At the turn of the century this was one of the wildest corners of the country but is today characterised by order and development. The origin of the town falls in the same period as Kokstad. During their trek from Philippolis to ‘Niemandsland’ Adam Kok Ill and his followers first established themselves here, where they found many swamps to their liking. The name is derived from the fact that there was so much game and water birds in the area. The Sotho expression mada-i-yala or matato-a-ile means ‘many birds have flown’.
This expression can also mean the many characters of doubtful reputation that made Matatiele the headquarters of their illegal and noisy activities with gun running and smuggling into Basotholand (Lesotho) as well as cattle and horse stealing. The animals were easily hidden in the thick bush in the mountain valleys. Guns, horses, and cattle were smuggled over Qachasnek, 30km north west of the town, which gave reasonable easy access into Basotholand.
The region was annexed to the Cape Colony in 1874, but this did not solve the problem. A ‘gun war’ against the Basotho developed during 1880 in which the British tried in vain to get all the arms away from the Basotho of Moshesh. This in turn created a gun smugglers-trade in Griqualand. The Cape Mounted Rifles established order after a time· and the outlaws moved out. The region currently shares the same economy as Kokstad with good trade over Qachasnek, which is now legal.