Home Opinion Grounding reforms on the notion of Botho

Grounding reforms on the notion of Botho

by Lesotho Times
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Monaheng Mahlatsi

Monaheng Joseph Mahlatsi

LESOTHO is about to embark on security, constitutional, media and public service reforms. The need for those reforms is clear evidence that there is a serious moral decay in the Mountain Kingdom. This calls for effective and efficient reform strategies for moral regeneration. From the foregoing background, I have the following metaphysical and ethical questions respectively: First, what is the ultimate cause of the observed moral degeneration? What is the philosophical basis of the envisaged reforms? Put simply, what is the foundation of those reforms? Secondly, do individual and collective Basotho have a moral duty towards achieving successful reforms? I approach this issue of reforms from an interesting philosophical observation that the traditional Basotho metaphysics and ethics of Botho have been overlooked for a sustainable and holistic reform process.

The definition of Botho

The concept of Botho has its roots in the concept of Motho which means a human being. The concept is sometimes expressed through the maxim: “motho ke motho ka batho” in Sesotho language. In English language this means that; to be a human being is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and on that basis, establish humane relations with them. Therefore, the establishment of humane relations is Botho (humanness). Humane relations are understood in terms of a continuous relation of interdependence and interconnectedness of individuals in a community. Another dimension of Botho is where relationality is strongly expressed in the conceptualization of a person as existing relationally in a perpetual state of dependence and interdependence.

It is through this concept that one could be regarded as a bad or good person. For example, in the Basotho community, the expression: “ke motho” is used which means a good person. This expression is usually used when a person is honest, peaceful, respectful and polite towards other people. On the contrary, the expression: “hase motho” is used which means a bad person. This expression is used when a person is egoistic, cruel, dishonest and impolite towards other people.

The concept of Botho defines cultural values such as compassion, reciprocity, harmony, humanity and dignity of community for the purpose of building and maintaining the wellbeing of the community. These cultural values are attributed to Botho by their positive contribution to the wellbeing of both individuals and the community. In this context, the community includes God, ancestors, human beings, animals, plants and non-living beings. This is referred to as the ontological hierarchy of beings/forces.

Traditional Basotho Ontology

By Basotho ontology it is meant what is described by Basotho as natural hierarchy of the natural order.  The order starts from God and descends through ancestors, living human beings, animals, plants and down to non-living things. All beings in the hierarchy possess life principle endowed by God. All beings in the hierarchy are interrelated and interconnected. That is to say, life is shared among all natural beings. For example, a human being cannot exist on his own since his existence depends on all beings in the ontological hierarchy.

This web of life which extends to include spirits such as God and ancestors has great influence upon the unborn and living human beings. On one hand, given that God is the creator of all beings He is capable of strengthening or weakening the life principle of each being below Him. On the other hand, ancestors can influence the present generation through their experience, teachings, suffering and wisdom. The web of life is understood in relatedness and interconnectedness of all natural beings. This means that, in the traditional Basotho communities, an action or behavior was acceptable or appropriate as long as it promoted the relationships of beings in the ontological hierarchy. Therefore, the promotion of the relationships of beings in the ontological hierarchy of beings is Botho. The promotion of Botho was demonstrated by human beings in a community. This implies the traditional Basotho ethics.

Basotho ethics  

An individual human being is valued as a full human being when s/he belongs to the community. The idea of communal belonging of an individual human being is found in the Basotho ontology of a person which says: “motho ke motho ka batho” mentioned above. This implies the harmonious relationship between human beings in a community. This implies that one cannot live in isolation from the community. The traditional Basotho communities also put more emphasis on the importance of communal life. An individual was understood to be equally important as long as that individual human being works towards the common good rather than to be individualistic/egocentric. That is to say, individuals were considered independent but they also had a moral obligation to promote the wellbeing of the community and respect other human beings as well as non-living beings.

The equal importance of an individual in the traditional Basotho communities was realized through the Sesotho expression which says; “ha le fete khomo le je motho”. The meaning of the expression is that, if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being then one should choose to preserve the life of another human being. This clearly shows that, in the traditional Basotho communities, there was mutual care between individual human beings. That is to say, egoistic accumulation of wealth was not a priority. Therefore, according to the traditional Basotho ethics, an action or behavior was acceptable as long as it promoted the wellbeing of the community and the opposite was unacceptable. From the foregoing, it could be concluded that the traditional Basotho ethics was based on Botho which was informed by the traditional Basotho ontology.

Botho, Basotho ontology and ethics

Botho which was informed by the traditional Basotho ontology was demonstrated in a community by way of life. The traditional Basotho way of life was promoted and safeguarded by Borena (chieftainship). The most important responsibility of Morena (a chief) was to ensure the welfare of the people such as allocation of land for human settlement, cultivation and animal grazing. Other responsibilities that were invested in a chief are the executive, legislative and judicial powers. When doing his responsibilities, he was always supported by elders in decision-making process. For example, Morena Moshoeshoe I was advised by Morena mohlomi. It is worth noting that Morena Moshoeshoe I was also advised by prophets such as prophet Chapi and prophetess ‘Mantsopa in order to receive wisdom from God and ancestors. Currently, according to the Lesotho Constitution of 1993, King Letsie III is legally advised by the Prime Minister on political matters. This is not wrong but the questions are: is it enough for the King and Prime Minister to be advised on political issues only? Who advice the Prime Minister on spiritual matters? From which sources do the King and Prime Minister receive spiritual advice?

If there was dissatisfaction about any chief in the traditional Basotho communities, one was free to move away to a more humane chief. Usually, a more humane chief attracted many followers by providing basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing as well as holding feasts for the people. The chief executed his responsibilities through pitso (public assembly) and lekhotla (court). These were places where justice was delivered through dialogue. The dialogue was normally open to people hence it made the public assembly and court completely democratic. Clearly, it was through the public assembly and court where people were able to freely speak their minds in order to reach a consensus. This process of decision-making by the chief and the people affirm the Sesotho proverb which says; “Morena ke Morena ka Batho” which in English language means a chief is a chief by the people.

The traditional Basotho fieldwork was done through communal labor (letsema) where people served the chief and each other to cultivate fields. A field of a chief was known as: “ts’imo-kholo” which means a wide field in English language. It was cultivated by people collectively to produce food for the needy. During the time of hoeing and harvest, all people came to work at Tsimo-kholo with their tools and food. In the light of the above, one can safely conclude that the traditional Lesotho was a stable democratic Kingdom with a clear governance structure supervised by chieftainship which was advised by elders and prophets before it was suppressed by the British reforms. This is indicative that the traditional Basotho communities practiced participatory democracy. A participatory democracy is a form of government where people have all freedoms and rights to rule themselves. In other words, it is a form of government where people are free to participate in decision-making, law-making, policy-making and governance in general. With the advent of colonial reforms, the Basotho worldview was changed.

The impact of colonial reforms on Lesotho

After the death of Morena Moshoeshoe, his successor Letsie I (1870 – 1891) became the paramount chief and encountered difficult challenges that threatened the chieftainship. First, there was lack of support and cooperation from his brothers Molapo and Masupha who were chiefs of the current districts of Leribe and Berea respectively. Second, Britain gave the Cape authority and administrative duties over Lesotho in 1871 without seeking the consent of Basotho. Third was the interference by Protestant missionaries who were influencing the Cape authorities to legally restructure Lesotho through Western Christianity.

The most serious problem encountered by chieftainship was the disagreement between Marena (chiefs) and bafo (commoners). The disagreement was caused by the British administration through its colonial policies aimed at reforming Lesotho. The cardinal trouble was triggered by the fact that there were many chiefs in Lesotho after the death of Morena Moshoeshoe. Consequently, there rose many conflicts over land. Moreover, as a result of those conflicts, the British attempted to stabilize the existing administrative hierarchy of chiefs by recognizing a few number of chiefs. The recognized chiefs were gazetted while the ungazetted were not officially recognized. The right to gazette chiefs was invested in the Principal Chiefs in consultation with the District Commissioner not with the Paramount Chief. This was done by passing proclamations 61 and 62 of 1938 which again limited powers of chiefs.

Fines were diverted from chiefs to the government by introducing new Basotho Treasury Courts currently known as local courts and gazetted chiefs were paid salaries. Chiefs whose powers were threatened resorted to the supernatural power. That is to say, chiefs engaged themselves in liretlo (ritual murders) to retain their power. Consequently people lost confidence in their chiefs when realizing that chiefs are killing them for medicinal purpose. This created a wall of mistrust between chiefs and the people.

The limitation of the powers of the chiefs by the colonial, discriminatory and imperial policies was opposed by the Council of Commoners (Lekhotla la Bafo) led by Josiel Lefela. It started with supporting chieftainship by warning the chiefs about the potential threats if chiefs support the British reforms but all in vain. Instead, the council ended up being a threat to the chiefs because they (chiefs) thought they would cease to receive their salaries from government if they resist the British reforms. Consequently, the British reforms separated chiefs from the people and stopped them from seeking advice from elders and prophets.

Eventually, Josel Lefela had also warned the Basotho against the European missionaries, traders and commissioners that; the missionaries are the thin end of the wedge, the traders are the body of the wedge and the government is the head of the wedge that splits tribe. To date, colonial reforms have left Lesotho with a mixture of leadership system made up of traditional (chiefs), political (politicians), religious (church leaders) and business leaders. This kind of leadership has diverse moral values, beliefs, experiences and worldviews that conflict. As a result, Basotho are left in the dark about not knowing which moral value, belief, experience and worldview is good or bad for them hence serious reforms are necessary.


Lesotho is overwhelmed by moral degeneration as a result of colonial reforms. The traditional Basotho notion of Botho must be the basis of security, constitutional, media and public service reforms. The success of the reforms is a moral obligation of all Basotho individually and collectively. The Basotho people should determine the new Lesotho they want. More importantly, the existing leadership of Lesotho also has a moral duty to work for social unity and peace. They should first reconcile with God, ancestors and people. True reconciliation will then unfold peace and harmony among the Basotho people and beyond Lesotho.

BOTHO Pele Foundation Mahlatsimojo7230@gmail.com.  The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lesotho Times.


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