Sotho-Tswana peoples

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Total population
14,600,000 – 15,500,000
Regions with significant populations
 Lesotho 2,067,000
 Botswana 1,750,000
 South Africa 11,500,000
 Zimbabwe 10,000
 Namibia 6,000
Sesotho, Sesotho sa Lebowa, Setswana
African traditional, Christian
Map showing the proportion of the South African population that speaks a Sotho-Tswana group language (Sotho, Northern Sotho or Tswana) at home, from the 2011 census broken down to ward level.

The Sotho-Tswana peoples are one of the Bantu-speaking peoples who settled in Southern Africa. In addition to the Batswana or 'Western Sotho', the Sotho-Tswana group includes the Basotho of Lesotho and the Free State, to whom the term 'Sotho' has come to be more specifically and almost exclusively applied. This group is sometimes referred to as the 'Southern Sotho'. A third group comprises the Northern Sotho who at times have been incorrectly referred to as the Bapedi. These different groups together may be more conveniently described as 'Sotho-Tswana'. At the very earliest stage of their history, they shared a number of linguistic and cultural characteristics that distinguished them from other Bantu-speakers of southern Africa. These are features such as totemism, a pre-emptive right of men to marry their maternal cousins, and an architectural style characterized by a round hut with a conical thatch roof supported by wooden pillars on the outside. Other major distinguishing features included their dress of skin cloaks and a preference for dense and close settlements, as well as a tradition of large-scale building in stone. The traditions of the Sotho-Tswana people point to a northern origin, and indicate that their southward movement was part of the great migrations of the Bantu-speaking iron-age peoples. The standard theory asserts that the Sotho-Tswana separated from other Bantu-speaking peoples in the vicinity of the Great Lakes of East Africa, and that they proceeded southwards along the western part of present-day Zimbabwe.


The ethnonym Sotho-Tswana is a combination of two terms, Sotho and Tswana, that were previously used to refer to the clans separately at different times in history. The two terms have now being combined to better describe the people.

The term Tswana can be used to refer to one of the following

  • All the Sotho-Tswana clans residing either in Botswana, Lesotho or South Africa
  • Any member of the Sotho-Tswana clans that trace their origin from Kgosi Mokgatle.
  • Citizen of Botswana regardless of linguistic or ethnic origin
  • Members of the eight major Sotho-Tswana clans as defined in the Chieftainship Act of Botswana.
  • Members of the Sotho-Tswana clans that reside in Botswana, South Africa that speak a standardised dialect of the Sotho-Tswana called Setswana sometimes also referred to as the Western Sotho.

The term Basotho can be used to refer to the following

  • Citizen of Lesotho regardless of linguistic or ethnic origin
  • Any member of the Sotho-Tswana clans that trace their origin from Kgosi Mogale
  • Members of the Sotho-Tswana clans that came together under the leadership of Moshoeshoe during the Difaqane.
  • The Sotho-Tswana clans that stay in the central and eastern Free State and Lesotho that speak a standardised dialect of the Sotho-Tswana language called Sesotho and sometimes referred to as the Southern Sotho

According to Jules Ellenberger (1912:34), the Basotho name was derived from the name "Abashuntu" a derivate of the Nguni saying "uku Shunta" meaning "to make a knot". The then Batlokwa, who were the very first people to be called "Abashuntu", used to wear a breech cloth with three ends, one of which passed between the legs and joined the other two knot behind, this mode of dress is called the tshega/tshea. This designation, through bestowed in derision, was adopted with pride by the Batlokwa, and later by other Sotho-Tswana clans similarly clothed and is thought to be the origin of the term "Basotho".

The ethnonym Batswana is thought to be antonyms that come from meaning of the Sotho-Tswana word "tswa", which means "to come out of". The name would be derived from the word "Ba ba tswang" eventually shortened to the word Batswana meaning "The Separatists" or alternatively "the people who cannot hold together". One of the chief characteristics of the Sotho-Tswana clans is the tendency to break up and hive off.


In Sotho-Tswana society each member has a totem which is usually an animal, totems are inherited from the father and thus pass like an English surname.The totem animal had traditionally a status of veneration and avoidance: in particular, it was important not to eat one's totem. In modern Sotho-Tswana society this is not as strictly observed. Each morafe/sechaba had it own totem. When naming a clan the name of the founder could be used or the animal they venarate. An example is the Bahurutshe named after the founder Mohurutshe or alternatively they can also be called Batshweneng after the tshwene(baboon) which they venerate, similarly Batlhako after the founder or Batloung after the totem.For some clan the name of the founder and their totem are same like the Bakwena and Bataung where the founders were named Kwena(Crocodile) and Tau(Lion) respectively.

The question of rank and seniority is one that is very important to the Sotho-Tswana. It determines a lot from family relationships, to village matters to relationships between clans and between the different tribal groups. In a family situation the issue of rank determines when a son will go initiation, inheritance. A further distinction is also made between the senior wife and the junior wife if a man is in a polygamous marriage.

As the Sotho-Tswana lived in large villages, seniority and rank also played a part here, where the chief’s homestead is situated at the centre of the village, thereafter the other citizen are grouped according to rank where the most junior members are living the furthest from the village centre. For inter and intra relationships between clans it has been a question that has occupied the Sotho-Tswana since the split that occurred between the followers of Mohurutshe and Kwena. While it is generally accepted that the Hurutshe are the senior clan, some of the other clans have disputed this, mainly the Bafokeng, Barolong and Bakgatla. The claims of the Barolong and Bakgatla has mainly been dismissed as for an example some sub clans of Bakgatla like the Bakgatla ba ga Mmakau acknowledge the Bahurutshe as senior while the Bakagatla ba ga Kgafela do not. In the case of the Barolong, the Batlhaping who are an offshot of the Barolong acknowledge the Bahurutshe to be senior to the Barolong, while the Barolong do not. The Bafokeng maintain that their split from core Sotho-Tswana body predated the split between Mohurutshe and Kwena, and therefore they are equal in status to the Bahurutshe if not senior.

These dispute over seniority and rank were driven by the quest for benefits and independence, a senior kgosi could demand a payment of tribute from a junior chief, they could also summon a junior chief or member of his clan to kgotla for a hearing. If a dispute arose between two junior chiefs the closet most senior chief to them would be invited to resolve it. Another important factor was that a senior chief or members of his clan could not be summoned to the Kgotla by a junior kgosi or clam member. An additional factor is this question of rank and seniority was that it was determined by birth and could not be changed, this means a chief born of minor status could not change his standing relative to the other chiefs. This was mainly to discourage the split up of clans into further sub-clans and to discourage the buildup of clans through conquest and warfare.

An important distinction needs to be made when discussing Sotho-Tswana clans is to distinguish between the different clans and the various sub-clans below them. This means distinguishing between clans sharing the same totem the like the crocodile but are distinct such as the Bapo, Bakwena , Bangwaketse and Bafokeng of Phokeng. In distinguishing between sub clans an example are the Bakgatla who separated into the Bakgatla ba Kgafela and Bakgatla ba ga Mmakau over who should lead the clan. One faction defied the usual tradition of male leaders and acknowledged the female, Mmakau, as their kgosi. Those who supported Kgafela then broke away.[1] Further offshoot from the Bakgatla are the Bakgatla ba Mmanaana, Bakgatla ba Mmakau and Bakgatla ba Motsha who all have the kgabo as their totem. The Bakgatla ba Mmakau would later give rise to Bapedi, Makgolokwe, Batlokwa, Baphuti and Basia clans [2][3] If a dispute was to arise between any of the offshoot clans like the Basia and Baphiti then the Mmakau chief would be tasked with resolving it as their senior


Sometime between 200–500 CE, Bantu speaking peoples, who originated in the Katanga area (today part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia), and had been expanding across sub-Saharan Africa, crossed the Limpopo River, entering the area today known as South Africa.

There were two broad waves of immigration to South Africa; Nguni and Sotho-Tswana. The former settled in the eastern coastal regions, while the latter settled primarily in the area known today as the Highveld – the large, relatively high central plateau of southern Africa.

By 1000 CE the Bantu colonisation of most of South Africa had been completed, with the possible exception of what is now the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, which are believed to have been inhabited by Khoisan people until Dutch colonisation. The Bantu-speaking society was highly decentralised, organised on a basis of kgoro (an enlarged clan), headed by a chief, who owed a very hazy allegiance to the nation's head chief.



Early History[edit]

The Sotho-Tswana are not a nation having one paramount chief, nor are they a confederation of clans bound together by one common purpose, although they have a common heritage, but are a number of distinct clans, each having its own name and chief, who has jurisdiction only over his own particular people and those who have become subordinate to him. Historically, the leadership structure of a nation (Morafe/Sechaba), consisted of a Kgosi/Morena, who was the chief and a member of the royal family, his family members and their servants. The kgosi was the ultimate authority, who devoted all his time to the tribe and was constantly on hand to help people with their problems. He was responsible for law and justice, defence, the health of the tribe, controlling the wealth and bringing rain. He maintained control of his armies by placing close members of his family at the head of every regiment.

The history of the Sotho-Tswana people is one of continual dissension and fission where disputes, sometimes over chieftain ascendancy, resulted in a section of the clan breaking away from the main clan, under the leadership of a dissatisfied chief's relative, and settling elsewhere. Often the name of the man who led the splinter group was taken as the new clan name. Oral traditions teach that the ancestor of all Batswana was Molope. The same oral traditions of the Sotho-Tswana chiefdoms indicate that at some time in the past they were all under the same ruling line of chiefs with claim descent from a common ancestor, Mogale son of Molope with a single totem of phofu (eland). From Mogale the sequence of chiefs became Mhete, Melore, Masilo then Molope. The separation began when the children or grandchildren of Masilo separated from the parent stem. This Masilo was the father Molope and also, as some clans maintain, of Kwena, but others hold that Kwena was his grandson and one of the sons of Molope. While there is division of opinion as to relationship of Kwena to Molope, there is no question with regards to that of the other three heads of branches formed from Masilo's people. These three are known to be the sons of Masilo, the eldest being Mohurutshe, the next Ngwato and the last Ngwaketse.

While there is division of opinion as to relationship of Kwena to Molope, there is no question with regards to the leadership crisis that resulted in the formation of the Hurutshe and Kwena clans following the death of Molope. There are conflicting traditions accounting for this historic split, the consequences of which were the wide dispersal of Sotho-Tswana chiefdoms over the South African highveld up to the limits of the Kgalagadi desert on the west and almost as far as the Orange River on the south; as well the diffusion of Sotho-Tswana language and culture.

According to one tradition, the cleavage that resulted in Phofu-venerating people splitting to become Bahurutshe and Bakwena had to do with the first fruits ceremony.

Another tradition is that the first-born child in Molope's senior house was a daughter, Mohurutshe, while the first-born child in the second house was a son, Kwena. According to this version, the dispute was about whether the chiefdom should be in the hands of the eldest child in the senior house regardless of whether it was female, or whether the leadership should be kept male by electing the senior son of the second house.

From this dispute one group left with Kwena and become known as the Bakwena with the crocodile as their totem. The Bahurutshe being descendent of the senior house of Molope were accepted as the senior clan. Until the end of the nineteenth century this seniority was acknowledged by allowing the chief of the Bahurutshe to perform the ceremony of the first fruits before any other Sotho-Tswana chiefs. It was the Bahurutshe chief who announced the harvesting season and the commencement of the period of initiation, and it was the Bahurutshe who performed the ritual of selecting the best young bulls of the other Tswana clans, before the weaker bulls could be castrated.


King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho with his Ministers.

Sotho-Tswana society was rocked at the beginning of the 19th century by two developments. The first was the Difaqane ("the crushing"), the forced migration and upheaval caused by the rise of the Zulu nation, which, under the reign of Shaka, evolved within two decades from a typical Bantu-speaking decentralised pastoral society into a highly centralised and organised nation-state, with a large and powerful standing army.

The second was the advance of Boer settlers from the Cape Colony into the interior territory, which was populated by Sotho-Tswana peoples. Those settlers are called voortrekkers and sought to leave British rule following the British seizure of the Cape Colony from the Netherlands.

The Basotho had at this critical time a leader, King Moshoeshoe, who was both an able military strategist and sophisticated diplomat. He succeeded in welding numerous clans into a kingdom capable of repelling attacks by the remnants of Nguni groups fleeing Zulu conquest of their lands. At the same time he reached an understanding with Shaka, who agreed that the Zulu would never attempt to conquer his kingdom.

The Basotho state he created was strong enough to keep the Boers at bay, maintaining the independence and integrity of his kingdom after the formation of the Orange Free State. As tensions between the two Boer republics (Orange Free State and the Transvaal) and the British increased, he was able to skilfully manoeuvre between them, and to fight to a stalemate when diplomacy failed. As a result, Lesotho (or Basutoland as it was previously known) was never part of South Africa, but became a Crown Colony and then an independent nation in 1965.

The Northern Sotho and Batswana were less politically centralised, and suffered worse during the Difaqane. The Matabele were a Nguni nation closely related to the Zulu who, under their leader Mzilikazi rebelled against Shaka, and fled KwaZulu (Zululand). He killed many of the Batswana, before finally settling down in the southwestern part of what is modern Zimbabwe, where he built his capital Bulawayo. After the initial assault, the Batswana kings were better prepared for Matabele aggression, and managed to fend off further invasion attempts.

The territory of Batswana was divided by the British and the Boer South African Republic (ZAR). With the formation of the Union of South Africa following the ZAR's defeat by the British in the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), some of their territory became part of South Africa; the rest became the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, which became the independent state of Botswana in 1965.


The differentiation between the various black African groups in South Africa (Sotho-Tswana, Nguni, Vhavenda and Vatsonga) is primarily rooted in linguistics. They speak languages which fall under different sub-branches of the Bantu language group, just as Germanic languages are mutually intelligible to an extent, and totally different from Romance languages.


Like other Bantu speaking societies, many Sotho-Tswana people still practice a traditional Shamanist type religion African Traditional Religion, based on devotion to ancestors – as intermediaries to God (a person is said to exist for as long as his "shadow" is still felt on earth by living relatives).

Each small settlement had its traditional herbalist healers (dingaka), who also function as shamans, spiritual counselors and protectors against evil spirits and black magic.


Under European influence, most Sotho-Tswana people adopted Christianity. Lesotho is predominantly Catholic, a result of King Moshoeshoe's decision to invite French missionary organisations into his kingdom, as part of his diplomatic manoeuvres to prevent any single European entity from dominating the area, which he realised would be disastrous for the Basotho people (later developments in neighbouring South Africa a century later proved how astute he had been). Most Batswana and northern Sotho belong to some Protestant denomination.

Contemporary Sotho-Tswana society is adapting to a rapidly urbanising population and culture. In rural areas, traditional culture remains an important force in daily life. In the region's urban areas, which are cosmopolitan, multi-racial and multi-cultural, western cultural norms are predominant.


Like all non-white South Africans, the Sotho-Tswana people suffered greatly under the apartheid regime that ruled South Africa from 1948–1991. They were forcibly relocated to the economically unsustainable designated homelands (apartheid left the majority African population with about 13% of the land, most of it unsuitable for cultivation). The Bantustan for the Batswana people was Bophuthatswana, while that for the Bapedi was Lebowa and for the Basotho, QwaQwa.


  1. ^ André Croucamp and Bea Roberts (2011) A short history of the Bakgatla ba Kafela, Totem Media (Pty)Ltd, p 1
  2. ^
  3. ^