Tuesday, October 19, 2021

A third Khama loses the war against alcohol

For the third time in 132 years, a member of the Bangwato royal family has fared badly in an ill-conceved campaign against alcohol.

First it was Khama III who ruled from 1875 to 1923 and has been immortalized through the Three Dikgosi Monument in the new Gaborone CBD as one the founders of present-day Botswana. Fearful about the prospect of Cecil Rhodes annexing their land, Khama and two other dikgosi (Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse and Sebele I of the Bakwena) travelled to the United Kingdom in 1885 to lobby Queen Victoria for the protection they had been promised when the Bechuanaland Protectorate was created. One little known fact is that while the three leaders successfully lobbied for such protection, they failed to get the British to keep alcohol out of their respective tribal territories.

Prior to the journey to London, Khama had visited Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe and was horrified by what the “white man’s alcohol” was doing to blacks living there. Granted, there was alcohol use among the Bangwato but with as much power as they had, dikgosi ensured that there was no alcohol abuse among their people and could take stern punitive action against drunkards. As a matter of fact, Khama took such action against his own son, Sekgoma, who was frightfully keen on alcohol. Khama expelled Sekgoma from Ngwato territory and the latter fetched up in Gantsi and would later move to Nnakati in the Boteti area. Fuelled partly by Christian zealotry, Khama tried to ban the brewing of mokuru, traditional beer, but such effort failed.

Sekgoma would only return in 1921 when his father fell off a horse and his health steadily declined. After Khama died two years later from pneumonia, Sekgoma ascended the throne but would rule for only two years before he also died. His half-brother, Tshekedi, became regent because Sekgoma’s son, Seretse, was only four years old at the time. Like his father, Tshekedi hated alcohol with a passion. Not only did he try to ban its brewing, he also policed his territory to ensure that subjects complied and in the process acquired the nickname Gonkgang. When he walked into a homestead and his nose picked up the whiff of what he assumed to be the sour smell of fermented malt, Tshekedi would ask, “Go nkgang?” meaning “What’s that smell?” However, he was fighting a losing battle because Bangwato women would brew mokuru in the hills surrounding Serowe. At the appropriate time, male customers would secretly rendezvous in these underground shebeens, spend the whole day drinking and stagger back home roaring drunk in the evening.

Tshekedi faced a bigger problem than his father. During his reign, the white man’s alcohol that the celebrated three dikgosi had sought to keep out of their territories was sold in “wet areas” that were in crown land ÔÇô which were essentially whites-only areas. However, people living in “dry” tribal territories could apply to buy the alcohol.

The whole of Botswana became a wet area after the country became independent and people could drink as much as their pockets would allow them. That was the situation that Lieutenant General Ian Khama, Khama III’s great grandson and current Bangwato kgosi, came into when he became president on April 1, 2008. The Liquor Act, which drastically reduced trading hours for establishments that sell alcohol, came into effect on that day. Khama followed that up by introducing a levy that was designed to make alcohol expensive and unaffordable. He has not admitted defeat but as he steps down next April, his war against alcohol has not been successful.

“An evaluation of the National Alcohol Campaign has also been completed which found that the share of expenditure on alcohol and tobacco has decreased at national level, albeit increased in rural areas. While 60 percent of Batswana have indicated reduced drinking, drinking levels nonetheless remain high with about 18 percent being binge drinkers,” he said in his last state-of-the-nation a fortnight ago.

On the other hand, a study by the University of Botswana found drinking levels to have remained about the same since Khama became president.

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