Cultural Diversity

Language and population groups are found straddling modern nation-state boundaries throughout the Limpopo basin, indicating groups of similar origin. Increasingly, these modern political boundaries exert more influence on the respective cultures and the sense of identity these groups have, than their historical origins. However, some exceptions exist where there is constant interactions between groups settled across shared rivers.


Despite the national goal of mono-culturalism, less than half of the population is of Tswana origin (Earle et al. 2006). Seven self-administering tribes are recognised and there are efforts underway to change the constitution to recognise these tribes. The tribes are: “Ngawato (Bangwato, Bamangwato or Bagamangwato) in the east-central areas, Kwena (Bakwena) and Ngwaketse (Bangwaketse), Kgatla (Bakgatla) and Tlokwa (Batlokwa), Malete (Balete or Bamalete) and Rolong (Barolong) in the south-east (Earle et al. 2006)". There are further divisions in each of the tribes.

As a result of Boer expansionism and Zulu militancy, a wave of people were displaced into Botswana from South Africa (mainly the Transvaal and Natal provinces) between 1820 and 1840. The Boers claimed land for their own in southern Botswana causing land conflicts that persist to this day (Government of Botswana 2007). The Difaqane tribal wars spread across Botswana in the early 1880s and one of the more significant wars was that between the Boers and the Batswana (Botswana Tourism 2006). The Batswana turned to the British for help and the British occupied the vast area to the north in 1885. On September 30, 1966 the republic of Botswana gained independence under the president Sir Seretse Khama.

English is the official language (UN Botswana 2001), with Setswana and Ikalanga also widely spoken.


As is true in the rest of southern Africa, Mozambique was first believed to be occupied by the San and the Khoikhoi (everyculture 2010). Bantu-speaking tribes arrived in Mozambique in the third century and Arab traders arrived in the eighth century establishing trading posts that would eventually become settlements and cities. The Arab traders also introduced the slave trade to eastern Africa. The first European to arrive in Mozambique was the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama in 1498. By 1510 the Portuguese controlled trading from Sofala in Mozambique and by 1629 they were recognised as the ruling power.

Not without conflict, the Portuguese maintained power of Terra da Boa Gente (Mozambique) until 1975. During the centuries of colonial power the Portuguese had a significant impact on the ethnic groups in Mozambique.

The slave trade (first introduced by Arab traders) was especially influential and by 1790 nine thousand of the healthiest young people were being shipped out of Mozambique every year. The slave trade and World War I depleted the population and many people left for neighbouring countries (everyculture 2010).

Portuguese is the official and the unifying language between the various language groups in Mozambique, which are distributed across the country in more traditional patterns. In the north, the Bantu languages of Yao and Makua are dominant; Nyanja is the dominant language in the Zambezi Valley, along with Lozi (everyculture 2010); Xitsonga is dominant in the south and along the northern coast many people speak KiSwahili.

Within the Limpopo River basin there are three major different ethnic groups: the Shangaan; the Copi; and, the Tshwa (Earle et al. 2006). The Shangaan are the major ethnic group in the basin and they occupy the Western and Southern parts of the basin within Mozambique. This current distribution of Batsonga subgroups is a result of the Nguni migrations that occurred in the early nineteenth century following the expansion of the Zulu empire and a widespread period of drought that began in 1790 and famine in 1830.

The San and the Khoikhoi are the earliest known inhabitants of southern Africa. Source: Garner 2009


South Africa

The San and the Khoikhoi are the earliest known inhabitants of South Africa ( 2009). The bushmen were followed by the Bantu-speaking people from the north and then the colonial settlers from Europe.

There are eleven official languages recognised by the constitution of South Africa: isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans and English. IsiZulu, Sesotho, Setswana and Afrikaans predominate (Earle et al. 2005).

The main languages spoken in the South African portion of the Limpopo River basin, reflective of dominant settlements, are Setswana, Sepedi, Xitsonga, Tshivenda and Afrikaans. Despite the Batswana people being the dominant ethnic group in Botswana, there are more ethnic Batswana people living in Bophuthatswana in South Africa.

There are different schools of thought regarding the origin of the VhaVenda people. Some believe that they migrated from north of the Zambezi River while others believe they developed locally. Today VhaVenda are situated in the fertile Upper Nzhelele Valley where they predominantly practice agriculture.

The Batsonga people originally settled in southern Mozambique in 1544. Starting in the 1820s, different Nguni groups forcefully settled in the basin, the last being the Shangaan. The expansion of the Zulu empire forced the Shangaan people north of the Zambezi River, where they established the Gaza Kingdom. A small pox epidemic forced the Shangaan back into the Limpopo River basin and Batsonga retreated to the Lebombo Mountains. The Bantu Self-Government Act (Act 46 of 1959) declared Gazankulu as the official Bantu Homeland of Batsonga/Shangaan.

During the fifteenth century the area between the Vaal River and the Malopo, Marico, and Limpopo Rivers was densely populated by Sesotho-speaking descendants. The Sotho groups split and dispersed across southern Africa so that by the end of the eighteenth century they occupied areas of Botswana, the Limpopo Province, Mpumalanga, the Free State Province and the Northern Cape.

MoPedi Woman. Source: Parnell 2009



The largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe is collectively known as Shona, this group makes up 76 % of the population. The second largest ethnic group, the Ndebele, makes up 18 % of the population. Other ethnic groups, making up less than one percent of the population each, are the Batonga, Shangaan or Hlengwe and the VhaVenda. Only about two percent of the population is of non-African origin. With the exception of English, all of the national languages are of Bantu origin. Students are required to study XiShona or isiNdebele, the most widely spoken of the Bantu languages (everyculture 2010).

The inhabitants of the Limpopo basin in Zimbabwe comprise five major ethnic groups, the Ndebele, the Sotho, the Shangani, the Venda and the Kalanga.

Isindebele is the second most widely spoken language in Zimbabwe after Shona. The Ndebele people are mostly located in the Matabeleland north and south provinces. The Basotho people of Zimbabwe are generally part of the Birwa Sotho group and live in southwestern Zimbabwe (Earle et al. 2006). The Sotho people live in regions that are generally dry and prone to drought. The Shangaan people are spread across the region, including the towns of Beitbridge, Mwenezi and Mberengwa, and are also found in parts of Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland. The VhaVenda are distributed throughout the southern part of the country in Beitbridge district in Matabeleland Province, Gwanda, Mberengwa and Plumtree. The Ikalanga is one of the Shona dialects, and the people are found in Bulilimamangwe and Matabo districts in Matabeleland South Province. The BaKalanga are also found in Botswana.

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken