Sotho people

The Sotho /ˈst/[2] people, or Basotho /bæˈst/, are a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa, native to modern Lesotho and South Africa, who speak Sesotho. The Basotho have inhabited that region since around the fifth century and so are closely related to other Bantu peoples of the region.

King Moshoeshoe I, founder of the Basotho nation, with his Ministers.
Total population
c. 6 million (2001 est.)
Regions with significant populations
 South Africa3,544,304 (2001 census)
to 4,723,000[1]
 United Kingdom3,000
 United States2,000
 New Zealand300
Sesotho, English
African traditional religion, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Northern Sotho, Tswana

The modern Basotho identity emerged from the accomplished diplomacy of Moshoeshoe I who gathered together disparate clans of Sotho–Tswana origin that had dispersed across southern Africa in the early 19th century. Most Basotho today live in South Africa, as the area of the Orange Free State was originally part of Moshoeshoe's nation (now Lesotho).


Early history

Pastoralist Bantu-speaking peoples settled in the territory of modern South Africa by about 500 CE,[3] .[4]

The separation from the Tswana is assumed to have taken place by the 14th century. The first historical references to the Basotho date to the 19th century. By that time, a series of Basotho kingdoms covered the southern portion of the plateau (Free State Province and parts of Gauteng). Basotho society was highly decentralized and organized on the basis of kraals, or extended clans, each of which ruled by a chief[5] Chiefdoms were united into loose confederations[5]

19th century

In the 1820s, refugees from the Zulu expansion under Shaka[6] came into contact with the Basotho people residing on the highveld. In 1823, those pressures caused one group of Basotho, the Kololo, to migrate north, past the Okavango Swamp and across the Zambezi into Barotseland, now part of Zambia.[7] In 1845, the Kololo conquered Barotseland.[8]

At about the same time, the Boers began to encroach upon Basotho territory.[9] After the Cape Colony had been ceded to Britain at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the voortrekkers ("pioneers") were farmers who opted to leave the former Dutch colony and moved inland where they eventually established independent polities.[9][10]

At the time of these developments, Moshoeshoe I gained control of the Basotho kingdoms of the southern Highveld.[10] Universally praised as a skilled diplomat and strategist, he was able to wield the disparate refugee groups escaping the Difaqane into a cohesive nation.[11] His inspired leadership helped his small nation to survive the dangers and pitfalls (the Zulu hegemony, the inward expansion of the voortrekkers and the designs of imperial Britain) that destroyed other indigenous South African kingdoms during the 19th century [12]

In 1822, Moshoeshoe established his capital at Butha-Buthe, an easily defendable mountain in the northern Drakensberg mountains, laying the foundations of the eventual Kingdom of Lesotho.[13] His capital was later moved to Thaba Bosiu[14]

To deal with the encroaching voortrekker groups, Moshoeshoe encouraged French missionary activity in his kingdom.[15] Missionaries sent by the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society provided the King with foreign affairs counsel and helped to facilitate the purchase of modern weapons.[16]

Aside from acting as state ministers, missionaries (primarily Casalis and Arbousset) played a vital role in delineating Sesotho orthography and printing Sesotho language materials between 1837 and 1855.[17] The first Sesotho translation of the Bible appeared in 1878.[18]

In 1868, after losing the western lowlands to the Boers during the Free State–Basotho Wars; Moshoeshoe successfully appealed to Queen Victoria to proclaim Lesotho (then known as Basutoland) a protectorate of Britain and the British administration was placed in Maseru, the site of Lesotho's current capital.[9] Local chieftains retained power over internal affairs while Britain was responsible for foreign affairs and the defence of the protectorate.[19] In 1869, the British sponsored a process by which the borders of Basutoland were finally demarcated.[9] While many clans had territory within Basotuland, large numbers of Sesotho speakers resided in areas allocated to the Orange Free State, the sovereign voortrekker republic that bordered the Basotho kingdom.


The practice of cannibalism increased among the basotho during the times of ‘lifaqane’ meaning ‘need for sustenance’ or ‘’we want’’ when there were many refugee tribes fleeing wars started by the Zulu King Shaka. According to missionary Ellenberger, tribes who practiced cannibalism were the Bakhatla of Tabane, specifically those who were ruled by the Chief Rakotsoane at Sefikeng. The district of Mangane, now known as Bloemfontein, was described as ‘infested with cannibals’ by the end of 1822. A cave at Mohale’s Hoek had a brotherhood of twenty seven cannibals who were under the leadership of Motleyoa. Other areas known to have cannibals included the river banks of Cornelius Spruit where there were several villages of cannibals.

According to Basotho people, cannibals are regarded as people having evil supernatural powers comparable with Satan or spirits of the dead which oppose the good spirits and ancestors of the basotho people.

Basotho tradition states that the great Bakuena chief, Mohlomi, prophesied the coming of the lifaqane and cannibalism in his death bed with the words, ‘After my death, a cloud of red dust will come out of the east and consume our tribes. The father will eat his children. I greet you all, and depart to where our fathers rest.’[20][21]

The basotho cannibals believed that their human victims would appease the gods. Missionaries who arrived in 1883 estimated that there were between 7000 and 8000 basotho people practicing cannibalism between the Orange River, the Drakensberg and the Vaal river. During the years 1822 to 1828 there were about 300 000 victims. Cannibalism stopped shortly after the arrival of Christian missionaries as cannibalism was not tolerated in the Christian lifestyle.[22]

Moeshoeshoe and his people experienced an attack by cannibals as they moved from Butha Buthe to Thaba Bosiu for safety from King Shaka’s wars in 1824. During the attack the cannibals captured and ate Moshoeshoe’s grandfather, Peete. Although cannibals were the cause for his grandfather's death, Moeshoeshoe did not choose to punish captured cannibals but chose to aid them in their rehabilitation into society by giving them food and cattle. Additionally, King Moshoeshoe played a major role in the rehabilitation of people who practiced cannibalism through providing food.[23]

The Cannibal trail just outside Clarens in the eastern Free State runs between Rooiberge and Witteberg mountains where cannibals used to reside.[24]

20th century

Britain's protection ensured that repeated attempts by the Orange Free State, and later the Republic of South Africa, to absorb part or all of Basutoland, were unsuccessful.[4] In 1966, Basutoland gained its independence from Britain, becoming the Kingdom of Lesotho.

Internal migration explains why Sesotho is widely spoken throughout the sub-continent. To enter the cash economy, Basotho men often migrated to large cities in South Africa to find employment in the mining industry.[25] Migrant workers from the Free State and Lesotho thus helped to spread Sesotho to the urban areas of South Africa. Migrant work is generally agreed to have had a negative impact on family life for most Sesotho speakers since adults (primarily men) were required to leave their families behind in impoverished communities while they were employed in cities located hundreds of kilometers away.[26]

Attempts by the apartheid government to force Sesotho speakers to relocate to designated homelands had little effect on human settlement patterns, and large numbers of workers continued to leave the traditional areas of Black settlement throughout the last century.[27] While men tended to find employment within the mining sector, women gravitated towards employment as agricultural or domestic workers.[27]

In terms of religion, the central role that Christian missionaries played in helping Moshoeshoe I secure his kingdom helped to ensure widespread conversion among Basotho people to Christianity. Today, the bulk of Sesotho speakers practice a form of Christianity that blends elements of traditional Christian dogma with local, pre-Western beliefs. Modimo (“God”) is viewed as a supreme being who cannot be approached by mortals; the favour of ancestors, who act as intercessors between Modimo and the living, must be cultivated through worship and reverence.[28] Officially, the majority of Lesotho's population is Catholic.[29]

Basotho's heartland is the Free State province in South Africa and neighboring Lesotho.[30] Both of these largely rural areas are characterized by widespread poverty and underdevelopment.[31] It can thus be reasonably argued that many Sesotho speakers live in conditions of economic hardship, but people with access to land and steady employment may enjoy a higher standard of living[31] Landowners will often participate in subsistence or small scale commercial farming ventures.[29] Overgrazing and land mismanagement are growing problems.[29]

Demographics of Basotho and Sesotho-Speakers

The allure of urban areas has not diminished, and internal migration remains a reality for many black people born in Lesotho and other Basotho heartlands today.[32]

Generally, employment patterns among Basotho Sesotho-Speakers follow patterns pertaining to broader South African society. Historical factors make unemployment among Basotho and other Black South Africans remain high.[31]

Gauteng Province: 13.1% Atteridgeville: 12.3% City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality: 9.6% Soweto: 15.5% Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality: 10.02% Katlehong: 22.4% Sedibeng District Municipality: 46.7% West Rand District Municipality: 10.8% Midvaal Local Municipality: 27.9%

Free State Province: 64.2% Bloemfontein: 33.4%


The language of the Basotho is referred to as Sesotho[33] or less commonly Sesotho sa borwa[34]. Some texts may refer to Sesotho as "Southern Sotho" to differentiate it from Northern Sotho, also called Pedi.

Sesotho is the first language of 1.5 million people in Lesotho, or 85% of the population.[29] Sesotho is one of the two official languages in Lesotho, the other being English.[29] Lesotho enjoys one of Africa's highest literacy rates, with 59% of the adult population being literate chiefly in Sesotho.[35]

Sesotho is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa,and according to the South African National Census of 2011, almost 4 million people speak Sesotho as a first language including 62% of the inhabitants of the Free State speak Sesotho as a first language.[36] Approximately, 13.1% of the residents of Gauteng speak Sesotho as a first language.[37] In the North West Province, 5% of the population speak Sesotho as a first language, with a concentration of speakers in the Maboloka region.[36] 3% of Mpumalanga's people speak Sesotho as a first language, with many speakers living in the Standerton area.[36] 2% of the residents of the Eastern Cape, chiefly in the northern regions of the province, speak Sesotho as a first language.[36]

No official statistics data on second language usage are available, but a conservative estimate of the number of people who speak Sesotho as a second (or later) language is 5 million.[38] Sesotho is one of the 11 official languages in South Africa.[33]

Aside from Lesotho and South Africa, 60,000 people speak Silozi (a close relative of Sesotho) in Zambia.[38] Small numbers of Sesotho speakers reside in Botswana, Swaziland and the Caprivi Strip of Namibia.[38]

Sesotho is used in a range of educational settings both as a subject of study and as a medium of instruction.[35] It is used in its spoken and written forms in all the spheres of education from pre schooling to doctoral studies.[35] Difficulties still exist when Sesotho is used as a technical language in the fields of commerce, information technology, science, mathematics and law since the corpus of technical materials in Sesotho is still relatively small.[35]

Sesotho has developed a sizable media presence since the end of apartheid. Radio Lesedi is a 24-hour Sesotho radio station run by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, broadcasting solely in Sesotho. There are other regional radio stations as well throughout Lesotho and the Free State.[35] Half-hour Sesotho news bulletins are broadcast daily on a government TV station. Independent TV broadcaster, eTV, also features a daily half-hour Sesotho bulletin. Both SABC and the eTV group produce a range of programs that feature at least some Sesotho dialogue.

Most newspapers in Lesotho are written either mainly in Sesotho or in both Sesotho and English; currently, in South Africa, there is one mainstream magazine, namely Bona; there are no fully fledged newspapers in Sesotho though except for regional newsletters in Qwaqwa, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and possibly other Free State towns.[35]

The popular monthly magazine Bona includes Sesotho content.[35] Since the codification of Sesotho orthography, literary works have been produced in Sesotho. Amongst the most notable are Thomas Mofolo's epic, "Chaka", which has been translated into several languages including English and German[39]


The Basotho people have a distinguishable traditional attire which includes the conical hat (men and women usually wear different form of hats) known as ‘mokorotlo’, which has a decorated knob at the top. The Basotho blanket is also often worn by the Basotho. Although many Sotho people conform to westernised dress, these items are still worn over their westernised clothing. The blanket is either worn over the shoulders or the waist and is used to protect against the cold.

Basotho herders

Many Basotho people who still live in rural areas wear clothing which suits their lifestyles. For instance, boys who herd cattle in the rural Free State and Lesotho, wear the Basotho blanket and large rain boots or ‘gumboots’ as protection from wet mountain terrain. Herd boys also often wear woolen balaclavas or woolen caps throughout the year, to protect their faces from cold temperatures and dust blown by the mountain winds.

Basotho women

Basotho women usually wear skirts and long dresses in bright colours and patterns. They also wear traditional blankets around the waist. On special occasions such as wedding celebrations, they wear the traditional Basotho dress called Seshoeshoe. The local traditional dresses are made using multilayered coloured cloth and ribbon accents to border each layer. Modernised Sotho women often purchase their material and have it designed to a styles similar to West and East African dresses. Women also wrap a long print cloth or small blanket around their waist either as a skirt or a second garment over the skirt. This is commonly known as the ‘wrap’ which can also be used to carry babies around on their backs.[40]

Special clothing items

Special clothing items are worn for special events, this includes initiation rites and traditional healing ceremonies.

For a girls initiation ceremony, known as Lebollo la basadi, they wear a beaded waist wrap (thethana) which mainly covers the waist, particularly the crotch area and part of the buttocks as well as grey blankets and goatskin skirts. These are however not only worn by girls going to lebollo but rather young girls and or women, particularly virgins.

For a boys initiation ceremony, known as Lebollo la banna, they wear a tshea, which is a loincloth as well as colorful blankets. During modern times, initiate boys also wear sunglasses. These are not only worn at lebollo but by young boys as well.

Traditional Sotho healers wear the bandolier, which consists of strips and strings made of leather, sinew or beads that form a cross on the chest. The bandolier often has pouches of potions attached to it either for specific rituals or physical or spiritual protection. It is believed that the San people adopted this bandolier attire for healers during times when the Basotho and the San traded items and developed ties through trade, marriage and friendship. The wearing of the bandolier is evident in their rock paintings which date to the 1700s.[41][42]

Notable Sotho people




See also


  1. "The Basotho people group are reported in 5 countries". Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  2. "Sotho". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. L. Thompson, A History of South Africa (2001); James L. Newman, The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.
  4. Bundy, C.; C. Saunders (1989). Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story. Cape Town: Readers Digest..
  5. Laband, J. (2003). "Mfecane". Encarta Encyclopedia. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation..
  6. Ross, R. (2009). A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Muimui, Lubosi. "Political History of Barotseland". Archived from the original on 23 April 2014.
  8. Phiri, Bizeck J. (2005). "Lozi Kingdom and the Kololo". In Shillington, Kevin (ed.). Encyclopedia of African History, Volume II, H-O. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn (Routledge). pp. 851–852. ISBN 978-1-57958-454-2.
  9. Ross, R. (2009). A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press..
  10. Thompson, L. (2001). A History of South Africa. Cambridge: Yale University Press..
  11. Becker, P. (1969) Hill of destiny: the life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basuto. London : Longman.
  12. __ (2003). "Moshoeshoe". Encarta Encyclopedia. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation.
  13. Becker, P. (1969). Hill of destiny: the life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basuto. London: Longman.
  14. Becker, P. (1969). Hill of destiny: the life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basuto. London: Longman..
  15. Sanders, P. (1975). Moshoeshoe, chief of the Basotho. London: Heinemann..
  16. P., Sanders (1975). Moshoeshoe, chief of the Basotho. London: Heinemann..
  17. Casalis, E. (1992). The Basutos : or, twenty-three years in South Africa. Morija: Morija Museum & Archives.
  18. Legassick, M. (1972). The Griqua, The Sotho–Tswana, and the Missionaries, 1780–1840. Ann Arbor: Univ. Microfilms International.
  19. Grant, N. (1981). Moshoeshoe: Founder of a Nation. London: Longman..
    • David B. Coplan. In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South Africa's Basotho Migrants. University of Chicago Press, 1994
  20. Ellenberger, History of the Basuto p 97
  21. Tsiu, William MorutiBasotho Oral Poetry At the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century. Kwara State University Press, 28 Mar 2018 Page 40-42
  22. M Prozesky (2016) Ethical leadership resources in southern Africa’s Sesotho speaking culture and in King Moshoeshoe I, Journal of Global Ethics, 12:1, 5-16, DOI: 10.1080/17449626.2016.1146789
  23. Accessed 4 November 2018
  24. Calinicos, L (1982), Gold and Workers: 1886–1924, Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
  25. Calinicos 1982.
  26. Bundy, C; Saunders, C (1989), Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, Cape Town: Readers’ Digest.
  27. Bereng, P (1987), I am a Mosotho, Roma, Lesotho: National University of Lesotho.
  28. Central Intelligence Agency (n.d.) CIA-The World Factbook: Lesotho. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 5-01-10 from
  29. Mokoena, A. (1998) Sesotho Made Easy. JL van Schaik: Pretoria.
  30. Davids, Y. (2006) Human Sciences Research Council Review 4 (4). Human Sciences Research Council. Retrieved 5-01-10 from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 14 July 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  31. Posel, D. (2003) Have Migration Patterns in Post-Apartheid South Africa Changed? Conference on African Migration in Comparative Perspective. Johannesburg: 2003.
  32. Constitution of South Africa (1996)
  33. Zerbian, S., and Barnard, E. (2008) Phonetics of Intonation in South African Bantu Languages. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 26 (2): 235–50.
  34. United Nations Scientific and Educational Council (UNESCO)(2000) World Languages Survey. Paris: UNESCO.
  35. STATISTICS SA (2001) Census 2001. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.
  36. South African National Census of 2011
  37. Lewis, P. (2009) Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas: SIL International.
  38. Kunene, D. (1989) Thomas Mofolo and the emergence of written Sesotho prose. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989.
  40. Dean Foster. The Global Etiquette Guide to Africa and the Middle East: Everything You Need to Know for Business and Travel Success. John Wiley & Sons, 15 Oct 2002, page 259.
  41. Toyin Falola Ph.D., Daniel Jean-Jacques Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society.ABC-CLIO, 14 Dec 2015. Pages 656-657
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