Sotho people

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King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho with his ministers.jpg
King Moshoeshoe I, founder of the Basotho nation, with his Ministers.
Total population
5.3 million (2001 estimate)
to 6,409,000[1]
Regions with significant populations
South Africa, Lesotho
 South Africa 3,544,304 (2001 Census)
to 4,723,000[1]
 Lesotho 1,669,000[1]
 Botswana 11,000[1]
 Swaziland 6,000[1]
African Traditional Religion, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Northern Sotho, Tswana
Person Mosotho
People Basotho
Language Sesotho
Country Lesotho

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 (now Lesotho).


Early history[edit]

Further information: Bantu expansion and Sotho-Tswana peoples

Pastoralist Bantu-speaking peoples settled in the territory of modern South Africa by about 500 CE,[2] displacing the aboriginal inhabitants of Southern Africa.[3]

The separation from the Tswana is assumed to have taken place by the 14th century. The first historical references to the Sotho date to the 19th century. By that time, a series of Sotho kingdoms covered the southern portion of the plateau (Free State Province and parts of Gauteng). Sotho society was highly decentralized and organized on the basis of kraals, or extended clans, each of which ruled by a chief[4] Chiefdoms were united into loose confederations[4]

19th century[edit]

In the 1820s, refugees from the Zulu expansion under Shaka[5] came into contact with the Sotho people residing on the highveld. In 1823, those 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.[6] In 1845, the Kololo conquered Barotseland.[7]

At about the same time, the Boers began to encroach upon Sotho territory.[8] 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] [8]

At the time of these developments, Moshoeshoe I gained control of the Sotho kingdoms of the southern Highveld.[9] Universally praised as a skilled diplomat and strategist, he was able to wield the disparate refugee groups escaping the Difaqane into a cohesive nation.[10] 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 [11]

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.[12] His capital was later moved to Thaba Bosiu[13]

To deal with the encroaching voortrekker groups, Moshoeshoe encouraged French missionary activity in his kingdom.[14] Missionaries sent by the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society provided the King with foreign affairs counsel and helped to facilitate the purchase of modern weapons.[15]

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.[16] The first Sotho translation of the Bible appeared in 1878.[17]

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 current capital.[8] Local chieftains retained power over internal affairs while Britain was responsible for foreign affairs and the defence of the protectorate.[18] In 1869, the British sponsored a process by which the borders of Basutoland were finally demarcated.[8] 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 that bordered the Sotho kingdom.

20th century[edit]

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.[3] In 1966, Basutoland gained its independence from Britain, becoming the Kingdom of Lesotho.

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.[19] 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 kilometers away.[20]

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.[21] While men tended to find employment within the mining sector, women gravitated towards employment as agricultural or domestic workers.[21]

In terms of religion, the central role that Christian missionaries played in helping Moshoeshoe I secure his kingdom helped to ensure widespread conversion among Sotho people to Christianity. Today, the bulk of Sotho speakers practice a form of Christianity that 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.[22] Officially, the majority of Lesotho's population is Catholic.[23]

The Sotho heartland is the Free State province in South Africa and neighboring Lesotho.[24] Both of these largely rural areas are characterized by widespread poverty and underdevelopment.[25] It can thus be reasonably argued that many Sotho speakers live in conditions of economic hardship, but people with access to land and steady employment may enjoy a higher standard of living[25] Landowners will often participate in subsistence or small scale commercial farming ventures.[23] Overgrazing and land mismanagement are growing problems.[23]

Current situation[edit]

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.[26]

Generally, employment patterns among Sotho speakers follow patterns pertaining to broader South Africans society. Historical factors make unemployment among Sotho and other Black South Africans remain high.[25] Professional people are employed in the education, health, medicine, legal and political sectors. Others find employment in the civil service and business.


The language of the Sotho may be referred to as Sesotho[27] or less commonly Sesotho sa borwa[28]). Some texts may refer to Sotho as "Southern Sotho" to differentiate it from Northern Sotho, also called Pedi.

Sotho is the first language of 1.5 million people in Lesotho, or 85% of the population.[23] Sotho is one of the two official languages in Lesotho, the other being English.[23] Lesotho enjoys one of Africa's highest literacy rates, with 59% of the adult population being literate chiefly in Sotho.[29]

In South Africa, almost 4 million people speak Sotho as a first language.[30] 62% of the inhabitants of the Free State speak Sotho as a first language.[30] Approximately, 10% of the residents of Gauteng speak Sotho as a first language.[30] In the North West Province, 5% of the population speak Sotho as a first language, with a concentration of speakers in the Maboloka region.[30] 3% of Mpumalanga's people speak Sotho as a first language, with many speakers living in the Standerton area.[30] 2% of the residents of the Eastern Cape, chiefly in the northern regions of the province, speak Sotho as a first language.[30]

No official statistics data on second language usage are available, but a conservative estimate of the number of people who speak Sotho as a second (or later) language is 5 million.[31] Sotho is one of the 11 official languages in South Africa.[27]

Aside from Lesotho and South Africa, 60,000 people speak Silozi (a close relative of Sotho) in Zambia.[31] Small numbers of Sotho speakers reside in Botswana, Swaziland and the Caprivi Strip of Namibia.[31]

Sotho is used in a range of educational settings both as a subject of study and as a medium of instruction.[29] It is used in its spoken and written forms in all the spheres of education from pre schooling to doctoral studies.[29] Difficulties still exist when Sotho is used 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.[29]

Sotho 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 Sotho. There are other regional radio stations as well throughout Lesotho and the Free State.[29] Half-hour Sotho news bulletins are broadcast daily on a government TV station. Independent TV broadcaster, eTV, also features a daily half-hour Sotho bulletin. Both SABC and the eTV group produce a range of programs that 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 newsletters in Qwaqwa, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and possibly other Free State towns.[29]

The popular monthly magazine Bona includes Sotho content.[29] 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[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "The Sotho people group are reported in 5 countries". Retrieved 26 December 2014. 
  2. ^ L. Thompson, A History of South Africa (2001); James L. Newman, The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.
  3. ^ a b Bundy, C.; C. Saunders (1989). Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story. Cape Town: Readers Digest. .
  4. ^ a b Laband, J. (2003). "Mfecane". Encarta Encyclopedia. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation. .
  5. ^ Ross, R. (2009). A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  6. ^ Muimui, Lubosi. "Political History of Barotseland". Archived from the original on 23 April 2014. 
  7. ^ Phiri, Bizeck J. (2005). "Lozi Kingdom and the Kololo". In Shillington, Kevin. Encyclopedia of African History, Volume II, H-O. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn (Routledge). pp. 851–852. ISBN 978-1-57958-454-2. 
  8. ^ a b c d Ross, R. (2009). A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. .
  9. ^ a b Thompson, L. (2001). A History of South Africa. Cambridge: Yale University Press. .
  10. ^ Becker, P. (1969) Hill of destiny: the life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basuto. London : Longman.
  11. ^ __ (2003). "Moshoeshoe". Encarta Encyclopedia. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation. 
  12. ^ Becker, P. (1969). Hill of destiny: the life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basuto. London: Longman. 
  13. ^ Becker, P. (1969). Hill of destiny: the life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basuto. London: Longman. .
  14. ^ Sanders, P. (1975). Moshoeshoe, chief of the Sotho. London: Heinemann. .
  15. ^ P., Sanders (1975). Moshoeshoe, chief of the Sotho. London: Heinemann. .
  16. ^ Casalis, E. (1992). The Basutos : or, twenty-three years in South Africa. Morija: Morija Museum & Archives.
  17. ^ Legassick, M. (1972). The Griqua, The Sotho–Tswana, and the Missionaries, 1780–1840. Ann Arbor: Univ. Microfilms International. 
  18. ^ Grant, N. (1981). Moshoeshoe: Founder of a Nation. London: Longman. .
  19. ^ Calinicos, L. (1982) Gold and Workers:1886–1924. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
  20. ^ Calinicos, L. (1982) Gold and Workers: 1886–1924. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
  21. ^ a b Bundy, C., and Saunders, C. (1989) Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story. Cape Town: Readers Digest.
  22. ^ Bereng, P. (1987) I am a Mosotho. Roma, Lesotho: National University of Lesotho.
  23. ^ a b c d e Central Intelligence Agency (n.d.) CIA-The World Factbook: Lesotho. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 5-01-10 from
  24. ^ Mokoena, A. (1998) Sesotho Made Easy. JL van Schaik: Pretoria.
  25. ^ a b c Davids, Y. (2006) Human Sciences Research Council Review 4 (4). Human Sciences Research Council. Retrieved 5-01-10 from
  26. ^ Posel, D. (2003) Have Migration Patterns in Post-Apartheid South Africa Changed? Conference on African Migration in Comparative Perspective. Johannesburg: 2003.
  27. ^ a b Constitution of South Africa (1996)
  28. ^ Zerbian, S., and Barnard, E. (2008) Phonetics of Intonation in South African Bantu Languages. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 26 (2): 235–250.
  29. ^ a b c d e f g United Nations Scientific and Educational Council (UNESCO)(2000) World Languages Survey. Paris: UNESCO.
  30. ^ a b c d e f STATISTICS SA (2001) Census 2001. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.
  31. ^ a b c Lewis, P. (2009) Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas: SIL International.
  32. ^ Kunene, D. (1989) Thomas Mofolo and the emergence of written Sotho prose. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989.