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The Roots of Botswana Nationalist Politics Part 6: ‘Lekgotla la Batho-fela’”

Publishing Date : 27 April, 2015

Jeff Ramsay

Last week we noted that with its April 1958 acceptance of a local Legislative Council, it seemed that London had finally concluded that the time was ripe to contemplate some greater degree of autonomy for Bechuanaland along with the other two High Commission Territories.

While the spectre of domination by neighbouring white minority regimes had long dissuaded popular mobilization against British overrule within the Protectorate, over the years it also encouraged a number of Batswana to involve themselves to varying degrees in political movements within South Africa and, to a lesser extent, the Central African territories.

Some of these individuals, Motsamai Mpho being an especially notable example, would later use the lessons they learned across the border to play prominent roles in organizing parties within Botswana.

Another, perhaps an equally important, factor that stifled the early emergence of political parties was the degree in which traditional Setswana political culture continued to exist as a dynamic focus for local initiatives, as well as an instrument of indirect imperial control.

Responding to official post-World War I concern about the spread of militant anti-colonial movements, such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Comintern (Communist International) aligned Africa Bureau of International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW) the then Resident Commissioner, James MacGregor, had reported back in March 1923:

"There is no evidence of the existence, let alone progress, of Pan-Africanism in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and I do not expect that there will be any as long as the tribal system is maintained."

Indeed, as late as August 1961 the first American Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Mennen "Soapy" Williams, reporting on his tour of the High Commission Territories, had observed:

"Bechuanaland is the poorest of the three areas visited and shows the least evidence political evolution.... In general, people interested only in cattle and the chiefs show little desire for development political pattern. As one tribal chief put it, 'We are not worried about the slow pace of politics here. Tradition is important and constitution is so framed that we do not get too far from tribal patterns.' In conclusion, British probably correct [on] possibility of development of Bechuanaland at slow pace."

At least until the 1950s bogosi, operating within the consensual ideals of the makgotla and through the agency of mephato or age regiments, continued to be the primary context for political competition.

Much like the medieval monarchs of Europe, colonial era dikgosi often sought to strengthen their position from below by playing off the rival interests of dikgosana against commoners, including those at the time often labelled as bafaladi  (or baagedi- outsiders/immigrants) and the “meretswane”  (now pejorative for junior or subordinate communities) within their morafe.

Outside of the royal family, where the Mmakgosi in particular enjoyed special prerogatives, women were also generally excluded from politics. Completely excluded were the malata.

Contradictions within Setswana social hierarchy tended to come into the open when the authority of a particular kgosi was challenged. The troubles that plagued the reign of the Bakwena Kgosi Sebele II are in this respect a notable example. In the aftermath of a November 1929 colonial inquiry as to whether control over the “Bakwena National Office” should be transferred from the Kgosi to a "Tribal Council" the Resident Commissioner, Rowland Daniel, reported:

"I attended a full kgotla meeting at Molepolole on the 18th and 19th of November to discuss the matter and found there were at least two-thirds of the tribe who were opposed to the petition. The position was much the same as I found it a year ago, the greater number of headmen were in favour of the petition whilst the majority consisted of common people and a few headmen."

But, ignored by Daniel in his report, but otherwise captured in the minutes of the same was an alternative proposal that an elected council of commoners be created to assist the Kgosi.

To exercise greater control over the Mokwena, whom he regarded as an uncooperative if not rebellious ‘Chief’, the Commissioner instead imposed a ‘Tribal Council’ consisting of four loyal ‘Headmen’. The new Councillors were, in particular, to be responsible for the collection Hut Tax, in return receiving salaries based on a 5% commission.  But, in the face of a general refusal in the part of most Bakwena to accept their authority, Daniel’s Council soon proved to be ineffectual.

As partially reflected in the minutes the suppressed call for the establishment a council of commoners can be directly traced to local interest in the Basotho Commoners Association or ‘Lekhotla la Bafo’ (ka Setswana ‘Lekgotla la Batho-fela’), which agitated for popular self-government on the basis of what they insisted should be the restoration of indigenous democracy through dikgotla and a Basotho National Pitso.

While some more educated Basotho Lekhotla la Bafo supporters saw a relationship between the empowerment of commoners in southern Africa and the history of the English House of Commons, a few were in fact inspired to interpret the evolution of indigenous governance in the context of Marxist and/or Pan-Africanist ideology (to be continued).