Community histories of Bloemfontein

Sotho (South Sotho or Basotho)

Sotho (South Sotho or Basotho) people are concentrated in the Free State, Gauteng and Eastern Cape Provinces, with small groups in Namibia and Zambia. While the Sotho people’s history is not directly intertwined with that of Bloemfontein, their history had an important influence on the history and development of the Orange Free State province.


Flat roofed dwelling, built by Basotho farmers near Bloemfontein. Some examples often decorated the corners and the entrance with small decorated pediments. Decoration is done by woman using natural clay and lime wash. Photographed in 1983. Source: Franco Frescura collection.

The four major ethnic divisions among Black South Africans are the Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. Together the Nguni and Sotho account for the largest percentage of the total Black population. The major Sotho groups are the South Sotho (Basuto and Sotho), the West Sotho (Tswana), and the North Sotho (Pedi).

Early Sotho origins and history is largely unknown, but Ironworkers, who were probably Sotho-speakers, were at Phalaborwa from the eighth century and at Melville Koppies in the Johannesburg area from the eleventh century. Oral tradition has it that the founding lineage knew the art of smelting and ancient ritual dances are associated with it.

Archaeologists have produced indisputable evidence of Sotho-speaking people smelting at widely dispersed places in Gauteng, the North West Province, the Northern Province, and Botswana. The first pottery in South Africa associated with the Sotho is called Icon and dates to between 1300 and 1500. As with the Nguni, anthropological and linguistic data suggest an East African origin for Sotho-Tswana speakers, in this case in what is now Tanzania.

By 1500 the Sotho groups had expanded to the south and west and separated into the three distinct clusters; the South Sotho (later became the Basuto and Sotho), the West Sotho (later the Tswana), and the North Sotho (later the Pedi). It is important to note however that all three clusters share very similar dialects, beliefs and social structures and the main distinctions between the three groups were only established as a result of the early 19th century difiqane period.

Most Sotho people were herders of cattle, goats, and sheep, and cultivators of grains and tobacco. In addition, the Sotho people were skilled craftsmen, renowned for their metalworking, leatherworking, and wood and ivory carving. In fact, most archaeologists presume the Sotho were the main body of early stone builders in this part of the country, because Iron Age sites studied by them resemble the areas reported by early eyewitnesses very closely.

The South Sotho cluster is associated with the Fokeng, who are today Sotho-speaking. They were long believed to be the first Sotho speakers on the highveld and have always been respected by oral historians as the most ancient of the Sotho peoples. Recent archaeological research has suggested, however, that the Fokeng were originally Nguni in culture and dispersed from Ntsuanatsatsi near Frankfort in the present Free State. They reached the edges of the Caledon valley in the 1600s, where the Phetla had already settled. North of the Vaal they made contact with Southwestern and then Western Sotho-Tswana folk.

In the Waterberg in the 1600s, conflict over limited resources seems to have provoked discord, in this case between Nguni speakers and mixed groups of Fokeng and Western Sotho-Tswana people. Sometime before 1700, some Western Sotho-Tswana people, including Kwena communities, moved south across the Vaal, into the Fokeng area. As a result of this contact and acculturation, the Fokeng became Sotho and, in the Free State, all but vanished.

In turn, Western and Southwestern groups in the 1700s adopted building in stone from the Fokeng. People of each cluster built distinctive stonewalled settlements, which presumably reflected the details of their earlier settlements of wood and thatch. The variously organised settlements, like ceramics, allow archaeologists to trace movement and interaction across the landscape. What is clear is that pulses of settlement shifts and conflict seem to have been at least partly a response to climatic flux during the Little Ice Age. For instance, an improved climate after 1700 made it possible for Southwestern Sotho-Tswana to settle south of the Vaal River, on the western edges of Fokeng-Kwena territory.

From 1750 onwards, intensifying trade and more intrusive colonial expansion increasingly affected Sotho-Tswana societies. Competition and conflict for resources eventually forced some chiefdoms to 'implode' into huge defensive settlements such as Molokwane, Kaditshwene and Dithakong, which in the early 1800s housed 10 000 people or more.

Early travelers to South Africa reported that the South Sotho people were highly skilled in carving ivory and wood and they said their leatherwork was 'as soft as chamois leather'. Fragments of Sung celadon ware from the twelfth century, found at Mapungubwe, indicate a connection with China through the Limpopo waterways long before Europeans set foot in south east Africa. The traditional conical South Sotho hat also indicates oriental influence.

Chiefdoms split repeatedly, usually as a result of rivalries between contenders for the position of chief. Irregular infiltration of fugitive groups occurred from the Highveld to the Lowveld, and from Swaziland and northern KwaZulu Natal into the interior. The Lobedu, the southward moving gold-mining Venda, and small groups of Tsonga from Mozambique settled among the Sotho and a long process of cultural interaction took place.