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The Social, Political and Economic Factors That Led to the Emergence and Growth of the Sotho Kingdom

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The social, political and economic factors that led to the emergence and growth of the Sotho kingdom

Moshoeshoe, who was the son of Mokhachane, a minor chief of the Bamokoteli lineage, is recognized as the founder of the Sotho Nation. He was mentored by the great Chief Motlomi, who was an avid traveler. Chief Motlomi was regarded as very wise, possibly due to his extensive knowledge concerning the numerous cultures of the various tribes he encountered during his voyages. Motlomi was charmed by Moshoeshoe’s intelligence and hence tutored him on diplomacy and rational thinking. Historian J.D Omer Cooper agrees with this as he states “Motlomi noticed unusual signs of intelligence and character in the boy” This mentorship may have influenced his style of leadership and rise to power and hence the creation of the Sotho Nation. The emergence of the Sotho Kingdom can be attributed to several factors, such as social and political instability, economic conditions and Moshoeshoe’s outstanding leadership.

Moshoeshoe was a very proactive individual, with exceptional leadership qualities even at a young age. He was popular in his small clan for being highly intelligent and a very talented cattle thief. His intelligence and initiative were particularly demonstrated when he realized the defensive potential of the flat topped mountains of Basutoland. J.D Omer Cooper agrees with this as he states that Moshoeshoe “saw that the flat-topped mountains (…) offered excellent defensive opportunities.” Following this discovery, Moshoeshoe left his home for Butha Buthe Mountain, at the age of 34 where he established a new community with his peers. These individuals were the first people of the future Basotho Nation. Moshoeshoe was a very kind leader, Historian Peter Sanders suggests that this was because he knew that “if he treated his followers badly, then those who were most offended might well leave him and place themselves under the protection of someone else.”

This new village attracted other youths from various other tribes and soon had a large and diverse population. Moshoeshoe used his location’s natural properties to his advantage. He created military defenses such as constructing walls around the hillside with “only a narrow gap through which no more than one beast could pass at a time” according to J.D Omer Cooper. This was a very effective defense as it slowed down any intruders, therefore allowing Moshoeshoe’s army time to prepare for battle.  Moshoeshoe assembled further defensive provisions such as look out huts, which were situated at the entrances and caves, which would help inform the rest of the community concerning any potential threats. In addition to being lookouts, these huts served as storehouses for excess food which would prove necessary during a blockade. These military facilities protected Moshoeshoe’s young nation for the time being and hence allowed it to grow.

The introduction of maize by the Portuguese during the 16th century caused an abundance of food which resulted in an increased population as fewer people died of starvation and family planning was not particularly necessary as resources were sufficient. Maize planting produced a greater harvest than the indigenous crops such as millet and sorghum, which had been previously sown by the southern African tribes. This abundance of food however, drew to an end due to the Madlathule famine which lasted approximately a decade. These food and water shortages plus the increased population caused tension among the Southern African tribes, which spiraled into a widespread series of wars and migrations. Numerous members of the dispersed tribes fled to Basutoland, to Moshoeshoe’s tribe in particular, where they were welcomed. Moshoeshoe’s tribe was well fed, as their leader used his knowledge of cattle raiding, which he had acquired in his youth, to seize his neighbors’ livestock.

Moshoeshoe’s military measures, constructed to defend his kingdom, soon proved to be beneficial because a few years later the Mfecane drove a large number of hostile Nguni tribes towards his territory. The Tlokwa waged war against Moshoeshoe’s army, however despite being greater in number than the Sotho, they were defeated due to Moshoeshoe’s defensive provisions and the geographical location of his kingdom. The Basotho’s location at the top of Butha Buthe Mountain, offered the Sotho soldiers the advantage of charging downhill against the enemy. This victory contributed to the rise of the Basotho Nation as it inspired pride and confidence among his subjects and prevented them from leaving his clan seeing that it was safe and secure

However, despite Butha Buthe Mountain being virtually impregnable, it lacked the space to support a large amount of crops and cattle. This problem was most apparent when the Tlokwa returned a few years later and imposed a siege upon Butha Buthe Mountain. This resulted in the dwindling of resources, to the extent that Moshoeshoe’s people were “reduced to eating their sandals and their leather cloaks” as J.D Omer Cooper states. This event however, did allow Moshoeshoe to demonstrate his shrewdness. In order to save his people from starvation, Moshoeshoe played one power against the other, by asking one of the other Nguni tribes that wanted to attack his land, to fight the Tlokwa. Historian Peter Sanders agrees with this as he states “Moshoeshoe persuaded a neighboring chief to attack the Tlokwa and so forced them to withdraw.” The Tlokwa surrendered against this tribe, which in turn decided not to attack Butha Buthe. His people were thus protected, and spared from death and absorption by other tribes.

This manipulation of great powers did not stop there. It occurred later when he was forced to pay homage to Matiwane, leader of the Ngwane and highest power between the Orange and Vaal River. Moshoeshoe had earlier made the strategic decision of extending his allegiance towards the Zulu king Shaka and according to J.D Omer Cooper “sent him a valuable tribute every year of crane’s feathers and other objects used as regalia by the Zulu regiments.” One year, Moshoeshoe did not send this yearly tribute to Shaka, and when questioned as to why, he told Shaka that the horrendous activities of Matiwane prevented his people from collecting these items. In response to this, Shaka sent an army to attack Matiwane’s forces. The Zulu won, however as J.D Omer Cooper states “It was a small force and it retired without winning a definite victory.”

Moshoeshoe’s diplomacy and generosity, which were possibly due to the teachings of Motlomi, played a very significant role in the rise of the Basotho Nation. The siege imposed by the Tlokwa made Moshoeshoe aware that Butha Buthe was incapable of sustaining his people during severe attacks. This compelled him to search for a different location, which was eventually found and called “Thaba Bosiu.” The extensive dispersal of people by the Mfecane made the journey to this new land very dangerous. The Mfecane led to the rise of wandering, hungry, tribes and smaller groups of people who seized cattle and killed humans for food. The scarcity of food was exacerbated by these people because it prevented farmers from going out to farm, for fear of being slaughtered. Several of Moshoeshoe’s tribesmen fell victim to these cannibals, among them his grandfather. Moshoeshoe’s decision to relocate his tribe proved to be fruitful because his new location had a large enough top to sustain wide scale agriculture, and hence a large population during a siege. This flat topped mountain was also rich in fertile lands and possessed the geographical properties necessary to defend his clan against all attacks such as the steep mountain sides which would provide an advantage to Moshoeshoe’s troops when they descended from the top.

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