Basotho People of South Africa


The first inhabitants of today's Lesotho were probably the San, who left a lasting heritage in paintings on cave walls. The first Bantu-speaking people were three Nguni groups, the Phatla, Polane, and Phuthi, who crossed the Drakensberg from the east in three waves and settled in the low-lying areas south-east of the Mohokare, Caledon River.

©Dr Peter Magubane
Initiation of both men and women are important parts of Basotho heritage and tradition.

Around the end of the 17th century, Sotho chiefdoms followed, the Peli, Phuthing, Sia and Tlokoa coming to the area from the north-west. After them came other Sotho groups, including the Koena, Fokeng and Taung.

Early in the 19th century when Shaka expanded his Zulu empire, waves of social disorder swept across the once tranquil subcontinent. Sotho people in the mountains and on the western plains of present-day Lesotho, Basutoland in colonial times, and in the eastern parts of present-day Free State were also affected.

Fighting became general, chiefdoms broke up, fields were destroyed, famines broke out and desperate people were reported to have resorted to cannibalism.

Legacy of Moshoeshoe

Moshoeshoe, a Koena chief, used military strategy and political skill to defeat his enemies. He gathered a growing band of followers, both from among his defeated enemies and those fleeing the disruption, who became loyal supporters and full members of his expanding chiefdom that was the kernel of what became Lesotho.

Moshoeshoe perfected the technique of withdrawing his people onto inaccessible flat-topped mountains from where they could defend themselves and wait out attacks of marauding armies that scoured the area, looking for people to plunder.

He first used a mountain called Butha Buthe near the present-day town of the same name. Later he occupied a much bigger mountain, Thaba Bosiu, east of Maseru. With this as his stronghold, he moulded his men into a formidable force, beating back those who tried to invade the region.

By 1831 he was undisputed ruler of the newly formed Basotho nation in an area that extended well to the west of present-day Lesotho's borders. The Rolong to the west, the Taung to the south and the Tlokoa to the east of Moshoeshoe's immediate sphere of influence remained independent allies.

Moshoeshoe was an enlightened, progressive leader who is considered as one of Africa's great statesmen. Through wisdom, patience and skilful persuasion, he created a common cultural base and political integrity for his followers. He sought to accommodate colonization by adapting Basotho social and cultural practices without destroying them.

From the early 19th century traders, hunters and trekkers passed through Moshoeshoe's sphere of influence in increasing numbers. He saw that, as the numbers of colonists grew, so the potential for conflict would increase. Realizing the need for his people to acquire Western education to compete in the new world, he sent some of his sons to school in Cape Town.

He invited the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society to establish a mission station in Basutoland, and Messrs Arbousset, Casalis and Gosselin settled at Morija, near Thaba Bosiu, in June 1833.

As increasing numbers of white settlers 'Boers' began to establish farms in the more fertile region west of the Mohokare, pressure on land escalated. New political alliances were formed and stock raiding between Boers and Basotho became commonplace.

A Sense of Nation

Moshoeshoe sought the assistance of the 'great white queen of the English', Queen Victoria, petitioning for protection from the Boers. This was granted in 1848, and a British Resident Commissioner was stationed in the territory. Just six years later he was withdrawn when Basutoland was annexed to the Cape Colony Moshoeshoe, concerned by the Boer threat, again sought British protection.

In 1868 Basutoland was proclaimed British territory, and the Basotho bahaMoshoeshoe, King Moshoeshoe's people, became British subjects. In 1870 the aged Basotho king died, content in the knowledge that his people were 'folded in the arms of the Queen'.

His lasting legacy was his unrivalled paramountcy through his unification of the Basotho people in Lesotho. With the creation of a common culture, he gave the Basotho a sense of nation, and strength to stand up to their enemies.

Although at times Moshoeshoe's Basotho were attacked by Zulu, Matabele, Boer and Briton, they were never defeated in battle. After his death, his sons continued to strengthen the royal house. To this day his descendants, the only heirs to the Basotho throne, are chiefs in much of Lesotho and neighbouring areas such as Matatiele in the Eastern Cape. The present monarch is King Letsie III who was crowned in 1997.