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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.
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.
Data as of May 1996