The astounding landscape of the Maloti Drakensberg has served as the backdrop for countless tragic, romantic and dramatic stories of human progress; the birthplace of nations, the battlefields of war, refuge of the hunted and the place of worship for many whose complex histories are knitted into its very core. Observe the daily lives and practices of the region's traditional inhabitants or make a visit to battle sites, mission stations and museums as you come to grips with centuries of heritage and culture.
When you enter the Kingdom of Lesotho, you become aware of men on horseback, adorned with beautiful woven blankets and wearing woven grass hats. These are people of the welcoming Basotho Nation, a nation born out of extreme hardship and war and brought together by a young visionary named Moshoeshoe.
During the early 1800s, with the rise of Shaka, King of the Zulu, and the impact of encroaching colonial rule, central southern Africa was thrown into a state of turmoil and bloodshed, sometimes known as the Lifiqane or Mfecane. Previously peaceful communities living quiet pastoral lives in the region were forced into brutal warfare over scarce resources. The land and all the creatures on it were decimated. Many of the Nguni-speaking and Sotho-speaking peoples sought refuge in the rugged and harsh Maloti Drakensberg Mountains. It was during this time that Moshoeshoe strategically gathered the various splinter groups of Sotho-speaking people together on a steep slope of the Maloti Mountains called Botha Bothe, and later on a flat mountaintop called Thaba Bosiu. This provided a natural fortress for these peoples to defend themselves, and to grow into a consolidated nation known as the Basotho. Visiting Thaba Bosiu can be a moving experience as you recall or hear about the courageous birth of this nation. It was also in this time of turmoil that scattered groups, who had survived Shaka’s military exploits, turned to banditry and cannibalism as a means of survival. Moshoeshoe’s own grandfather Peete fell prey to the cannibals.
A testimony to Moshoeshoe’s stature as a great peacemaker was his treatment of the cannibals whom he captured and, instead of putting to death, assured of his forgiveness. These people later became extremely loyal subjects of Moshoeshoe. Moshoeshoe’s strategizing also resulted in the British annexing Lesotho in 1869, ending a three-year siege by the Boers. Lesotho finally regained independence from the British in 1966 and is now under the leadership of King Letsie lll. Many Basotho still live as subsistence agriculturalists keeping livestock including cattle, sheep and goats. An industry of fine weaving contributes significantly to the local economy.
The Nguni-speaking peoples of the mountains
This region holds a rich cultural tapestry of Nguni-speaking peoples. Exquisite beadwork, grass-weaving and thatched homesteads welcome the traveller to the Drakensberg Mountains. Many of these communities have lived here since before Shaka’s time. Others came as refugees of the time of turmoil and, although some speak isiZulu, were never formally part of Shaka’s Zulu state. Yet others were settled here by Lord Shepstone, “Native Administrator” of Natal, in the borderlands between Natal and the mountains, as a “buffer community” to shield the white farmers from the San and their cattle raids.
Other Nguni-speaking peoples in the region are the ama-Ngwane – living in the Mnweni area – and the amaZizi –living in the area adjacent to the Royal Natal National Park– and expressing their culture in the most beautiful beading and weaving. The amaZizi were the first pastoralists to
settle in this region before Shaka’s reign. Together with the Baphuti – a clan that formed when the amaZizi intermarried with the Sotho of the Eastern Free State – they were the last protectors of the San in this region. The Baphuti are famous for their chief, Moorosi. In 1879 he led the Baphuti, aided by the San, in fighting off the British army for eight months from a spectacular summit now named Mount Moorosi in southern Lesotho. In the Mount Frere region and around Bulwer live the descendants of the amaBhaca, meaning “those who hide” (from the Zulu). Their language, isiBhaca, is one of the unofficial South African languages that could become extinct in the next 50 years. The amaNtlangwini, neighbours of the amaBhaca, were crucial to the ivory trade. They acted as brokers between the San, who hunted the elephant, and the British who bought the ivory. The internationally-acclaimed artist, Gerard Bhengu, hails from the amaBhaca and was born at Centocow Mission near Bulwer.
Further south are the Mpondomise, also known as the “red blanket people”. (The traditional blankets of these people are actually coloured using ochre.) They too had a
very close relationship with the San of this region, often employing them as rainmakers and ritual experts.
Beautiful abbeys and churches built in European architectural style are located at various places in the region. Missionaries from different European Christian traditions settled in the area in the1800s, and became extremely influential in the lives of the inhabitants.
The French Protestant missionaries established their mission at Morija in Lesotho in 1833, and became highly-valued strategic advisors and close confidants of Moshoeshoe. The high levels of literacy found in Lesotho are often attributed to these missionaries. The Morija Museum houses this rich history and is well worth a visit.
The Roman Catholic missions at Centecow, Mariazell, and Reichenau were set up as satellite missions of Marianhill by Trappist monks, a contemplative religious order where work and prayer are carried out mostly in silence. Trappists follow the Rule of St. Benedict, living “by the work of their own hands.” These monasteries, set up in the 1800s, were self-sufficient, producing and selling goods such as cheese and bread.
German Lutheran missionaries began work in KwaZulu-Natal in 1841, setting up Emmaus Mission in 1847 and opening the way for the Hermannsburg Mission to be established in KZN. Many of the mission churches still operate today, as do associated schools and hospitals. They are now run largely by local priests and religious communities. All are worth visiting, to be surrounded by their beautiful architecture and fascinating histories.
The British involvement in this area is interwoven with these histories. Most significant is the major role played by the British in the annexure of Lesotho at the request of Moshoeshoe and in the establishment of the border communities, placed by Shepstone to stop the San from raiding cattle from the new British farms in the Natal midlands.
The cattle raids, Giant’s Castle being the entry point, had become so severe that in 1856 the British sent the 1st Sherwood Foresters, the 45th foot regiment from Nottingham in England, to establish Fort Nottingham. But the raids continued – partly, it seems, because the garrison was small and on unfamiliar terrain, and partly because much alcohol was brewed and consumed on site. The garrison was withdrawn and the fort sold to a private family, the Cloustons, in 1875. The fort is now a museum which recounts this story.
The ongoing involvement in Natal by the British was not unrelated to the thriving trade in ivory that involved the San and many Nguni communities – and decimated the elephants of this area.
Descendants of both the British and the Voortrekkers are still living in this region today.
The Griqua are a people with a rich multi-cultural heritage rooted in the Khoi, European missionary, Boer and San communities, amongst others, of the Cape Colony of the 1700s. As the white settlers’ power increased in that area, so this multi-racial community became increasingly victimized.
Dispossessed of their land and dignity, they often resorted to banditry and raiding.
In 1861, under the leadership of Adam Kok III, the Griqua community trekked over the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains, suffering many tragedies and deaths along the way. They passed through Ongeluksnek, a treacherous descent, often having to dismantle their wagons to negotiate the difficult terrain. (There is now a nature reserve at Ongeluksnek Pass, and the place where Adam Kok carved his name into the rock is still visible today.) Adam Kok III then founded Kokstad and established a government to rule over Griqualand East. However, the Griqua continued to suffer
extreme hardship in the severe climate, and after many of them had sold their land to the settlers, the British succeeded in annexing the region in 1874. And so, once again, the Griqua lost their prime land. Many returned to the Cape. However, there is still a small community living in the area.
What has become of the San communities?
The history of the San people (also known as the Bushmen) is both inspiringly beautiful and tragically sad. A treasure of the mountains is the San rock art, created by the San communities who have lived in this area for over 20 000 years, and were still painting until as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. The rock art also tells of the rising turmoil in the region during these years, when King Shaka was consolidating his power base, followed soon after by the arrival of Europeans.
These events ultimately resulted in the demise of the Drakensberg San as a cultural grouping – having been killed or driven out by the various invading communities. Some of the San descendants of this region, sometimes referred to as the “Secret San”, have been absorbed into other cultural communities and are still living in the area today.
The Voortrekkers, or Dutch settlers, arrived in the region in search of new farming land where they would not be answerable to the British powers. They established farms and homesteads and later fought battles with the British in an attempt to retain their independence. At Retief’s Pass, visible from Oliviershoek Pass, grooves in the rock show where ox wagons were pulled over the mountain as the Voortrekkers descended into present-day KwaZulu-Natal. Soon after arriving they were
attacked by the Zulu King Dingane. The graves of some of those who died can be seen at Bloukrans, near Ladysmith.
Living Heritage Sites
To this day various groupings make regular pilgrimages to their significant places:
Centecow Mission: Devotees gather to pray at the “Black Madonna” of this Roman Catholic mission near Underberg.
Tekwaan’s Hill, Cobham: Thousands of scarlet-clad women and men of the Mabidia sect gather each year on this hill where the founding member had a vision from God in 1910.
Kerkenberg: At this mountain, also called Retiefklip, close to Sterkfontein Dam, the Voortrekkers held a church service before descending the escarpment into Natal. Piet Retief’s daughter painted her father’s initials on a rock here. This place has special significance for the Afrikaner people.
Mantsopa’s Grave: Mantsopa, a prophetess and advisor to Moshoeshoe, is buried near Ladybrand. Her grave, with the surrounding missionary sites and rock art, is considered a site of international importance.
Game Pass Shelter: The Duma clan, descendents of the Drakensberg San, gather at this shelter each year to interact with their ancestors.
Botha Bothe: Members of the Sotho royal lineage frequent the royal graveyard on this mountain, which is significant in the history of the formation of the Basotho nation.