LOCATION: Lesotho; South Africa
POPULATION: 5.6 million in South Africa; 1.9 million in Lesotho
LANGUAGE: Sotho language, or Sesotho
RELIGION: Traditional beliefs (worship of Modimo); Christianity
The Sotho people are an ethnic group living in Lesotho and South Africa. There are two major branches, the southern Sotho and the northern Sotho (also called the Pedi). Southern Sotho people make up about 99 percent of the population of Lesotho. The southern Sotho and the northern Sotho taken together are the second largest ethnic group in South Africa.
Sotho society was traditionally organized in villages ruled by chiefs. The economy was based on the rearing of cattle and the cultivation of grains such as sorghum. In the early nineteenth century, several kingdoms developed as a result of a series of wars that engulfed much of southern Africa. During this period, southern Sotho people as well as other ethnic groups sought refuge in the mountainous terrain of what is now Lesotho. A local chief named Moshoeshoe (pronounced mow-SHWAY-shway) emerged as a skillful diplomat and military leader who was able to keep his country from falling into the hands of Zulu and, later, white Afrikaner forces. After Moshoeshoe's death in 1870, this independence was weakened, and English authorities from the Cape Colony tried to administer Lesotho as a conquered territory. The people resisted this attempt at control, however, leading to the Gun War of 1880–81 in which the Cape Colony was defeated.
The northern Sotho suffered at the hands of African armies during the wars, but several chiefdoms were able to recover. After 1845, the Pedi also had to contend with an influx of white Afrikaner settlers, some of whom seized Pedi children and forced them to work as slaves. The Pedi were finally conquered by British, Afrikaner, and Swazi forces in 1879. The northern Sotho then lost their independence and fell under the political control of white authorities. Northern Sotho lands were turned into reserves, and Sotho people were forced to relocate to these reserves, causing great hardship.
In 1884, Lesotho became a British protectorate. Unlike the Pedi kingdom, therefore, Lesotho was not incorporated into South Africa. Lesotho became an independent country in 1966, completely surrounded by South Africa. South Africa's former system of apartheid (the governmental policy of racial segregation and discrimination) hindered Lesotho's development. The nation also has had trouble establishing democracy. The first democratic elections after independence were voided by the government of Leabua Jonathan. Jonathan ruled Lesotho from 1970 until he was overthrown in a coup in 1986. In the 1990s, Lesotho began a new period of elective government.
According to 1995 estimates, there were about 5.6 million people who identified themselves as southern or northern Sotho in South Africa. In Lesotho there were about 1.9 million southern Sotho.
The home of most of the southern Sotho is in Lesotho and in South Africa's Free State Province. There are also many Sotho who live in South Africa's major cities. Lesotho is a mountainous country that is completely landlocked within the borders of South Africa. It has an area of about 11,700 square miles (about 30,350 square kilometers). The Free State is a highland plain, called a highveld in South Africa, bordering Lesotho to the west. The eastern section of Lesotho is also a highveld, with plateaus similar to those found in the American Southwest. The Maloti and Drakensberg mountains are in the central and western parts of the country. The Drakensberg Mountains form sharp cliffs that drop off dramatically to South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province. The climate of South Africa is temperate, but the mountains make for cold winters. In winter, snow sometimes falls in the Lesotho highlands.
The region considered a traditional home by many rural Pedi is between the Olifants and Steelpoort rivers in South Africa's Northern Province. It is bounded by the Leolo Mountains on the east and by dry plains to the west. This region and neighboring areas of the Northern Province are also home to other ethnic groups, including the Lovedu, Tsonga, Ndebele, Venda, Zulu, and Afrikaners. The Northern Province is much warmer than Lesotho.
The Sotho language, or Sesotho, is a Bantu language closely related to Setswana. Sotho is rich in proverbs, idioms, and special forms of address reserved for elders and in-laws.
The division between southern and northern Sotho people is based on the different dialects of the two groups. The southern form of Sotho is spoken in Lesotho, and the northern form is spoken in the Northern Province. The northern dialect is called Sepedi. Southern Sotho utilizes click consonants in some words, while Sepedi does not have clicks. Currently, southern Setho has two spelling systems, one in use in Lesotho and another in South Africa. For example, in Lesotho a common greeting is Khotso, le phela joang? (literally, "Peace, how are you?"). In South Africa, the word joang (how) is written jwang, and khotso is written kgotso .
Names in Sotho generally have meanings that express the values of the parents or of the community. Common personal names include Lehlohonolo (Good Fortune), Mpho (Gift), and MmaThabo (Mother of Joy). Names may also be given to refer to events. For example, a girl born during a rainstorm might be called Puleng, meaning "in the rain." Individuals may also be named after clan heroes. Surnames are taken from relatives on the father's side of the family.
According to one Sotho tradition, the first human being emerged from a sea of reeds at a place called Ntswanatsatsi. However, little is known or said about the events of this person's life.
Sotho has a rich tradition of folktales (ditsomo or dinonwane) and praise poems (diboko). These are told in dramatic and creative ways that may include audience participation. Folktales are adventure stories which occur in realistic and magical settings. One of the best known of the folk-tales is about a boy named Sankatana who saves the world from a giant monster.
Praise poems traditionally describe the heroic real-life adventures of ancestors or political leaders. Here is the opening verse of a long poem in praise of King Moshoeshoe:
You who are fond of praising the ancestors,
Your praises are poor when you leave out the warrior,
When you leave out Thesele, the son of Mokhachane;
For it's he who's the warrior of the wars,
Thesele is brave and strong,
That is Moshoeshoe-Moshaila.
The supreme being that the Sotho believe in is most commonly referred to as Modimo. Modimo is approached through the spirits of one's ancestors, the balimo, who are honored at ritual feasts. The ancestral spirits can bring sickness and misfortune to those who forget them or treat them disrespectfully. The Sotho traditionally believed that the evils of our world were the result of the malevolent actions of sorcerers and witches.
Today, Christianity in one form or another is accepted by most Sotho-speaking people. Most people in Lesotho are Catholics, but there are also many Protestant denominations. Independent African churches are growing in popularity. The independent churches combine elements of African traditional religion with the doctrines of Christianity. They also emphasize healing and the Holy Spirit. One of these churches, the Zion Christian Church, was founded by two Pedi brothers. It has been very successful in attracting followers from all over South Africa. Each spring there is a "Passover" meeting in the Northern Province that attracts thousands of people to the church's rural headquarters.
Lesotho has a number of holidays that recognize its history. These holidays include Moshoeshoe's Day (March 12) and Independence Day (October 4). Moshoeshoe's Day is marked by games and races for the nation's young people. Independence Day is celebrated by state ceremonies that often include performances by traditional dance groups.
Women give birth with the assistance of female birth attendants. Traditionally, relatives and friends soaked the father with water when his firstborn child was a girl. If the firstborn was a boy, the father was beaten with a stick. This ritual suggested that while the life of males is occupied by warfare, that of females is occupied by domestic duties such as fetching water. For two or three months after the birth, the child was kept secluded with the mother in a specially marked hut. The seclusion could be temporarily broken when the baby was brought outside to be introduced to the first rain.
There are elaborate rites of initiation into adulthood for boys and girls in Sotho tradition. For boys, initiation involves a lengthy stay in a lodge in a secluded area away from the village. The lodge may be very large and house dozens of initiates (bashemane). During seclusion, the boys are circumcised, but they are also taught appropriate male conduct in marriage, special initiation traditions, code words and signs, and praise songs. In Lesotho, the end of initiation is marked by a community festival during which the new initiates (makolwane) sing the praises they have composed. In traditional belief, a man who has not been initiated is not considered a full adult.
Initiation for girls (bale) also involves seclusion, but the ritual huts of the bale are generally located near the village. Bale wear masks and goat-skin skirts, and they smear their bodies with a chalky white substance. They sometimes may be seen as a group near the homes of relatives, singing, dancing, and making requests for presents. Among some clans, the girls are subjected to tests of pain and endurance. After the period of seclusion the initiates, now called litswejane , wear cowhide skirts and anoint themselves with red ocher. Initiation for girls does not involve any surgical operation.
In Lesotho, a period of working in a mine was once considered a kind of rite of passage that marked one as a man.
When someone dies, the whole community takes part in the burial. Speeches are made at the graveside by friends and relatives, and the adult men take turns shoveling soil into the grave. Afterward, all those in attendance go as a group to wash their hands. There may also be a funeral feast.
In Sesotho, the words for father (ntate) and mother (mme) are used commonly as address forms of respect for one's elders. Politeness, good manners, and willingness to serve are values very strongly encouraged in children. The general attitude toward childhood is well summarized by the proverb Lefura la ngwana ke ho rungwa , which roughly translates as "Children benefit from serving their elders."
The standard greetings in Sotho reflect this attitude of respect towards age. When greeting an elder, one should always end with ntate (my father) or mme (my mother). Words for brother (abuti) and sister (ausi) are used when one talks to people of the same age. A child who answers an adult's question with a simple "Yes" is considered impolite. To be polite, the child needs to add "my father" or "my mother."
Hospitality and generosity are expected. Even those who have very little will often share their food with visitors. Of course, those who share also expect the favor to be returned when it is their turn to visit.
Dating was not part of traditional Sotho life. Marriages were arranged between families, and a girl could be betrothed in childhood. Nowadays, most people pick their mates.
Rural areas in South Africa and Lesotho are marked by poverty and inadequate access to health care. Diarrheal diseases and malnutrition sometimes occur. Malaria is also found in the low-lying regions of the Northern Province.
However, people with access to land and employment enjoy a reasonable standard of living. Lesotho's capital city, Maseru, is a growing city with modern hotels and fine restaurants.
Common forms of transportation include buses, trains, and taxis. The "taxis" are actually minivans that carry many riders at one time. Most such taxis are used for short distances in urban areas, but they are also used as a faster alternative to the long-distance routes of buses. There are also personal cars and trucks.
In Sotho tradition, the man is considered the head of the household. Women are defined as farmers and bearers of children. Family duties are also organized into distinct domains based on gender for all Sotho, but the Pedi maintain a stricter separation of living space into male and female areas. Polygynous marriages (more than one wife) are not uncommon among the elite, but they are rare among commoners. Marriages are arranged by transfer of bohadi (bride wealth) from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. Upon marriage, a woman is expected to leave her family to live with the family of her husband.
The Sotho have clans, many of which bear animal names, such as the Koena (crocodile). These clans stress descent through the father's side, but there is flexibility in defining clan membership. A feature of Sotho kinship was that a person was allowed to marry a cousin (ngwana wa rangoane) who was a member of the same clan.
Family life for many rural Sotho has been disrupted for generations by migrant labor. Today, many Sotho men continue to live in all-male housing units provided by the gold-mining companies that employ them. With the end of apartheid, some of the families previously separated by the old labor laws now live together in urban areas.
Much about Sotho apparel is the same as the apparel of people in Europe and the United States. However, the most acceptable form of clothing for a woman is still the dress, and her hair is expected to be covered with a scarf, head cloth, or hat. The Sotho of Lesotho are identified with the brightly colored blankets that they often wear instead of coats. These blankets have designs picturing everything from airplanes to crowns to geometric patterns. The blankets are store-bought—there is no tradition of making them locally.
Sotho people share many food traditions with the other peoples of South Africa. Staple foods are corn (maize), eaten in the form of a thick paste, and bread. Beef, chicken, and mutton (lamb) are popular meats, while milk is often drunk in soured form. South African beer is made from sorghum rather than barley.
The major mealtimes are breakfast and dinner (in the evening). Children may go without lunch, although there are some school lunch programs.
The first Western-style schools for Sotho-speakers were begun by missionaries. Religious institutions and missionaries continue to play a major role in education in Lesotho today. Many of Lesotho's high schools are boarding schools affiliated with churches. In Lesotho, only a minority of students manage to graduate from high school because school fees are high and the work is very demanding. To graduate, one must pass the Cambridge Overseas Examination. Today, Lesotho has an adult literacy rate (percentage of those who can read and write) of about 59 percent.
Under the former system of apartheid, Africans' access to education in South Africa was restricted, and many of the best schools were closed. Today, the government's goal is to provide a tuition-free education for everyone between the ages of seven and seventeen. Literacy and education are now seen as keys to success and are highly valued by most people in Lesotho and South Africa.
Sotho traditional music places a strong emphasis on group singing, chanting, and hand clapping as an accompaniment to dance. Instruments used included drums, rattles, whistles, and handmade stringed instruments. One instrument, the lesiba , is made from a pole, a string, and a feather. When it is blown, the feather acts as a reed, producing a deep, resonant sound.
Generations of mine labor have led to a distinct migrant-worker subculture in Lesotho. This subculture developed its own song and dance traditions. Some types of mine dances have synchronized high-kicking steps. One song tradition, difela , has lyrics relating the travels, loves, and viewpoints of the migrant workers. Other popular music in Sotho includes dance tunes played by small groups on drums, accordions, and guitars.
Sotho written literature was established in the nineteenth century by converts to Christianity. One of the first novels in a South African language was Chaka , written in Sotho by Thomas Mofolo in the early years of the twentieth century. It is still read today and has been translated into a number of languages.
Wage labor for many rural Sotho has meant leaving home to find employment in the city. In South Africa, Sotho are frequently hired as miners and farm laborers. Women also work as farm laborers, but work in domestic service is more highly valued. Health care, education, and government administration are popular careers for those with high school and college educations.
South Africa's migrant-labor system dramatically altered Sotho social life. Besides putting strains on the family, migrant labor led to the development of new social groups. For example, associations of young men called Marussia formed with values that combined urban and rural attitudes. These so-called "Russians" are sometimes criticized as nothing more than criminal gangs based on home ties.
Many of the games popular among Sotho children are found worldwide. These include skipping rope, racing, swimming, playing catch, dodgeball, and hopscotch. Boys also enjoy wrestling and fighting with sticks. A common pastime for rural boys is making clay animals, especially cattle. Young boys and girls enjoy playing house (mantlwantlwaneng). The most popular traditional game among young men and old men is a game of strategy called morabaraba . Today, the most popular sport in Lesotho and South Africa is soccer.
Most of the movies seen by the Sotho people are imported from foreign countries. Televisions and videocassette recorders are becoming widespread, although listening to the radio is more common due to the lower cost. Broadcasts in Sotho are restricted to a few hours of the day, with Sotho soap operas being the most popular shows. Music videos of popular South African musical groups are also seen. In rural areas, however, there can be little to do for entertainment.
Traditions of folk art include beadwork, sewing, pottery making, house decoration, and weaving. Functional items such as sleeping mats, baskets, and beer strainers continue to be woven by hand from grass materials. Folk craft traditions have been revived and modified in response to the tourist trade.
The main social problems among the Sotho include poverty, malnutrition, crime, and divided families. Many of these problems started under South Africa's former system of apartheid, which only ended in the early 1990s. The rural lands of the northern and southern Sotho people became heavily eroded, overpopulated, and overgrazed. Competition for scarce resources in South Africa also led to conflict with other ethnic groups, particularly the Xhosa.
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