Community histories of Bloemfontein

Sotho (South Sotho or Basotho)

South Sotho culture, social organizations, ceremonies, language and religious beliefs are almost identical to the other two Sotho groups (Pedi and Tswana); however, there are major cultural differences between the Sotho and the Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi). The Sotho people tend to group their homesteads in villages and have a technology and society that differs from the Nguni peoples.

Probably the greatest difference between Sotho and Nguni society is in contrasting marriage customs. A Sotho-speaking man often seeks a bride from a group to whom he is already related or knows well, while marriage to kin in the Nguni society is frowned upon. The Nguni are grouped in clans, while totems, or praise-names taken from animals, distinguish the Sotho-speakers.

In the past, the livelihood of the Sotho was mainly based on hunting, cultivating crops and iron smelting. Traditionally, the Sotho gave allegiance to a paramount chief and they were controlled by a hereditary district chief assisted by community headmen.

Administration of justice is still, in some respects, in the hands of these leaders. In former times, the legal code was based mainly on custom. Sotho descent rules were important, even though descent groups did not form discrete local groups. Clans were often totemic, or bound to specific natural objects or animal species by mystical relationships, sometimes involving taboos and prohibitions. Major Sotho clans included the Lion (Taung), Fish (Tlhaping), Elephant (Tloung), and Crocodile (Kwean) clans.

Community headmen’s residences were clustered around the chief's residence. Sotho villages sometimes grew into large towns of several thousand people. Farmland was usually outside the village, not adjacent to the homestead. This village organization may have enabled the Sotho villagers to defend themselves more effectively than they could have with dispersed households, and it probably facilitated control over community headmen and subjects by the chief and his family.

Sotho villages were also organized into age-sets, or groups of men or women who were close in age. Each age-set had specific responsibilities e.g. men organized for warfare and herding. An entire age-set generally graduated from one task to the next, and the village often celebrated this change with a series of rituals and, in some cases, an initiation ceremony. In the past initiations into adulthood were elaborate ceremonies lasting a few months, in which girls and boys were taken separately to the bush in the winter. The boys were circumcised. Increasingly, funerals have become the most elaborate life-cycle rituals.

The Supreme Being that the Sotho people 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. Today, Christianity in one form or another is accepted by most of the Sotho-speaking people. Most people in Lesotho are Catholics, but there are also many Protestant denominations. Today, many independent churches combine theses elements of African traditional religion with the doctrines of Christianity.

In Sotho tradition, the man is considered the head of the household. Women are defined as farmers and bearers of children. Polygymous 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. In Sotho, the words for father (ntate) and mother (mme) are used commonly as address forms of respect for one's elders. 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 South Sotho people of Lesotho (baSuto) 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. 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 Sotho language, seSotho, is a Bantu language closely related to seTswana. Sotho utilizes click consonants in some words, while sePedi and seTswana do not have clicks. Sotho is spoken in the Kingdom of Lesotho and in South Africa. It is concentrated in the Free State, Gauteng and Eastern Cape Provinces, with small groups of speakers in Namibia and Zambia.

Sotho is 1 of the 11 official languages recognized by the South African Constitution and 7.9% of the South African population uses it as their home language. It is a tonal language governed by the noun, which is split into various classes. It is known as an agglutinating language (a combination of simple word elements to express a specific meaning), with many suffixes and prefixes used in sentence construction causing sound changes.

It is rich in proverbs, idioms, and special forms of address reserved for elders and in-laws. Currently, Sotho 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.

Sotho was one of the first African languages to become a written language and therefore Sotho literature is extensive. South Sotho is comprised of the Fokeng, Tlokwa, Kwena, Phetla, Phuti, and Pulana dialects or varieties and according to scholars the written form was originally based on the Tlokwa dialect. Today the written language is mostly based on the Kwena and Fokeng dialects, although there are variations. Sesotho was transmuted into writing by the missionaries Casalis and Arbousset of the Paris Evangelical Mission who arrived at Thaba Bosiu in 1833. 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.

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