Seabela Maila Unpacks The Complexities Of Sesotho Sa Leboa

by: Mamaili Mamaila - 12 November 2018

Seabela Maila Unpacks The Complexities Of Sesotho Sa Leboa

How the standardisation of Sepedi as the, “main language” has stripped many off their unique cultural identities

I was in an Uber ride a while ago with a Muvenda driver. As with almost everyone that I meet, he was very curious about the meaning of my name. My answer to this question is always pretty simple, “it is just a family name”. However, people are never quite pleased with that response.

In trying to unpack this supposed deeper meaning to my name, he started asking me about my background. We got to the language question and after telling him that my home language is Sesotho Sa Leboa or rather, Northern Sotho; he confidently responded by saying that I am a Mopedi. This is the life of every Northern Sotho person who is not Sepedi-speaking.

This has affected many identities negatively as Sepedi has been accepted as the standard version of Northern Sotho, while the other dialects have been mainly considered as its fillers. I know that my mother has Sekone and Sepulana roots, while my father is a Mokone – an alias which he also uses affectionately when he refers to me in order to reaffirm the fact that my identity matters as much as the next one.

I had a chat with Cape Town-based Politics, Media and Linguistics student, Seabela Maila, whose input in this discussion has been very valuable.


Language Rights Activist, Seabela Abi Maila

Language Rights Activist, Seabela Abi Maila


Hailing from Modjadji – the land of the Rain Queen, Seabela (28) is also a language rights activist. The Molobedu whose main desire is for his people to know what their real history is, has been sharing a lot of insight on social media in the Sepedi versus Northern Sotho debate. Understanding, “the injustice brought onto my people because of historical inaccuracies regarded as fact,” is what initially led him down that path.

The Sepedi versus Northern Sotho debate is one of the most contentious issues among us, as Sepedi is documented in mainstream media and taught in our schools. “The debate is there because the constitution of the new government named Northern Sotho as Sepedi. Remember that the language has always been Northern Sotho. Naming the language Sepedi came along with the new government around 1996, before that the language was known as Northern Sotho. Highveld dialects like Sekgaga and Seroka are very similar to Sepedi.”


While there are only thirty widely documented Northern Sotho dialects, this is easily disputable by anyone who has toured and interacted with people from the North quite extensively. “There are definitely more than that because most researchers do not take into account the fact that most dialects are not homogenous. But the figure thirty is more or less accurate in terms of inclusivity,” he says.

“The language Sesotho is an indigenous language which was formed historically and culturally like any of the other official language such as Southern Sotho and IsiZulu. ‘Northern’ is used to distinguish between the two Sotho groups found in the country, one in the North and the other in the South,” says Seabela on the formation of the Northern Sotho language group.

Sepedi traditional Attire

Speaking on the privilege that this affords Bapedi over the other Northern Sotho dialects, the radio news reader dispels the notion that the term, ‘Northern Sotho’ is purely a divisive tactic which was used by the apartheid government, as it had already existed long before apartheid had begun.

“The fact that standard Northern Sotho consists primarily of the Sepedi dialects gives Bapedi institutional privilege over other dialects. The Bapedi authorities are actively against Northern Sotho because like all other beneficiaries of privilege, they want to hold onto their prestige. They spread untruths claiming that Sesotho sa Leboa is an apartheid concept to divide ‘Bapedi’ which is a lie because apartheid began in 1948 and the term Northern Sotho has been in use long before. They base this on the name of the Bantustan, Leboa – [of] the apartheid government. Leboa however, is an indigenous term for North, which again dismantles the whole apartheid division myth. We all culturally identify as Basotho.”

According to Seabela, Sepedi makes up roughly 60% of Northern Sotho. With the finalisation of changing the classification of Sepedi back to Northern Sotho in its final stages, he touches on what the next logical step in allowing other dialects to reclaim their agency back should be. “Northern Sotho is a dialect spoken at centres of prestige like Polokwane, where people who speak many dialects come together. The discourse [should] centre around educating people, especially the young ones who are very new to the term ‘Northern Sotho’ as compared to the older generation, who grew up with the language being called Northern Sotho. The subject is called Sepedi at school because that is what the government of Mandela decided to change the language to, not because Sepedi is being taught at schools. The consequences of granting dialects independent official status are dire at this point.”