King Moshoeshoe I, founder of the Basotho nation, with his Ministers.
|5.3 million (2001 estimate)
|Regions with significant populations|
|South Africa, Lesotho|
|South Africa||3,544,304 (2001 Census)
|African Traditional Religion, Christianity|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Northern Sotho, Tswana|
The Sotho people (Basotho or Basuto) are a Bantu ethnic group whose ancestors have lived in southern Africa since around the fifth century. The Sotho nation 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 Sotho today live in South Africa, as the area of the Orange Free State was originally part of Moshoeshoe's nation (modern-day Lesotho).
Before the 20th century
Pastoralist Bantu speaking people settled in South Africa in about 200–500 CE. Originating in the vicinity of West and Central Africa, waves of Iron Age immigrants spread across the broad Southern African peninsula, easily displacing the aboriginal Stone Age inhabitants of South Africa. By the 19th century, stable patterns of settlement had emerged. Nguni speaking tribes (primarily Zulu and Xhosa) occupied the east and southern coastal regions, while a series of Sotho kingdoms covered the southern portion of the plateau (Free State Province and parts of Gauteng).
Zulu expansionism and White migration
The 19th century brought two events which had a profound and lasting impact on the history of the Sotho. To the east, Shaka rose to become emperor of the Zulu people. After transforming Zulu society from a fragmented collection of related clans into a united, nationalistic kingdom with a disciplined and permanent army, Shaka undertook a series of wars of conquest. Zulu expansion, later dubbed difaqane ('the Crushing'), set off a series of eastward migrations as refugees and defeated tribes fled the onslaught. These displaced groups came into contact with the Sotho people residing on the highveld. In 1823, these pressures caused one group of Sotho, the Kololo, to migrate north, past the Okavango Swamp and across the Zambezi into Barotseland, now part of Zambia. In 1845 the Kololo conquered Barotseland.
Concurrently, the descendants of Dutch settlers who founded the Cape in 1652, began arriving in Sotho territory. Later, in the 20th century they were known as voortrekkers ("pioneers"), to the British they were simply known as Boers. These farmers had opted to leave the Dutch colony located on the south western coast of South Africa after the colony ceded to Britain at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Disagreements about language oppression and later payments for freed slaves motivated the Dutch settlers to leave the area of the Cape Colony under British rule and administration. They eventually succeeded to create independent polities in the hinterland of South Africa.
At the time of these developments, King Moshoeshoe (also spelled "Moshweshwe" or wrongly spelled “Moshesh”) gained control of the Sotho kingdoms of the southern Highveld. Universally praised as a skilled diplomat and strategist, he was able to wield the disparate refugee groups escaping the Difaqane into a cohesive nation.
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) which destroyed other indigenous South African kingdoms during the 19th century 
In 1822, Moshoeshoe established his capital at Buthe-Buthe, an easily defendable mountain in the northern Drakensberg mountains, 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 Sotho orthography and printing Sotho language materials between 1837 and 1855. The first Sotho translation of the Bible appeared in 1878.
In 1868, after losing the western lowlands to the Boers during the Free State–Sotho war; Moshoeshoe successfully appealed to Queen Victoria to proclaim Lesotho (then known as Basotuland) a protectorate of Britain and the British administration was placed in Maseru, the site of Lesotho's present-day capital. Local chieftains retained power over internal affairs while Britain was responsible for foreign affairs and the defence of the protectorate. In 1869, the British sponsored a process by which the borders of Basutoland were finally demarcated. While many clans had territory within Basotuland, large numbers of Sotho speakers resided in areas allocated to the Orange Free State, the sovereign voortrekker republic which bordered the Sotho kingdom.
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.
The status of Sotho today
Sotho is the first language of 1.5 million people in Lesotho, or 85% of the population. Sotho 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 Sotho.
In South Africa, almost 4 million people speak Sotho as a first language. 62% of the inhabitants of the Free State speak Sotho as a first language. Approximately, 10% of the residents of Gauteng speak Sotho at a first language level. In the North West Province 5% of the population speaks first language Sotho, with a concentration of speakers in the Maboloka region. 3% of Mpumalanga’s people speak Sotho as a first language, with many speakers living in the Standerton area. 2% of the residents of the Eastern Cape, chiefly in the northern regions of the province, speak Sotho as a first language.
No Statistics SA data on second language usage is available but a conservative estimate of the number of people who speak Sotho as a second (or third, or fourth…) language is 5 million. Sotho is one of the 11 official languages in South Africa.
Aside from Lesotho and South Africa, 60,000 people speak Silozi (a close relative of Sotho) in Zambia. Small numbers of Sotho speakers reside in Botswana, Swaziland and the Caprivi Strip of Namibia.
Sotho 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 the spheres of education from pre schooling to doctoral studies. Difficulties still exist when using Sotho as a technical language in the fields of commerce, information technology, science, mathematics and law since the corpus of technical materials in Sotho is still relatively small.
Sotho has developed a sizeable media presence since the end of apartheid. Radio Lesedi is a 24-hour Sesotho radio station run by the SABC (South Africa's national broadcasting corporation), broadcasting solely in Sotho. There are other regional radio stations as well throughout Lesotho and the Free State. Half hour Sotho news bulletins are broadcast daily on a government TV station. Independent TV broadcaster, eTV, also features a daily 30-minute Sotho bulletin. Both SABC and the eTV group produce a range of programs which feature at least some Sotho 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 Sotho though, except for regional news-letters in Qwaqwa, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and possibly other Free State towns.
The popular monthly magazine “Bona” includes Sotho content. Since the codification of Sotho orthography, literary works have been produced in Sotho. Amongst the most notable are Thomas Mofolo’s epic, "Chaka", which has been translated into several languages including English and German
The Sotho people today
The Sotho heartland is the Free State province in South Africa and neighbouring Lesotho. Both of these largely rural areas are characterised by widespread poverty and underdevelopment. It can thus be reasonably argued that many Sotho speakers live in conditions of economic hardship though people with access to land and steady employment may enjoy a higher standard of living . Landowners will often participate in subsistence or small scale commercial farming ventures. Overgrazing and land mismanagement are growing problems.
Internal migration explains why Sotho is widely spoken throughout the sub-continent. To enter the cash economy, Sotho 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 Sotho to the urban areas of South Africa. Migrant work is generally agreed to have had a negative impact on family life for most Sotho speakers since adults (primarily men) were required to leave their families behind in impoverished communities while they were employed in cities located hundreds of kilometres away.
Attempts by the apartheid government to force Sotho 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. While men tended to find employment within the mining sector, women gravitated towards employment as agricultural or domestic workers.
The allure of urban areas has not diminished and internal migration remains a reality for many black people born in Lesotho and other sotho heartlands today.
Generally, employment patterns amongst Sotho speakers follow patterns pertaining to broader South Africans society. Due to historical factors, unemployment amongst Sotho and other Black South Africans remains high. Professional people are employed in the education, health, medicine, legal and political sectors. Others find employment in the civil service and business.
In terms of religion, the central role that Christian missionaries played in helping Moshoeshoe secure his kingdom helped to ensure widespread conversion amongst Sotho people to Christianity. Today, the bulk of Sotho speakers practice a form of Christianity which blends elements of traditional Christian dogma with local, pre-Western believes. 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. Officially, the majority of Lesotho’s population is Catholic.
- Sotho–Tswana peoples
- Sotho language
- Sotho-Tswana languages
- Liphofung Historical Site
- Moshoeshoe I
- Sotho calendar
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