Sotho-Tswana People


The Sotho and closely related Tswana are Bantu peoples living in Lesotho, South Africa, and Botswana. They are divided into three main groups: Southern Sotho of Lesotho and the nearby regions in the Orange Free State; the Northern Sotho of the Transvaal; and the Western Sotho or Tswana, who live mainly in Botswana and the border region with South Africa. Together they number over 10 million people.

Mosotho (Basotho plural) and Motswana (Batswana plural) is the usual way of referring to the people; Sesotho and Setswana are the adjectives used to refer to the languages; and Lesotho and Botswana are used to refer to the places where they live. The North Sotho dialect is called Sesotho ea Leboa,while South Sotho is simply called Sesotho.Amore Lesotho specific term is Seshoe (pro-nounced se-shway), meaning the people of Moshoeshoe I who ruled from 1804 to 1870 (Moshoeshoe is pronounced Mu-shway-shway), the founder of the modern state of Lesotho.

The Northern Sotho are composed of peoples of Sotho origin such as the Pedi, while others have been absorbed into the Sotho such as the Nguni Transvaal Ndebele. The Pedi have lived around Phalaborwa since the fourth century CE. Other Northern Sotho includes the Lobedu, who are ruled by the Modjadji Rain Queens. The Ndebele are of Nguni origin and arrived in the Transvaal in the 16th century.

As a result of their longtime residence among the Northern Sotho, the Ndebele have adopted a number of Sotho practices, including the language. However, they have also preserved some aspects of their Nguni origins in aspects of their language (words associated with the homestead and lineage) and customs. Ndebele women are famous for their bead-work, which is among the most elaborate in South Africa (see entry on Nguni).

Two forms of writing Sesotho devel-oped in the 19th century. The Basotho of Lesotho were contacted by French Protestant Evangelical missionaries in 1833, who transcribed the language using French orthography. In South Africa, English missionaries transcribed both Tswana and Sotho languages using En-glish orthography; for example, the word Sotho is spelled Sutu in South Africa.

The difference in spelling the written languages has helped solidify separate iden-tities among the Sotho/Sutu. In Lesotho, the mission station at Morija established a printing press in 1861, which initially was used for Christian texts, but with growing literacy among the Basotho in their own language, it began publishing other texts written in Sesotho by Basotho authors.

Among the most famous exam-ples of these is Thomas Mofolo’s novel Chaka, which has been translated into English several times since it was first published in Sesotho in 1925. Sesotho and Setswana are among the widest spo-ken languages in South Africa and serve as part of the base for both Tsotsitaal and Fanakolo. Tsotsitaal, meaning gang/thug talk, is composed of all of the languages found in the townships, but is mainly Sotho, Tswana, and Zulu in origin, gram-mar, and vocabulary.

Fanakolo is the work language that developed in the workers’ dorms at the mines for work gang bosses to give orders more effectively.The Sotho and Tswana received Christian missionaries from Protestant Evangelical churches in the 1830s. Sotho and Tswana leaders quickly recognized the value these missionaries had in sub-sequent dealings with the Afrikaner Boers and later with the British. In 1862, Catholic missionaries arrived in Lesotho, and today, the majority of the Basotho in Lesotho are Catholics.

Christians total approximately 80 percent of Basotho and 71 percent of Batswana. In addition, a local version of Christianity emerged in South Africa that combined aspects of indigenous reli-gion with Christianity, called the Zionist Apostolic Church. The Zionist Apostolic Church has wide appeal throughout southern Africa with adherents in Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.

Nonetheless, there is still a minority of both Sotho (20 percent in Lesotho) and Tswana (6 percent in Botswana) who practice their traditional religion, which focuses on the relationship between the living and the ancestors called the malimo/balimo in Sesotho and the med-imo/bodimo in Setswana. The ancestors contact the living through dreams, for example, and traditional doctors or lingaka ea Sesotho (pronounced di-nyaka eya se-sutu—lingaka is the plural of ngaka, mean-ing a healer or doctor), a specialized class of traditional priest-healers, are able to interpret what the ancestors want.

Tradi-tional priest-healers use a range of tools to contact and understand the wishes of the ancestors, including throwing the bones and using drums. They provide medicines and cures for those who are ill, circumcise boys and make the medicines used after the circumcision operation, and provide charms against lightning, birds, and wild animals from destroying crops. They also provide charms against the actions of a tho-kolosi (an imp-like creature) and other familiars of witches.

Inadditiontothe lingaka, traditional belief includes the boloi (moloi in singu-lar) or witches. Unlike the ngaka,who uses his knowledge for the good of the people, witches are capable of evil. Moloi use covens to focus their power and are able to harm others simply by thinking it. In the past, lingaka were used by the rul-ing elite to “smell out” boloi in special ceremonies. Today in Lesotho, certain vil-lages have reputations for witches such as Ha Toloane located within a few miles of Morija mission station.

The Sotho/Tswana arrived in southern Africa with other Bantu speakers some-time between the third and fourth centu-ries CE. The Bantu brought with them knowledge of iron working, and the iron mines around Phalaborwa in the Transvaal have been used since the third century and may be the original heartland for the Sotho/Tswana. The area is still inhabited mainly by the Sotho-speaking Pedi. The Sotho/Tswana moved out into the high-veld and established large towns with stone-built homes.

They engaged in inten-sive agriculture and raised large herds of cattle. Cattle came to play an important part of social values being held in high regard and a means of noting status. Rais-ing and managing cattle became a male activity, with numerous taboos on women from even being able to touch a milking bowl. If a woman touches a milking bowl, it must be broken so that it can be never used again. A woman’s touch will cause all of the milk to turn sour.

Women are not allowed to cross a cattle path, or any cows that then use the path will stop giv-ing milk. In rural Lesotho, such customs have been challenged not by the activities of feminists, but by the practicalities of large numbers of men needing to work in South Africa. Women may be all who are able to carry out caring for the livestock. Still, traditionalists try to keep women out of work with the livestock.

The different Sotho and Tswana peoples developed a complex kinship system based on the belief that they descended from dif-ferent totems—that is, nonhuman ances-tors—who gave their name to the different kin groups. For example, the Bakuena are the people of the crocodile and are the rul-ing clan in Lesotho. Politically, the Sotho/Tswana, as other Bantu in South Africa, had developed into chiefdoms and states ruled by elite families prior to the arrival of European settlers.

Modern history for both the Sotho and Tswana begins with the Lifaqane or Great Crushing caused by the expansion of the Zulu state under their great leader Shaka. In 1816, Shaka became the ruler of the Zulu, and by 1818, he had embarked on his policy of creating an empire. As the Zulus expanded, conquering and destroy-ing those who opposed them, many of the peoples of Natal and nearby areas tried to flee, causing a ripple effect that reached as far north as the Lake District of Kenya and Tanzania.

Modern Lesotho was born out of this time when the chief of the Bakuena, Moshoeshoe, was able to gather a number of Sotho under him. He relocated his capital to Thaba Bosiu, a large table-topped plateau a comfortable distance from Shaka in Natal, and not far from the modern capital of Maseru. Moshoeshoe was able to mollify Shaka by sending him gifts of cattle and young women and thus survived the period of expansion. Shaka was assassinated by his brothers in 1828, and Moshoeshoe was able to solidify his control over the different Sotho lineages by placing close relatives over them as principal chiefs.

The next major challenge came from the Afrikaner Boers who began to arrive in Sotho and Tswana territories in 1836. In a series of wars with the Griqua (European-ized Khoikhoi [Khoisan]), the Boers, and the British, much of the better farmlands of the Basotho were taken. In 1868, Basotho independence from the Boer states was guaranteed by the British and Basuto-land was declared a separate British colony. Administration of Basutoland was briefly turned over to the Cape in 1871; but, due to mismanagement, it returned to British control in 1884.

In a similar pro-cess, the leaders of the various Batswana chiefdoms appealed to the British for help against the advance of Afrikaners and Nguni Ndebele, and in 1885, the British granted a protectorate over them called Bechuanaland. Political leadership in Lesotho developed into a centralized state with the paramount chief of the Bakuena being able to emerge as the king while Bechuanaland remained a collection of in-dependent chiefdoms.

Both countries became independent states, the Kingdom of Lesotho and the Republic of Botswana, in 1966. Those Sotho and Tswana living in South Africa were grouped into two main native home-lands, Basotho Qwa Qwa and Bophuthat-swana. Lesotho and Botswana were brought into the antiapartheid struggle, and both served as bases for opposition opera-tions inside South Africa.

Both countries suffered from cross-border raids by South African military forces, and in 1986, South Africa blockaded Lesotho’s borders, demanding that antiapartheid activists be expelled. The crisis caused a coup and the Lesotho military, with South African back-ing, took control of the government, although the king, Moshoeshoe II, was able to remain as the head of state.

Lesotho has become economically more tied to South Africa since 1986 and the beginning of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was funded by South Africa. South Africa built much of the needed infrastructure—dams, roads, and hydro-electric generating plants—and pays the Lesotho government millions of dollars every year for both electricity and water. The project has electrified Lesotho and locals are able to make use of the impro-ved roads, yet the cost is greater integra-tion of Lesotho into South Africa.

Botswana has been able to capitalize on its own natural resources such as diamonds and from the fact that its population is small. Botswana has several major game reserves, the Okavango, Moremi, and Chobe, which bring in large numbers of tourists every year. Tourism is one of the main cornerstones of the national economy. Botswana has also encouraged local crafts for sale to tourists, and Botswana baskets have become internationally famous.

Women compete for a yearly prize, and the baskets that are entered in the contest are auctioned off with international bidding. For many rural families, women’s crafts are important sources of need cash. Women weave baskets and hats in Lesotho, where the traditional hat has become a symbol of the Basotho. The hat has a wide brim and comes up to a high point at the top.

The top has usually four side loops, and tradition says the hat is the shape of a hill close to the site of Thaba Bosiu where Moshoeshoe established his capital. Basotho baskets and hats have not been well marketed outside of Lesotho and have not become established in the African arts market. Basotho are not well known for their beading, and most beading today is associated with traditional doctors and the costumes worn by both male and female initiates.

Both countries are greatly crippled with high rates of HIV, some of the highest infection rates in the world. In 2006, life expectancy in Botswana had dropped from 65 to 35 years of age due to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Life expectancy in Lesotho is similar, and there was no policy to combat HIV/AIDS until 2005.

The Clinton Foun-dation assists the program in Lesotho and President Bill Clinton and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates visited the country in 2006 in an attempt to help push the fight against HIV/AIDS. Other international personalities such as Great Britain’s Prince Harry have brought international awareness of the problems in Lesotho. However, as long as the pope refuses to sanction the use of condoms, Lesotho’s Catholics will not use them.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Afolayan, Funso S. Culture and Customs of South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Coates, Austin. Basutoland. London: Colonial Office, 1964.

Denbow, James, and Phenyo C. Thebe. Culture and Customs of Botswana. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Good, Kenneth. Diamonds, Dispossession, and Democracy in Botswana. London; James Currey, 2008.