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.


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.

The unification of the baSotho

The Southern Sotho people were unified as the Basuto during the reign of King Moshoeshoe in the 1830s (see feature on the Basuto Wars). Moshoeshoe established control over several small groups of Sotho and Nguni speakers, who had been displaced by the difiqane (Zulu: mfecane). Some of these communities had established ties to San peoples who lived just west of Moshoeshoe's territory. As a result, the South Sotho language or seSotho, unlike that of North Sotho, incorporates a number of ‘click’ sounds associated with Khoisan languages.

By the early twentieth century, Sotho villages were losing their claims to land, largely because of pressure from Whites. Cattle raising became more difficult, and as Western economic pressures intensified, Sotho people living in Lesotho and in South Africa increasingly turned to the mines for work. By the early 1990s, an estimated 100,000 Basuto worked in South Africa's mines, and many others were part of South Africa's urban work force throughout the country.

The homelands in and around the Orange Free State

The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked more changes for all Black South Africans. In 1953 the South African Government introduced homelands. Southern Sotho people not living in Lesotho were assigned to the tiny homeland of QwaQwa, which borders Lesotho. QwaQwa was declared ‘self-governing’ in 1974, but Chief Minister Kenneth Mopeli rejected independence on the grounds that the homeland did not have a viable economy. Only about 200,000 Sotho people lived in QwaQwa during the 1980s.

A community of more than 300,000 people, Botshabelo, was incorporated into QwaQwa in 1987. Officials in the homeland capital, Phuthaditjhaba, and many homeland residents objected to the move, and the South African Supreme Court returned Botshabelo to the jurisdiction of the Orange Free State a short time later. The homeland continued to be an overcrowded enclave of people with an inadequate economic base until the homelands were dissolved in 1994.

Language, culture and beliefs

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.

We are still developing this section. We will soon be adding information on the English people in the Bloemfontein region. If you have a community story click on the contribute tab.

Collections in the Archives