The Vhembe district...

... is named for the Venda name of the Limpopo river.

Vhembe encompasses the northern-most part of South Africa, and borders Botswana and Zimbabwe. Vhembe hosts the Mapungubwe National Park, which forms part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Park. The region is also host to the Vhembe UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which includes most of the district. There is unique fauna and flora in the region, and it is host to a variety of bird species - making it a sought-after destination for birders!

The baobab tree grows abundantly north of the Soutpansberg. The Big Tree at Sagole is believed to be 3 500 years old and the biggest of its kind in South Africa.

The majority of Vhembe residents are Venda. Tsonga people live in the south and south-east and many Afrikaans farmers also farm in the area.

The Vhembe region is known as the Land of Legends. There are various sacred Venda sites, of which Lake Fundudzi is the most sacred. The Venda people believe that a great python lives in the lake, which is also infested with crocodiles. According to the vaVhenda people, the python looks after their crops and every year they placate him with beer. Newcomers should turn their backs on the lake and regard it through their legs. Nobody is allowed to visit Lake Fundudzi, except with permission from the Chief and the Priestess of the Lake. Other sacred sites in Venda are the Phiphidi Waterfalls and the Thate Vondo forest.

The VhaVenda came from the Great Lakes of Central Africa. They first settled in the Zoutpansberg Mountains where they built their original capital, D’zata. The ruins of D’zata are still visible today.

Dimbanyaka was the first VhaVenda chief to settle in the Nzhelele valley more than eight centuries ago. They called the place Dzata ('a good place'). Chief Dimbanyaka went for a walk with his dog one day, and went into a cave in the surrounding Soutpansberg. Unfortunately, the rocks caved in and Dimbanyaka was trapped inside the cave. His dog, which was still outside, apparently went to fetch Dimbanyaka’s son and heir, Thohoyandou, at their village. When Thohoyandou reached the cave, his father was still alive. He could not free his father and they had a conversation through the rocks. Dimbanyika made Thohoyandou promise that he would unify the different clans in the area and build a great nation. Thohoyandou kept his promise and is known as one of the greatest VhaVenda leaders of all times. Thohoyandou, ('head of the elephant'), refers to the strength of a leader. 

In African mythology, elephants are a symbol of strength, leadership and greatness. This symbolism is still prevalent today, as important people are greeted with 'nda ndou' (meaning  'good day elephant'). No subsequent leader of the Venda was ever called Thohoyandou. The next chief in the VhaVenda nation was a Mphephu, a name that is still carried forward today.

The current Mphephu sacred village is situated in the vicinity of Hangklip. This site is forbidden to those who are not Venda and is looked after by VhaVenda women. It is sacred as it is the burial place of the VhaVhenda chiefs and all the previous Mphephus. The burial also has a myth connected to it.

Open Africa has more information about the myths and legends of the Vhembe region.

Source: Open Africa, Vhembe District Municipality