The Traditional Economy of the Tsonga


The Tsonga who left the coast in the 19th century brought new sources of food into the Transvaal, including cassava 'manioc', certain kinds of groundnuts, potatoes and sorghum. Particularly important were the maize plants and fowls introduced by these colonists in their new areas of settlement. 

©Dr Peter Magubane
A Tsonga man herding his cattle.

Most agricultural works was performed almost entirely by women, except for the initial clearing of the land which was the men's responsibility. Men also cultivated tobacco 'fole'. Crop harvesting was usually cooperative, done on a rotational basis, with communities in the area gathering to harvest each person's crop in turn.

The owner would act as host and provide liberal quantities of beer and refreshments so that this became a festive occasion, with convivial social interaction an important feature of the event. The Tsonga practised slash and burn agriculture. Areas of natural bush were chopped down and burnt, and crops are grown on the cleared land until its fertility was drained and yields decreased.

Then another piece of land was cleared and fields developed. This form of agriculture led to the steady migration of people as they had to keep moving slowly on in search of new lands. As populations increased, this often resulted in competition for land and, at times, in conflict.


©Dr Peter Magubane

For much of the 19th-century elephant-hunting was an important activity on the coast and in the interior. Until the 1860s, tons of ivory were shipped through Lourenco Marques or taken to Durban annually. Hunters also sold large numbers of cat skins and furs, particularly for use in Zulu and Gaza military uniforms.

As elephant herds disappeared and armies demobilized, hunters killed increasing numbers of buck and sold the skins and horns to traders. Venison was an essential part of the local diet, and fishing an important communal activity. Seasonal rains turned dry river beds into roaring torrents that burst their banks, depositing large pools of water in nearby depressions.

As the summer sun dried up the lakes, communities armed with conical plunge baskets swept through the shallow waters in search of fish. At the end of the 19th-century conservationists began to enclose the vast tract of land that in 1926 became the Kruger National Park.

Many communities were removed from the park and those living nearby were prohibited from hunting game and fish within its borders. Hunting and fishing remain important pastimes for many of these people, but it is as poachers, rather than proud hunters, that they search for game.

Tsonga Employment

For over a century, Tsonga men have found employment in South Africa's mining and manufacturing centres. Generally, they have to live in hostels and pass long hours on trains and buses. Rural poverty and urban opportunity have caused well over half the Tsonga in the country to move permanently to towns.

In most areas, the rural economy is dependent on cash wages sent home by migrant workers in the towns. Increasingly women are also working for short spells on nearby farms. A major problem is that there are too many people on the land. This is partly the inheritance of apartheid legislation and partly the result of an unwillingness to abandon the social ties, memories and identities associated with the land.

Rainfall is relatively reliable on the slopes of the eastern Escarpment, but in many places ground and rainwater are scarce. Commercial farming is undertaken in irrigable areas but the exploitation of land is held back by the old tribal allotment system and a poor transport infrastructure. For many people, cattle are still a source of prestige rather than an economic value, and they are less a source of cash income than a means of acquiring wives and advertising status.