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The Evolution of a Symbol: Mokorotlo and National Identity in Lesotho

Scott Rosenberg


The conical grass hat known as Mokorotlo is considered to be part of the national dress of Lesotho. This paper will trace the physical and cultural evolution of the hat, as part of the emergence of a national identity in Lesotho during the twentieth century. The level of cultural prominence which these hats have obtained illustrates the process by which clothing achieves both cultural and national significance. Contrary to popular belief the Basotho have not always worn these hats. There is no evidence of these hats existing during the nineteenth century. In the early part of the twentieth century chiefs began to wear a hat which was the forerunner of the modern Mokorotlo. At this time men would wear this hat and sing a song known as Mokorotlo on their way to the chiefs court. It is from this connection that the modern hat would become known as Mokorotlo. In the years proceeding the Second World War hat makers began to introduce new designs which drastically altered their position in Basotho society.

Previously these hats had been exclusively the domain of men, but these new designs resulted in a change as women began to manufacture them for sale to Europeans. These new designs which were mass produced for commercial reasons, became increasingly popular with the general public in Lesotho. During the 1950's political figures adorned themselves with these hats in an attempt to link themselves with Lesotho's traditional power structure, the chieftainship. By wearing these hats at rallies the politicians contributed to their growing popularity. These new designs developed cultural significance only after being harnessed as a symbol by political leaders. Another factor which accelerated the emerging importance of these hats was their increasing association with Lesotho's founder, Moshoeshoe. Even though they appeared several decades after his death it was a plethora of myths connecting Moshoeshoe with the Mokorotlo hat which solidified it as a national symbol. The process by which these hats became associated with Moshoeshoe is reflective of the construction of national identity in Lesotho. The hat had become a powerful symbol of the nation, as one Mosotho stated, "everytime we see that hat on the flag or on the automotive licence plates we are reminded of Moshoeshoe."

Review of Southern African Studies Volume 3 No. 2 December 1999, pp. 37-60

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eISSN: 1024-4190