The Mokorotlo – A Symbol of Unity
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
The Basotho hat, or Mokorotlo, is a widely recognized symbol of Lesotho and often seen being worn by locals and visitors alike. You’ll find these conical headpieces in various shapes and styles in curio shops, at traditional ceremonies and gatherings, as presents to visiting dignitaries (along with the Basotho blanket), and in everyday wear.
Its conical shape with the distinctive topknot is a symbol of the country’s unification and is said to depict the mountaintop, Mount Qiloane (or the Qiloane Pinnacle) that sits upon the Thaba Bosiu mountain plateau. This mountain top is also known as ’modianyewe’, which means ‘he who executes judgement in court’. This makes sense as the Mokorotlo was the object which was used to cast rulings in customary courts, similar to the symbolism of a gavel which is seen in western societies. Interestingly the name Mokorotlo also refers to the traditional male dance performed by male initiates and elders.
Legend has it that the Basotho looked down onto Qiloane from Thaba Bosiu and started weaving grass growing on top of the mountain – that’s how the first hats came about.
To better understand how this hat became a national symbol we need to explore a little into the importance of Thaba Bosiu itself. Thaba Bosiu (Thaba meaning mountain and Bosiu meaning at night) holds an important place in Leotho’s history as it acted as Moshoeshoe’s headquarters and stronghold during the various Basotho Wars.
The name mountain of the night comes because of the local belief that Moshoeshoe’s people made it here in the evening, almost 200 years ago, and it never failed in its promise to protect those who looked up to it.
At an elevation of nearly 120 meters above the surrounding area, the plateau formed a natural fortress to gather the Basotho people in times of danger. Its sandstone plateau has an area of approximately 2 km2 and a height of 1,804 meters above sea level. The plateau’s large area meant it could hold enough livestock and provisions to support the people during a lengthy siege.
The mountain was said to grow during the night, leaving enemies who tried scaling it exhausted and besieged . Enemies claimed that the mountain felt as if it was growing as they climbed.
During the first Free State / Basotho War against the Orange Free State in 1858, the Free State’s commandos tried assaulting the stronghold, but met with little success. During the third war against the Free State in 1868, Thaba Bosiu was the only stronghold that wasn’t stormed by the Free State forces. In the time the stronghold remained manned, it was never taken by the enemy. When Chief Moshoeshoe 1 died in 1870, he was buried on Thaba Bosiu.
The ruins and the graves of various chiefs is all that remain of the settlement on Thaba Bosiu. As a national monument, it is protected land and a well known tourist destination.
The origins of Mokorotlo hat are unclear. A similarly shaped hat has been identified among the descendants of the Cape Malays, former slaves from the East Indies, and it is believed that the Sotho may have adopted the Mokorotlo through exposure to these slaves, but this is speculation.
The Mokorotlo became infamous in the early 1900s when a forerunner of this hat was worn by tribal chiefs, who chanted a combat/praise song known as ‘Mokorotlo’ while making their way to the chiefs’ court. It is from this early connection that the hat became known as Mokorotlo. It was exclusively worn by males to these gatherings. However, in the 1950s, new designs were developed to cater to women.
The Sotho people display the Mokorotlo in their homes indicating that they uphold the customs and acknowledge their bonds with their ancestors. It also serves to protect the home against danger and other evil influences.
The hat’s design, as we know it today, first appeared at the end of the 1930s, and its growing prominence was closely associated with the development of national identity.
Developments in hat design and mass production for a European market contributed to an increase in popularity of the Mokorotlo hat among the Basotho people (as did the Basotho blanket).
Its growing importance as a symbol of Lesotho was strengthened by its association with royalty, key political parties and political figures who wore the hats to rallies and public functions during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1966, the mokorotlo was chosen as the symbol on the national flag of a newly independent Lesotho. Its image is found on everything from car number plates, to mass produced printed fabric, to the shape of the craft centre building in the capital of Lesotho, Maseru.
True Basotho hats are manufactured from an indigenous grass known as “mosea” or “lehodi” Next time you see a mokorotlo at a craft market, recognise it as more than just a curio, but is a symbol of pride, unification, peace and strength.
This article was curated and written by Andrew Knapp of The Design Train for Clarens Butterfly Beds.
Reasonable permission to use this article can be obtained from the author
©Andrew Knapp 2018