by Rose Lund
Vol 24 August/September 2008 issue of ToGOTo
From plague of the nations to pride of the sea.
There was a time when men trembled at her name. Her reputation strode grimly before her. Yet, as often happens, the truth is more impressive than fiction.
During the madness of the Difeqane, stories of a great woman warrior, leader of the baTlokwa tribe, ran as swift as a fire. And as her power grew, so did the stories; she was a one-eyed giantess who suckled her warriors at her own breast and sent swarms of wasps ahead to clear the way. Mma Nthatisi was her name.
Descended from the same northern ancestor, the baTlokwa and the baSia were neighbouring tribes who had settled in what is today the Harrismith region. A history of acrimony amongst members of the ruling baTlokwa families caused successive splits until there were two distinct baTlokwa branches: the baMokhalong under Tsotetsi, and the baMokotleng under Motonosi, a chief considered to be ‘the staunchest fighter of a fighting race’. In about 1800 Motonosi’s son was killed by one of Tsotetsi’s people. By tradition, his grandson Mokotjo should then have been placed under the guardianship of an uncle; however, suspicious of her brother-in-law’s intentions, Mokotjo’s mother fled to her relatives, the baSia. Three years later when the uncle too was killed by a Mokhalong, a very young Mokotjo assumed chieftainship of the baMokotleng.
Shortly afterwards he married his cousin Monyalue, daughter of his uncle, chief of the baSia. Her attractive face with its sweet expression complemented a tall, slim and graceful figure, and her light complexion was pleasing to the darker hued baTlokwa. She had a pleasant manner accompanied by a keen intelligence, and was skilled at throwing a light battle-axe. All these attributes were retained long after the bloom of youth had faded, and despite the vicissitudes of war. The young couple’s first child was a girl – Nthatisi. According to Sotho custom, Monyalue then became Mma Nthatisi, mother of Nthatisi. On the birth of the royal couple’s second child Sekonyela, he, like his father before him, was sent to his mother’s people, the baSia, to be raised.
Until Mokotjo moved his headquarters to Sefate, the chief village of the baTlokwa was Nkoe, with about three thousand inhabitants. Mokotjo was a canny ruler, establishing trade relations beyond the Drakensberg with the Nguni tribes, amongst them the amaHlubi.
Never robustly healthy, Mokotjo died in 1813 at approximately 27 years of age. His death could have triggered another schism in the history of the baTlokwa since Sekonyela was then only nine years old. Instead, the young widow, mother of three, assumed the mantle of regency for her minor son and embarked on one of the most remarkable careers in the history of Southern Africa. The internecine wars known as the Difeqane/Mfecane, historically attributed to Shaka Zulu, were about to ravage the land. To survive the horrific domino effect of successive invaders conquering and being conquered, statesmanship and effective leadership were as important as brute strength. When she spirited away the heir apparent to her own tribe, Mma Nthatisi alienated herself from many in her husband’s tribe. But she overcame their suspicion, bent the warriors to her will and became the idol of her people. Mma Nthatisi never married again.
The first record of her chequered military career appears in 1817, when she was compelled to allow her warriors to fight beyond the Drakensberg where they attacked certain Hlubis. In 1818, a Hlubi chieftain named Motsholi declared that he had been driven away by his king and begged asylum amongst the baTlokwa for his following of two thousand. Mma Nthatisi settled them in a verdant, fertile valley. She allowed him to govern his people according to his laws and customs, and requested only the minimum services of a subordinate ruler. Instead, the obdurate chieftain arrogantly declared his independence, even slyly hinting that Mma Nthatisi may have poisoned her husband. It was decided that Motsholi would have to be dealt with, but only after a forthcoming grand circumcision feast. This decision, however, was unexpectedly forestalled by the youthful Sekonyela.
Before he died, Mokotjo had warned Mma Nthatisi to beware of his half-brothers Moeti and Sehalahala, since he believed they desired to kill him. Under no circumstances must she allow Sekonyela to be circumcised by the baTlokwa, as he would then be vulnerable to a possible attack by his half-uncles. However, without her knowledge and at the instigation of Sehalahala, Sekonyela had already joined the initiates. Upon discovering this, Mma Nthatisi sent a force to withdraw him from the lodge and hustle him off to the baSia where he was circumcised in safety. Furious, Sehalahala tried by every means to sabotage Mma Nthatisi and finally launched a fruitless attack on the Malakeng, an independent baTlokwa tribe who sometimes aided Mma Nthatisi.
After routing Sehalahala, Mma Nthatisi was compelled to make a punitive attack on a petty chief of the baSia, and it was thus three to four months before she could again turn her attention to the disloyal Hlubi, Motsholi. In early spring, Sekonyela and his circumcision comrades pre-empted her by setting upon Motsholi and his unarmed men. Desiring the copper necklace worn by Motsholi, Sekonyela summarily decapitated him, upon which the amaHlubis fled back to their new ruler Mpangazitha, and resolved to take revenge.
Mma Nthatisi had no illusions about her subjects. She understood clearly that she ruled over a homogenous group of people, distinct and independent communities, jealous of each other and with little hope of uniting. Furthermore, though the baTlokwa were fierce fighters, their military tactics and weaponry were no match against those of the Nguni nations.
Pursued by the amaHlubi, Mma Nthatisi and her people moved west and invaded the baFokeng who held the impregnable mountain fortress of Kurutlele. Attacked in turn by Mpangazitha, the baTlokwa returned to the Caledon/Mohokare Valley opposite Moshoeshoe’s Butha-Buthe stronghold. Here they attacked and defeated the baSotho in the famous Battle of the Pots. Having established their supremacy in this area and consumed all the corn, the baTlokwa moved southwest following the Caledon/Mohokare River. During this southward manoeuvre, the baTlokwa again encountered the pursuing amaHlubi and were defeated by them.
Mma Nthatisi then turned and fought her way north. She defeated other tribes along the way and incorporated their warriors, succeeding in driving the Taung and baFokeng across the Vaal River. Heavily reinforced with indentured fighters, the baTlokwa regiment next swept southwards below the confluence of the Orange/Senqu and Makhaleng rivers. Prevented from crossing the Orange due to flood waters, they turned and crossed the Caledon instead into the Free State. Following the Caledon, they again besieged Moshoeshoe at Butha-Buthe, forcing him to retreat to Thaba Bosiu. The victorious mother and son finally settled on separate but nearby mountain strongholds: one at Merabing/Marabeng and the other at Joala-Boholo, in the Caledon Valley near present-day Leribe District. The capital, Marabeng, was built on a flat-topped mountain which had virtually perpendicular sides. This fortress could only be accessed by two openings on the western side. During peace the town numbered 13,000 inhabitants.
By now the baTlokwa were a formidable force. The Maputhing of Tshwane and the baSia under Mma Nthatisi’s brother Letlala had joined them, bringing the entire tribe to about 35,000. It was at this point that Sekonyela assumed active leadership, with Mma Nthatisi sharing his authority.
Shrewd and indomitable, Mma Nthatisi was also called Destroyer of Nations. While in residence at her capital, Sefate, she judged cases and determined state policy; on the field she commanded her armies in person and planned all military tactics.
Today, Mma Nthatisi’s descendants, though still jealously guarding their independence, live in Lesotho as orderly and peaceable people, enjoying privileged status amongst the tribal chiefs of this mountain kingdom.
Read the complete story in the August/September issue of ToGOTo