Basotho in Lesotho

Sotho speaking peoples have been in Southern Africa since around 1400 after moving to this area from central parts of Africa. The Basotho nation emerged from the unification of a number of smaller southern Sotho clans by King Moshoeshoe (sometimes spelled as Moshesh) at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

King Moshoeshoe (1786-1870)

King Moshoeshoe was the son of a chief of the Bakoteli - a branch of the Koena (Crocodile) clan. Early in his life he helped his father gain power over some other smaller clans. At the age of 34 Moshoeshoe formed his own clan and became a chief. He and his followers settled at the Butha-Buthe mountain. 

The reign of King Moshoeshoe coincided with the rise of power of the well known Zulu king, Shaka. During this first part of the 1800's King Shaka attacked many smaller clans along the Eastern coast of Southern Africa incorporating parts of them into his steadily growing Zulu nation. Various small clans were forced to flee the area currently known as the KwaZulu-Natal province. The period that followed was called the Lifaqane (SA Sesotho: difaqane / Zulu: mfecane - means times of great calamities) and was characterized by a lot of violence and plundering against the Sotho peoples by invading Nguni clans. The attacks also forced King Moshoeshoe to move his settlement to the Qiloane plateau. The name of the plateau was later changed to Thaba Bosiu or "mountain of the night" and it proved to be an impenetrable fortress against enemies.

Yet the most important role King Moshoeshoe played as a diplomat was his acts of friendship towards defeated enemies. He provided land and protection to various people and this strengthened the growing Basotho nation. His influence and followers grew with the incorporation of various refugees and victims of the Lifaqane.

By the latter part of the 1800's King Moshoeshoe established the nation of the Basotho and named the country Lesotho. From this period he was referred to as Morena o Moholo oa Basotho (Great chief/king of the Basotho).

Not long after the Lifaqane Europeans started to move into the mainland of South Africa. Firstly this led to missionaries from various societies setting up missions with different clans throughout the country. Yet this period also marked the beginning of conflict between Europeans and African peoples. Especially the Afrikaner, Dutch-speaking people of mixed European descent, came in contact with the Basotho after they settled in the region of the Free State province (bordering Lesotho on the west). In an attempt to be prepared for any possible conflict King Moshoeshoe requested missionaries to come and live amongst the Basotho people. He believed that in this way it would be easier to acquire guns for protection against the Europeans and groups of Khoekhoe (Khoikhoi) people. The missionaries introduced many new things to the Basotho society in terms of religion, western thought and even live stock and food. The first three missionaries were Thomas Arbousset, Eugene Casalis and Constant Gosselin from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society. They were placed at Morija where a lot of work was done on creating an orthography for the Sesotho language. The first printing press was also established here. Casalis also acted as an advisor to King Moshoeshoe in terms of matters relating to Europeans.

Thomas Arbousset Eugene Casalis

For strategic reasons and mainly for protection against Afrikaners the Basotho became allies with the British Cape Colony in 1843. During the period that followed many wars and conflicts took place between the Basotho, the Afrikaners and English. This happened at backdrop of increased colonization in Africa by Britain and shifts in possession of the Free State region between the Afrikaners and the British. 

The British annexed Lesotho, the then Basutoland, in 1868 and it led to British rule up to independence on 4 October 1966. A democratic government was envisaged for Lesotho but due to military coups and interference the country was ruled by the military for the period between 1986 and 1993. The then king, Moshoeshoe II was given executive powers but was soon dethroned and replaced by Prince Mohato as Letsie III in 1990.The constitution was suspended and an interim government created after the Palace Coup of 1994. Moshoeshoe II was reinstated as king. King Moshoeshoe II died in a car accident in 1996 and was succeeded by his son Letsie III.

In 1998 a government election was held and the Lesotho Congress for Democracy gained the majority of votes. But the results of the elections were disputed by opposition parties - despite rulings from international observers. Alleged irregularities in terms of the elections led to civil unrest and a split in the military. The situation was only resolved after intervention by South Africa and SADC militaries. At the end of 1999 the various parties met with the aim of forming an Interim Political Authority (IPA) made up of two delegates from each political party. The IPA is responsible to undertake reforms of the electoral system and to organize new elections.

Summary of the government in Lesotho since 1820



Date External/National
government of Lesotho
-1820 No 
paramount chief
-1820 Various chiefs 
for different clans
1820-1870 Moshoeshoe I 1820-
Incorporation of 
smaller clans
1868 British annexation
1870-1891 Letsie I 1872-
Rule of the Cape colony
Direct British rule
1891-1905 Lerotholi
1905-1913 Letsie II
1913-1939 Griffith Lerotholi
1940 Seeiso
1941-1960 Regent Mantsebo
1960-1990 Moshoeshoe II 
(Bereng Seeiso)
Military rule
1990-1994 Letsie III
1994-1996 Moshoeshoe II  1994- Democratically elected 
1996- Letsie III

It is clear from the history of Lesotho why Sesotho (national and first official language) together with English (second official language) are used as official languages for the country. Similar to many African countries Lesotho still maintains its previous colonisers' language. The language Sesotho has the majority speakers and is therefore the most prominent language. Yet there are minorities that speak the following languages: Afrikaans, Khoe and San languages, various Indian and other European languages as well as the following Nguni languages: Sephuthi, Sesolo, Setelele and Sethepu (Seqhotsa).

Sesotho has been the main language for the Basotho people even before settling in the region of the current day Lesotho. With the merging of fleeing Nguni people into Basotho society - the immigrants also had to learn Sesotho. It also was the official language up until the annexation of Lesotho by the British in 1868 at which time English was made official. With independence in 1966 both Sesotho and English were made official languages by legislation. Yet English is to this day very prominent as language of government, commerce, education and the judiciary.

In terms of education Sesotho is used as medium of instruction between the ages of six to nine, while English is the medium for the rest of primary, secondary and tertiary education. Up to secondary level Sesotho is taught as a subject. It can also be studied as subject at the national university.

For more information refer to the following:
Lesotho government: Country overview (includes section on the history of the country)
Lesotho government: Tourism and environment (information aimed a tourists)
Morija Online
Malealea Lodge: Basotho history

- Ellenberger, D.F. & MacGregor, J.C. 1969. The history of the Basotho: ancient and modern. [Reprint.] New York : Negro University Press.
- Khati, Thekiso. 2001. Multilingualism and the judiciary in Lesotho: the challenges of the 21st century. (In: Deprez, K., Du Plessis, T. & Teck, L. Multilingualism, the judiciary and Security Services. Pretoria : Van Schaik. p.167-176)

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J. Olivier (2016)