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South Sotho

Types of Art

The South Sotho have created personal objects of adornment for centuries, including beadwork, leatherwork, metal collars and bracelets, and skillfully carved snuffhorns. Art production is gendered, with males creating objects of wood, such as walking sticks and knobsticks, as well as working with animal skins, horn, and metal.  In contrast, South Sotho females work with fibers and clay, and typically create objects of beads. In addition, South Sotho women decorate the exterior and interior walls of the home with painted and incised murals, the majority of which are complex geometric or floral motifs.  


The South Sotho are organized into different subgroups, or dibôkô, that can trace their genealogical history to a specific lineage head. Oral histories link such lineage heads to common ancestors in present-day Botswana dating back to the 15th century, and from whom the members of this shared cultural system descended. For centuries, members of each dibôkô maintained their cultural autonomy and often spoke their own unique dialects, and reserved their own unique religious and artistic expressions. The Basotho polity was founded in the early 19th century and originated under Morena (king) Moshoeshoe I. During this time, numerous events were taking place across southern Africa involving multiple cultures - both African and Western - that historians have labeled as the difaqane, or "the scattering." The result of these events led to the disruption, migration, and extermination of many cultures throughout the region. Because South Sotho populations were separated from the eastern lowlands of southern Africa by the immense Drakensburg mountain range, the central interior (Basutoland) served as a natural refuge for disenfranchised peoples who were fleeing from the chaos of the East. During this period, Moshoeshoe I was a minor South Sotho chief residing in his father's village of Menkhoaneng in the northwest region of present day Lesotho. As the events of the difaqane continued to unfold, Moshoeshoe I asserted himself as a diplomat and proficient leader by allowing any disparate peoples to settle under his protection and oversight. Through the support of his growing community, he was elevated to the status of Morena (king), and successfully guided his newly formed polity through the turbulent events of the 19th century. In order to protect his people's interests throughout the Caledon River Valley, Moshoeshoe I enacted numerous acts of diplomacy that displayed the far-sighted wisdom that he has became famous for, engaging with surrounding indigenous populations, as well as representatives from the British Empire and the Afrikaans Orange Free State. Basutoland, as his area of authority came to be called, eventually became a British Protectorate in 1868 following decades of martial engagements with the neighboring Orange Free State and British Cape Colony. On October 4, 1966 Basutoland gained independence from Britain and was renamed Lesotho. Currently, the political system of Lesotho is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy and includes a representative from the royal family, a Prime Minister and a Parliament composed of elected representatives and customary chiefs. Today, approximately 2.1 million people live in the kingdom of Lesotho, the majority of whom consider themselves "Basotho," a broad cultural designation linking one to any number of Southern Sotho-speaking dibôkô from across the region. In addition, there are approximately 3 million South Sotho who are citizens of the Republic of South Africa. The majority of South Sotho citizens in South Africa reside in the Free State Province, which borders the Kingdom of Lesotho.


Historically, the South Sotho raised livestock and farmed a variety of crops for subsistence. Much like the visual arts, social duties were also gendered, with males raising cattle and sheep and females overseeing the planting and harvesting. Over the last several centuries South Sotho men and women have served as migrant workers in the Republic of South Africa, competing for jobs as domestic workers, as well as for positions in the mining industry. Under the apartheid system of government, which established exploitative state sanctioned labor conditions that directly impacted Lesotho, South Sotho migrants made up 77% of the population in the Free State, until the end of white minority rule of South Africa in 1994.

Political Systems

Among the South Sotho, one's right to rule is based upon genealogy and seniority. Typically, the senior male member of a family line (sebôkô) inherits the position of authority. Such individuals gain the status of king or chief, and are often appointed to local or national positions of leadership, such as in the National House of Traditional Leaders (South Africa), or as the royal representative in Lesotho's parliamentary constitutional monarchy. 


South Sotho religious systems center on MODIMO, who is believed to have created the universe, yet remains a distant spiritual entity. In order to engage with MODIMO, the South Sotho turn to familial ancestors, or badimo, who function as intermediaries between the living and the spirit realm. Badimo are active participants in daily life, and ensure the good ordering of social relationships among the living, and the fertility and wellbeing of humankind, crops, and animals. In return, they expect service (tshebëlëtsö), and approaching them should follow proper channels of deference. Such belief systems highlight the importance of one's sebôkô, or family line, as it provides a direct link with badimo,who literally sustain life, and must be shown proper respect to ensure success and wellbeing. 

Facts about South Sotho


South Africa, Lesotho


Sesotho and various sub-dialects


Approximately 5 million

Neighboring Peoples

Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans