More theatre than substance in leopard-skin draping

18 Sep 2017

Two weeks later, when tempers and heads have supposedly cooled, it is worth reflecting on what Kgosi Malope of the Bangwaketse and one of his subordinate traditional leaders were really fighting about. Malope was incensed that Kgosi Kebinatshwene Mosielele of the Bahurutshe in Manyana was invested with a leopard skin when there is long-standing cultural protocol that only the supreme traditional leader within a tribal territory can be so invested. This practice goes back centuries and signified assumption of absolute power and authority. “Signified” because going as far back as 1885, leopard-skin draping – like traditional leadership - has lost its original substantive meaning.

Unlike in the past and for more than a century now, a kgosi no longer has absolute power and authority in his tribal territory. Beginning in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the kgosi became subordinate to the District Commissioner who administered the district/tribal territory on behalf of the Resident Commissioner who was based in Mafikeng. In Setswana culture, it is the kgosi who selects the site of a village but that ceased to be the case under British colonial rule. In 1937, Kgosi Kgari Sechele of the Bakwena was powerless when Sir Charles Rey, the Resident Commissioner, ordered that the village be removed from Ntsweng to its present location. In today’s Botswana, the official national order of precedence places supreme traditional leaders like Malope below district commissioners. After being draped with a leopard skin, the new kgosi is given a spear, club and battle axe. According to Isaac Schapera’s “A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom”, this is “to show that henceforth he has the power of life and death over his people.”

In today’s Botswana, only High Court judges and the president have the power of life and death over people. With as much power and authority as they had, British colonial administrators felt bold enough to superimpose themselves on the observance of this cultural practice. To mark his ascension to the supreme traditional leadership of his subjects, then Brigadier Ian Khama and future president Lieutenant General Khama, was draped with a leopard skin in an elaborate ceremony at the Serowe kgotla in 1980. That is common knowledge; what is not is that Khama’s draping was an explicit nod to the wishes of the previous colonial administration - not Ngwato culture. That is what Schapera says in his book, which was published in 1938, on this issue: “Among the Ngwato there is said to have originally been no such investiture, nor any other act symbolizing the accession of the chief. The leopard-skin ceremony has recently been introduced, it is maintained, with the wishes of the Administration.” At least from photographic evidence, Ian Khama may well have been the first Bangwato kgosi to have been draped with a leopard skin. Colonial rule began when his great grandfather, Khama III, was already a kgosi and so he would have been installed before the British arrived in his territory.

Khama was succeeded by his son, Sekgoma, whose investiture happened in 1923 in a ceremony that could have been held in London. A YouTube video with no sound shows “His Majesty in court dress – top hat and frock coat” and whereas a new kgosi would be flanked by his uncles on both sides, such positions are taken by colonial officers and the entire platform party is a sea of white faces. The centerpiece of a coronation is the leopard-skin draping but in the particular case of Sekgoma, that does not seem to have been the case. Nowhere is he shown being draped with the skin and nowhere is he shown wearing it. It is important to point out though that the film shows what looks like a leopard skin not around Sekgoma’s shoulders but covering the VIP table. The new kgosi inspected a guard of honour and reviewed his army wearing western and not one stitch of traditional dress. When he reviews the army, he is shown sitting astride a brown horse having changed into a military dress - with white gloves to complete the look.

Then again, it is possible that traditional elements of the ceremony were either not filmed or cut out. That seems highly unlikely though. The next coronation in the Ngwato area would come 57 years later when Sekgoma’s grandson, Ian Khama, assumed the reins of tribal power and made history by having somebody else (Mokgacha Mokgadi and later Sediegeng Kgamane) rule in his stead. The Ngwato regency – which clocks a century in 2023 - has itself made history for being the longest anywhere among Tswana tribes. The significance of the leopard skin has also been eroded by altering the manner in which it is obtained. A new kgosi had to go out on a tribal hunt with his regiment and (at least according to the version that would be retailed to his subjects) personally kill the leopard whose skin he would be draped with on his coronation day.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the process, the skin is supposed to be doctored by the kgosi’s personal traditional doctor before the draping. This protocol was subverted in Mosielele’s case because at first he borrowed the skin that was to be used in his draping from the government and later from an unknown source when the government rescinded its loan before the draping. All this means that the leopard skin has lost the significance it has historically been invested with. If nothing else, investing a kgosi with a leopard skin in today’s Botswana is merely a theatrical performance that re-enacts a past that is gone for good. This is what Malope and Mosielele were fighting over.