Michael Moerane


20th Sep 1904


27th Jan 1980

Country of birth

South Africa

Country/ies of residence

  • Lesotho
  • South Africa

Michael Mosoeu Moerane was born on 20 September 1904 in Mangoloaneng, a village in the Matatiele/Mount Fletcher district of the Eastern Cape, located in the larger region known as East Griqualand, or Transkei. He was one of seven children born to Eleazar Jacane and Sophia Moerane, his father descended from a long line of Basotho chiefs, who was an emissary for the Basotho royal family and an evangelist for the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society.

Eleazar and Sophia Moerane with their children c.1920

Moerane attended his father's junior primary mission school and then the nearby Mariazell Catholic mission school, before going to Morija Training Institution in Lesotho in 1920/21 to complete middle schooling and to obtain a primary school teaching certificate. He taught at St John’s College, Mthatha in 1922 and enrolled at Lovedale High School, Alice, in 1923, completing the school level then called Standard VIII in 1924. In 1925 he entered the South African Native College (SANC, later called Fort Hare University), in Alice, to complete Standards IX and X. This College was at that time the only place in South Africa where Africans could obtain a Senior Certificate or a University Matriculation Certificate. Moerane obtained a Matriculation Certificate in 1926, while simultaneously teaching at Lovedale High School and Lovedale Training School and completing a high school teaching diploma at Lovedale Training School. He continued teaching at the two Lovedale institutions, and by 1929 he was on the staff of the Lovedale Practising Schools as well.

Moerane c.1926, photo courtesy Thuso Moerane.

By 1931, Moerane had obtained a permanent post at Lovedale High School, which he held for the next eight years; and he  married a fellow Lovedale student, Beatrice Betty Msweli, also in 1931. Their first child, Mofelehetsi, was born in Alice at the end of 1931, followed by a daughter, Mathabo, and a second son, Thuso, in 1935 in Kroonstad, where Moerane's wife was teaching. The year 1931 was also the year Moerane registered for a B. Mus degree part-time through Rhodes University College, a satellite of the University of South Africa, which was at that time the only university offering distance learning and therefore accessible to a black student. He completed the B.Mus. through correspondence in 1941. With his growing family, Moerane moved to Basutoland (now Lesotho) in 1938, where he took up a post at a new school, Basutoland High School, in Maseru (now called Lesotho High School), teaching Sesotho and Commercial Arithmetic, among other things. Music teaching and performing was then, and remained throughout his career, an extra-mural activity. The Moeranes left Basutoland at the end of 1939 and moved back to the eastern Cape of South Africa, where Moerane completed his B.Mus. degree in 1941; and for this purpose, he seems to have lived in Grahamstown for part of the time. In 1942 he obtained a position at the Queenstown Bantu Secondary School (now called Luvuyo Lerumo High School). The family lived in Victoria Road, Queenstown, and then moved to 10 Scanlen Street. Michael and Betty had two more girls, Hidieo and Sophia, and their last child, Thabo, was born in Queenstown in 1947.

10 Scanlen Street, Queenstown in the 1950s, photo courtesy Thuso Moerane

Moerane had begun composing short choral works in tonic solfa notation some time during the late 1920s or early 1930s, and two of these were published by Lovedale Press between 1927 and 1937: Liphala and an arrangement of the spiritual Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. In 1936 he wrote a set of piano pieces called Album for the Young (the same name as the set of piano pieces that Schumann composed in 1848). For his final B.Mus. exam in 'Advanced Composition' in 1941, Moerane wrote a 10-minute orchestral tone poem called Fatše la Heso ('My Country' - the country referred to being Basutoland/Lesotho). He continued writing unaccompanied choral works in tonic solfa during the 1940s and 50s, but it is difficult to date them as he rarely wrote the date on his manuscripts. Moreover, it was only recently discovered that he wrote far more than the few well-known pieces choirs have often sung: RuriSylviaDellaMorena TlakeMatlalaLiphala, and Tsatsi la Pallo.  There are at least another 40 other extant choral works, including seven other Negro Spiritual arrangements, and many others that have not yet been found, but whose titles are recorded.

Moerane and his wife with the African Springtime Orchestra in their garden in Scanlen Street, late 1950s, photo courtesy Mark Gevisser

Moerane also wrote several short pieces for small orchestra (now lost): because after the successful performances of Fatše la Heso in England in 1944 and in the United States in 1950, someone donated a small consignment of orchestral instruments, that were shipped to his home in Queenstown. Here, he formed the 'African Springtime Orchestra', an ensemble of about 15 musicians comprising students and family members, who played strings, flute, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. One of the members was the young Thabo Mbeki, who lived with his uncle and aunt in Queenstown in 1952. Moerane remained at Queenstown until 1958, taking part as a member of the Cape African Teachers Association in protests against the National Party's introduction of 'Bantu Education', that eventually caused him to be given enforced 'early retirement' from the Bantu High School. (Mbeki remembers that Moerane was a supporter of the Non-European Unity Movement, NEUM.) Moerane went to Mpondoland in 1958-9 to teach at Mfundisweni College of Education, where his daughter Sophia was a student. He returned briefly to Queenstown some time in 1960, and in 1961 he returned to Basutoland to teach English Language & Literature, Latin and History, at Peka High School in Leribe. In Peka he formed a new configuration of the 'African Springtime Orchestra', which included his student Zakes Mda. In Basutoland, Moerane was sympathetic to the Basutoland Congress Party, which opposed Chief Leabua Jonathan's Basutoland National Party. (Jonathan lost the 1970 election but seized power and ran a brutal regime until he was removed in a coup in 1986, six years after Moerane's death.)

Moerane with the African Springtime Orchestra at Peka H.S. c.1966

Michael Mosoeu and his wife seem by the late 1960s to have gone their separate ways, she returning to live with their son Thuso in Queenstown until her death in 1980. Thuso had shouldered the forced removal of his family from Scanlen Street in the later 1950s, and was served with a banning order in 1966. No. 10, the Moerane house, was destroyed under the Group Areas Act when the street was rezoned for Indians, and Thuso's family moved across town and eventually settled in 'White City', Mlungisi location. Surprisingly, the house next door, no. 8 Scanlen St, where Todd Matshikiza lived, and no. 6, where Lex Mona lived, were not destroyed. Moerane and Matshikiza did not get along, although Moerane taught a number of Queenstown's jazz musicians. He disapproved of the immorality and liquor often associated with jazz, and tried to stop his children from being unduly influenced by their neighbours. His eldest son, Mofelehetsi, nevertheless joined Lex Mona's group as a vocalist, and was subsequently banished to Ohlange Institute, Durban to continue his education. Moerane taught at Peka High School In Lesotho until his retirement, after which he helped to establish the new music department at Lesotho Teachers Training College in Maseru. He lived in Tsifalimali, and also had houses in Maseru and Peka village. His son, Thabo, who in the 1970s was working for the United Nations in Geneva, used to visit him during his vacations in Lesotho, when they shared the home in Tsifalimali. Adjoining this house was a shop that supplied the villagers with basic needs, and it seems to have been a constant feature of Moerane's life that he was always concerned with his community. Moerane fell ill some time in late 1979 or early 1980 and was eventually transferred to Pelonomi Hospital, Bloemfontein, where he died on 27 January 1980. He is buried in the graveyard outside Tsifalimali. Betty Beatrice died a few weeks later, and is buried in Queenstown. Thabo, who died in 2006 and was the closest of all the siblings to his father, also the most musically talented, is buried close to his father in Tsifalimali. It is not known whether or not Moerane received any honours or awards during his lifetime, except for a small cash prize for Album for the Young in 1937, but he has been increasingly regarded as a key figure in South African composition since his death. Michael Mosoeu Moerane was a member of the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO), which protects the copyright invested in his music on behalf of his heirs. All the extant music by Moerane, which mostly existed only in manuscript until now, will be published in the M.M. Moerane Scholarly Edition, based at the Africa Open Institute for Music Research, Stellenbosch University.