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ETHNONYMS: Basotho, Sutu, Suto, Tswana, Batswana, Betchuana


Identification and Location. The Sotho-Tswana speakers occupy the high plateau of the interior of southern Africa. They are found across a number of different international borders, living in South Africa, Lesotho, and Botswana. Apart from language, they are distinguished from the Nguni-, Tsonga-, and Venda- speakers by details of custom and social organization.

The area in which they originally settled varies from the dry, inland fringes of the Kalahari desert in the west, to the mountains of Lesotho in the south, to the humid escarpment and hot low veld in the east. In most of these areas, the rainfall is seasonal and erratic, low in the west and high on the eastern escarpment. Summer months (October to February) are hot, while the winter months (May to August) are cold, usually with snow in the southern parts (Lesotho).

Demography. Demography is easiest demonstrated by mother tongue speakers. By the year 2000 more than 80 percent of the approximate 1.7 million inhabitants of Botswana were speaking Setswana; in Lesotho, almost all of its estimated 2.3 million citizens spoke Sesotho. For the Republic of South Africa, the situation is a bit more complex. Approximately 3.5 million people speak Setswana; 3.8 million speak Sepedi (Northern Sotho); and 3.2 million speak Sesotho (or South Sotho). Thus, at just more than 10 million mother tongue speakers, this makes the Sotho, after the Ngunispeakers (at 18 million total) the second largest language group in south Africa.

Linguistic Affiliation. The languages (Sesotho, Setswana) spoken by the Sotho-Tswana people are closely related, belonging to the southeastern zone of the Bantu language, which also includes the Nguni, Tsonga, and Venda languages. Conventionally, it is divided into three different language clusters: Northern Sotho spoken in the north, Setswana spoken in the west, and Sesotho spoken in the south. However, all of these contain various distinguishable dialects, some also influenced by other contiguous language groups.

History and Cultural Relations

The Sotho seem naturally to fall into four divisions: South, Western, North and Eastern. Within these divisions there are gradual transitions. The South Sotho subgroup as a whole is clearly defined by its relative isolation from the others. The boundary between Tswana and Northern Sotho is less precise. The Northern Sotho cluster contains sufficient diversity to raise doubts, at times, about its essential unity, but in wider perspective, this unity is perceived readily enough. This subgroup is distinguished not by a single origin, but from convergence of cultural traits of different components.

There are existing traditions of an origin in the north, in a land of lakes and mountains. They are believed to have migrated south, incorporating or displacing the earlier San inhabitants.

Prior to the rise to power by the Zulu, the central part of southern Africa was occupied by diverse Sotho and Tswana speaking groups such as the Fokeng, Kwena, Taung, and Tlokwa. With the arrival of fugitive groups from Natal in the early 1820s, some of these southern Sotho groups were dispersed far and wide. A Kwena chief, Moshweshwe, succeeded in consolidating large numbers of these fugitives, forming the basis for what was later to become the independent nation of Lesotho.

Tswana is a group term used by the people themselves in the western parts of South Africa and large sections of Botswana. Some of the more important names are Hurutshe, Thlaping, Rolong, Fokeng, Kgatla, and Kwena. Oral tradition indicates that they settled in the area in three successive movements as early as the fifteenth century.

With the exception of a few smaller groups, most of the people classified as Northern Sotho-speaking are found in Northern Province and Mpumalanga in South Africa. The Pedi proper, an offshoot of the Kgatla (Tswana), appeared on the scene in approximately 1650 and occupied the central parts of this area. North of them, on the so-called Pietersburg plateau, are found the people collectively referred to as Kgalaka, i.e., Karanga of Zimbabwe, as well as some other groups such as the Hananwa, Koni, and Kgaga. The third cluster includes groups such as the Lobedu, Narene, and Sekororo, most of whom are located on or below the escarpment in the low veld.

On the edge of the escarpment and in the low veld, a division of the Northern Sotho are found: the Pai, Pulana, and Kutswe. Culturally they are not recognizable as separate entities anymore.


Traditionally, villages grew up around the homestead of the most senior person to settle at a place. Here his house and the house of his different wives would be found in an arch, with the cattle kraal in front and a gathering place for men next to it. Other dependents and strangers would settle in increasing distances from this original core. The whole village would be surrounded by an area used for agricultural fields and grazing.

Only in Botswana, and in a very few cases in South Africa, does one still find this classical settlement pattern. In Botswana, villages are so big that it necessitates a seasonal shift of the labor force between the village and the fields. For large areas in South Africa, people were forced due to a system colloquially known as "betterment" to resettle according to a grid pattern, breaking up the traditional type of settlement.

The traditional dwelling can be described as a cone-on-cylinder type of structure. Essentially it consists of a circular wall of poles, plastered with clay, lately of mud brick, topped with a conical roof of thatched poles. The floor is beaten earth smeared over with cow dung. Decoration is placed on the outside walls and consists largely of geometrical patterns applied in different earth colors or in cow dung.

A number of such dwellings belong to an extended family, and are linked to one another, and separated from other such units, by walling. These once consisted of reeds or poles, but by the 1980s were constructed exclusively of mud walling. Outside walls of the houses as well as these interlinking ones are decorated with different colors of clay, mostly in geometrical patterns.


Subsistence. Formerly, people were self-supporting, raising a variety of crops (sorghum, millet, and a variety of beans and legumes) and breeding livestock (cattle, goats, chickens). This was supplemented by food and materials collected from the veld. By the early twenty-first century most people were involved in a cash economy and locally produced food, chiefly in rural areas, is largely supplementary.

Commercial Activities. Since the onset of colonization, Sotho speakers have been involved, largely through the selling of their labor, in industrial and commercial activities. Access to resources and capital to develop it had, up until the 1990s, largely been denied them.

Industrial Arts. The practice of traditional arts and crafts was based on the exploitation of a select range of resources to produce a standard range of items needed for everyday household and survival activities. Those resources that were not readily available in the local environment were obtained through trade.

Household utensils consisted of clay pots for cooking, brewing beer, and storing liquids; baskets for winnowing grain and storing food; and wooden implements such as spoons, porridge stirrers, and stamping blocks. Metal was used for weapons such as spears and knives, and for implements such as axes and hoes. Probably because of large-scale intervention by missionaries and urbanization, very little craft was ever produced for sale or trade. In some places, such as Lesotho, it was actively stimulated, but with limited success.

Trade. In the past, some internal trade took place, mostly by specialists trading metal objects, clay pots, and such for cereals, meat, and other foodstuffs. In precolonial times trade also allowed the Sotho to obtain what could not be derived from local sources. Ivory, metal, and ore were traded for such goods as glass beads, metal, and cloth.

Division of Labor. Labor formerly was divided along gender lines. Men were occupied with domestic animals, while women were involved in agricultural activities. With the exception of a few activities such as metallurgy and pottery, there was no craft specialization, and every household produced its own utensils and implements. Men worked with wood and leather, whereas women worked with clay and grass.

Land Tenure. Tribal land was, and to some extent still is, controlled by the chief, supported by his different councilors and headmen. They ensure that every married man receives land for settlement and cultivationgrazing usually takes place on communal land. Land awarded to a man is inherited by his descendents, and is usually subdivided to ensure that everybody gets a share. The land cannot be sold and, if abandoned, reverts back to communal property when it can be reassigned to somebody else.

Grass for thatching, firewood, hunting, etc. is controlled locally, but is available for all to use. Some taboos exist on the cutting of certain trees. There are also some rules preventing the collecting of specific grasses and veld foods out of season.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, large numbers of men have gone to work as migrant laborers in mines and industrial centers. Population growth and scarcity of land led to greater economic dependence on migrant labor. For example, by 1976, only 27,500 people were employed inside Lesotho, in contrast to as many as 200,000 employed in the Republic of South Africa.


Kin Groups and Descent. With the Sotho-Tswana, kinship is the basis of most social institutions and is predominantly patrilineal. A man usually distinguishes between his close relatives according to sex, age, and line of descent. A special kinship term is applied to each category. These terms can be extended in special ways to include more distant relatives so that all genealogical connections, no matter how remote, are brought into his circle of kin.

Totem groups are patrilineal but nonexogamous. The totem group includes all members of the extended kinship group. A person inherits the totem affiliation from his or her father. It does not have any real function and seems only to indicate presumed historical connections.

Kinship Terminology. The Sotho have a collective term for all the kin and affines who fall within a man's sphere of interest. This is his lešika. Within this, they distinguish patrilineal kin as well as the close agnates of a person's mother. Lineal kin comprise the kgoro, a term which also refers to the residential group from the family group to the ward, and to the council-place, which symbolizes the tribe, ward, and family group as political units.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages used to be arranged by negotiation between the family groups concerned, but by the early twenty-first century were largely based on individual choice. The boy's people traditionally take the initiative through intermediaries. The marriage is concluded when the marriage goods (bogadi ) have been transferred to the father of the bride, after which the bride is handed over to the husband. Both actions are accompanied by ceremonies in front of witnesses.

There is a distinct preference for marriage between a man and the daughter of his mother's brother and less commonly between a man and the daughter of his father's sister. Marriages are not allowed between persons in the same line of descent, or between a man and the daughters of his immediate collateral relatives. It is also frowned upon for a man to marry the sisters and half-sisters of his father or mother.

Custom permits the practice of polygyny, although it started to become rare by the middle of the twentieth century. When a man marries more than one wife, a definite order of seniority exists among the wives according to the order in which they were married. In similar fashion, children also derive their seniority in the family from that of the mother. Within each family, birth order also influences children's positions of seniority.

A man may be required under the levirate system to assume responsibility for the care of the wife of a deceased elder brother. This obligation, in terms of go tsenela (to go into) arises from the tacit undertaking of the relatives of a man to take care of his wife and children after his death and to beget such children from her as they can.

In tribal courts the main grounds for divorce are sorcery, cruelty and non-support on the side of the man, and sorcery and barrenness on the side of the women. A divorced woman will usually return to her parental home, taking her children with her if they are still very young. When they get older, the children return to their father. A divorced woman-s parents or siblings often assist her by giving her a house, some utensils, and grain for planting. She is also free to marry again. Depending on the circumstances, the man might succeed in reclaiming at least part of his bogadi.

Domestic Unit. The household is the smallest social unit. Known as kgoro, it can be defined as housing a father, his wife or wives, and all their unmarried children. Over time, it will be extended to include the families of married sons, their wives, and children. Such an extended structure constitutes the family group, headed by men who are descended agnatically from a common grandfather or great-grandfather.

Marital residence is patrilocal, although the young couple might stay with the woman's parents for a short while after the marriage.

Inheritance. The eldest son of the first wife inherits all his fathers' belongings, as well as those from his mother's house. This son would also inherit any political office held by the father. In a similar manner, the eldest son of each lesser house inherits the estate of their respective houses. Debts as well as goods are inherited.

Socialization. In the past the process of socialization was simplified in that status was ascribed rather than achieved. In other words, each individual could be labeled at birth. There were no different socializing agents (home, school, or church) and the child was not handed over to a specially-trained few for the purpose of socialization. Individuals and institutions worked together within a homogeneous framework to produce the ideal community member.

From birth until he or she is weaned, the child leads a sheltered life. Weaning, at approximately age three, is not accompanied by any ritual and the child only experiences a gradual shift from the attention of its parents to being in the company of its peers.

Boys would traditionally herd cattle and goats, while girls stayed at home and assisted their mothers with daily chores. This has changed for most children, as they attend school during the week.

Puberty is marked by an initiation ceremony. For boys, this includes circumcision and a period of seclusion while undergoing various endurance tests and training in correct social behavior, and learning the different melao or laws of society. Girls are usually isolated during the onset of their first menstruation cycle. This period of seclusion is spent in preparing them for life as adults. This is later followed by attendance at an initiation school with a number of their peers. Here, similar to the boys, they are subjected to endurance tests and training in acceptable social behavior.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The origin of the Sotho population is reflected in different classes: nobles; the agnatic descendants of the (original) chief; commoners; descendants of people incorporated into the tribe some generations ago; and strangers, those who have recently been admitted to the tribe. The first two classes are generally seen as the "true" members of the tribe.

Social distinction also existed between male and female. Women were generally viewed as minors who are under the authority of males. As a result they usually sat apart from the men at festivals and in some churches, and they were not allowed at political gatherings.

Amongst the Sotho-Tswana, adulthood is not attained with the reaching of a specific age, but with the onset of puberty and subsequent initiation. Full adult status is attained for a man at the time of his marriage, while for a woman, it comes with the birth of her first child.

All of this has changed and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, women are now generally much freer to do as they want. Greater opportunity is available to women, enabling them to rise to levels and activities from which they formerly were excluded.

Political Organization. The two main elements regarding the administrative control of the tribe involves the chieftainship and the ward. The supreme authority in every tribe, exercising control over all its members, is vested in the tribal chief. Known as kgoši, he owes his title of authority to seniority of birth within the ruling family. This position is hereditary and passes from father to the eldest son by the senior wife. The status of the senior wife or queen mother (mohumagadi ) normally arises from the fact that the whole tribe contributes towards the marriage goods (magadi ) given for her.

If the designated successor to the chieftainship is still a minor at the time of his father's death, a regent (moswaredi ) is appointed by the family council to rule until such time as the successor has reached maturity and can be installed as chief. As a rule, the regent is a younger brother of the deceased, although there have been cases of females taking on this role.

If the chief dies without issue, a substitute male (go belehisa ) is appointed to "raise seed" with the senior wifeusually through one of the younger brothers of the deceased.

In the performance of his duties, the kgoši cannot act in an authoritarian manner and constantly have to consult with a series of advisors and advisory councils. The most important of these consists of members of the ruling lineage, supplemented with a number of confidants. Decisions made at these councils have to be presented at a larger tribal council. This is made up of all ward heads (dintona ) and is known as lekgotla. Decisions made here might eventually be submitted to a gathering of all the adult males of the tribe, known as pitšo.

The duties that the chief has to discharge include the fields of religion, politics, judicial, economics, and social life. He has a number of officials who assist him in the performance of these duties. However, he delegates his powers to the ward heads, each of which can be described as a chief in miniature. The various wards are ranked according to seniority. All matters pertaining to a particular ward are discussed in the court of that ward. If no satisfactory solution can be achieved, the case is referred to a more senior ward for arbitration. If still no solution can be reached, it is again referred to a more senior ward, until it finally reaches that of the chief.

The situation used to be much the same in Lesotho in early years. However, because of their unique history, the people of Lesotho have a constitutional monarchy. Although the king is head of state, his powers are limited and authority rests with the prime minister and his cabinet. Traditional leaders, however, still play a large role in government, especially on local levels, where they are in charge of different wards.

Conflict. Internal conflict usually developed because of disputes regarding succession. In most cases, however, this was resolved by the loser moving away with his supporters to settle at some new location. Conflict with other groups, in the past, usually arose out of pressure for land to settle on and thieving of cattle.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Sotho believe in Modimo (also known as Kgobe, Khutswane), who, as creator-god, withdrew to heaven after creating the world and does not concern himself with life on earth. He is not worshipped directly, but can be reached through a long line of ancestors. The modern acceptance of the name Modimo as equal to God is the result of the work of missionaries who appropriated this name when translating the Bible.

The central element in the traditional religion of Sotho speakers is the belief in ancestors (badimo ) and their veneration as they still influence the daily life of their descendants. Differentiation is made between one's own ancestors and those of the chief. Each family is under the direct guidance of its own agnatic ancestors. These can be consulted for any important affair concerning the family. A small altar (Modimo wafase ) is usually erected in the courtyard of the dwelling. It is either here or at the grave of the ancestor that veneration takes place. This consists of presenting a small offering of beer, snuff, or meat, after which the ancestors are directly addressed. The chief would traditionally consult his ancestors in matters pertaining to the tribe as a whole.

Most Sotho speakers are now Christians, belonging chiefly to the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Dutch Reformed denominations. It is, however, the independent Black churches, such as the Zionist Christian Church, that have the largest number of adherents.

Religious Practitioners. The role of the chief officiator, or "priest," at a ritual is always a genealogical senior kinsman or head of the family. As senior representative of the ancestors he conducts the rites on the behalf of all the decedents. This role also gives him much authority over his dependents.

However, a more important role is played by the diviner or ngaka. This person's importance derives from his or her ability to interpret the cause of misfortune, whether it has been occasioned by the ancestors or by sorcery. Although it is not always clear, distinction can be made between diviners, who use one of several different aids to determine causes, and herbalists. An intrusive element, originating from Tsonga and Nguni sources, is mediumistic divination, largely practiced by women.

The chief also plays the role of priest, officiating in all religious matters where it concerns the tribe as a whole.

Ceremonies. In the past, a number of communal rituals were held. Most of these were concerned with agricultural activities and the welfare of the general population: making rain, preparing and planting fields, protecting crops, ceremonial opening of the harvest, and a harvest festival.

The various communal rituals are not solely instituted to ensure the economic welfare of the community. They reflect and also support the traditional political and religious structures of the community and are used by the chief to strengthen his position within the community. The chief has a central political and religious role in the life of Sotho communities. With his indispensable participation in the different communal rituals, and the support of his councilors and ward headmen, he controls the whole production mechanism of the tribe, and thereby ensures the people-s loyalty towards him.

Arts. Traditionally, clothing consisted of objects made from the skins of wild and domestic animals. These, as well as the body itself, were decorated with a variety of beads and other ornaments.

Music and dancing used to be largely a communal affair, practiced on occasion of various rituals. As few communal rituals are held anymore, music and dancing have taken on an element of commercialization, and are now performed by amateur as well as professional groups. Production of plays and other programs for radio and television are very active. The shows usually deal with issues regarding everyday life in the home and work place. A large number also deal with the popular struggle to attain freedom from colonial oppression and apartheid.

For the last hundred years and more, a large volume of literature has been produced in Sotho-Tswana language, much of which has also been translated into English and other languages.

Medicine. Medicine for socially approved purposes falls roughly into three categories: that used to promote the well-being of the tribe; that for the protection of huts, stock, crops, etc.; and that which influences interpersonal relationships. Cases diagnosed by diviners need appropriate action. However, the outcome of the treatment lies with the patient fulfilling the prescriptions of the diviner.

Death and Afterlife. Burial usually occurs as soon as possible after death. The family head used to be buried in the cattle kraal, with other people in places conveniently close by. In the past, the house of the deceased was abandoned. A diviner would be consulted to determine if there was any sorcery involved in the death of the person, after which appropriate preventive measures would be taken to neutralize this evil. Depending on his or her position in the household, over time and after the execution of some rituals, the deceased takes his or her place among the ancestors to be venerated and solicited for assistance when necessary.

For other cultures in southern Africa, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Hammond-Tooke, W. D. (1981). Boundaries and Belief: the Structure of a Sotho Worldview. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Krige, E. ]., and J. D. Krige (1943). The Realm of the Rain-Queen. London: Oxford University Press.

Krige, J. D. (1937). "Traditional Origins and Tribal Relationships of the Northern Transvaal," Bantu Studies 11(4): 321-356.

Kuper, A. (1975). "The Social Structure of the Sotho-Speaking Peoples of Southern Africa," Africa 45(1): 67-81; 45(2): 139-149.

Lye, W. F., and C. Murray (1980). Transformations on the Highveld: The Tswana and Southern Sotho. Cape Town: David Philip.

Mönnig, H. O. (1967). The Ped'i Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik.

Pauw, B. A. (1990). "Widows and Ritual Danger in Sotho and Tswana Communities," African Studies 49(2): 75-99.

Schapera, I. (1971). The Tswana. London: International African Institute.


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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 188081 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-boughtthere 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.


Bardill, John E., and Jame H. Cobbe. Lesotho. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985.

Carpenter, Allan. Lesotho. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1975.

Hofmeyer, Isabel. "We Spend Our Years as a Tale That is Told": Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Chiefdom. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994.

Mofolo, Thomas. Chaka. London: Heinemann, 1981.

Tonsing-Carter, Betty. Lesotho. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.


Internet Africa Ltd. Lesotho. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Lesotho. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Sotho Major cultural and linguistic group of s Africa. It includes the Northern Sotho of Transvaal, South Africa, the Western Sotho (better known as the Tswana) of Botswana, and the Southern Sotho (Basotho or Basuto) of Lesotho. Although dominating the rural territories they inhabit, the c.4 million Sotho share those areas with people of other Bantu-speaking tribes. Many work and live in the urban areas and surrounding townships.

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SothoBantu, stand-to •Manawatu, Vanuatu •passe-partout • gentoo • lean-to •pistou •into, thereinto •manitou • onto • Motu •Basotho, Hutu, Lesotho, Mobutu, Sotho, tutu •hereunto, thereunto, unto •surtout

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