order in which they were married.
The first wife 'nsati lonkulu' is the principal wife; she has the highest rank and status and has to be accorded due respect by the others. Ranking and status are also accorded to the children and are determined by their mothers' standing. Rank, status, and gender determine the relationships between all siblings. In addition, rules of conduct, obligations, duties, rights and privileges exist in a code of behaviour which each child is expected to observe.