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The Roots of Botswana Nationalist Politics Part 8

Publishing Date : 11 May, 2015

Jeff Ramsay

“Tshekedi and the Ratshosas”

Our last instalment included an observation by the British journalist Leonard Barnes who during his 1931 tour of the Protectorate detected a degree of political ferment among the “more intelligent men” about the possibility of local tribal development leading to the ultimate overthrow of traditional hierarchy. Prominent among those who had shaped Barnes insight was Simon Ratshosa, who has at times been characterized as an early bourgeois nationalist.

A closer look at Simon Ratshosa's career reveals that his role as an early critic of the colonial status quo was, however, inconsistent and opportunistic. Like such contemporaries as Moanaphuti Segolodi and the young Leetile Raditladi, it furthermore grew out of his highly personalized conflict with Tshekedi Khama.

Educated at Lovedale in the Eastern Cape, Simon Ratshosa had himself been born into relative privilege. His mother Besi was the eldest daughter Khama III, while his father, Ratshosa, served as Khama III’s personal secretary. When Ratshosa died, Simon’s elder brother, Johnnie Ratshosa, took over the post, also serving Khama’s successor Sekgoma II until the latter Kgosi’s death in 1925.

But, when Sekgoma’s (half) brother Tshekedi Khama became regent in 1926, Johnnie along with his brothers, Obeditse as well as Simon, were quickly removed from political influence.

Just 20 years old at the time, Tshekedi had begun studies at Fort Hare University, when he was summoned to return to Serowe in the wake of Sekgoma’s death. On arrival he found that a Council of 12, which included both Johnnie and Simon Ratshosa, had been established to govern until he was formally installed.

As its dominant members, the Ratshosa brothers saw the council as a vehicle to perpetuate their family’s influence. In this respect they had the support of the colonial administration in seeking to maintain the council as some form of advisory and oversight body even after Tshekedi’s installation. As readers may recall at the same time the British were also insisting on a similar council in Molepolole to regulate Kgosi Sebele II.

But, once enthroned Tshekedi immediately dissolved the Council and sacked Johnnie Ratshosa as tribal Secretary. In so doing he had the support of most of the dikgosana, who had come to resent brothers special status.

The Ratshosas responded by shunning Tshekedi, leading to a rapid escalation of tensions. Fed up, the regent summoned the three brothers to kgosing, but they refused to come. He then dispatched his beaters to forcibly bring them to the kgotla, where they were sentenced to flogging for disrespect.

The brothers then attempted to flee. Johnnie was caught and beaten, but Simon and Obeditse escaped only to return to the scene with guns.

The two took aim at Tshekedi and fired. Several shots rang out, but their target was only slightly wounded. Simon and Obeditse then fled to the British Resident Magistrate, who had them arrested and subsequently found guilty of attempted murder; sentencing them to ten years with hard labour (later reduced to four years)

Meanwhile Tshekedi had ordered the brother’s houses be burnt as customary punishment for those committing treason. From prison, Simon Ratshosa spearheaded a legal claim against Tshekedi for their lost property.

The Magistrate upheld Tshekedi’s action, finding it to be in accordance with customary law. Simon then appealed to the Special Court of the Protectorate, where the brothers won their case, with the regent now being ordered to pay them compensation.

Furious at the reverse, Tshekedi in turn appealed to the highest court of the Empire, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.

The colonial administration strongly advised Tshekedi to withdraw the case on the ground of the expenses involved, which were greater than any potential compensation claim. But the regent was determined as a matter of principle to proceed. He covered his legal costs by imposing a special tribal levy.

In the end the Privy Council judged that Tshekedi had the right to inflict punishment on the Ratshosas in terms of Sengwato traditional law. But, the victory was tarnished by the Judges’ advice that the customary law should be reviewed

Meanwhile, during his period of imprisonment, Simon Ratshosa drafted an unpublished manuscript entitled “My Book on Bechuanaland Protectorate Native Custom”.  In it he appealed for colonial, rather than popular, intervention to curb what he now denounced as the despotism of dikgosi, further calling for the abolition feudal customs that were a barrier to “native progress and economic freedom”.

The people of the Protectorate, Simon wrote, suffered under the direct rule of often cruel Chiefs who contravened the British system of justice by imposing “feudal customs” on the people, while and enriching themselves in the process. In this respect he denounced the use of mephato on royal projects as “forced labour”, arguing that it led to people neglecting their own livelihoods.

To curb such despotism, he called for the creation of a “Bechuanaland National Council”, made up of educated Batswana, which would also be inclusive of non-Tswana groups in the territory. The proposed Council would serve as an advisory body to the British Resident Commissioner on lawmaking and as a customary court of appeal, which would be empowered to discipline "disobedient chiefs".



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