In order to understand why there is a dearth of Sesotho creative literature today, one has to understand the history of this literature and how its readership grew over the years.
The emergence of Sesotho literature is closely linked with the advent of the missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society in Lesotho towards the end of 1833. The connection between the two is both in terms of production and conceptualisation.
The missionaries arrived in Lesotho with the sole purpose of converting Basotho to Christianity. To this end they first had to learn Sesotho. They did this by putting into writing whatever they learnt from their prospective converts. As painstaking as it was, their effort laid the first foundation for the Sesotho orthography as we know it today. By the end of 1878 the Bible was available in Sesotho.
The missionary work proceeded extremely slowly. In order to facilitate the scriptural teachings, it became necessary to teach prospective converts to read and write. The ability to read and write would enable them to read and sift through the word of God on their own. This led to the establishment of both the Bible School and the Teacher Training School at Morija, in Lesotho.
The two schools had an unexpected spin-off. Students soon developed a reading appetite that went beyond the Bible. They also read other forms of literature which the missionaries had brought along from overseas. The literature triggered in them the urge to imitate using their own tongue. A quarterly newspaper, Lesedinyana, which had been launched in 1864, provided suitable training ground for aspiring Sesotho authors. The celebrated Sesotho author T M Mofolo was among the first to publish a novel (which was also the very first in Sesotho), Moeti wa Botjhabela, in serial form in Lesedinyana. The episodes were eventually published in book form in 1907. Mofolo’s contemporary, Chere Manyoloza, also published a few articles in Lesedinyana before the missionaries banned his articles. The reason they gave was that the articles encouraged pagan customs.
From the aforegoing it is clear that Sesotho literature was not only onceptualised within a Christian context but rather also intended to propagate Christian teachings. Needless to say, as Christianity’s appeal subsided, so did the readership for the literature meant to foster the word of God. Also evident is that right from its inception, Sesotho literature was subjected to censorship. It had to serve the wishes of its producers. Dissent was not tolerated. Thus, as people got tired of hearing only one perception of life, they gradually drifted away from reading Sesotho literature.
Worth noting thus far is that the emergence of Sesotho literature did very little to ensure a progressive growth of its readership. It alienated a reasonable section of the very readers it purported to serve.
Then came the Great Drought and Famine of 1923 to 1924. Peasantry and animal husbandry became unviable. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, and gold in the Witwatersrand, together with increased industrialisation, drew many destitute Basotho from Lesotho to the urban areas, where settlements were sprouting.
This social upheaval did not escape the notice of the socially conscious authors of the time. K E Ntsane, S S Matlosa and A Nqheku, amongst others, wrote about the dehumanising effects of urbanisation. They were nationalists decrying the encroachment of an aggressive foreign culture upon the indigenous culture they held in high esteem. Thus the Makgoweng motif (“Jim comes to Jo’burg”) became fashionable. Sesotho literature got a new lease of life. The readership was receptive to this theme. However, as urbanisation and migrant labour became an irreversible reality, the appeal of this new theme gradually wore off. Traditional African culture became truncated for good.
Exit the “Jim comes to Jo’burg” theme, and in comes the National Party government (1948). The apartheid policies which came into practice were a thorn in the flesh of those who were disadvantaged by them. Logically protest followed. At first it was murmured protest by people such as B M Khaketla and K E Ntsane, but it rose to a crescendo. A distinctly audible voice of opposition was heard in the works of K P D Maphalla and his contemporaries. Suddenly Sesotho literature was vibrant again. Readers took note. Students and scholars alike took an interest in it.
The 1994 all-inclusive elections somehow changed the picture however. Discriminatory laws were systematically removed from the statutes. The number of authors and readers of Sesotho literature declined remarkably. Today it would not be incorrect to say that Sesotho literature is stagnating.
What went wrong? Why this unfortunate state of affairs? Does the fault lie with the authors or the readership? As the writer of this article I am somehow persuaded to say that the fault lies with the former – the *author*.
Almost unconsciously, Sesotho authors have gone back to the missionary period. Just as the old authors were compelled by circumstances to sing the tune of their missionary masters, today’s authors have allowed themselves to be co-opted into political parties which apparently hold out promises of material benefits to them. The Sesotho author is no longer answerable to his/her society. He/she is no longer a homo sociologicus. The survival instincts are dominating the social instincts completely. Until such time as the authors come back to the populace, they will never appeal to the very people they claim to represent. They will forever articulate ideologies thrust upon them by their political sectors. Instead of being a unifying factor among their people, they actively create unwelcome divisions.
Needless to say, there are several factors affecting the growth of Sesotho literature today, but the author of this text has decided to be selective in his approach.
Born in 1913 in Makhaleng, Lesotho. Sotho educator, politician, and author. Khaketla became politically active during the 1950’s as part of an effort to protect the rights of native Africans and, ultimately, to win Lesotho’s independence from Great Britain. The politician served as member of the executive committee of the Basutoland African Congress and as member of the Executive Council of Lesotho. In 1930 he established the Basuto Freedom party. Khaketla’s literary efforts range from a grammar of the Sotho language to poems, novels and plays.
K P D Maphalla was born in Bethlehem in 1955. He matriculated from Tisetsang High School in 1974, and obtained his teaching diploma from Tshiya College of Education in Qwaqwa 1976. He taught in Qwaqwa and Bethlehem until 1983, when he joined the Qwaqwa Legislative Assembly.
His works won two awards from Radio Sesotho in 1980 for his poetry and in 1984 for his radio drama.
In 1985 he won a circulating Moiloa trophy for his outstanding novel Kgapha tsa ka.
Sebolai Matlosa was born in 1913 in Mafeteng Lesotho. He has a diploma in teahing and a B.A degree. He taught in various schools in Natal and Lesotho.
Thomas Mofolo was born in Lesotho in 1876 and died in 1948. He was the greatest of the authors who flourished in the early part of the century writing in Sesotho for the Morija mission. In 1907 he wrote Moeti oa Bochabela (The Traveller to the East) and in 1910 Pitseng. Chaka was written in 1909 or 1910 but at that time Mofolo left his job as proof reader, reporter and reviewer for the publications of the mission and the book was not published until 1925.
K.E. Ntsane was born in Leribe, Lesotho in 1920. He obtained his B.A degree from Unisa and studied further in London.He taught in various Lesotho high schools. When Lesotho obtained its independece he worked in parliament, and was promoted to the office of the President where he worked until his death in 1983.
Prof Moleleki is Head of the Department of African Languages at the University of the Free State.