‘Whites were lashed with cane at kgotla in 1966 to become true tribesmen’

16 Sep 2019

It would have been ideal for Catie Gressier of the University of Western Australia to verify information about Setswana customs that she got from a man that she refers to as a “white Motswana” with more knowledgeable sources. That didn’t happen and the result is gross misrepresentation of what used to be an important custom in Tswana culture.

The man, whom she only calls Richard, a possible pseudonym, is a Maun resident that she interviewed following a heated dinner-table argument that he had with an African-American tourist. Each man laid claim to the “African” label with the American contesting that Richard couldn’t so identify because he is white. Conversely, Richard argued that unlike him, the black man from America didn’t speak Setswana, didn’t live among Africans and didn’t know their culture. Richard, whom Gressier quotes verbatim suggesting she recorded their conversation, is almost convincing until he starts explaining how he obtained his bona fides as a Motawana tribesman.

“Kgosi [Chief] Tawana got elected as the new Chief and when that happens the new Chief recruit’s regiments,” Gressier quotes Richard as saying in an academic paper titled “Safaris into Subjectivity: White Locals, Black Tourists, and the Politics of Belonging in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.” “We were invited to come and have mopata [sic], which is the initiation lashes which happen at the kgotla. So anyway, it was an incredible privilege. My Dad had it; my Dad was invited as well with the first President . . . And basically you arrive there and you’ve got to go into the sacred kraal at the kgotla. You take your shirt off and you lie on the ground on your belly and the guy stands at your head and he’s got this long, thin, whippy stick and he did, it’s just two lashes . . . And then I’m part of the Makata regiment of the Batawana tribe. So, ja, you can’t become much more of a tribesman than that.”

There is a lot of fiction in that description. Firstly, Tawana was not elected as a kgosi but inherited such position from his father, Kgosi Letsholathebe. Secondly, the initiation process is much more elaborate and complex than Richard describes it: young men spend weeks in the bush, getting drilled in cultural norms of the tribe and often enduring physical abuse more severe than Richard could have survived. Thirdly, the first president, Sir Seretse Khama, who was a Serowe Mongwato, couldn’t have undergone his initiation training in Ngamiland among the Batawana. Seretse’s uncle-regent, Tshekedi Khama, never flogged him because he viewed him as his tribal superior. If a regent couldn’t have flogged Seretse, nobody else would have done so. Fourthly, there is just one kraal at the kgotla – there is no additional, sacred one in which white men have “mopata.” Lastly, Tawana’s regiment is called Matsaakgang and there is no Batawana regiment called Makata.

It gets worse. Richard told the Australian scholar that at Independence in 1966, “a lot of the white people” were given the choice of becoming Batswana in the “true sense of the word” by not just having citizenship but by “joining” the tribe.

“And they all had to get lashed because the custom is that if you’re the same age as the new Chief that’s coming into power, you have to get lashed to basically say, you know, he was your friend, but [you] now realise his authority. So, I remember a bunch of white people, in order to become proper Batawana, going out and getting lashed.”

Evidently, Gressier never fact-checked these wild claims - which now form part of an academic paper that has been published online. Generally, there is very little information about Botswana culture online and this gross misrepresentation of it is now part of the historical record.