Friday, July 19, 2024

Builders of Botswana: “The Roots of National Politics” (Part 5)

We ended last week with Seretse Khama’s historic April 1958 statement before the Joint Advisory Council (JAC) firmly rejecting the Central African Federation, while calling on Batswana to look to themselves instead of elsewhere for their future progress. On hindsight it was a “man and moment” milestone signalling Seretse’s nascent emergence as a national leader prepared to rally emerging nationalist sentiment, thus further signalling his determination to play an active political role that would extend beyond his Gammangwato power base.

That Seretse Khama would seek such a role had not been immediately obvious to others at the time of his return from exile in October 1956. Notwithstanding his international fame and local status as the uncrowned king, his future ambitions and role had appeared uncertain. Within Gammangwato his political role was initially limited to membership on the Tribal Council where he shared influence, but little in the way of formal authority, as one of the “Big Three” alongside Tshekedi Khama and the then Tribal Authority Rasebolai Kgamane.

The April 1958 JAC session also proved to be an important political turning point in that it was at the same forum that the British government finally accepted the principal of establishing a local Legislative Council.

Besides the by now unanimous support for multi-racial self-government on the part of the Council’s white as well as black members, London had seemingly concluded that political advances elsewhere in the region, notably including the rise of nationalist resistance within the Federation, combined with growing condemnation of apartheid meant that the time was finally 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 a notable example, would later use the lessons they learned across the border to play prominent roles in organizing parties within Botswana.

But, 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 effective instrument of imperial control. Responding to official post-World War I concern about the spread of anti-colonial movements such as Marcus Garvy’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) into British Africa one Resident Commissioner, James MacGregor, had reported 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 American Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Mennen “Soapy” Williams, reporting on his tour of the High Commission Territories to his superior, 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 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 labelled as bafaladi (or baagedi- outsiders/immigrants) and the meretswane (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 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 during the same meeting was an alternative proposal that an elected council of commoners be created to assist the Kgosi.


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