Thomas Mofolo was born in Lesotho in 1876. He was the greatest of the authors who flourished in the early part of the 20th century, writing in Sesotho for the Morija mission.
Educated in the local schools of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, Mofolo obtained a teacher's certificate in 1898. While he was working at the book depot in Morija, some of the missionaries encouraged him to write what was to become the first novel in Southern Sotho, Moeti oa bochabela (The Traveller to the East ). The story of a young Sotho chieftain's conversion to Christianity, it is cleverly interwoven with traditional myths and praise poems. Its success prompted other young teachers to try their hand at fiction writing, thus launching one of the earliest literary movements in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mofolo's next book, Pitseng (1910), contains a thoughtful appraisal of the influence of Christianity on traditional marriage customs, but it was with Chaka, his third novel, that he would make his name. A fictionalized account of the Zulu conqueror who built a mighty empire during the first quarter of the 19th century, becomes, under Mofolo's pen, the epic tragedy of a heroic figure whose overweening ambition drives him to insane cruelty and ultimate ruin. The earliest major contribution of black Africa to the corpus of modern world literature, Chaka is a genuine masterpiece. The narrative follows the austere curve of growth and decline which controls the structure of classic tragedy at its best – psychological motivation is sharply clarified at all points and the author cleverly manipulates the supernatural element, which is endowed with true symbolic value.
Although the missionaries were sensitive to the high literary quality of Chaka, the pictures of pre-Christian life that the book contains made them reluctant to publish it. In his disappointment, Mofolo left for South Africa in 1910 and gave up writing. For several years he was a labor agent, recruiting workers for the gold mines of Transvaal and the plantations of Natal. In 1927 he bought a store in Lesotho and in 1937 he acquired a farm in South Africa, but was evicted under the Bantu Land Act. In 1940, a broken and sick man, he returned to Lesotho, where he died in 1948.