In the latter part of the 1950's, there were about 275,000 Venda in the Republic of South Africa, and most of them lived in the Reserves or on European-owned farms in and around the Zoutpansberg Mountains of the Northern Transvaal, in the districts of Louis Trichardt and Sibasa. Accurate figures were not available, but probably less than ten per cent had made permanent homes in the towns, though there were of course many who left Vendaland for several months every year, to work in the cities and towns of the Transvaal.
The culture of the Venda distinguished them clearly from other Bantu-speaking people in the Republic, and their language is classed on its own, though it has some affinities with Sotho and Karanga. They were originally shifting cultivators and hunters, but later adopted a more settled economy; they also took to keeping cattle as well as goats. They used to live in large villages, which were often sited on mountain slopes and difficult to reach, and every village was ruled by a chief or headman and his council. In the first part of the 20th century, the Venda began to move away from the villages of their rulers, taking up homesteads scattered all over the hills and mountains. With the expansion of development schemes in the country, they began to re-group in villages.
The Venda were a patrilineal, virilocal people, many of whom still practised polygyny and worshiped their families' ancestors. Members of the different patriclans could, and did, live in any of the tribal territories, because the tribe was purely a political and territorial unit, consisting of people who chose to owe allegiance to a particular dynasty. It was quite common to find a ruler attracting round him members of his own patriclan after his accession. There was no paramount chief: each tribe was ruled by an independent chief, who had under him headmen and petty headmen, responsible for the government of districts within the tribal territory. Most of the chiefs belonged to lineages of the same clan, which crossed the Limpopo River and subdued those whom they found living in the Zoutpansberg in the latter half of the 18th century. Thus there was an important social division in Venda society between commoners (vhasiwana) and the children of chiefs and their descendants (vhakololo). In the Sibasa district there were twelve Venda chiefs: some were the descendants of brothers, who were the sons of a ruling chief but broke away and established independent chiefdoms elsewhere; and others had been appointed recently by the government. There were a number of differences in the customs of the various patriclans, especially in religious ritual, but there were no distinct differences between the tribes.
Although the Venda allowed the first Berlin Lutheran missionary to settle amongst them in 1872, it was not until 1899 that they finally submitted to the authority of the Transvaal Republic. They were thus the last of the Bantu-speaking peoples of South Africa to be seriously affected by contact with Europeans. Owing to the enterprise of the missions, churches, schools, and hospitals had been founded in the Sibasa district, and the government had begun to subsidize other services, such as a wholesale association for Venda shopkeepers, and had launched forestry and agricultural schemes. In spite of these developments, European influence remained relatively superficial. There are at least three main reasons for this. In the first place, the mountainous environment, which in the past had helped the Venda to avoid conquest by Pedi and Zulu aggressors, made much of their country remote and inaccessible. Secondly, the Sibasa district was not as yet a seriously depressed area, so that there was no urgent need for men to work away from home, as there was in other Reserves: the country was still fertile and well-watered, though the cutting of too many trees and some ruthless soil cultivation had made it less naturally productive than it seems to have been at the turn of the century. Thirdly, the Venda had been somewhat preoccupied in settling political controversies, in which the presence of Europeans had been a factor since Louis Trichardt was induced in 1836 to interfere in a dispute between two factions led by the sons of a deceased chief (Van Warmelo 1932:19-20). As a result, they tended to participate in and assimilate European cultures less than the Shangana Tsonga, who came to live both to the south of them and amongst them in small numbers in the mid 19th century. The Shangana Tsonga were immigrants and refugees without a political organization involving headmen and chiefs, so that it was easier for them to accept European influence and take an active part in novel institutions such as the police force and government service. Most of the political feuds of the Venda took place between rival ruling families and clans, and the majority of commoners had to be content to look on, while they waited to see which side to back. Music played an important part in the political process, because much of it was sponsored by rulers, but performed by commoners (Blacking 1962).