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Sesotho

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BASOTHO

DR RM NAKIN

The Basotho as a nation existed before the arrival of the missionaries in South Africa, but their history was not recorded until the 1800s with the arrival of missionaries in Lesotho. Missionaries who worked in Lesotho around the 1800s were DF Ellenberger, Sir Godfrey Lagden, E Casalis, F Coillard, CW Mackinstosh and E Smith, to mention just a few (Damane, 1955:5). The history is found in traditional songs written in Sesotho, that which cannot be easily read by the present generation (Ellenberger, 1943:1).

Sotho-speaking people have been in Southern Africa since around the 1400s after moving from central parts of Africa, having originated from Egypt (Damane, 1955:7). Among these nations were the Khois and those who spoke isiXhosa, Sesotho and Setswana respectively. Their children used clan names to identify themselves. The well-known clans were the Barolong and the Bafokeng (Damane, 1955:7). The Bafokeng are the greatest and most important of the Basotho clans.

Ethnographically the term “Sotho” is an umbrella term for the all the languages of the Sotho group, namely the Setswana, Sesotho and Northern Sotho (constitutionally known as Sepedi, according to Van Warmelo, 1946:57). Southern Sotho, also called Sesotho, is spoken by the Basotho people and is an official language in Lesotho and South Africa. An individual speaker or citizen of Lesotho is known as “Mosotho”. Sesotho has been the main language of the Basotho people since even before they settled in the region of the current Lesotho. The Sesotho tribes are the Bakwena, the Basiya, the Batlokwa, the Bataung and the Bapedi. They lived peacefully and comparatively undisturbed until 1822, when the first fugitive Nguni groups, fleeing from Natal, broke over the Drakensberg into their territory and a new era was ushered in. Moshoeshoe, with his great political wisdom, welcomed all stray people who came for his protection into his kingdom and thus managed to build a great tribe (Van Warmelo, 1946). The Basotho nation emerged from the unification of a number of smaller Southern Sotho clans by King Moshoeshoe (sometimes spelled as Moshesh) at the beginning of the 19th century (http:// www.sesotho.web.za/lesotho.htm). By the latter part of the 1800s King Moshoeshoe had established the nation of the Basotho and named his country Lesotho. From this period he was referred to as Morena o Moholo oa Basotho (great chief/king of the Basotho). Also, Moshoeshoe’s philosophy was that of peace: Kgotso e aha setjhaba “peace is the mother of nations” (Tsiu, 2014:10). All Basotho were under the leadership of Moshoeshoe until the establishment of boundaries, since when the Basotho have been divided into those from Lesotho, the Orange Free State and Transkei, all ruled by different chiefs.

The origin of the term “Sesotho”

The term “Basotho” originates from the word sootho meaning “brown”, as in ba sootho, “the dark brown ones”, owing to the colour of their skin. As Tsiu (2014) puts it, the elision of one vowel o occurred, which caused the forming of the plural noun Basotho or singular Mosotho. According to Van Warmelo the Basotho are the ba-so-tho, or as they would say in the language of today, ba-tho (ba) ba-so, “black people”. Syllable breaking of the word “Sesotho” is as follows: se/so/tho pronounced as su: tu. Thus the term is generally used to refer to the people or the ethnic group whose language is Sesotho.

References

Damane, M. 1955. Bukana ea histori ea Lesotho. Morija, Basutoland: Morija Sesuto Book Depot.

Ellenberger, DF & MacGregor, J. 1943. The history of the Basotho: Ancient and modern. [Reprint.] New York: Negro University Press.

Tsiu, WM. 2014. Basotho oral poetry at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Ilorin: Kwara State University Press.

Van Warmelo, NJ. 1946. Grouping and ethnic history. In Schapera I (ed). Bantu-speaking tribes of South Africa. Cape Town: Maskew Miller.