"She is an Msutu, but she speaks Zulu well"
Basotho shepherd, 2008
Public DomainBasotho shepherd, 2008 - Credit: Kerri

South Africa’s earliest Sotho-Tswana speakers were concentrated in the north of the country.  They are believed to have migrated from the area that is now Tanzania.  By 1500 they had spread across South Africa and separated into three distinct regional clusters.

The Sotho nation was established in the 1820s under Moshoeshoe, who used a combination of force and diplomacy to gather together disparate clans of Sotho-Tswana speakers from across the country.  A combination of decisive military victories over rival tribes, alliances with neighbouring chiefs, and the inclusion of refugee communities willing to pledge allegiance to him, saw Moshoeshoe establish himself as the undisputed ruler over a large area (modern day Lesotho).      

In 1868, after losing some of his territory to the Boers during the Free State–Sotho war, Moshoeshoe successfully appealed to Queen Victoria to proclaim his territory, then known as Basotuland, a protectorate of Britain.  Local chieftains retained power over internal affairs while Britain was responsible for foreign affairs and the defence of the protectorate.

Children in rural Lesotho
Public DomainChildren in rural Lesotho - Credit: Kerri

In 1966, Basutoland became the independent Kingdom of Lesotho.  Today, Lesotho remains an independent mountain kingdom, completely surrounded by South Africa.

Since the late 1800s, many Sotho have travelled to cities such as Johannesburg to work as migrant labourers in the mines.  Today, about 4 million people in South Africa speak Sotho as a first language; Sotho is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.