South Africa Table of Contents

At least 7 million Sotho (also BaSotho) people who speak seSotho and related languages live in South Africa. Another 3 million Sotho and closely related people live in neighboring countries. The diverse Sotho population includes the Northern Sotho (Pedi), the Southern Sotho, and the Tswana (BaTswana), each of which is itself a heterogeneous grouping.

Ancestors of today's Sotho population migrated into the region in the fifteenth century, according to historians, probably from the area of the northern Transvaal. Like many neighboring Nguni peoples, the Sotho traditionally relied on a combination of livestock raising and crop cultivation for subsistence. Most Sotho were herders of cattle, goats, and sheep, and cultivators of grains and tobacco. In addition, the Sotho were skilled craftsmen, renowned for their metalworking, leatherworking, and wood and ivory carving.

Also like the Nguni, most Sotho lived in small chiefdoms, in which status was determined in part by relationship to the chief. Unlike the Nguni, Sotho homesteads were grouped together into villages, with economic responsibilities generally shared among village residents. Villages were divided into wards, or residential areas, often occupied by members of more than one patrilineal descent group.

The village chief--a hereditary position--generally appointed ward leaders, whose 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 ward leaders 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--men organized for warfare and herding, depending on age-set, and women for crop cultivation and religious responsibilities. 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.

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.

Both Nguni and Sotho peoples reckoned descent through patrilineal ties, but their marriage rules differed markedly. Sotho patrilineages were usually endogamous--i.e., the preferred marriage partner would be a person related through patrilineal descent ties. Nguni patrilineages, in contrast, were exogamous--marriage within the descent group was generally forbidden.

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 BaSotho worked in South Africa's mines, and many others were part of South Africa's urban work force throughout the country.

Northern Sotho

The heterogeneous Northern Sotho are often referred to as the Pedi (or BaPedi), because the Pedi make up the largest of their constituent groups. Their language is sePedi (also called seSotho sa Leboa or Northern Sotho). This society arose in the northern Transvaal, according to historians, as a confederation of small chiefdoms some time before the seventeenth century. A succession of strong Pedi chiefs claimed power over smaller chiefdoms and were able to dominate important trade routes between the interior plateau and the Indian Ocean coast for several generations. For this reason, some historians have credited the Pedi with the first monarchy in the region, although their reign was marked by population upheaval and occasional military defeat.

During the nineteenth century, Pedi armies were defeated by the Natal armies of Mzilikazi and were revived under the command of a Pedi chief, Sekwati. Afrikaner Voortrekkers in the Transvaal acquired some Pedi lands peacefully, but later clashed with them over further land claims. By the 1870s, the Voortrekker armies were sufficiently weakened from these clashes that they agreed to a confederation with the British colonies of Natal and the Cape that would eventually lead to the South African War in 1899.

The smaller Lobedu population makes up another subgroup among the Northern Sotho. The Lobedu are closely related to the Shona population, the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe, but the Lobedu are classified among the Sotho primarily because of linguistic similarities. The Lobedu were studied extensively by the early twentieth-century anthropologist J.D. Krige, who described the unique magical powers attributed to a Lobedu female authority figure, known to outsiders as the rain queen.

The Northern Sotho homeland of Lebowa was declared a "self-governing" (not independent) territory in 1972, with a population of almost 2 million. Economic problems plagued the poverty-stricken homeland, however, and the population was not unified by strong ethnic solidarity. Lebowa's chief minister, Cedric Phatudi, struggled to maintain control over the increasingly disgruntled homeland population during the early 1980s; his death in 1985 opened new factional splits and occasioned calls for a new homeland government. Homeland politics were complicated by the demands of several ethnic minorities within Lebowa to have their land transferred to the jurisdiction of another homeland. At the same time, government efforts to consolidate homeland territory forced the transfer of several small tracts of land into Lebowa.

Southern Sotho

The Southern Sotho peoples are a diverse group that includes almost 2 million South Africans, many of whom live in the area surrounding Lesotho, and 1.6 million residents of Lesotho. The Southern Sotho were unified during the reign of King Moshoeshoe I in the 1830s. Moshoeshoe established control over several small groups of Sotho speakers and Nguni speakers, who had been displaced by the mfecane . Some of these communities had established ties to San peoples who lived just west of Moshoeshoe's territory. As a result, Southern Sotho speech, unlike that of Northern Sotho, incorporates a number of "click" sounds associated with Khoisan languages.

Southern Sotho peoples were assigned to the tiny homeland of QwaQwa, which borders Lesotho, during the apartheid era. 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.


The Tswana (BaTswana), sometimes referred to as the Western Sotho, are a heterogeneous group, including descendants of the once great Tlhaping and Rolong societies, as well as the Hurutshe, Kwena, and other small groups. Their language, seTswana, is closely related to seSotho, and the two are mutually intelligible in most areas. About 4 million Tswana people live in southern Africa--3 million in South Africa and 1 million in the nation of Botswana. In South Africa, many BaTswana live in the area that formed the numerous segments of the former homeland, Bophuthatswana, as well as neighboring areas of the North-West Province and the Northern Cape. Tswana people are also found in most urban areas throughout South Africa.

By the nineteenth century, several Tswana groups were politically independent, loosely affiliated chiefdoms that clashed repeatedly with Afrikaner farmers who claimed land in the northern Transvaal. In the late nineteenth century, Afrikaner and British officials seized almost all Tswana territory, dividing it among the Cape Colony, Afrikaner republics, and British territories. In 1910, when the Cape and the Transvaal were incorporated into the Union of South Africa, the Tswana chiefs lost most of their remaining power, and the Tswana people were forced to pay taxes to the British Crown. They gradually turned to migrant labor, especially in the mines, for their livelihood.

Tswana culture is similar to that of the related Sotho peoples, although some Tswana chiefdoms were more highly stratified than those of other Sotho or the Nguni. Tswana culture was distinguished for its complex legal system, involving a hierarchy of courts and mediators, and harsh punishments for those found guilty of crimes. Tswana farmers often formed close patron-client relationships with nearby Khoisan-speaking hunters and herdsmen; the Tswana generally received meat and animal pelts in return for cattle and, sometimes, dogs for herding cattle.

Bophuthatswana was declared "independent" in 1977, although no country other than South Africa recognized its independence. The homeland consisted primarily of seven disconnected enclaves near, or adjacent to, the border between South Africa and Botswana. Efforts to consolidate the territory and its population continued throughout the 1980s, as successive small land areas outside Bophuthatswana were incorporated into the homeland. Its population of about 1.8 million in the late 1980s was estimated to be 70 percent Tswana peoples; the remainder were other Sotho peoples, as well as Xhosa, Zulu, and Shangaan. Another 1.5 million BaTswana lived elsewhere in South Africa.

Bophuthatswana's residents were overwhelmingly poor, despite the area's rich mineral wealth. Wages in the homeland's industrial sector were lower than those in South Africa, and most workers traveled to jobs outside the homeland each day. The poverty of homeland residents was especially evident in comparison with the world's wealthy tourists who visited Sun City, a gambling resort in Bophuthatswana.

The non-Tswana portion of the homeland population was denied the right to vote in local elections in 1987, and violence ensued. Further unrest erupted in early 1988, when members of the Botswana Defence Force tried to oust the unpopular homeland president, Lucas Mangope. Escalating violence after that led to the imposition of states of emergency and government crackdowns against ANC supporters in Bophuthatswana, who were often involved in anti-Mangope demonstrations. Mangope was ousted just before the April 1994 elections, and the homeland was officially dismantled after the elections.

More about the Ethnic Groups of South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress