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The social structure of the Sotho-speaking peoples of Southern Africa

  • Adam Kuper

In this paper I draw together modern reports on various Sotho-speaking peoples and attempt to indicate the relationship between the political arrangements within each ‘tribe’ and certain aspects of its social system—in particular, patterns of marriage preference and residential alignment.

The richest data and some of the most penetrating analysis is to be found in Schapera's writings on the Tswana, and his Tswana material provides my central case-study. The Kgalagari and the Southern Sotho (Basuto) systems are obviously similar in many ways, although I shall point out some interesting variations. In the second part of the paper I attempt to show that the variables abstracted in the first part are related in only slightly different ways in the superficially divergent systems of the Pedi and the Lovedu, and even in some groups whose organization has been fundamentally disrupted by colonial or settler intervention.

The Sotho-speaking peoples have intrigued many anthropologists particularly because of their preference for marriage with close kin, usually including all cousins, and sometimes even closer relatives. It was with this in mind that Radcliffe-Brown (1950: 69) remarked that the Tswana ‘are decidedly exceptional in Africa, and might almost be regarded as an anomaly’. This is a problem which is central to my analysis, and in order to clear the ground something must be said about marriage strategies in general. Broadly speaking, there are three options, which I will now outline.

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1 With her customary kindness, Professor E. J. Krige not only read my original draft of this paper, but was also good enough to show me some unpublished material on Lovedu marriage patterns. Dr. John Comeroff and Professor Isaac Schapera also read the draft, and their comments, together with those of Professor Krige, allowed me to improve some points in the argument, and forced me to reconsider several others. I hope they will all excuse my occasional obduracy: it does not diminish my gratitude.

2 See Casalis (1861); Stow (1905); Schapera (ed.) (1937).

3 I exclude the Lozi from consideration here. It may be that they do indeed belong to another structural type of society, but I do not believe that it is yet possible to judge this with any certainty, or to attempt any thoroughgoing comparison, in the absence of crucial data on kinship, local groupings, and marriage alliances. Fortes has recently produced an elegant summary statement of Lozi social structure (1970: 127-57), but it cannot be regarded as more than a reasonable approximation at this stage, Cf. Gluckman (1950, 1951); Turner (1952). Gluckman's writings on the Lozi are of course both extensive and authoritative; however, he did not concern himself with the details of local social groupings, or with marriage patterns.

4 E. J. Krige (1937, 1938); J. D. Krige (1937); Van Warmelo (1953).

5 According to a statement by the South African Minister of Statistics in the Assembly, the pre liminary figures for the census of May 1970 were: Tswana: 1,702,000; Pedi: 1,596,000; S. Sotho: 1,416,000 (source: Horrell (ed.) (1971)). In addition, there were over half a million members of Tswana tribes (including minorities) in Botswana, and perhaps three-quarters of a million Southern Sotho in Lesotho. The remaining Sotho speakers (Kgalagari, Lovedu, etc.) probably do not total more than a quarter of a million.

6 For some recent histories of the Sotho see Legassick (1969); Lye (1969); and Wilson (1969). The new wave of Sotho historiography is suggestive but often speculative, and one must still return to the classic texts of Ellenberger, Lagden, and Schapera.

7 Cf. Hamnett (1965). Fortes gives an account of the similar mode of descent in the British royal house, and draws explicit parallels to the Tswana (Fortes, 1970: 282-8).

8 Pauw (1960b: 213); E. J. Krige (1964: 158–9).

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
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