Sotho people

The Sotho people, or Basotho, are a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa who speak Sesotho. They are native to modern Lesotho and South Africa. The Basotho have inhabited the region since around the fifth century CE and are closely related to other Bantu peoples of the region.
The modern Basotho identity emerged from the accomplished diplomacy of Moshoeshoe I who unified the disparate clans of Sotho–Tswana origin that had dispersed across southern Africa in the early 19th century. Most Basotho today live in Lesotho or South Africa, as the area of the Orange Free State was originally part of Moshoeshoe's nation.


Early history

had settled in what is now South Africa by about 500 CE. 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 The first historical references to the Basotho date to the 19th century.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. Basotho society was highly decentralized, and organized on the basis of kraals, or extended clans, each of which was ruled by a chief. Fiefdoms were united into loose confederations.

19th century

In the 1820s, refugees from the Zulu expansion under Shaka came into contact with the Basotho people residing on the highveld. In 1823, pressure caused one group of Basotho, the Kololo, to migrate north. They moved past the Okavango Swamp and across the Zambezi into Barotseland, which is now part of Zambia. In 1845, the Kololo conquered Barotseland.
At about the same time, the Boers began to encroach upon Basotho territory. After the Cape Colony was ceded to Britain at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, farmers who opted to leave the former Dutch colony were called the voortrekkers and moved inland where they eventually established independent polities.
At the time of these developments, Moshoeshoe I gained control of the Basotho kingdoms of the southern highveld. Universally praised as a skilled diplomat and strategist, he moulded the disparate refugee groups escaping the Difaqane into a cohesive nation. His leadership allowed his small nation to survive the obstacles that destroyed other indigenous South African kingdoms during the 19th century, such as the Zulu hegemony, the inward expansion of the voortrekkers and the plans of imperial Britain.
In 1822, Moshoeshoe established the capital at Butha-Buthe, an easily defensible mountain in the northern Drakensberg mountain range, thus laying the foundations of the eventual Kingdom of Lesotho. His capital was later moved to Thaba Bosiu.
To deal with the encroaching voortrekker groups, Moshoeshoe encouraged French missionary activity in his kingdom. Missionaries sent by the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society provided the King with foreign affairs counsel and helped to facilitate the purchase of modern weapons.
Aside from acting as state ministers, missionaries played a vital role in delineating Sesotho orthography and printing Sesotho language materials between 1837 and 1855. The first Sesotho translation of the Bible appeared in 1878.
In 1868, after losing the western lowlands to the Boers during the Free State–Basotho Wars, Moshoeshoe successfully appealed to Queen Victoria to proclaim Basutoland a protectorate of Britain. Accordingly, the British administration was established in Maseru, the site of Lesotho's current capital. Local chieftains retained power over internal affairs, while Britain was responsible for foreign affairs and the defense of the protectorate.
In 1869, the British sponsored a process to demarcate the borders of Basutoland. While many clans had territory within Basutoland, 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 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 27 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 the Basotho, cannibals are regarded as people having evil supernatural powers comparable with Satan or spirits of the dead that oppose the good spirits and Basotho ancestors. Their tradition states that the great Bakuena chief, Mohlomi, prophesied the coming of the lifaqane and cannibalism on 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."
The Basotho cannibals believed that their human victims would appease the gods. Missionaries who arrived in 1883 estimated that there were between 7,000 and 8,000 Basotho practicing cannibalism between the Orange River, the Drakensberg and the Vaal river.
Moeshoeshoe and his people experienced an attack by cannibals as they moved from Butha Buthe to Thaba Bosiu seeking 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 of his grandfather's death, Moeshoeshoe chose not to punish captured cannibals. Instead, he decided to aid them in their rehabilitation into society by giving them food and cattle.
From 1822 to 1828, there were about 300,000 victims of cannibalism. The practice stopped shortly after the arrival of Christian missionaries as cannibalism was not tolerated in the Christian lifestyle. The Cannibal Trail just outside Clarens in the eastern Free State runs between the Rooiberge and Witteberg mountains, where cannibals used to reside.

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. In 1966, Basutoland gained its independence from Britain, becoming the Kingdom of Lesotho.
Sesotho is widely spoken throughout the sub-continent due to internal migration. To enter the cash economy, Basotho men often migrated to large cities in South Africa to find employment in the mining industry. Migrant workers from the Free State and Lesotho thus helped to spread Sesotho to the urban areas of South Africa. It is generally agreed that migrant work harmed the family life of most Sesotho speakers because adults were required to leave their families behind in impoverished communities while they were employed in distant cities.
Attempts by the apartheid government to force Sesotho speakers to relocate to designated homelands had little effect on their settlement patterns. Large numbers of workers continued to leave the traditional areas of Black settlement. Women gravitated towards employment as agricultural or domestic workers while men typically found employment in the mining sector.
In terms of religion, the central role that Christian missionaries played in helping Moshoeshoe I secure his kingdom helped to ensure widespread Basotho conversion 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 is viewed as a supreme being who cannot be approached by mortals. Ancestors are seen as intercessors between Modimo and the living, and their favor must be cultivated through worship and reverence. Officially, the majority of Lesotho's population is Catholic.
The Basotho's heartland is the Free State province in South Africa and neighboring Lesotho. Both of these largely rural areas have widespread poverty and underdevelopment. 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. Landowners often participate in subsistence or small-scale commercial farming ventures. However, overgrazing and land mismanagement are growing problems.


The allure of urban areas has not diminished, and internal migration continues today for many black people born in Lesotho and other Basotho heartlands. Generally, employment patterns among the Basotho follow the same patterns as broader South African society. Historical factors cause unemployment among the Basotho and other Black South Africans to remain high.
Percent of Sesotho speakers across South Africa:
The language of the Basotho is referred to as Sesotho, less commonly known as Sesotho sa borwa. Some texts may refer to Sesotho as "Southern Sotho" to differentiate it from Northern Sotho, also called Sepedi.
Sesotho is the first language of 1.5 million people in Lesotho, or 85% of the population. It is one of the two official languages in Lesotho, the other being English. Lesotho enjoys one of Africa's highest literacy rates, with 59% of the adult population being literate, chiefly in Sesotho.
Sesotho is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa. According to the South African National Census of 2011, almost 4 million people speak Sesotho as a first language, including 62% of Free State inhabitants. Approximately 13.1% of the residents of Gauteng speak Sesotho as a first language. In the North West Province, 5% of the population speak Sesotho as a first language, with a concentration of speakers in the Maboloka region. Three percent of Mpumalanga's people speak Sesotho as a first language, with many speakers living in the Standerton area. Two percent of the residents of the Eastern Cape speak Sesotho as a first language, though they are located mostly in the northern part of the province.
Aside from Lesotho and South Africa, 60,000 people speak Silozi in Zambia. Additionally, a few Sesotho speakers reside in Botswana, Swaziland and the Caprivi Strip of Namibia. No official statistics on second language usage are available, but one conservative estimate of the number of people who speak Sesotho as a second language is 5 million.
Sesotho is used in a range of educational settings both as a subject of study and as a medium of instruction. It is used in its spoken and written forms in all spheres of education, from preschool to doctoral studies. However, the number of technical materials in the language is still relatively small.
Sesotho has developed a sizable media presence since the end of apartheid. Lesedi FM is a 24-hour Sesotho radio station run by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, broadcasting solely in Sesotho. There are other regional radio stations throughout Lesotho and the Free State. Half-hour Sesotho news bulletins are broadcast daily on the SABC free-to-air channel SABC 2. 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 some Sesotho dialogue.
In Lesotho, the Lesotho National Broadcasting Service broadcasts to South Africa via satellite pay-TV provider, DStv.
Most newspapers in Lesotho are written in Sesotho or both Sesotho and English. There are no fully fledged newspapers in Sesotho except for regional newsletters in Qwaqwa, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and possibly other Free State towns.
Currently, the mainstream South African magazine includes Sesotho content. Since the codification of Sesotho orthography, literary works have been produced in Sesotho. Notable Sesotho-language literature includes Thomas Mofolo's epic Chaka, which has been translated into several languages including English and German.


The Basotho have a unique traditional attire. This includes the mokorotlo, a conical hat with a decorated knob at the top that is worn differently for men and women. The Basotho blanket is often worn over the shoulders or the waist and protects the wearer against the cold. Although many Sotho people wear westernized clothing, often traditional garments are worn over them.

Basotho herders

Many Basotho who live in rural areas wear clothing that suits their lifestyles. For instance, boys who herd cattle in the rural Free State and Lesotho wear the Basotho blanket and large rain boots as protection from the wet mountain terrain. Herd boys also often wear woolen balaclavas or caps year-round to protect their faces from cold temperatures and dusty winds.

Basotho women

Basotho women usually wear skirts and long dresses in bright colors and patterns, as well as the traditional blankets around the waist. On special occasions like wedding celebrations, they wear the Seshoeshoe, a traditional Basotho dress. The local traditional dresses are made using colored cloth and ribbon accents bordering each layer. Sotho women often purchase this material and have it designed in a style similar to West and East African dresses.
Women often wrap a long print cloth or a small blanket around their waist, either as a skirt or a second garment over it. This is commonly known as a wrap, and it can be used to carry infants on their backs.

Special clothing items

Special clothing is worn for special events like initiation rites and traditional healing ceremonies.
For a Lebollo la basadi, or a girl's initiation ceremony, girls wear a beaded waist wrap called a thethana that covers the waist, particularly the crotch area and part of the buttocks. They also wear grey blankets and goatskin skirts. These garments are worn by young girls and women, particularly virgins.
For a Lebollo la banna, or a boy's initiation ceremony, boys wear a loincloth called a tshea as well as colorful blankets. These traditional outfits are often combined with more modern items like sunglasses.
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 for specific rituals or physical/spiritual protection. It is believed that the San people adopted this bandolier attire for healers during times when the Basotho and the San traded and developed ties through trade, marriage and friendship. The San people's use of the bandolier can be seen in their rock paintings that date to the 1700s.

Notable Sotho people