Original Research - Special Collection: Social Memory Studies

The ‘polyonymous identity’ of the Hlengwe people of Zimbabwe and their struggle for a ‘collective proper name’

Mandla D. Mathebula, Sekgothe Mokgoatšana
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 4 | a6192 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i4.6192 | © 2020 Mandla D. Mathebula, Sekgothe Mokgoatšana | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 08 June 2020 | Published: 30 November 2020

About the author(s)

Mandla D. Mathebula, Department of Cultural and Political Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Limpopo, Sovenga, South Africa
Sekgothe Mokgoatšana, Department of Cultural and Political Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Limpopo, Sovenga, South Africa


The Hlengwe people of Zimbabwe constitute one of the four sections of the Hlengwe subgroup of the Tsonga – an ethnic group found in four Southern African countries that include Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Before the 18th century, these sections constituted a single group that was resident in the Nyaka kingdom, south of Maputo, amongst the Southern Rhonga people. Here, they were known by the names ‘Hlengwe’ and ‘Tsonga/Rhonga’. Before then, they were known by names such as ‘Makomati’ and ‘Tonga/Thonga’. After years of internal and external pressures, the Hlengwe people migrated to the north and eventually settled as four separate sections in the three countries. Are the Hlengwe a distinct ethnic group or part of the Tsonga or Shangaan, or they embrace all these identities? This article investigates the ‘collective proper name’ of the Hlengwe people of Zimbabwe from their current ‘polyonymous identity’. The article further explores the complexity of identity formation and the politics of tribalisation, giving rise to assumed identities and sometimes ascribed and coerced identities in order to fulfil demands of power structures that name and label identities, resulting in exonyms used largely as appellation from above or outside. Although the study was heavily reliant on the available literature and archives, it also follows the oral historical methodology that privileges oral tradition and its associated subgenres of conversations and narratives. Most of the data were collected during the main researcher’s exploit of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and eSwatini whilst documenting the migration of the va ka Valoyi people.

Contribution: This article contributes to complex debate of defining and locatin the Hlengwe as group within the post-colonial identities largely shaped by colonial boundaries. Should the be defined as a distinct group, or polysemously as a group with an amorphous identification.


polyonymous identity; collective proper name; Hlengwe; Tsonga; Shangani; Zimbabwe


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