[baPedi – People and sePedi – Language]

The four major ethnic divisions among Black South Africans are the Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. Together the Nguni and Sotho account for the largest percentage of the total Black population. The major Sotho groups are the South Sotho (Basotho), the West Sotho (Tswana), and the North Sotho, which includes the Pedi people.

Language, culture and beliefs:

Language: The difference between Northern Sotho and Sepedi
Northern Sotho, or Sesotho sa Leboa, is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and consists of up to 30 different dialects, one of which is Pedi. Much confusion surrounds this term, as Sepedi, the language spoken by the Pedi people, which has been often referred to as Northern Sotho, which is incorrect.

The confusion between Northern Sotho and Pedi probably arises from the fact that the missionaries who developed the orthography for Northern Sotho mainly had contact with the Pedi people. However, Northern Sotho or Sesotho sa Leboa, is not the same as Sepedi. Sepedi is the language of the Pedi people, also known as the BaPedi.

Sepedi is closely related to the official language of Setswana or Tswana, and the dialect of Setlokwa and the similar Sotho language, Sesotho sa Borwa, or Southern Sotho. Sepedi is mainly spoken in the northern parts of South Africa, including the provinces of Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and the North West province.

Early Pedi settlements were divided into kgoro (pl. dikgoro), which are groups centred around agnatic [from the father’s side] family clusters. According to research by Peter Delius, members of a kgoro were not always strictly agnatic, and according to circumstances other non-relatives were known to be accepted into a kgoro.

A kgoro consisted of a group huts built around a central area which served as meeting-place, cattle byre, graveyard and ancestral shrine. These were ranked in order of seniority. Each wife of a polygynous marriage had her own round thatched hut, which was joined to other huts by a series of open-air enclosures called lapa encircled by mud walls.

Older boys and girls would be housed in separate huts, which are referred to as ‘age sets’, and were an important element of Pedi social hierarchy.

Subsistence and economy
Early Pedi settlements were subsistence farmers, and grew sorghum, pumpkins and legumes, which were cultivated 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).

Cattle also played an important role in Pedi society, as it was not only a source of food, but also an important status symbol, and used as bohadi or bridewealth payments.
Labour division shifted significantly after the introduction of the animal-drawn plough, and maize (mielies), and due to the effects of labour migration.

Young men left home to work as migrant labourers in regimental groups, in order to satisfy the paramount’s need for firearms and ammunition and to assist individual household income. Migrant labour was also a prominent feature of life under apartheid, as population increases in homelands or reserves, and land degradation, meant that men would have to leave home to work for wages to support their families, who could not survive on subsistence farming alone.

Delius also points out that many young men were drawn to migrant labour because it enabled them to buy cattle in order to marry.

It said that despite long absences due to migrant labour, men still remained committed to their fields. This required ploughing during their time of leave, a job that was also handed over to professionals or tractor owners.

Women were then left to perform all the other agricultural tasks, while the men, who were subject to restrictions on their lives to being wage-labourers, resisted direct involvement in cattle-keeping and agriculture. They resisted so much in fact, that a rebellion took place, which was quelled in the 1950s. Later on, families would continue to practice cultivation and keep livestock, which was more a way of gaining retirement security in a rural social system than a means of household subsistence.

In the early 1960s, about 48% of the male population was absent at any given time. From the 1930s to the 1960s, most Pedi men would spend some time working on a nearby White farm. This would be followed by employment on the mines or domestic service, and later, especially in more recent years, to employment in factories or industry.

Recently, female wages have also begun, but are generally more rare and sporadic. Some of these women work on farms for short periods or as domestic workers in the towns of the Witwatersrand since the 1960s.

The Pedi practice ancestral worship (phasa) which involves animal sacrifice and the offering of beer to the ‘shades’ on both the mother's and father's side. Another important ritual figure was the kgadi (father's older sister). The position of ngaka (diviner) was traditionally inherited via patrilineal lines, but this position is now inherited by a woman from her paternal grandfather or great-grandfather.

The position of diviner is said to be manifested through illness and violent spirit (malopo) possession. The only cure for these ailments is to train as a diviner. Apparently, there has been an increase in the number diviners recently, many of whom are believed to be driven only by a desire for material gain. The chief also played the role of rain-maker for his subjects.

In today’s Sotho society, Christianity in various forms is accepted, as many Sotho-speaking groups were converted by Christian missionaries. Lesotho has a large percentage of Catholics, but also has Protestant denominations.

There are also a number of independent churches that combine elements of African traditional religion with Christianity. These churches emphasize healing and the Holy Spirit. One of the most well known of these churches is the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), which was founded by two Pedi brothers. The ZCC has an enormous following and attracts followers from all over South Africa. Each spring there is a "Passover" meeting at the churches’ headquarters in the Northern Province, in Moria, which is attended by thousands of people.

Important elements of Pedi arts include metal-smithing, which was a common practice in the Pedi area and surrounds. Other art forms made by the Pedi include beadwork, pottery, house-building and painting, as well as woodwork and the making of drums.

Pedi music (mmino wa setso: traditional music, lit. music of origin) is made up of a six-note scale. This kind of music was formerly played on a plucked reed instrument called dipela, but its musicians now use trade-store instruments such as the Jew's harp, and the German autoharp (harepa), which are now regarded as characteristically Pedi.

The height of Pedi musical expression is said to be the kiba genre, which has surpassed its rural roots and has become a migrant style. In its men's version it is played an ensemble, each member playing an aluminium end-blown pipe of a different pitch (naka, pl. dinaka). Together this ensemble produces a descending melody with harmonies.

In the women's version they sing songs (koša, pl dikoša) and improvise on older lyrics. This is a development of earlier female genres which have recently been included within the definition of kiba. a group of women sings songs (koša, pl dikoša) in which Both male and female groups are accompanied by an ensemble of drums (meropa), which were previously wooden but are now made of oil-drums and milk-urns.

Land tenure
The pre-colonial system of communal or tribal tenure which was similar to that practised throughout the southern African region was cemented, but subtly altered, by the colonial administration. A man was granted land by the chief for each of his wives; and unused land was reallocated by the chief, rather than being inherited within families.

Overpopulation resulted from the government's relocation policies, and the system was then modified. A household's fields, and 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.

Kgoro, or subdivisions of villages and chiefdoms, were made up of a collection of kinsmen with related males at the centre. These kgoro were also jural and kinship units and acceptance into a particular kgoro was up to the kgoro-head's authority, and was not only determined by relations. Royal or chiefly dikgoro were often faced with subdivision, as sons competed for authority.

The eldest son of a household within a polygynous family would be set to inherit his mother’s property, including cattle, and was assigned the task of custodian to the other children in the household. However, due to a decline in cattle-keeping and increases in land-shortage, this system of inheritance has now altered so that the last-born inherits primarily land.

In traditional Pedi society, marriage was patrilocal, and polygyny was practised by those with a higher social status, including chiefs. Marriage to a cousin was preferred in the ruling dynasty, as this ensured a degree of political integration and control. This is because the two-sets of in-laws were already connected, and the bohadi (bridewealth) could then be used for further bohadi payments within the ruling house.

The life of both girls and boys was differentiated by important rituals, such as initiation. Boys called bašemane and later mašoboro) would spend their youth herding cattle at remote outposts with their peers and others from older age-sets.

Initiation would also include circumcision at koma (initiation school) which would be held about once every five years. This initiation process socialised youths into groups or regiments called mephato which would bear the leader's name, and whose members would then be loyal to each other for their lifetimes. These groups or regiments would often travel together to work on farms or on the mines.

Girls attended their own koma and were divided into their own regiments, a process that usually took place two years after the boy's school. Initiation is still practised today, and provides a substantial income to the chiefs who licence it for a fee or. In recent years private entrepreneurs have also established initiation schools, outside the chiefs' jurisdiction.


According to historians, Pedi society has it’s origins in the northern Transvaal. The Pedi began as a confederation of small chiefdoms sometime before the 17th century, and over time, strong Pedi chiefs claimed land from smaller chiefdoms, and dominated trade routes from the interior to the coast. Historians also credit the Pedi with the first monarchy in the region, but their rule was marked by occasional military defeat and population disruption.

The Maroteng and their symbolic animal noko (porcupine) were an offshoot of Tswana-speaking Kgatla. In about 1650 settled in the area to the south of the Steelpoort River and here, over several generations, linguistic and cultural homogeneity developed to a certain degree. Only in the last half of the 18th century did they broaden their influence over the region, establishing the Pedi paramountcy by bringing powerful neighbouring chiefdoms under their control.

During migrations in and around this area, groups of people from diverse origins began to concentrate themselves around dikgoro (s. kgoro) or ruling nuclear groups. They identified themselves through symbolic allegiances to totemic animals such as tau (lion), kolobe (pig) and kwena (crocodile).

The Pedi area, or heartland, is known as Sekhukhuneland, and is situated between the Olifants and Steelpoort Rivers, which are also known as the Lepelle and the Tubatse. The area is named after Sekhukhune I, the son of Sekwati.

Before this, the Pedi polity under Thulare (c. 1790-1820) was made up of land that stretched from present-day Rustenburg to the lowveld in the west and as far south as the Vaal river. 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 re-stabilised under Thulare's son Sekwati.

Sekwati succeeded Thulare as paramount chief of the Pedi in the northern Transvaal (Limpopo) and was frequently in conflict with the Matabele under Mzilikazi, and plundered by the Zulu and the Swazi. Sekwati was also 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.

These disputes over land occurred after the founding of Ohrigstad in 1845, but after the town was incorporated into the Transvaal Republic in 1857 and the Republic of Lydenburg was formed, an agreement was reached that the Steelpoort River was the border between the Pedi and the Republic.
The Pedi were well equipped to defend themselves though, as Sekwati and his heir, Sekhukhune I were able to procure firearms, mostly through migrant labour to the Kimberley diamond fields and as far as Port Elizabeth. The Pedi paramountcy’s power was also cemented by the fact that chiefs of subordinate villages, or kgoro, take their principal wives from the ruling house. This system of cousin marriage resulted in the perpetuation of marriage links between the ruling house and the subordinate groups, and involved the payment of inflated bohadi or bride wealth, mostly in the form of cattle, to the Maroteng house.

Sekhukune I succeeded his father in 1861, and repelled an attack against the Swazi. At the time, there were also border disputes with the Transvaal, which lead to the formation of Burgersfort, which was manned by volunteers from Lydenburg. By the 1870s, the Pedi were one of three alternative sources of regional authority, alongside the Swazi and the ZAR (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek).

However, tension increased after Sekhukhune refused to pay taxes to the Transvaal government, and the Transvaal declared war in May 1876. It became known as the Sekhukhune War, the outcome of which was that the Transvaal commando’s attack failed. After this, volunteers nevertheless continued to devastate Sekhukhune’s land and provoke unrest, to the point where peace terms were met in 1877.

However, unrest continued, and this became a justification for the British annexing the Transvaal in April 1877, under Sir Theophilus Shepstone. Following the annexation, the British also declared war on Sekhukhune I under Sir Garnet Wolseley, and defeated him in 1879. Sekhukhune was then imprisoned in Pretoria, but later released after the first South African War, when the Transvaal regained independence.

However, soon after his release Sekhukhune was murdered by his half-brother Mampuru, and because his heir had been killed in the war and his grandson, Sekhukhune was too young to rule, one of his other half-brothers, Kgoloko assumed power as regent.

In 1885, an area of 1000 square metres was set aside for the Pedi, known as Geluk’s Location, created by the Transvaal Republic's Native Location Commission. Later, according to apartheid segregation policy, the Pedi would be assigned the homeland of Lebowa.


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.

Missionary Settlements

In 1858, Alexander Merensky, a missionary from the Berlin Missionary Society, was instructed to open a missionary station in Swaziland. After failed negotiations with the Swazi, Merensky was then granted consent to build three mission stations in Sekwatis territory, namely Gerlachshoop, Khalatloloe and Petametsane, west of the Leolo Mountains.

However, when Sekwati was succeeded by Sekhukhune I, Christian converts were persecuted, and the missionary station moved to Botšhabelo (the place of refuge), near Middleburg, 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.

Merenksy, who was also played an ethnographic role in the recording of Pedi customs and life at this time, was also involved in mediating between Sekhukhune I and the Transvaal in 1877.
Here Christian Pedi continued living until they were forcibly removed into the Pedi reserve called Lebowa during the 1960s-70s in the interests of "ethnic consolidation".

Related: Missionary Settlements in South Africa

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