Thaba Bosiu: Where the mountain is king

High honour: Horsemen in tribal dress gather at Thaba Bosiu to attend the burial of King Moshoeshoe II in 1996. (Photo: Patrick de Noirmont/Reuters)

High honour: Horsemen in tribal dress gather at Thaba Bosiu to attend the burial of King Moshoeshoe II in 1996. (Photo: Patrick de Noirmont/Reuters)

The gnawing hunger for lore and history wins the day. That’s what takes me one July morning to Thaba Bosiu, Lesotho’s national shrine.

Braving the winter, I board a taxi from Maseru. That’s near where Morena e Moholo Moshoeshoe I, son of Chief Mokhachane, is immortalised by a statue.
His scion, King Letsie III, was crowned in this city in February 1997. The sun was blazing then. But all there is now is raw cold. So, wearing a blanket, like a number of people on board, is no fashion statement.

Thaba Bosiu is where the Basotho kingdom was born and consolidated after Moshoeshoe I and his followers migrated in 1824 from Butha-Buthe, escaping the ravages of the Lifaqane. Because it is impregnable – as the Afrikaner, the Batlokwa, the English, the Khoi, the Nguni and other armed guests rudely discovered – Thaba Bosiu assured safety to Basotho.

To borrow from the lore, not once was it stormed. Thaba Bosiu, whose name translates to Mountain at Night, because Moshoeshoe’s people made it here in the evening, almost 200 years ago, never failed in its promise to protect those who looked up to it. That, and its status as a cradle, is why it is the most venerated site in this kingdom of two million. The pride felt by just about anyone who revisits that page of history is fitting.

That includes Robert Sobukwe. In the aftermath of the Middle East’s Six-Day War, he observed in it a mix of Thaba Bosiu’s impenetrability and the king’s humble prowess. Barring his formative years as a warrior – which earned Lepoqo the name Moshoeshoe, Sesotho for “the shaver” and a metaphor for his mastery – the monarch was a statesman and man of peace. That wasn’t enough to keep belligerents at bay.

“[When] attacked by the Zulus, he inflicted a crushing defeat on them at Thaba Bosiu and, as they retreated, sent a large herd of cattle to ‘his brothers’. The Zulus never again attacked him,” noted Sobukwe in one of his letters quoted in How Can Man Die Better by Benjamin Pogrund.

The Zulus referred to were the people of Mzilikazi, who were gathering strength after fleeing King Shaka on the east coast, only to scythe through today’s Free State and territories north of the Vaal, or Lekoa, and eventually to cross the Limpopo.

Next up to eat humble pie, and to experience Moshoeshoe’s diplomacy, was George Cathcart at the Battle of Berea.

(Man of peace: King Moshoeshoe, who was generous even in victory.)

“He cut the English forces to ribbons in 1852, and, while Cathcart, the British commander, was in a state of bewilderment and humiliation, sued for peace,” Sobukwe wrote, singling out Moshoeshoe’s exemplary magnanimity.

So it’s a pity, here in Lesotho, that magnanimity evades today’s lexicon. Murmurs of crises are rising in the very region where the little-known but heroic Mohlomi, one of the forces central to Moshoeshoe’s rise, is said to have popularised khotso (peace) as a form of greeting. Today, the greeting has little meaning in the political arena. The irony is tragic.

The venerated heritage site is about 30km east of Maseru. Navigating meandering roads, dodging three straying goats – wanting to cross the road, to the shepherd’s exasperation – and a Basotho pony, the minibus taxi driver is furious (but respectful). Three police officers at the side of the road look on, smiling, as two taxi “conductors” quarrel over a passenger.

Because of road dynamics and the dropping off and picking up of passengers along the way, a Maseru-Thaba Bosiu taxi ride can take almost an hour. The destination is another universe. Halfway there, Maseru’s tall buildings and landscape have long faded. Cityscape has given way to a slowly parching blanket – an unfolding panorama of hills and mountains.

That, and a few sparsely populated villages, is all you see. A sense of remoteness abounds. Still near-pristine, this territory hasn’t changed much since the arrival of the Basotho, one evening, around July 1824.

My first stop is the Thaba Bosiu Cultural Village at the foot of the legendary plateau.

Through fluid narration, Phehello Mohloai, a guide, brings to life stories of Moshoeshoe, revered as a man of peace, who interceded even on behalf of cannibals who had eaten his grandfather, Peete, and others, during the 1824 ­migration.

This venue hosted the inaugural Lifaqane festival in May, and the revellers must have paused to ruminate. The line-up included Bhudaza, Tsepo Tshola and Thandiswa Mazwai. These artists, alongside the likes of Mantsa – who, sadly, doesn’t enjoy much airplay in South Africa – are hits here, especially for the mature market.

Before my 120m summit, and after a mini lesson, Maleng Maleng, another guide, draws me a map on the ground of the Thaba Bosiu trail. “Pick up a stone here and add it to the cairn.”

I imagine that’s what Moshoeshoe??I told visitors then – for different reasons. His majesty also instructed his people, including children, to keep a steady supply of stones at hand, which, coupled with spears, would be hurled at invaders.

“If you go this way, you’ll see Qiloane,” adds Maleng, illustrating where, among other things, the sand dunes and royal cemetery are.

Moshoeshoe II, who died in a pre-dawn car crash in 1996, which caused nationwide grief, is also buried there.

Moshoeshoe I’s now-roofless two-roomed brick house faces that of his divorced senior wife, Queen ’MaMohato. Not far off are what used to be the royal village playgrounds. What did those children play?

Over there were water springs, which, with the grass found up here, helped maintain livestock in wartime. The realm of imagination overtakes reality.

The inverse, cone-shaped Qiloane, the iconic mountain to the northeast, inspired the mokorotlo, or the Basotho hat, which adorns the national flag.

The basalt plateau, with steep vertical cliffs, covers an area of roughly 3km by 2km. That’s equivalent to Illovo in Jo’burg, and a tad smaller than Bonteheuwel in the Cape Flats.

“It was on this plateau that Moshoeshoe negotiated and signed treaties with the British, including the one which established the current Lesotho boundaries and the one guaranteeing the protection,” says Unesco’s website. “The Basotho nation prided themselves that they were never [conquered] by any nation because of the protection afforded by this plateau.”

The ascent is taxing. On your way up, set aside 30 minutes to engage with the beauty and reflect on history. Along a footpath is what must be Lesotho’s first factory –the ruins of an iron smelter. Then a cairn, which literally links you with history. It’s tranquil here. An impressive orchestra of a few birds colours the moment. From somewhere, from a village near the base of the mountain, the sounds of mooing cows are transmitted to the top.

While thinking amid the orchestra and “walking in the footsteps of history”, as a plaque says, I am reminded how the 1800s facilitated the export of Sesotho and the Nguni languages across the Zambezi. That’s where some of regent and Queen Mother ’MaNthatisi’s Batlokwa settled after fleeing the Highveld, from which they had been displaced by a civil war next door.

The Batlokwa must have salivated at the thought of seizing Thaba Bosiu and its loot, only to eat humble pie themselves.

Almost three hours atop the history-rich four-pointed-star-shaped Thaba Bosiu that birthed now-rectangular-shaped Lesotho, I spot the tomb of Makoanyane, one of Moshoeshoe I’s warriors.

Thabo Mbeki’s “I Am an African” speech rings a decibel louder. Makoanyane and his peers must have been the soldiers that Moshoeshoe I, according to Mbeki, “taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom”.

A sense of poignancy surges through me when I finally turn to Morena?e?Moholo Moshoeshoe’s modest grave. Such modesty is a tribute to his humility during his illustrious five-decade reign. Flowers on his tomb, a national shrine, suggest it was visited just days ago.

*This article has been updated in the following ways:

  • The crowning or coronation happened in 1997 not 1996.
  • Moshoeshoe II has been changed to “Moshoeshoe I ‘s now-roofless two-roomed brick house faces that of his divorced senior wife, Queen ’MaMohato.”

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