Ancestral Voices | The writings of NJ Mabale

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‘Tshifhone’ is a sacred place for making sacrifice to the ancestor spirits by the vhaVenda. The entire community under the jurisdiction of a traditional leader communes there to worship their ancestor spirits. Picture: Supplied
‘Tshifhone’ is a sacred place for making sacrifice to the ancestor spirits by the vhaVenda. The entire community under the jurisdiction of a traditional leader communes there to worship their ancestor spirits. Picture: Supplied


SA Heritage Publishers, in cooperation with the University of Pretoria, has come across rare writings in seven of South Africa’s indigenous languages. The writings cover history, divination, traditional medicine, agriculture, and village and hut construction. Their translation will be a cornerstone in the preservation of the history and culture of our people. They arguably represent the greatest indigenous language historical and cultural treasure that our country possesses. #Trending will be bringing you a translation over the four Sundays in Heritage Month.

In its research for stories to be included in South Africa’s leading heritage series, Our Story, which City Press has been running extracts from for the past few months, SA Heritage Publishers discovered a collection of writings that can only be described as a treasure trove of South African culture and history.

The collection is made up of 891 writings in seven indigenous languages – siSwati and isiNdebele were not written languages at the time the works were compiled – written between 1930 and 1950 by 187 people in their mother tongues.

It is estimated that there are between 15 000 and 20 000 typewritten A4 pages in the collection.

The writers range from the well-known author and journalist RRR Dhlomo to a number of named but unknown South Africans.

Many were educators. All of them were obviously anxious to preserve the history and culture of their people for future generations. You, the reader, are but one of the generations for whom they wrote.

This is an extract from a longer work on the Hlengwe and neighbouring vhaVenda, written by NJ Mabale on June 8 1942. It tells us something about the history and customs of these people, and about the author’s life.


“Tshifhone” is a sacred place. It is a bush or a place of making sacrifice to the ancestor spirits by the vhaVenda. The entire community under the jurisdiction or leadership of a traditional leader communes at a tshifhone to worship their ancestor spirits.

At Rionde, where I used to live, we had our own tshifhone. We used to carry out our traditional religious practice and custom there. Our “tshifho” at Rionde was a leopard. At the advent of the summer season, no one was allowed to start ploughing or tilling the land before the sacrifice could be made. They had to wait until sacrifices had been offered to Tshifho.

Sacrifices were offered at the beginning of the ploughing season. The process would be initiated by the hosi (chief), who would order his subjects to dip or soak in water mealies to prepare for the brewing of traditional beer.

On the day the beer was ready, the people were ordered to carry the beer to the hosi’s homestead or royal kraal. It is the hosi who would tell them the number of containers to take with them, whether two or three, depending on the number the hosi prescribed.

Divining bones were thrown to ask from the ancestors the person of their choice who would carry the beer to the tshifhone. The beer was carried in a large calabash with a small opening (nghotsa), called “Thunga” in Tshivenda.

This container was so named in honour of its appreciable and admirable role of carrying the beer. It was sacredly regarded as the calabash of the gods.

Only a male person was chosen to take the beer to the tshifhone. He would stride to the tshifhone with the beer, wearing only a tiny cloth or a piece of animal skin on his front part (merely to conceal his private parts or manhood), the back part of his loins stark naked, exposing the buttocks (gwarile ntshindi). On his body, he wore clothes that were personally sewn by themselves.

The clothes were called “masila”. They were made of cultivated cotton such that it was easy to grab the person wearing them while at a distance. This was purposefully done. If the leopard attacked him, they could rescue him promptly, by pulling him with the clothes, before the leopard pounced on him.

Sometimes Tshifho would refuse to drink the beer offering. When this happened, diviners were called on to come and throw the divining bones to determine the cause of the problem. The culprit, as pointed out by the divining bones, was subjected to a fine of a goat.

This is what happened to the person or people who were preventing the gods from drinking the beer offering.

I was born at Masia village, Ongedacht, during the reign of Jiwawa (ed: Joao Albasini; before 1888), father of Antony and Lucas.

I fought in the Bekwa war between Antony and Bekwa. Bekwa had refused to pay tax. Bekwa’s people were annihilated in the war especially by Thomas’ people, and the Afrikaaners of Muhuhudi who all fought alongside Antony and at his invitation.

There was also war led by the Nema people involving the Thakuma people as well.

I fought in this war against these people as one of the soldiers in Jiwawa’s army. Because we were in Jiwawa’s army, the Nema people did not like us. We defeated them in this war, driving them away. It was the year that Mphephu fled to Vukalanga.

I also went to war in Bolobedu. We were from Dzombo. Some soldiers in our army were turned back. I was one of those who were not turned back. However, I killed no one at the war. We carried off their cattle, driving them up to Ximbupfe, to Cooksley. From Cooksley, they were taken to Pretoria in their hundreds. Present in that war was a Piet Joubert; he was the one who set Bolobedu on fire.

When I reached advanced age, I was working in Kimberley. I was earning two pounds a week. I was working at the hillock where the process of sifting diamonds took place. My intention of getting there in the first place was to buy a firearm.

When I came back with the weapon, my father would persecute (hena) reedbucks, kudu antelopes and other animals that were in the surrounding areas at the time. This was before they could move permanently into the bush in total fear of people, as is the case now.

When Johannesburg was founded, I went to work there.

I worked in the mines before they were deep. I was a security guard, checking mainly outsiders intruding into the mine. I would apprehend them. I was working shifts with one other person. As time went by, I got another job at Sampungani, where I looked after the safety of dirt buckets. This was at Robinson.

I was once a driver before there were shops. I used to transport ploughs from Johannesburg.

The vehicle I drove belonged to Dzombo, son of Madzivandlela. These were the first ploughs to arrive on our shores. They landed at Cooksley. There was no railway at the time.

The railway was only as far as Pretoria. For a parcel or luggage of a small box from Johannesburg I used to charge a pound. We were getting our driving permit or licence in Pietersburg (now Polokwane).

Johannesburg was still a small town at the time.

Those who bought ploughs then made a lot of money as they ploughed land for people, charging them as they did. Cows were harnessed and used to plough. That one could harness donkeys we did not know. We saw this for the first time in town.


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