By Tsitsi Matope
MASERU — Legend has it that while still in his mid-teens, Lepoqo Letlama Mokhachane (later to be known as King Moshoeshoe 1), had already mastered the intricate art of war and distinguished himself as a fearless warrior and tactician.
His rare skills at a dangerous time when Zulu king, Shaka, was plundering parts of southern Africa, ensured the survival of his own Basotho nation, with his feats on the battlefield earning him the name Moshoeshoe, meaning The Shaver.
The young fighter would brag, “I have shaved his or their beard”, after his exploits, while imitating the swishing sound the blade makes when one is shaving.
At one time, so legend has it, the fighter, who was named Letlama after his initiation, paid a certain Pitseng chief by the name of Ramonaheng, a strange visit after being told this man had so many cattle that did not belong to him.
Remember, the then young Moshoeshoe was not a chief but just the grandson of a minor chief, Peete.
The mere mention of his name must have spelt terror because after the visit, the Pitseng Chief surrendered all the stolen cattle and to give him a taste of his own medicine, Moshoeshoe and his warriors also took all the man’s livestock.
When he returned home, Moshoeshoe is said to have declared: “I have shaved Ramonaheng’s beard,” meaning he had taken all that made Ramohaheng a man, which was his wealth.
Narrating the moving story of the great King Moshoeshoe — the man whose life was nationally-celebrated on Tuesday this week — an author and expert in Sesotho culture and history, Tšeliso Ramakhula, said employing diplomacy when dealing with adversaries only came later in the life of this legendary ruler.
If at all those who lived with him in Menkhoaneng where he was born were still alive, they would speak of a young man feared by anyone found guilty of harassing and stealing from the weak, Ramakhula added.
“Many people who were deprived of their livestock and were weak to fight, engaged the services of Moshoeshoe, who would go and fight on their behalf to recover the cattle,” Ramakhula said.
Moshoeshoe, as history has it, was the first son of Mokhachane, who was the second son of a minor chief or headman Peete, who ruled under Chief Sekake of Leribe.
Moshoeshoe had an elder sister, Motsielehi, who was also known as ‘Mammile or ‘Mampoi. However, after Moshoeshoe had won many battles, he realised he was taking great risks and yet not benefitting significantly from his bravery, Ramakhula said.
“He had concerns over the handling of all the cattle he would have recovered, including those he would have taken as punishment to the perpetrators.”
With his strength and ready to take the matter to the battlefield if anyone dared him, Moshoeshoe decided to keep the cattle for himself and his followers, said Ramakhula.
“By then, he had come of age and was ready to start his own family.
“I would like to think he acted this way because he was responding to the situation during his time.”
By the time he married and had children, Ramakhula said Moshoeshoe was one of the rich men of Menkhoaneng.
However Moshoeshoe, who somehow felt he was destined for greatness, decided to leave his extended family to settle with his followers in Butha-Buthe.
He subsequently made his first fortress on top of Butha-Buthe Mountain, next to the Batlokoa people.
“Moshoeshoe was an intelligent political strategist. Although he could fight, he was not comfortable settling near the Batlokoa people.
“He wanted his freedom and independence to grow his stronghold with minimal threats and stress.”
Ramakhula said Moshoeshoe then decided to lead his people to a safe place in Thaba-Bosiu, but before proceeding, passed through his home to take along his extended family.
However, when the travelling party reached Malimong in the Berea District, his grandfather, Peete ,and other members of the group, were captured and eaten by cannibals led by one Rakotsoane, according to Ramakhula. Together with the group that survived the attack, Moshoeshoe reached Thaba-Bosiu and established his second fortress on top of this mysterious mountain.
“Many people who heard his great war-stories came seeking refuge following tribal
on top of the mountain and around and beyond Thaba-Bosiu,” Ramakhula said.
Moshoeshoe then appointed his brothers, Makhabane, Posholi and Mohale to man strategic areas, Ntlokholo and Maliele in St Michaels and Roma, respectively.
Later, the King appointed his sons, Letsie, Molapo, Masupha and Majara, governors of Leribe, Maseru and Berea Districts, according to Ramakhula.
“For a few years, all was well until the Boers (the Afrikaans word for farmer, which came to denote the descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of the eastern Cape frontier during the 18th century) became a thorn in the King’s flesh.
The Boers had been chased away from the Cape by the British who had taken over that area.
“King Moshoeshoe did not like the Boers because they promoted slavery; as a result, when they came to settle around the Free State area, Basotho raided their cattle in protest at their settlement in their territory.”
According to Ramakhula, the situation soon got out of hand and before long, the Boers invaded the bulk of the present-day Lesotho and held on to it until King Moshoeshoe sought protection from the British in 1868.
“He told the British: Protect me and the lice of my blanket, a deeper Sesotho saying meaning, Protect me and all my people.
“This action saw the country being rescued from the Boers’ rule on March 12, 1868.
“Now this is an important part of history and the reason behind our celebrating Mosheshoe’s Day.”
Ramakhula said in 1920, Chief Sekhonyela Bereng of Rothe made a proposal in the then parliament for March 12 to be declared Moshoeshoe’s Day.
“His reasoning was that this was the day King Moshoeshoe made a breakthrough in his efforts of three years to save his people from the Boers before Lesotho became a British Protectorate with a new name, Basutoland.”
For years, the day was celebrated as the day of “great rescue” until around the late 1980s when concerns were raised by Parliament on the logic behind celebrating the day on March 12 before the celebrations were moved to March 11, the day King Moshoeshoe died.
“There were concerns that the nation was celebrating a day that marked another form of oppression by the British.
“There was a certain group of people who felt the British’s way of governance was not something to be celebrated.”
However, Ramakhula said many people, these days, do not understand the great significance of the day, which celebrates the wisdom, fight, bravery, pain and industrious life of King Moshoeshoe — the great King who unified his people and through sheer wisdom, took a risky path to save his nation.
Although under British rule, King Moshoeshyoe and his chiefs lost some of their powers, Ramakhula said the decision he pursued was a selfless sacrifice.
“He somehow saw on the horizon, that absolute independence of the Basotho would soon come.”
While King Moshoeshoe lost the bulk of his flat arable land to the Boers, which is now parts of the Free State of South Africa, his brilliant capacity to read difficult situations, even at an advanced age and his diplomatic ability to scheme survival tactics for his people and country, is still an art today’s politicians have failed to master, said Ramakhula.
“He knew that a time would come when his people would rise and demand their independence.”
And like other neighbouring countries, it did not take long before the people rose and demanded their lives and freedom back.
“It all started in 1907, leading to the formation of the League of Commons (Lekhotla la Bafo) by Josiel Lefela and Ntsu Mokhehle. Around the same time, there was also an uprising by the African National Congress in South Africa.”
However, it took many years before there was a breakthrough in South Africa, which was under the Boers’ rule, while in Lesotho, independence came in 1966 under Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan of the Basutoland National Party.