northern sotho

Northern Sotho language

Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa in the language itself) is one of the official languages of South Africa, and is spoken by nearly five million—4,208,980 people (2001 Census Data)—in the South African provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga.


Northern Sotho is a language of the Bantu family within the Niger-Congo language phylum. Northern Sotho is specifically found within the Sotho languages branch of Zone S (S.30). Thus, this language is most closely related to Tswana (Setswana) and Sotho (Sesotho/Southern Sotho).


Northern Sotho is often, but erroneously, referred to as Sepedi, since for some years after the new South African constitution appeared, Pedi (or Sepedi) was the name used for Northern Sotho. There is thus some confusion as to which name to use.

The name "Pedi" is not, as some believe, synonymous with "Northern Sotho"; the official Northern Sotho language is intended to encompass approximately 30 closely related dialects, of which Pedi is but one. The name "Pedi" thus refers specifically to the language of the Pedi people, while Northern Sotho refers to the official language, which is a much broader category than merely Pedi. (Thus if speaking to a Pedi-speaker, it is not incorrect to say "Pedi", but if speaking about the official language, it is "Northern Sotho" or "Sesotho sa Leboa"). "Pedi" also refers to a ruling group which established its dominance over other groups in the eighteenth century, and to the culture and lifestyle of that group and of those over whom it ruled (see below).

Historically, the standard Northern Sotho language has been largely based on Pedi, as the missionaries who first developed the orthography had contact mainly with the Pedi people, and this is probably where the confusion originated. Further confusion arose when the South African constitution originally incorrectly cited "(Se)pedi" as being the official language. The Pan South African Language Board and the Northern Sotho National Lexicography Unit specifically endorse the names "Northern Sotho" or "Sesotho sa Leboa".

Non-Pedi dialects of Northern Sotho

Very little published information is available on non-Pedi dialects of the Northern Sotho language. These include Selobedu, Setlokwa, Sebirwa, Pai and Sepulana. The morphological and perhaps lexical variation across dialects of Northern Sotho has led some to claim that 'Northern Sotho' is a typological holding category for simply all the Sotho-ish languages and dialects of northeastern South Africa. Whether there is a coherent linguistic or ethnic identity among speakers of this range of languages is a matter for further research.

Pedi as a social/cultural group

(also known as Bapedi, Bamaroteng, Marota, Basotho, Northern Sotho). Pedi in its broadest sense is a cultural term as well as a linguistic one. Previously used to describe the entire set of people speaking various dialects of the Sotho language who live in the former northern Transvaal, the term Northern Sotho has in some cases replaced Pedi to characterise this collectivity of groups. Northern Sotho have been subdivided into the highveld Sotho, which are comparatively recent immigrants mostly from the west and south-west (including the Pedi (in the narrower sense), Tau, Kone, Roka, Ntwane, Mphahlele, Tšhwene, Mathabathe, Kone (Matlala), Dikgale, Batlokwa, Gananwa (Mmalebogo), Mmamabolo, Moletše), and the lowveld Sotho combining immigrants from the north with inhabitants of longer standing (including the Lobedu, Narene, Phalaborwa, Mogoboya, Kone, Kgakga, Pulana, Pai, Kutswe). These group names derive from totemic animals, which are sometimes alternated or combined with the names of chiefs.

Pedi in its narrowest sense refers to a political unit: the people living within the area over which the Maroteng dynasty established dominance during the 18th and 19th century. But this narrower usage is not rigid: the 18th and 19th centuries saw many fluctuations in the extent of this polity's domination, and processes of relocation and labour migration scattered its former subjects widely during the 20th century. This entry describes Pedi in the narrower sense.

Location: The present-day Pedi area, Sekhukhuneland, is situated between the Olifants River (Lepelle) and its tributary the Steelpoort River (Tubatse); bordered on the east by the Drakensberg range, and crossed by the Leolo mountains. But at the height of its power the Pedi polity under Thulare (about 1790-1820) included an area stretching from the site of present-day Rustenburg in the east to the lowveld in the west, and ranging as far south as the Vaal river. The area under Pedi control was severely limited when the polity was defeated by British troops in 1879. Reserves were created for this and for other northern Sotho groups by the Transvaal Republic's Native Location Commission. Over the next hundred years or so, these reserves were then variously combined and separated by a succession of government planners. By 1972 this planning had culminated in the creation of an allegedly independent national unit or "homeland" named Lebowa. In terms of the government's plans to accommodate ethnic groups separately from each other, this was designed to act as a place of residence for all northern Sotho speakers. But many Pedi had never resided here: since the polity's defeat, they had become involved in a series of labour-tenancy or sharecropping arrangements with white farmers, lived as tenants on crown land, or purchased farms communally as freeholders, or moved to live in the townships adjoining Pretoria and Johannesburg on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. In total, however, the population of the Lebowa homeland increased rapidly after the mid 1950s, due to the forced relocations from rural areas and cities in common South Africa undertaken by apartheid's planners, and to voluntary relocations by which former labour tenants sought independence from the restrictive and deprived conditions under which they had lived on the white farms.

Although Sepedi, more correctly known as Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho) is a language, the term sesotho is also used locally to describe a set of customary practices and moral codes conceived of as traditional. Whatever cultural and linguistic uniformity came to exist between the diverse people living in the northern Transvaal area, this blurred at its geographical edges, through a variety of dialects and practices, into other languages and customs. Northern Sotho is thus closely related both to dialects not officially recognised, such as setlokwa, and to the officially-recognised tongues of Setswana and Sesotho sa borwa (Southern Sotho), with both of which it shares common origins.

History: The complex multiplicity of groups described above already co-existed in the northern and north-eastern Transvaal by the end of the eighteenth century, and some concentration of political authority was already in place. In the course of their migrations into and around this area, clusters of people from diverse origins had gradually concentrated themselves around a series of dikgoro (s. kgoro) or ruling nuclear groups: identifying themselves through their shared symbolic allegiance to a totemic animal - tau (lion), kolobe (pig), kwena (crocodile) and others. The Maroteng or Pedi, with their symbolic animal noko (porcupine), were an offshoot of the Tswana-speaking Kgatla. In about 1650 they had settled in an area to the south of the Steelpoort river and of their present heartland. Here, over several generations of interaction, a degree of linguistic and cultural homogeneity developed. Only in the latter half of the 18th century did they extend control over the region, establishing the Pedi paramountcy by bringing powerful neighbouring chiefdoms under their sway.

Pedi power, at its height during Thulare's reign, (about 1790-1820) was undermined during the period of the difaqane by Ndwandwe invaders from the south-east. A period of dislocation followed, after which the polity was restabilised under Thulare's son Sekwati, who engaged in numerous negotiations and struggles for control over land and labour with the Afrikaans-speaking farmers (Boers) who had since settled in the region. Sekwati's success in these struggles, and later that of his heir, Sekhukhune I, was due in part to the firepower enjoyed by the polity, bought with proceeds of early labour migration to the Kimberley diamond fields. The Pedi paramountcy’s power was entrenched through its insistence that the chiefs of subordinate groups take their principal wives from the ruling dynasty. The resulting system of cousin marriage perpetuated hierarchical marriage links between ruler and ruled and involved paying inflated bridewealth to the Maroteng house.

By the 1870s, the Pedi represented one of three alternative sources of regional authority, alongside the Swazi and the ZAR (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) which the Boers had established. Intensifying struggles between Boers and Pedi over land and labour resulted in the war of 1876, in which the Boer aggressors were defeated. British annexation of the Transvaal, partly spurred by the Boers' failure to subjugate the Pedi, followed in 1877, and the Pedi were finally defeated by British troops under Sir Garnet Wolslely in 1879.

The Berlin Missionary Society established the first mission to the Pedi, west of the Leolo mountains, in 1861, after which the missionary Merensky left the area to establish a village for converts, Botšhabelo (the place of refuge), to the south-west of the Pedi area. From here, several groups of converts later left to purchase land and found their own independent communities – including Doornkop and Boomplaats. Here Christian Pedi continued living until they were forcibly removed into the Pedi reserve during the 1960s-70s in the interests of "ethnic consolidation". In more recent times, there has been mission activity by Catholic, Anglican, and Dutch Reformed missionaries.

Settlements: In pre-conquest times, people settled on elevated sites in relatively large villages, divided into kgoro (pl. dikgoro, groups centred around agnatic family clusters). Each consisted of a group of households, in huts built around a central area which served as meeting-place, cattle byre, graveyard and ancestral shrine. Households' huts were ranked in order of seniority. Each wife of a polygynous marriage had her own round thatched hut, joined to other huts by a series of open-air enclosures (lapa) encircled by mud walls. Older boys and girls, respectively, would be housed in separate huts. Aspirations to live in a more modern style, along with practicality, have led most families to abandon the round hut style for rectangular, flat-tin-roofed houses. Processes of forced and semi-voluntary relocation, and an apartheid government planning scheme implemented in the name of "betterment", have meant that many newer settlements, and the outskirts of many older ones, consist of houses built in grid-formation, occupied by individual families unrelated to their neighbours. Such living arrangements have not changed substantially since the advent of democracy in 1994.

Subsistence and economy: Pre-conquest economy combined cattle-keeping with hoe cultivation. Principal crops were sorghum, pumpkins and legumes, which were grown by women on fields allocated to them when they married. Women hoed and weeded; did pottery and built and decorated huts with mud; made sleeping mats and baskets; ground grain, cooked, brewed, and collected water and wood. Men did some work in fields at peak times; hunted and herded; did woodwork, prepared hides, and were metal workers and smiths. Most major tasks were done communally by matsema (work-parties).

The chief was depended upon to perform rain-making for his subjects. The introduction of the animal-drawn plough, and of maize, later transformed the labour division significantly, especially when combined with the effects of labour migration. Men's leaving home to work for wages was initially undertaken by regimental groups of youths in order to satisfy the paramount's firepower requirements, but later became increasingly necessary to individual households as population increase within the reserve and land degradation made it impossible to subsist from cultivation alone. Despite increasingly long absences, male migrants nonetheless remained committed to the maintenance of their fields: ploughing had now to be carried out during periods of leave, or entrusted to professional ploughmen or tractor owners. Women were left to manage and carry out all other agricultural tasks. Men, although subjected to increased controls in their lives as wage-labourers, fiercely resisted all direct attempts to interfere with the sphere of cattle-keeping and agriculture. Their resistance erupted in open rebellion - ultimately subdued - during the 1950s. In later decades, some families have continued to practise cultivation and to keep stock. These activities should more accurately be seen as demonstrating a long-term commitment to the rural social system in order to gain security in retirement than as providing a viable form of household subsistence.

In the early 1960s, about 48% of the male population was absent as wage-earners at any given time. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, most Pedi men would spend a short period working on nearby white farms followed by a move to employment on the mines or domestic service and later - especially in more recent times - to factories or industry. Female wage employment began more recently, and is rarer and more sporadic. Some women work for short periods on farms, others have begun, since the 1960s, to work in domestic service in the towns of the Witwatersrand. But in recent years there have been rising levels of education and of expectation, combined with a sharp drop in employment rates. Many youths, better-educated than their parents and hoping for jobs as civil servants or teachers, stand little chance of getting employment of any kind.

Religion: Ancestral worship (phasa) involved animal sacrifice or the presenting of beer to the shades, on both the mother's and father's side. A key figure in family ritual was the kgadi (father's older sister). The position of ngaka (diviner) was formerly inherited patrilineally, but is now commonly inherited by a woman from her paternal grandfather or great-grandfather. This is often manifested through illness and through violent possession by spirits (malopo)of the body, the only cure for which is to train as a diviner. There is a proliferation of diviners in recent times, with many said to be motivated mainly by a desire for material gain.

Arts: Important crafts included metal smithing, beadwork, pottery, house-building and painting, woodworking (especially the making of drums). Pedi music (mmino wa setso: traditional music, lit. music of origin) has a six-note scale. Formerly played on a plucked reed instrument called dipela, its musicians now make use of trade-store instruments such as the Jew's harp, and the German autoharp (harepa), which have come to be regarded as typically Pedi. The peak of Pedi (and northern Sotho) musical expression is arguably the kiba genre, which has transcended its rural roots to become a migrant style. In its men's version it features an ensemble of players, each playing an aluminium end-blown pipe of a different pitch (naka, pl. dinaka) and together producing a descending melody with richly harmonised qualities. In the women's version, a development of earlier female genres which has recently been included within the definition of kiba, a group of women sings songs (koša, pl dikoša) in which individuals improvise on older lyrics. Both are accompanied by an ensemble of drums (meropa), previously wooden but now made of oil-drums and milk-urns.

Land tenure: The pre-colonial system of communal or tribal tenure, being broadly similar to that practised throughout the southern African region, was crystallized, but subtly altered, by the colonial administration. A man was granted land by the chief for each of his wives; unused land was reallocated by the chief, rather than being inherited within families. Overpopulation resulting from the government's relocation policies resulted in this system being modified - a household's fields, together with its residential plot, are now inherited, ideally by the youngest married son. Christian Pedi communities who owned freehold farms were removed to the reserve without compensation, but since 1994 South Africa many have now reoccupied their land or are preparing to do so, under restitution legislation. The few Pedi who still live as labour tenants on white farms have been promised some security of tenure by land reform legislation.

Kinship: The kgoro - a loose collection of kinsmen with related males at its core - was as much a jural unit as a kinship one, since membership was defined by acceptance of the kgoro-head's authority rather than primarily by descent. Royal or chiefly kgoros sometimes underwent rapid subdivision as sons contended for positions of authority.

Marriage was patrilocal. Polygyny was practised mostly by people of higher, especially chiefly, status. Marriage was preferred with a close or classificatory cousin, especially a mother's brother's daughter, but this preference was most often realised in the case of ruling or chiefly families. Practised by the ruling dynasty, during its period of dominance, it represented a system of political integration and control. Cousin marriage meant that the two sets of prospective in-laws were closely connected even before the event of marriage, and went along with an ideology of sibling-linkage, through which the bohadi (bridewealth) procured for a daughter's marriage would in turn be used to get a bride for her brother, and he would repay his sister by offering a daughter to her son in marriage. Cousin marriage is still practised, but less frequently. Polygyny too is now rare, many marriages end in divorce or separation, and a large number of young women remain single and raise their children in small (and often very poor) female-headed households. But new forms of domestic co-operation have come into being, often between brothers and sisters, or matrilineally-linked relatives.

Previously the oldest son of a household within a polygynous family would inherit the house-property of his mother, including its cattle, and was supposed to act as custodian of these goods for the benefit of the household's other children. With the decline of cattle-keeping and the sharp increase in land-shortage, this has switched to a system of last-born inheritance, primarily of land.

The life-cycle for both sexes was differentiated by important rituals. Both girls and boys underwent initiation. Boys (bašemane, later mašoboro) spent their youth looking after cattle at remote outposts, in the company of peers and older youths. Circumcision and initiation at koma (initiation school), held about once every five years, socialised youths into groups of cohorts or regiments (mephato) bearing the leader's name, whose members then maintained life-long loyalty to each other, and often travelled together to find work on the farms or on the mines. Girls attended their own koma and were initiated into their own regiments, usually two years after the boy's school. Initiation is still practised, and provides a considerable income to the chiefs who licence it for a fee or, in recent years, to private entrepreneurs who have established initiation schools beyond chiefs' jurisdiction.


Delius, P 1980 "The Pedi polity under Sekwati and Sekhukhune, 1828 1889" unpublished PhD thesis, University of London.

_____ 1983 The Land Belongs to Us: the Pedi polity, the Boers and the British in the Nineteenth Century Transvaal, Johannesburg, Ravan Press.

_____ 1989 "Sebatakgomo: Migrant organisation, the ANC and the Sekhukhuneland revolt" Journal of Southern African Studies, 15(4).

_____ 1990 "Migrants, comrades and rural revolt: Sekhukhuneland 1950 1987" Transformation 13.

____1996 A Lion amongst the Cattle: Reconstruction and Resistance in the Northern Transvaal Portsmouth, Heinemann.

Delius, P (ed) 2007 Mpumalanga: history and heritage Pietermaritzburg, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press.

James, D 1983 The Road from Doornkop: a case study of removals and resistance, Johannesburg, South African Institute of Race Relations.

_____ 1985 "Family and Household in a Lebowa village" African Studies 44(2):159-187.

_____ 1987 "Kinship and Land in an Inter ethnic community", unpublished MA Dissertation, Witwatersrand University.

_____ 1988 "Land shortage and inheritance in a Lebowa village" Social Dynamics 14(2):36-51.

_____1999 Songs of the women migrants: performance and identity in South Africa International African Institute, Edinburgh University Press.

Kuper, A 1975 "The social structure of the sotho speaking peoples of southern Africa" Africa 45(1 & 2):67 81; 139 149.

Monnig, H O 1967 The Pedi, Pretoria, J L van Schaik.

Preston Whyte, E 1974 "Kinship and Marriage" in W D Hammond Tooke (ed) The Bantu Speaking Peoples of Southern Africa, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sansom, B 1970 "Leadership and Authority in a Pedi Chiefdom", unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Manchester.

van Warmelo N.J. 1935 Preliminary Survey of the Bantu Tribes of South Africa Ethnological Publication No.5, Pretoria, Government Printers 1935.

_____ 1952 Language map of South Africa, Pretoria, Government Printer.

_____ 1953 Die Tlokwa en Birwa van Noord Transvaal, Pretoria, Government Printer.

_____ 1974 "The classification of cultural groups" in W.D. Hammond Tooke (ed) op.cit.

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