King Makhado’s refusal to submit to white rule led to some of his subjects from Malimuwa believing that he was the source of conflict between Vhavenda and the Boers. They, therefore, decided to eliminate him hoping that his death would bring peace between Vhavenda and the Boers. Makhado’s first wife Nwaphunga, together with Rasivhetshele, Liswe, Makhokha, Makhethekhethe, and Mutheiwana planned the assassination of Makhado. According to one of the highly respected Venda historian, Professor MH Nemudzivhadi, the assassination was made easy by the fact that King Makhado had become fond of brandy. King Makhado was given poisoned brandy by Rasivhetshele and Nwaphunga at a party specifically arranged by Nwaphunga. King Makhado died on 3 September 1895. The poisoned that killed him was obtained from Boer farms across the Muhohodi river.

King Makhado’s sons were Alilali (also known as Tshilamulela), Sinthumule, Kutama, and Maemu Malise. King Makhado had earlier informed his counsellors and the elders that he should be succeeded by Maemu Malise, his youngest son. Maemu was the eldest child of Nwaphunga.

After having succeeded in killing Makhado, the council at Malimuwa, led by Rasivhetshele and Nwaphunga, installed Maemu as king. This installation, which was performed at Malimuwa, was contrary to Tshivenda culture which dictates that after the death of a king the nation has to mourn for a year before a new king is installed.

Maemu immediately sent word to Tshwane (Pretoria) subjecting himself and Vhavenda to the white regime. Alilali was in Kimberley when Makhado died. Sinthumule had visited Taylor in Zimbabwe to fetch the cannon that had been promised to Makhado.

But Maemu was opposed by Mahosi such as Mavhasa Musekwa of Tshihanane, Ravele Matsheketsheke of Old Mauluma, Matidze of Luonde, Funyufunyu of Vhulorwa, Madzivhandila of Tshakhuma, Netsianda of Tsianda, Nelwamondo of Lwamondo, Makatu of Tshivhodza, and Raliphaswa. Mavhasa Musekwa, Ravele Matsheketsheke, Raliphaswa and Makhadzi Ndalammbi sent messengers to bring back Alilali and Sinthumule from Kimberley and Zimbabwe respectively. They all agreed that Alilali should be the new king.

Funyufunyu secretly raised an army to attack Maemu. Sinthumule came back from Zimbabwe before Alilali arrived from Kimberley. Sinthumule was advised by Makhadzi Ndalammbi to remain composed until the arrival of Alilali from Kimberley.

In order to protect himself from Rasivhetshele and Nwaphunga’s assassins, Alilali travelled back to Venda through Botswana which at the time was known among Vhavenda as Ha-Manwadu. Alilali Tshilamulela had a secret rendezvous with Sinthumule at Luvhivhini. Together with Funyufunyu and Makhadzi Ndalammbi they planned to dethrone Maemu.

Maemu was driven out of Luatame. He and his followers initially fled to Malimuwa. But they also fled Malimuwa and crossed Muhohodi river and sought the protection of the Boers at Fort Hendrina. The way was now paved for the installation of the new king.

Alilali Tshilamulela became the new king of Venda and was given the title of Mphephu. The elders requested Sinthumule to be Mphephu’s Ndumi (deputy king). Sinthumule, however, turned down the offer in favour of his younger brother, Kutama. Sinthumule told the elders that he would prefer to remain an ordinary Khotsimunene. Kutama became Mphephu’s Ndumi while Funzani became the Khadzi.

All Mahosi who supported Maemu Malise were deposed. They included Mutheiwana of Vuvha, Liswoga of Tshifhefhe and Rasivhetshele.

Mphephu could not forget the role played by Sinthumule in the war of succession against Maemu Malise. He rewarded Sinthumule by giving him the land of Tshifhefhe which was previously ruled by the deposed Liswoga. Sinthumule did not, however, regard this as a reward worthy of the great service he had rendered in the war of succession. Sinthumule initially refused to go to Tshifhefhe because he preferred Malimuwa. He was also not happy that Kutama was given Vhulorwa which was more fertile and bigger than Tshifhefhe. He could, however, not be given Malimuwa since it was too close to Luatame. The elders were worried that having Sinthumule too close to the royal kraal would lead to Sinthumule becoming ambitious and having designs on the throne.

Sinthumule later relented and settled at Tshifhefhe. He was accompanied by his age group, Ngomakhosi, while Mphephu’s age group, Mavhengwa remained at Luatame. Sinthumule built a large kraal at Tshifhefhe, and Mphephu proclaimed that all Mahosi east of Tshifhefhe should from then on submit their minor cases to Sinthumule. This showed that Mphephu had confidence in Sinthumule as a ruler.

King Makhado had more than fifteen (15) wives. Some of these wives were very young at the time of his death. They were the same age as his sons, Mphephu and Sinthumule. The young wives were, in terms of Venda law, supposed to be ‘inherited’ by Makhado’s sons. Their children would, however, be regarded as Makhado’s children since their mothers were first Makhado’s wives before they were ‘inherited’ by Makhado’s sons.

The first open clash between Mphephu and Sinthumule flared up when Sinthumule wanted to marry two of Makhado’s young wives. He first wanted to marry Matoro, but Mphephu had already taken her. When he turned to Mokgadi, the daughter of Chief Ramokgopa of Botlokwa, Mphephu also wanted her as his wife.

Rasivhetshele, Mutheiwana and the Boers seized the opportunity and urged Sinthumule to stop recognising Mphephu as his king. They later urged Sinthumule to fight for the Venda kingship. At first Sinthumule argued against dethroning Mphephu and told his supporters to stop creating enmity between him and Mphephu. But he later changed his mind after being made to believe that his age group, Ngomakhosi, was more powerful than the Mavhengwa at Luatame.

Mphephu did not want to fight with Sinthumule. His supporters urged him to take action against Sinthumule for conspiring with Rasivhetshele, Mutheiwana and the Boers. Mphephu did not believe that Sinthumule could do such a thing. He told his supporters not to fuel the fire. But Mphephu started to take the allegations against Sinthumule seriously after receiving numerous complaints and intelligence briefings from his supporters. He dispatched messengers to Tshifhefhe to summon Sinthumule to Luatame. Sinthumule refused to go to Luatame after his supporters warned him that he would be killed at Luatame.

Later Mphephu asked Sinthumule to send his subjects to work at the dzunde (chief/king’s field that is ploughed by all the chief/king’s subjects). Sinthumule did not respond. Mphephu’s advisors urged him to attack Sinthumule and depose him as the Khosi of Tshifhefhe.

The Mavhengwa army, consisting of Vhaingamela, Vhalube, Mavhoi, Khavhambe, Tshitopeni, Maunavhathu and Malimuwa regiments, was dispatched to attack Sinthumule at Tshifhefhe. Instructions were issued to the generals that they should destroy Sinthumule’s supporters but that Sinthumule should be saved since he was of royal blood.

Fierce fighting took place at Tshifhefhe. A lot of Sinthumule’s Ngomakhosi supporters were murdered. Sinthumule and his people evacuated Tshifhefhe and fled to Tshivhodza. They were, however, not welcomed at Tshivhodza since Khosi Makatu of Tshivhodza was a Mphephu supporter. They then went to Luonde, but could also not receive help from Khosi Matidze of Luonde. Sinthumule then crossed the Muhohodi River and settled at Ha-Manavhela (Ben Lavin). Mphephu initially did not want to pursue Sinthumule since in terms of Tshivenda rules of combat, an enemy that fled and crossed a major river was not supposed to be pursued. But Mphephu later changed his mind after learning that Maemu Malise and Rasivhetshele had joined Sinthumule at Ha-Manavhela, and that Khosi Kumbani Manavhela had switched sides and had become a supporter of Sinthumule.

Mphephu instructed Khosi Makaulule of Vuvha, Khosi Ravele of Old Mauluma, and Khosi Ratombo of Tshidzivhani to attack Mutheiwana who was hiding at Cooksley’s farm, next to Tshidzivhani. The western army, led by Mphephu himself, attacked Sinthumule at Ha-Manavhela on 13 October 1896. Thirteen (13) of Sinthumule and Manavhela’s people, including Mulayo and Mabalanganye, were killed. Sinthumule, Maemu and Rasivhetshele fled to Polokwane and sought the Boers’ protection.

The eastern army led by Ratombo attacked Cooksley’s farm and killed twenty six (26) people all of whom were Tsonga-Shangaans who were farm workers. Since the eastern army had murdered people at a white man’s farm, the Boers asked Mphephu to deliver Ratombo to Polokwane. The Boers promised Mphephu that they would arrest Sinthumule, Maemu and Rasivhetshele. Mphephu did not want them arrested since that would mean that they would spend time in a white man’s jail instead of being delivered to Luatame.

Mphephu refused to deliver Ratombo to the Boers in Polokwane. The Boers warned him that his refusal to hand over Ratombo would mean that he would be held responsible for the murder of people at Cooksley’s farm.

Mphephu also refused to pay tax to junior officers of the white regime. He insisted that taxes collected would only be paid to Paul Kruger. This is because the Ramabulanas regarded Kruger as the king of the Boers. They, therefore, insisted that Mphephu as the king of Vhavenda could only meet with another king, and not chiefs or headmen. The Boers, fearing that other Mahosi such as Tshivhase, Mphaphuli and Nethengwe would be influenced by Mphephu to not pay taxes, decided to act against him. The Boers interpreted Mphephu’s refusal to pay tax as a sign of not wanting to subject himself to the authority of the white regime.

In 1896 the Boers decided to conduct population census. King Mphephu stopped policemen from entering Venda and from conducting a census. The Boers in Polokwane sent a message to Tshwane that ‘the Makhado nation was a thorn in the flesh’. The white government in Tshwane was, due to the messages it was receiving from Polokwane, forced to take up arms against King Mphephu. The Boers also wanted to punish Vhavenda for the heavy defeat they suffered at Thivhalalwe (Schoemansdal) on 13 July 1867. The Boers were also afraid that Captain Taylor, who was stationed in Zimbabwe, was communicating with King Mphephu, and that Taylor intended to supply arms and ammunition to Mphephu to help him drive out the Boers from his area.

Professor MH Nemudzivhadi contends that Mphephu’s refusal to pay tax, his refusal to hand over Ratombo, and the reluctance to allow the white regime to conduct a census were not the actual reasons why the Boers attacked Mphephu. He contends that these reasons were secondary, and that the basic origin of the Mphephu war lay in the internal history of Vhavenda. Professor Nemudzivhadi argues that the internal strife in Venda domestic politics (the wars of succession between Davhana and Makhado, and between Maemu and Mphephu, and later between Mphephu and Sinthumule) caused the war. He argues that the root of the trouble lay in the Vhavenda’s failure to formulate laws of succession. “The ruling chief could not designate his successor as the decision to appoint a new ruler lay in the hands of Makhadzi and Khotsimunene. This custom automatically divided the nation as various groups had their own candidates”.

Professor Nemudzivhadi also contends that King Mphephu refused to pay tax because the white regime would not recognise him as the king of Vhavenda. The Boers wanted to recognise Maemu as the legitimate king of Vhavenda. Mphephu wrote a letter to the white regime in Tshwane telling them that he would only pay tax after Sinthumule and his supporters had been brought to him, and after the white regime had acknowledged that he was the right person to succeed King Makhado.

It seems the other main reason for the war was the subjugation of Vhavenda by the Boers. Mphephu’s refusal to pay tax could not have been the reason for the war. Tshivhase and Mphaphuli had also refused to pay tax to the Boers, but were not attacked. The Boers knew that the Ramabulana royal house was the most senior house of all Vhavenda royal houses. Defeating and subjugating Mphephu would lead to the subjugation of all Vhavenda. Defeating the king would send a strong message to all Mahosi that resisting Boer might was a futile exercise. The Boers also wanted to destroy the Venda kingship by reducing the status of the Ramabulana royal house to that of an ordinary royal house. This is evidenced by the fact that after the war, the Boers proclaimed chiefs such as Sinthumule, Kutama, Madzivhandila, Netsianda, Nelwamondo, and Mugivhi as independent chiefs, independent of their king, Mphephu

The white regime in Tshwane decided to take action against Mphephu. The Boers gave Mphephu an ultimatum to pay tax, to allow policemen to conduct census, and to deliver Ratombo to them. Mphephu ignored the ultimatum. The white regime dispatched Devenish and Jan du Preeze to demarcate Mphephu’s area. The two were sent packing and told that there would be trouble if they came back. The Executive Council of the white regime met in Tshwane on 13 September 1898 took a decision to wage war against King Mphephu.

The white regime mobilised 1800 Boers: 850 from Tshwane (Pretoria), 200 from Potchefstroom, 100 from Waterberg, 200 from Heidelberg, 200 from Standerton, and 250 from the Soutpansberg. The Boer commando, led by General Joubert, reached Tshitandani (Makhado) on 18th October 1898. They constructed a laager in the form of a square, fortified by a stone wall in order to combat night attacks. The Vhavenda on the other hand constructed their own fortifications about a mile from the laager.

King Mphephu ordered his men not to attack the Boers until the Boers fired on them. His people, however, wanted to fight since they resented the presence of the Boers in Venda. On 21 October 1898, when the Boers were busy putting their laager, shots were heard from the direction of Luatame. The first shot was fired by Funyufunyu who was allegedly under the influence of alcohol. He fired the shot which to the other men heralded the beginning of hostilities. The Boers were caught unawares. Vhavenda men swarmed down the hills in their thousands. The skirmish only lasted 15 minutes as the Boers were able to repel the attack. As a result of this surprise attack Joubert requested the white regime to send another 2700 Boers.

Joubert wrote a letter to King Mphephu asking him to negotiate. Mphephu refused due to the fact that Sinthumule was with the Boers. Mphephu thought that he was being asked to go to a meeting with the Boers so that he could be killed, and that the Boers wanted to install Sinthumule as king of Vhavenda.

On 2 November 1898 Reverend Beuster visited Joubert with two messengers from Khosi Tshivhase. The two messengers brought with them four oxen and an assurance that Tshivhase would support Joubert. Later on Khosi Mphaphuli also indicated that he would not support Mphephu. Two Batlokoa chiefs, Machaka and Ramokgopa, also indicated to the Boers that they would not support Mphephu. By forcing Tshivhase, Machaka, Ramokgopa, and Mphaphuli to state that they would not support Mphephu, the Boers managed to isolate him.

On 16 November 1898 4500 Boers attacked Luatame. They were joined by 1000 Swazi men and 1000 TsongaShangaan men. Seven divisions were dispatched to attack Luatame from three sides. The easterly division attacked from Malimuwa. The central division attacked from Tshirululuni, while the westerly division forced its way through Vhulorwa.

The Boers, after heavy fighting and resistance from Vhavenda, took over Luatame. But the Phawe, Malimuwa and Tshitopeni regiments gave the Boers a run for their money. Finally, after two days of fighting, and after about 130 people had perished, Vhavenda surrendered to the Boers. Most of the people who perished were old men and women.

The Boers, after annexing Luatame and Malimuwa, were surprised why Vhavenda surrendered. The two places were well fortified and impenetrable. It would not have been easy for the Boers to capture the two places had Vhavenda not been terrified by the sound of cannons. The Boers were able to capture the two places because Vhavenda got terrified and deserted the two areas after only two days of fighting

King Mphephu fled to Zimbabwe to seek help from the British. The Boers were disappointed at having failed to capture him. They continued searching for Mphephu, not knowing that he had fled to Zimbabwe. Vhavenda who were taken prisoners of war misled the Boers by telling them that Mphephu was hiding in caves. The Boers looked for Mphephu in different caves, but could not find him.

On 20 November 1898 Joubert received congratulatory messages from Khosi Tshivhase and Khosi Mphaphuli. The two promised to guard the boundary on the north-east to prevent Mphephu from escaping.

The search for Mphephu continued on 21 November 1898. The Boers went as far as Ha-Madzhie, but Mphephu was nowhere to be found. Some of Mphephu’s chiefs, Tshiangamela, Kharivhe, Matshisevhe, Lishivha, Madzhie, Ravele, Madzivhandila, Mugivhi, Nelwamondo, and Netsianda offered to negotiate peace with the Boers.

The Boer army left Venda on 8 December 1898. Joubert reported to the white regime in Tshwane that although the army had failed in its mission to capture King Mphephu, they had succeeded in subduing all Vhavenda.

The total number of people who crossed Vhembe River into Zimbabwe was 2 402. With the recall of the Boer army from Venda and the surrender of Vhavenda, the Mphephu war ended.

The Boers decided to establish a town at Tshirululuni. This town was, by a proclamation published on 22 February 1899, named Louis Trichardt. But the Boers continued to search for Mphephu. They later learnt that he was in Zimbabwe. They requested the British to extradite him to South Africa. The British refused to extradite Mphephu.

The Boers gave Tshifhefhe back to Sinthumule. Maemu was also given his own land which was later known as HaMaemu. But people refused to acknowledge Sinthumule and Maemu as chiefs since they accused them of inviting Boer enemies to Venda.

Vhavenda continued to pay tribute to King Mphephu in exile through Rambiyana and Ravele Matsheketsheke. When the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) broke out in 1899, Mphephu encouraged his people to assist the British against the Boers. Vhavenda responded by attacking the newly established town Louis Trichardt, established at Tshirululuni, and setting it on fire. Vhavenda joined the English in the war against the Boers actively participated in the war.

The Boers were defeated by the English in the South African War (Anglo-Boer War). When the war ended in 1902, the Chief Native Commissioner of Matabeleland, Captain Taylor brought King Mphephu back to Luatame. Taylor held a court case in which some of Mphephu’s enemies who colluded with the Boers were sentenced to death. These people, including Rasivhetshele and Tsonga-Shangaan men who assisted the Boers, were ordered to dig their own graves. They were then shot. This earned Taylor the nickname of ‘Bulalazonke Matshangani’. Sinthumule and Maemu were saved from death by King Mphephu himself

King Mphephu was forced to relocate his royal kraal to Dzanani in 1913 after the 1913 land Act came into effect. The following areas next to Luatame (Mount Songozwi) were declared ‘white areas’ and were turned into white-owned farms:

  • Magoni;
  • La Ndou;
  • Vhulorwa;
  • Lunoni;
  • Phawe;
  • Khavhambe;
  • Malimuwa;
  • Vhutuwangadzebu;
  • Ha-Funyufunyu;
  • Ha-Mudimeli;
  • Ha-Mulelu;
  • Ha-Makhavhu;
  • Ha-Tshikhudo; and

King Mphephu died in 1924 and was laid to rest at Songozwi. He was succeeded by his son Mbulaheni George who was given the title of King Mphephu II. Mphephu II ruled from 1925 to 1949.

Other areas south and east of Tshirululuni that were declared white areas included:

  • Old Mauluma;
  • Ha-Mashau;
  • Ha-Rasikhuthuma / Masakona;
  • Luonde;
  • Luvhola;
  • Ha-Ramaru (Shehe);
  • Ha-Ratombo;
  • Ha- Marandela;
  • Ha- Maila;
  • Tshivhodza;
  • Ha- Manavhela (Ben Lavin);
  • Ha- Mamphodo;
  • Ha-Mushasha;
  • Ha-Begwa;
  • Folovhodwe; and
  • Ha-Matshavha.

Vhavenda were forcibly removed from these areas from 1930 onwards. But Songozwi continued to serve as the Royal Court and the burial site (Tshiendeulu) of Mphephu kings and chiefs, and Sinthumule and Kutama chiefs. Some families stayed at Songozwi. The Boers tried frustrating them by denying them passage to town and other areas through their farms. A lower primary school was built by a philanthropist for Songozwi pupils. But Songozwi learners were forced to go to Nzhelele, Ha-Sinthumule, and Ha-Kutama for higher primary and secondary education.

Today Songozwi village is being developed by the Makhado Local Municipality and the Limpopo provincial government. Low cost houses have been built. But as usual, defeated white males are making noises about it.

  1. Professor MH Nemudzivhadi – The Conflict Between Mphephu and the South African Republic, 1895-1899.
  2. MM Mutenda – Ramabulana.