The Aristotle of the Free State plains


The Aristotle of the Free State plains

MAX DU PREEZ tells the story of an extraordinary philosopher from the pre-colonial era and argues that he deserves his place among the other great thinkers of humankind.

King Moshoeshoe addresses a community meeting at Thaba Bosiu.
King Moshoeshoe addresses a community meeting at Thaba Bosiu.

I SUSPECT most of us share the dominant global view that there are only three philosophical traditions in history: European, Chinese and Indian.

Communities such as the pre-colonial Africans, Native Americans and Polynesians did invent proverbs, tell stories and create myths, but they did not have a philosophical tradition, or certainly nothing worth including in any comparative study of philosophy. Or such is the widely held belief.

What did all these communities have in common? They did not read or write. How this came to be is an interesting question that has nothing to do with intellectual inferiority, but we cannot dwell on it now.

Does this mean, though, that people who did not have a culture where profound thoughts about the meaning of life, the essence of truth, and about good and evil were written down and preserved, never had these thoughts? Surely not.

Remarkable Mohlomi

I once thought pre-colonial Africa hadn't produced anything deeper than cute anecdotes and proverbs that could be put on a Hallmark card or a meme. That was until about 15 years ago when I did research for a documentary film and came across a remarkable philosopher in the central parts of our country by the name of Mohlomi.

I call him the Aristotle of Clocolan and want to make the case that he should be recognised as a full-fledged philosopher in the international tradition. He never met a single European or anyone other than fellow Africans from Southern Africa.

Please keep an open mind and walk with me through his story.

Mohlomi was the great-grandson of the king of the Bakoena, Monaheng, who led his people in the fertile Mohokare Valley (now known as the Caledon Valley, between Lesotho and the Free State) in the 1600s. Mohlomi was born around 1720 and was given his name — which means “The Builder" — by Monaheng himself. 

The dream

The first thing that the elders in Lesotho's highlands — those who still know about him — say about Mohlomi is that he had a wonderful dream while sleeping in his initiation hut as a 14 or 15-year-old. They say it was not an ordinary dream, a toro in Sesotho, but a pono, a kind of psychic connection with the ancestral spirits.

Mohlomi recounted that it was dark and stormy that night when suddenly a bright light shone. An eagle came in through the roof of his hut and carried him to the highest peaks above the clouds, where he was welcomed by a crowd of souls of his ancestors. An old man spoke to him and told him he had been chosen to become a great leader; therefore, they had summoned him to give him advice on how to live and lead his people.

There are various versions of what these lessons were, and they have been passed down in oral history among the older Basotho of the eastern Free State and Lesotho. They all agree that Mohlomi was urged to be a man of love and peace, to have empathy and patience with everyone, even those who opposed him; to be just and see everyone as his brothers and sisters; and to show special care for children, women and the elderly.

We have no way of knowing for sure whether Mohlomi really had this strange dream. It is equally possible that as a young man, he tried to explain his vision to his people through a parable or a story to give it more gravitas, or created a set of symbolic narratives they could understand. The story is still told more than two centuries after his death.

He was still very young when he became a chief in the area of present-day Clocolan and Marquard in the eastern Free State. He was popular and respected, but he was very different from any other leader of his time.

While it was customary for a leader to build a strong army, he  disbanded his fighting units and urged the men to engage in agriculture and be better husbands to their wives and fathers to their children. Mohlomi also gave away much of his own power to his advisers.

This was radical behaviour in his society of the time.

According to oral history, he was an ascetic with iron self-control. He was very fit and ate little. He never used alcohol or smoked tobacco or dagga (marijuana) like most men of his time — in fact, he was somewhat unpopular because he warned against the use of dagga and alcohol.

Philosophical questions

Every old Mosotho I have spoken to over the years about Mohlomi remembers that their grandmothers and grandfathers told them how much he loved to have long, philosophical conversations with other wise individuals. He tried to answer the big questions: Where does the universe begins and end? What is the essence of life, and how was it created? How do we truly know what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil? What is a soul, and how does it differ from a brain?

Mohlomi believed there was one creator of everything and that souls were immortal. His philosophies and thoughts had much in common with Eastern thinking and the law of karma.

A person's conscience, Mohlomi preached, rather than the pressure of the community or norms imposed by others, should be their only guide. Fate will be your friend if you treat other people, especially the weak and unfortunate, with compassion and generosity. People can learn a lot from the past and from each other, but no one can escape the responsibility of their own thoughts and actions and blame circumstances or culture.

These are just glimpses of Mohlomi's philosophy that have survived through oral retelling for more than two centuries. One can only imagine how much more complex his thinking actually was.

Mohlomi lived in the same era as the great Western philosophers Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. I suspect that if they had not written down their thoughts, we would hardly be aware of them today, and they might be remembered only by a few bumper sticker sayings. Conversely, if Mohlomi could write and his books had been preserved, he might have been just as famous as his contemporaries today.

His legacy

A philosopher is a product of his or her environment and a thought leader not only for the future but for the community and times in which he or she lives. For Mohlomi, this environment involved the abuse of power by kings and chiefs, bloody conflicts between tribes and clans, witchcraft, superstition, the abuse of alcohol and dagga, and the vulnerable position of women and children in the second half of the 18th century.

Most of Mohlomi's proverbs that have become part of Basotho morality had to do with these issues. “A knobkerrie is worth more when used to grind grain than when used to kill people on the battlefield" was one. Another, more poetic, was: “Peace is my sister", a sister being someone in a vulnerable position in society who should be protected and cherished.

“The law does not know poverty," was directed at chiefs. It was Mohlomi who started the practice — which still survives in rural Lesotho — that you should greet a stranger with an open palm and the exclamation “Khotso!" (peace).

But his most famous saying, almost a call for a democratic order, was: “A leader is a leader by the grace/consent of his people." (A Chief is a Chief by the Grace of His People is the title of an obscure e-book I wrote years ago about Mohlomi, published by Tafelberg.)

Ah, you start to wonder how I know so much about a man who died before he could meet any European settler and who probably wasn't even aware that writing systems existed. Am I just swallowing the oral history as truth?

Sources and evidence

There were indeed Europeans who wrote about Mohlomi. The first was Eugène Casalis, a French missionary who lived among the Basotho from 1833, shortly after Mohlomi's death, and whose many writings are preserved in French archives. He wrote that Mohlomi was a “chief of great benevolence" whose name was invoked during crises. When the Basotho prayed, Casalis wrote, they addressed the Creator, Molimo, through Mohlomi.

The Swiss missionary David Frédéric Ellenberger made a significant contribution to South African historiography as a historian. In his book History of the Basuto, Ancient and Modern, he wrote that Mohlomi was born with “greatness" and was famous far beyond his own environment for his wisdom and preaching of peace and love.

“He was a teacher of people, and his teachings had a wide impact in humanising all the Basotho tribes. He created trust between people and between people and chiefs, and people honoured him with one voice for his wisdom and love."

There are two other written sources that can be consulted about Mohlomi. One is by Joseph Orpen, an Irishman who became a member of the Free State Volksraad and later served as a liaison between the Basotho and the colonial governments. The other is Ntsu Mokhehle, a former prime ninister of Lesotho who spoke to a large number of people in the 1950s, asking what their parents and ancestors had told them about Mohlomi.

I have spent many hours talking to elderly people in Lesotho and the eastern Free State about their knowledge of Mohlomi, and have relied on conversations with academics such as the leading Basotho historian, Professor LBBJ Machobane.

My education and experience are not those of a historian, but of a journalist, a seeker of truth. My years of research on pre-colonial and early colonial Basotho have taught me that you need to apply as many filters to gain a good understanding when reading the early missionaries and colonial historians as you do with oral history.

But let's continue with Mohlomi's story.

On foot

He did the unusual thing of entrusting his clan to his council members and travelling throughout the entire subcontinent to spread his message of peace and love and to learn from other cultures.

With only a calabash of water and a walking stick, and accompanied by a few unarmed young men, he walked as far as present-day KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Botswana, and probably the southern part of Zimbabwe. He undertook several such journeys and was sometimes away for more than a year at a time.

He is said to have been received everywhere with open arms, also because he was a skilled herbalist. He analysed the different communities to understand why some were prosperous and others were not, and supposedly learned all the languages of the regions he visited. He also entered into symbolic marriages with numerous young women in these communities as a gesture of peace and interdependence.

When he was in his seventies and too old to venture on such long journeys, he settled permanently at his kraal, Ngoliloe, near present-day Clocolan (then Hlohloane), and established a school for aspiring chiefs in the area — a leadership academy.


And this brings me to my strongest argument that Mohlomi was not just a wise old dude but indeed a philosopher. One of his star students became the greatest and most influential king of the Basotho and consistently proclaimed that he practised Mohlomism. Therefore, we can see Mohlomi's philosophy being applied in practice.

This student was Moshoeshoe, whose potential and leadership qualities Mohlomi immediately recognised. He spent a lot of time with him, and when Moshoeshoe “graduated", Mohlomi gave him one of his earrings as a symbol of authority and a knobkerrie as a symbol of power.

According to oral history, he rubbed his forehead against Moshoeshoe's and said he transferred all his wisdom and insights to the young man, who would have to lead his people through difficult times.

A year or so before his death in 1815, Mohlomi warned that he saw a large, red cloud approaching that would engulf his people. The devastating Lifacane, two decades of massive social and political upheaval in the eastern and central parts of South Africa, began just a few years after his death.

People believed Mohlomi could see the future and received messages from God, but the truth is probably that through his travels and insights, he recognised the early signs of instability in neighbouring regions.

The only photograph of King Moshoeshoe, probably taken in 1866, shortly before his death.
The only photograph of King Moshoeshoe, probably taken in 1866, shortly before his death.

Moshoeshoe, a unique leader

Moshoeshoe assumed the leadership of the Bamakoteli in 1820, 13 years before his first encounter with Europeans in the person of Casalis. His first 47 years were entirely influenced by his own people and experiences.

The moment the initial violence of the Lifacane reached his people, Moshoeshoe demonstrated that he was an entirely different kind of leader from his contemporaries — Shaka, Mzilikazi, Mpangazitha, Mantatisi and others. They all participated fervently in the bloody orgy but Moshoeshoe led his people to a nearly impenetrable flat mountain called Thaba Bosiu and declared that he would not engage in wars.

His fortress was attacked many times, including by Mzilikazi, the British, and the Free Staters. They all had to retreat, and none of them advanced to the top of the mountain.

He invited people fleeing from the warring hordes to join his people, regardless of whether they were Zulus, Tswanas, Korannas, Khoi-Khoi, or San/Bushmen. Everyone was allowed to speak their own language and practise their traditions. His herds grew, and there was a good sorghum harvest every year. Thaba Bosiu became a beacon of peace and stability in a sea of bloodshed and famine.

In the mid-1800s, he began to refer to his people as the Basotho. Shaka shaped the Zulu nation through power and subjugation, but Moshoeshoe formed his own people through persuasion, protection, prosperity and stability.

There can be little doubt that the chaos and destruction of the Lifacane would have spread to the rest of the land if it hadn't been for his stabilising role, and our history would have unfolded quite differently.

In everything Moshoeshoe did, Mohlomi's philosophy can be seen. He didn't make decisions without his khotla, a meeting of senior men, and critical decisions were made through a pitso, a meeting of all subjects. He encouraged his people to voice their opinions and even disagree with him openly.

In short, King Moshoeshoe was an exceptional leader with a clear vision, which he consistently stated was based on that of Mohlomi.

Basotho warriors defend their mountain fortress against an attack.
Basotho warriors defend their mountain fortress against an attack.

Less of a philosopher?

The evidence is therefore on the table. We know that Mohlomi was a deep and unconventional thinker. Fragments of what he said and believed are still available to us, revealing profound insights and a sharp intellect that surpassed the everyday existence of a group of illiterate farmers.

And we have evidence, this time not just through oral tradition, that the man he trained as a leader and who followed his philosophy became one of Africa's great figures, a kind of Nelson Mandela of the 19th century.

If you ask me, Moshoeshoe, Rousseau, Voltaire and Kant could have sat around a table for days, delving into the deeper questions of human existence.

Only, Mohlomi knew nothing about reading and writing. Does that make him less of a philosopher?

♦ VWB ♦

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