Sotho people

The Sotho people, also known as the Basuto or Basotho, are a Bantu nation native to Southern Africa. They split into different ethnic groups over time, due to regional conflicts and colonialism, which resulted in the modern Basotho, who have inhabited the region of Lesotho, South Africa since around the fifth century CE. 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 (now Lesotho).


Early history

Bantu-speaking peoples 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 The first historical references to the Basotho date to the 19th century.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 (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 was ruled by a chief. Chiefdoms 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 ("pioneers") 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 Mfecane, the inward expansion of the voortrekkers and the plans of the Colonial Office.

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 (primarily Casalis and Arbousset) 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 (modern Lesotho) 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 (literally "need for sustenance" or "we want") when there were many refugees fleeing wars started by the Zulu King Shaka. According to missionary Ellenberger,[who?] the people 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 Motlejoa. 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 Bakoena 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.

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 (primarily men) 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 ("God") 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.

Percentage of Sesotho speakers across South Africa:

  • 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, 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 (a close relative of Sesotho) in Zambia. Additionally, a few Sesotho speakers reside in Botswana, Eswatini 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 (or later) 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 (e.g. in the fields of commerce, information technology, law, science, and math) 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 (SABC), 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 South African newspapers in Sesotho except for regional newsletters in Qwaqwa, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and possibly other Free State towns.

Currently, the mainstream South African magazine Bona 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 (gumboots) 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.

Sotho Calendar

The Sesotho language has traditional names for the months of the familiar Gregorian calendar. The names reflect a deep connection that the Basotho people traditionally have with the natural world and the importance of agriculture.

Although the month names are often not used by the general public (being considered part of "deep Sesotho"), they are regularly used in news broadcasts and other media and are more common than English imports. Additionally, the names of the seasons and the days of the week are regularly used by all speakers.


The names of the months (likhoeli) indicate special natural and agricultural events which traditionally happened during the period. Being cattle breeders who lived in the semi-arid regions of southern Africa, a deep understanding of agriculture and the natural world was essential for the survival of the Basotho people. The year begins roughly in the month of August, when the seeds are planted in anticipation of the next month's explosion of life.

  1. Phato (August) – from the verb -fata (dig) as the barren fields are ploughed and prepared in anticipation of the next months explosion of life.
  2. Loetse (September) – the grass grows and the cows grow fat on it. They produce so much milk that the expression lebese lo etse (the milk has spilled over) is used.
  3. Mphalane (October) – this is a shortening of the compound noun Mphalane-ya-leshoma meaning "The flower shoots of the boophone disticha plant", and it said that this is the time when the flower starts producing shoots.
  4. Pulungoana (November) – many wildebeest deliver their young in this month, and the name is a diminutive of pudumo (wildebeest).
  5. Ts'itoe (December) – large numbers of a species of small grasshopper (tshitwe) are found at this time. Since cattle start producing less milk in this period, it is said that the cows are being milked by the tshitwe grasshoppers.
  6. Pherekhong (January) – the crops begin to grow large and bird-scarers set up camp in their fields. They erect small structures and phera ka khong (set up the rafters using old pieces of dried wood).
  7. Hlakola (February) – the sorghum plants release a white substance (modula) signaling the emergence of the ears of corn. As the ears of corn emerge, it is said that the modula are being wiped off, and this name is a shortening of Hlakola-modula ("Wipe the modula off).
  8. Hlakubele (March) – the sorghum grains are visible and birds start eating them. The name is a compound noun from tlhaku tsa mabele (grains of sorghum).
  9. 'Mesa (April) – there are large numbers of a certain species of grasshopper known as mohlwane. Herd boys make fires at night and eat roasted maize with mohlwane. This gave rise to the proverb Mmesa mohlwane ha a panye (one needs to be diligent when doing a job, lit. the mohlwane roaster does not blink); the name comes from the first word in this proverb mmesa (the roaster).
  10. Mots'eanong (May) – the sorghum grains have become hard – too hard for the birds to eat them. It is said that the plants are laughing at the birds, and the name is a contraction of motsheha dinong (the one who laughs at the birds).
  11. Phuptjane (June) – this is the beginning of Winter, and all plants seem to die and many wild animals leave on migrations. It is said that Nature is holding back on life. The name means "a small holding back" and is a diminutive of the name of the following month.
  12. Phupu (July) – everything seems completely dead and lifeless. Nature is holding back completely.


Like many other sub-Saharan African societies who historically lived in tropical regions, Sesotho-speaking people generally recognise only two seasons (dihla). However, names do exist for all four of the traditional western European seasons. The year begins in approximately August or September, when the crops are planted.

  1. Selemo (spring) – from the verb -lema (plant) as the crops are planted at the beginning of this period. This is also the most common name for "year."
  2. Lehlabula (summer) – more often than not this name is used for both the spring and the summer.
  3. Lehwetla (autumn) – from the ancient Proto-Bantu root *-ginja ("hot season"). This noun is often used without the class prefix (that is, as Hwetla).
  4. Mariha (winter) – from the ancient and widespread Proto-Bantu root *-tîka ("cold weather; cold season; night"). More often than not this name is used to denote both autumn and winter.


The concept of dividing the month into four seven-day weeks (libeke, from Afrikaans "week") is a recent European innovation. The week begins on Monday.

  1. Mantaha (Monday)
  2. Labobeli (Tuesday) – Contraction of "letsatsi la bobedi" ("the second day").
  3. Laboraro (Wednesday) – "the third one."
  4. Labone (Thursday) – "the fourth one."
  5. Labohlano (Friday) – "the fifth one."
  6. Moqebelo (Saturday) – from isiXhosa "uMgqibelo" ("Saturday, the ending") from the verb "ukugqiba" ("to finish").
  7. Sontaha (Sunday) – Meaning "the day of the Lord".

Table of Sotho-Tswana clan manes

Clan Language Country Totem Totem in English Region
Makololo Zambia Kwena Crocodile Bafokeng
Batsatsing Letsatsi Sun
Batawana Batswana Botswana Phuti Duiker Bangwato
Bafula Sesotho Lesotho, South Africa Kolobe Wild Hog Free State
Bahlakoana Sesotho Lesotho, South Africa Free State, Koena, families descending from Disema and Molapo, second and third born sons of Napo a Koena. Crocodile Bakoena
Baphalane Sesotho Kwena Crocodile Bakwena
Baphuthing Sesotho Phuthi Duiker
Makhoakhoa Sesotho South Africa, Lesotho Koena, descendents of Napo via third born Molapo. Grandchildren of Molapo named Kherehloa and Mahlatsi began this tribe. Crocodile Telle River, Butha-buthe, Makhoakhoeng, Vaal, Qwaqwa, Tshwane, the greater Free State and parts of Bojanala in North West Province RSA.
Basia Sesotho Katse Wild Cat Bakgatla
Bakone Sesotho ba Leboa South Africa Limpopo Hlagahlagane (Tlhantlhagane), Phuti Guineafowl, Scaly feathered finch
Batau Sesotho ba Leboa South Africa Limpopo Tau Lion
Bakopa Sesotho ba Leboa South Africa Limpopo Kwena Crocodile BaKwena
Bapai Sesotho ba Leboa/ Pulana South Africa Limpopo/ Mpumalanga Tswhene Baboon Pulana, Swazi
Mapulana Sesotho ba Leboa/ Pulana South Africa Limpopo/ Mpumalanga Tau Lion Bammangwato, Barolong
Bakutswe Sesotho ba Leboa/Pulana South Africa Limpopo/Mpumalanga Kwena Crocodile Barolong
Bagananwa/Bahananwa Sesotho sa Leboa South Africa Tshwene Baboon Bahurutshe, Limpopo
Bapedi Sesotho sa Leboa Noko Porcupine Bakgatla
Baroka ba Lebole Sesotho sa Leboa South Africa,Limpopo Phuthi Duiker Bakgalaka
Bakgaga/ Bakgaaga Sesotho sa Lebowa South Africa Kwena, Phuti, Kgaga Crocodile, Duiker Bakgalaka, Limpopo
Baroka Sesotho sa Lebowa South Africa, Limpopo Tlou Elephant
Bakubung Sesotho, Lesotho Kubu Hippopotamus Barolong
Bafokeng Sesotho, Setswana Lesotho, South Africa Mutla, Koena, Phoka Hare, Crocodile, Dew North West, Free State
Bakhatla/ Bakgatla Sesotho, Setswana Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa Kgabo, Eagle Monkey Bahurutshe
Bakoena Sesotho, Setswana Koena Crocodile
Banareng Sesotho, Setswana Botswana Nare Buffalo Bahurutse,
Batlokoa Sesotho, Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa Noko, Nkoe, Thakadu Wild Cat Bakgatla
Batšoeneng Sesotho, Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa Tšoene Baboon Bahurutshe
Bataung Sesotho, Setswana, Sesotho sa Lebowa South Africa Tau Lion Bahurutshe
Makgolokwe/Makholokoe Sesotho/Sekholokoe Phuthi Small buck
Bakgalagadi-Batlhaping Setswana Botswana Thlapi Fish Batlhaping Kurumane South Africa
Babirwa Setswana Botswana Nare Buffalo
Batabe Setswana Botswana Tshipi Iron
Bahurutshe Setswana Botswana, South Africa Tshwene Baboon North West
Bakgalagadi Setswana Botswana
Bakgalagadi - Baboalongwe Setswana Botswana Nare Buffalo
Bakgalagadi - Bangologa Setswana Botswana, Namibia
Bakgalagadi - Baphaleng Setswana Botswana
Bakgalagadi - Bashaga Setswana Botswana Bakgalagadi - Batlhaping

Setswana Botswana South Africa Taung Tlhapi

Bakhurutshe Setswana Botswana Tshwene/Phofu Baboon/Elands Bahurutshe
Bamalete Setswana Botswana Nare Buffalo
Bangwaketse Setswana Botswana Kwena Crocodile Bakwena
Bangwato Setswana Botswana Phuti Duiker Bakwena
Baphiri Setswana Phiri Hyenna
Bapo Setswana Kwena Crocodile Bakwena
Barokologadi Setswana Noko Porcupine
Batlharo Setswana Tshwene Baboon
Batswapong Setswana Botswana Hare or Kgope Bapedi
Barolong Setswana North West Tholo Kudu Mahikeng
Batlhako Setswana South Africa Tlou Elephant Rustenburg, Mabeskraal
Batlhaping Setswana South Africa, Namibia Tholo ba nina Tlhapi Kudu/Fish Barolong
Batlhware Setswana Tshwene Baboon
Bahwaduba Setswana South Africa,Kgwadibeng-Mathibestad Nare (Kgomo ya naga) Buffalo Bakgalaka
Bakwena Ba Ma-Thebe (also known as Bantwane or Bantoane) Setswana South Africa Kwena, Tholo, Kgabo Crocodile Bammangwato, Barolong, Bakgatla,, Musane-Dikwena, Mmusane Kotu
Banogeng Setswana South Africa Noga Snake North West, Mahikeng, Matile
Batloung Setswana, Sesotho Tlou Elephant

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