Estimated at 7 million, these Sotho speakers are the second largest African language group in South Africa. Three million Sotho and other closely related groups live outside of South Africa, the majority of who are in Lesotho. The Sotho can be subdivided into three groups. The first group is the Northern Sotho also called Pedi and Bapedi. The Pedi society arose out of a confederation of small chiefdoms that had been established sometime before the 17th century in what later became the Northern Transvaal (Northern Province). Defeated early in the 19th century by the armies of Mzilikazi, they revived under the leadership of Sekwati. Thereafter, they repeatedly clashed with the Voortrekkers during the later half of the 19th century.
It appears that the Sotho people migrated southward from the Great Lakes in Central Africa about 5 centuries ago in successive waves and the last group, namely, the Hurutse, settled in the Western Transvaal towards the beginning of the 16th century. It is from this group that the Pedi eventually originated through the Bakgatla offshoot that takes its name from the chief Mokgatla. Very little is known of the history of the Bakgatla people for the first few generations after their founder Mokgatla had withdrawn from the originating group, but it is known that, arising from a further split at a later date, a chief by the name of Tabane left with his followers and settled at what is now known as Schilpadfontein in the vicinity of Pretoria.
It is not known how long they lived there, but Tabane appears to have been succeeded by his son Motsha, whose son and heir Diale (or Liale) had a number of wives, the youngest of whom was his favourite, Mathobele. The other wives were jealous of her favoured position and when she was expecting her first child they would tease and mock her; saying that her child cried whilst still in her womb. Mathobele gave birth to a healthy boy, and named him ‘Lellelateng’ meaning ‘it cries inside’, but the unusual event was attributed to witchcraft and the Kgatla council, wanted to kill the mother and child. Diale interceded for them and they were both saved. However, as the baby grew older it became apparent that he would not be accepted by the tribe, and it seems that he and his family, together with a large following, broke away or were driven away and trekked to the east with their flocks and herds to start the Pedi nation.
They crossed the Olifants River below its junction with the Elands River and passed through the country north of Middelburg. They crossed the Lulu Mountains and eventually settled near Steelpoort in approximately 1650. From there, they gained control of trade routes running from the interior to the Mozambique coast, and started their reign over other Sotho speakers in the area. By 1800 Thulare was the leader of the Pedi Empire in the northeastern Transvaal. His capital Manganeng lay on the Tubatse / Steelpoort River. The Pedi consisted of several tribes, who enjoyed great wealth under Thulare’s rule and he is still honoured as a great chief and leader to this day. His death in 1824 – during a solar eclipse was followed by 2 years of disputes over his successor. There is some uncertainty as to Thulare’s successor as about 1826, about 2 years after his death, the whole Pedi Empire was crushed and disrupted by Mzilikazi’s reign of terror throughout the Transvaal.
However, in the chaos that followed Sekwati, the senior living son of Thulare, gathered what he could of the Pedi and fled to the north where he took refuge with Ramapulana to whom the Pedi were related some 5 generations before. He left behind him a country devastated by the Matabele who had completely stripped the land of all stock and grain. The remaining people of the old Pedi Empire had fled into the mountains and caves from where they would venture into the night to find whatever food they could. Many of the people became cannibals and eventually, after an absence of about 4 years, Sekwati returned and reconstructed the dominance of the Pedi and rid their land of the cannibals. He established himself at Phiring near Pokwani on a rocky hill, which is known today as Magali’s Location.
Although the Pedi originated from the Bakgatla and were of Sotho origin, their inter-marriage with other tribes by defeating them, ended up in the application of many other words in the Pedi language and customs which are not of Sotho origin, but which are akin to the Venda and Lovedu and the Karanga from Zimbabwe. Sekwati’s successor, Sekhukhune, initially consolidated the power of the Pedi, but years of drought and a series of attacks from the South African Republic and the Swazi chiefdom weakened the Pedi during the 1870s. However, in 1845, the Voortrekkers, under Hendrik Potgieter, established a settlement at Ohrigstad in terms of a treaty with the Pedi. But this did not stop the Pedi from stealing their cattle, and soon there were problems with grazing rights and labour.
This situation deteriorated for many years until in 1876 the Voortrekkers waged war on the Pedi, under Sekhukhune. The Voortrekkers main objective was to capture the assets of the Pedi, however, their plans were thwarted by what could only be described as a ‘trench system’. Thus the Voortrekkers had to lay siege and try to starve the Pedi into submission. They harassed the Pedi in every way possible and impeded their crop cultivation and the grazing of their cattle. The Voortrekkers demanded 2 000 head of cattle as repayment, but Sekhukhune refused to pay. They had hoped for a quick peace, but this situation continued until the British annexed the Transvaal in April 1877. In early 1878 the war was resumed – this time by the British under Theophilus Shepstone, who saw Sekhukhune as a hindrance to British Imperialist amitions in southern Africa. The war was divided into 3 phases.
The first phase was initiated by an attack on Sekhukhune’s sister, Lekgolane, who, after leaving, rejoined her brother fearing he would attack her. But the British underestimated the Pedi resistance, which ended up in a standoff. The second phase took place in August 1879 after the end of the Anglo-Zulu War when the British attacked Sekhukhune with a force of 139 infantry and 338 mounted men – all regular army. The Pedi ambushed them and, using the rugged mountainous terrain to their advantage, frustrated the British advance so much that they were forced to retreat to Fort Burgers. The third and final phase took place after the Zulu War in November 1879 when 3 500 British regular troops and 3 000 Transvaal levies combined forces with 8 000 Swazi warriors to remove Sekhukhune from his kraal. While the British and the Transvalers made a frontal attack, the Swazi made a rear attack by swarming over the Pedi’s entrenched positions on the mountain.
In a battle lasting over 5 hours the Pedi were defeated. However, a number of them were able to escape and hide in the holes of a small, honeycombed hill, the Ntswaneng, from where they had to be smoked out. When night fell, the few survivors escaped under a cover of mist and darkness. Sekhukhune was captured and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, but when the British withdrew from the Transvaal after the first Anglo-Boer War, he was released. In that same year, the Transvaal government seized much of the Pedi land and forced many to work as labourers on white-owned farms.
Social and Cultural Life
The Pedi lived in huts, which were round in shape and known as rondawels. Rondawels were made out of clay mixed with “boloko” (cow dung) in order to strengthen it. The roofing of the rondawels was made from a particular grass called “loala” which was strong and long, and they would pack the grass in bangles and roof the houses.
Traditional Pedi food consisted of; thophi (a meal which is made from maize mixed with a fruit called lerotse), morogo wa dikgopana (spinach cooked and given a round shape and left to dry up in the sun). Bogobe ba mabele, samp and maswi (milk), masonja (mopane worms) is also eaten as well as vegetables and fruits like milo and machilo.
In Pedi culture the chief would wear clothes made out of wild animal skin such as Leopard and Lion to show leadership and he was from the ruling house (moshate). Ordinary people wore clothes made out of domestic animal skin such as goats, sheep and cows. However, the Pedi have changed their mode of dressing because of the present trends in fashion. There are many spoken dialects of Sepedi but only one written language. The Pedi are known for storytelling. The stories are usually told in the evenings but nowadays radio and TV have replaced them.
It could hardly be said that the Pedi were a warlike tribe, and it is difficult to determine whether they ever had the courage to fight a battle with a rival tribe. Pedi custom was to send men to the opposing tribe, for doctoring or of selling bead work but, in truth, they were spies who reported upon an opportunity for waging attack on the kraal. The chief would then summon all the men of his tribe to assemble with their weapons, which mainly consisted of assegais and battle-axes. The men were aware of the need to bring food supplies for the duration of the journey. It did not take long to for the men to assemble, and the whole of the Pedi army would set off in the opposite direction to their destination which was kept secret from the main following until the second night, when suddenly the course would be changed and they would rush on to the targeted kraal.
The attack was made stealthily and no prisoners were taken, except the women and children. In most cases the attacks were effective and a great deal of bloodshed resulted. Unlike the Zulus and the Matabele, to whom the art of war and military strategy was a science and military discipline was a way of life; the military organization of the Pedi was very primitive. Each man in a Pedi tribe provided for himself and followed his own ideas as to what he should do. Tactics were formulated by the chief in council, and the execution of the tactics was assigned to the chief’s brother, who took on the task of active command over the tribesmen. All the cattle looted were handed to the man in command, who made sure that a third was slaughtered, a third was sent to the chief’s kraal and the remaining third to be handed back to the men who had looted the opposing tribe. Women and children were regarded as loot and divided among the followers of the chief.
The Pedi believe in ancestors and gods, they believe that through ancestors they can talk to gods about their needs. They also believe that when the time is right young men and women should go to initiation school. They also reckoned that anyone who violates how things are done concerning culture and their tradition is to be taken away from the village.
When it comes to marriage the elders would choose the spouse for their son or daughter. If the parents knew their child liked someone in the village they would go to that family and introduce themselves, to discuss the future nuptials. And thereafter arrangements would be made on how the two people would meet. A decision would then be made by the girl’s parents as to how many cows or money will be paid as Bogadi, then the 2 may be together. If a man died, an unmarried younger brother would marry the widow, in order to support the family and take care of the children.
The mother usually gave birth at her family home and after she returned to her husband’s home, her family would contribute meat and beer for the subsequent feast. As a tribute to the status of the new mother, her husband would build her a homestead. When a baby was born to the chief the villagers have to go to the royal house (moshate), give presents to the child, and wish the baby well. After a few days there would be an announcement from the chief’s servants that a ceremonial party would be held whereby the villagers would sing and rejoice for the newborn baby with food and drink that is traditionally prepared.
When a person dies they bury him / her after 7 days so that they could have enough time to arrange everything including informing the friends, relatives and all the people who need to know about the death of that particular person. This was in order to give them time to be able to attend to the funeral. The day before the person is going to be buried they will cover him / her with cow skin. Everybody will then get a chance to see that person for the last time (go tlhoboga), and the following day he / she will be buried.
Music and Dance:
Songs were also part of Pedi culture. During hard labour the Pedi would sing together to finish the job quickly. One particular song was about killing a Lion to become a man. The act of killing a Lion is very unusual and no longer practised. Actually it was so unusual that if a boy managed, he would get high status and the ultimate prize – to marry the chief’s daughter.
The Pedi today
In the 1950s a Pedi migrant workers’ organisation (Sebatakgomo) tried to cast out chiefs, headmen and others who accepted Bantu authorities and rural betterment programmes. In 1958 a major protest took place in Sekhukhuneland in which those who sought to defend the chieftainship were challenged by the new forces. The Northern Sotho homeland of Lebowa was proclaimed a ‘self-governing’ territory in 1972, with a population of almost 2 million. Economic problems plagued the poverty-stricken homeland, however, and the people were not unified.
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 regions of land into Lebowa. Conflict broke out again in 1986 in what had by then become the Bantustan of Lebowa.