King Moshoeshoe the Great

King Moshoeshoe founded the Basotho nation with remnants of refugees from other clans during the Lifaqane wars some two hundred years ago.The Lifaqane (or mfecane in Zulu) is an African expression which means something like "the crushing" or "scattering".

It describes a period of widespread chaos and disturbance in southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1840 (www.sahistoryonline.org.za). Moshoeshoe was known for his outstanding diplomacy, tolerance, generosity and compassion. According to historians of the time he learned all this from his mentor, chief Mohlomi, another prominent figure in Basotho history because of his unparalleled wisdom during his time.

He had taught Moshoeshoe to; ‘deal justly with all, especially the poor; to love peace more than war and never kill anyone accused of witchcraft’. His leadership and his actions in dealing with conflict, violence and harm have been hailed as an example of how traditional Basotho justice specifically, and traditional African justice generally, is restorative. (Qhubu N “The Development of Restorative Justice in Lesotho” unpublished paper presented at the Association of Law Reform Agencies for Eastern and Southern Africa Conference, Cape Town 14-17 March 2005).

The story is told of King Moshoeshoe that the upheavals of the Lifaqane drove some people to cannibalism. A group of cannibals, who lived in the area of Thaba Bosiu, a mountain fortress that Moshoeshoe eventually secured, captured his grandfather Peete, killed and ate him. ‘One can hardly imagine the terror this incident must have caused among the people trudging through the dark in dispersed groups. When Moshoeshoe’s followers tracked down the leader of the cannibals, Rakotsoane, and those who ate Peete, everybody expected the king to order their killing – especially in light of the decisive role the old man had played in his grandson’s development.

But Moshoeshoe did something unexpected and extraordinary. He pointed out that the bodies of the cannibals now contained the body of his grandfather, and that to kill them would be to dishonour Peete’s grave. He therefore requested that the traditional funeral and grave rites be performed on them, which involved the contents of cattle intestines being smeared on their bodies. He then gave them cattle, ordered them to stop eating people, and allowed them to live near the royal household.

This was unheard of. What was especially disarming was the logic behind Moshoeshoe’s decision: killing them would simply make him part of the larger killing sprees of Shaka, Manthatise and Mzilikazi that were devastating the area. Emphasizing the cannibals’ digestive connectedness to Peete, and through the grandfather to himself as king, he opened up the possibility of change.

Through rituals, cattle and a safeguarded home, the cannibals could change their habits and earn their place back in the realm of humanity from which their behaviour of devouring fellow human beings had expelled them’. (Antjie Krog, Begging to be black, 2009, p26)