Never before has anyone been ceaselessly hauled over a carpet of hot (Morupule B) coals back and forth between Ramatlabama and Ramokgwebana over their use of a popular but little-understood Setswana word. That, however, is what immediately happened when, as Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, President Mokgweetsi Masisi fatefully declared at a kgotla meeting in his home village, Moshupa: “Ke lelope, ke ngwana wa lelope [ebile] ke ngwana wa ngwana wa lelope.”
Years later, not a day goes by that someone doesn’t remember and regurgitate what is generally believed to be literal self-description which most have mistranslated as “I am a bootlicker, I am a bootlicker’s son and a bootlicker’s grandson.” The starting point for understanding what Masisi was saying is to momentarily take him out of the equation altogether and explore the concept of bolope in a purely traditional Setswana society. A Kgosi (supreme traditional leader whom some Batswana insist should be referred to as “King” to elevate him to the status of Queen Elizabeth) discharged his public duties with the aid of a cast of cream-of-the-crop tribesmen who were called Malope a Kgosi. In addition to royal uncles, Malope constituted the advisory council and it was from among them that the Kgosi would select his confidant(s). Recognizing that the welfare of the tribe depended on wise counsel of these men, the Kgosi consulted them on a wide range of issues. Bolope was a highly prestigious and coveted position in traditional society and not everybody qualified to become lelope. Footprints of malope begin and end at the kgotla, the traditional seat of power where malope go each morning to bend the Kgosi’s ear. You don’t ever hear of who pay fealty to the rich man, the traditional doctor, the hunter or the leather-tanner because bolope is specific to a particular institution ÔÇô the kgotla.
On the basis of this historical context, it is at once bemusing and stupefying that bolope is now being compared to bootlicking ÔÇô a word from an alien language that describes something entirely different. As its less odious synonyms (fawner, groveller, crawler, sycophant, toady and lackey) show, a bootlicker is someone who has no self-respect, who tries too hard to please someone in a position of power in order to gain a personal advantage. This is not who a Kgosi of old would have used to improve the fortunes of his society.
An Americanism, “bootlicker’s entered the English lexicon in 1835. Some 225 years earlier when “footlicker” did the same thing in England, bolope had been a mainstay of Tswana society for centuries. To be clear, Tswana communities had people who practised bootlicking and coincidentally the Setswana word for that practice also describes the physical act of licking- bolatswathipa which literally means knife-licking. In Setswana, the practitioners of that dark art were themselves called malatswathipa ÔÇô knife-lickers. A related word, which is more common among the Bangwato, is letikatoisi ÔÇô which literally translates as snuff-tobacco pouch thrower. For the record, Masisi said that he was a lelope – not a lelatswathipa. Being a lelatswathipa disqualified one from becoming a lelope.
To conflate bolope with bootlicking is to minimise, if not downright deny the cultural sophistication that went into building Tswana societies administratively. No Kgosi could have built a thriving society with malope and there is a 21st century example that one can use to illustrate that point. In another part of the world, a “leader” that a Scottish protestor’s placard described as a “low IQ racist sex pest” has surrounded himself with an obeisance of bootlickers who, at one point, proverbially licked his boots on live TV by taking turns lavishing him with sycophantic, if fictitious praise. The result is that under Donald Trump, an Ivy-League-“educated” international money-launderer who can’t even pronounce “anonymous”, the US is declining as a superpower at a much faster speed than previously predicted.
So, how did lelope become bootlicker? Using typically colourful language, Junot Diaz, an American writer, says that racism wouldn’t work if those it oppresses didn’t give it power. His actual words are: “White supremacy would not f*****g operate without people of colour to run it.” There can be no doubt that bolope was conflated with bootlicking as a direct result of cross-linguistic influence from English ÔÇô that is actually what a language specialist who works for the government says happened. That language was introduced by our former colonial masters who never hid their contempt for Tswana culture. From a white supremacist vantage point, bolope looked every inch like bootlicking. Suddenly malope became bootlickers and a century later, indigenous people themselves run that aspect of white supremacy by referring to bolope as bootlicking. It is ironic that people now making fun of bolope come from a society that survived and thrived during a millennia-long Darwinist selection process thanks in part to bolope.
Part of the problem has to do with the fact that despite what a parade of cologned political and other leaders delivering speeches in English would be inclined to say from a Gaborone International Convention Centre podium, there is no real appetite to integrate Setswana culture into an international language that Botswana uses officially to communicate with the rest of the world. A short while back, there was this cartoon strip in Midweek Sun about a linguistically-challenged male character who couldn’t help his school-going niece translate “go nyonnyobetsa” (to make cheeky or rude gestures at someone behind their back) into English. Actually this was no laughing matter because there are real-life situations (think of daily interactions between tour guides and foreign tourists) when such translation is required but is either sloppily imprecise when it is stammered out – or just remains firmly stuck in the mouth.
In a different context, other historically unproblematic words are being coarsened and with as many etiquette sessions as Gaborone hosts nowadays, there is none that focuses on indigenous-culture etiquette. It is extremely rude for a younger person to say “Akere?” (Isn’t it?) to an elder but hardly a week goes by without senior government officials (or cabinet ministers) asking elderly people that question at kgotla meetings that are later broadcast on Btv news. As regards the youth, they innocently think that “Akere?” asked of someone older is as normal as asking time. One ventures to suggest that a sliver of youth unemployment may have to do with lack of proficiency on indigenous-culture etiquette (which schools don’t teach) because an elderly prospective employer will definitely be immediately seized with revulsion on hearing a 24-year old job-seeker say “Akere?” to him.
In an interview with Weekend Post, Masisi himself expressed some understanding of the bolope concept. It would be unfair to judge such understanding on the basis of a second-hand account that may not fully reflect what he actually said during the interview. What then Vice President Masisi is quoted as saying only reflects one-third of what bolope is about: “Masisi said his bolope resonates with Setswana culture and being fit for purpose ÔÇô that is being loyal. He stressed that loyalty is a very important attribute because it shows that you are sincere.” The two-thirds that leaves out is that a lelope was loyal to the bogosi institution and the tribe. In this regard, it is important to note that while there will be egregious deviations from the norm, bogosi revolves not around the interests of the individual kgosi but those of the tribe. Accident-of-birth is the main qualification to become a Kgosi and built within this system of government is guarantee that a deeply flawed individual will become kgosi at some point. On that basis, it was necessary to have built-in safeguards to protect the bogosi institution and the society at large from the worst impulses of that individual. One such safeguard was the bolope system.
The Weekend Post further stated that “Masisi is still shocked at the level at which some criticise his speech at that kgotla meeting.” Actually, there should be nothing shocking about a falsehood being given more power than facts. This is the social media age in which falsehoods are deflated and the truth deflated. It is an age in which ignorance is “cool” because it is not mentally taxing and leaves one with plenty of time to trawl through social media for information that fortifies such attribute.
Supposing though that Masisi had used lelope in a self-denigrating way, there is a context in which that would have been perfectly legitimate within a kgotla setting. The latter assertion can be illustrated with serial time-travel anecdotes that start at the funeral of former and now deceased President Sir Ketumile Masire in Kanye, stop over at the presidential mansion in Extension 5 where he had lived for 20 years, before terminating at the Moshupa kgotla. Eulogising her father, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, said that he always wanted people in his presence to “feel special.” At the end of an interview with Sunday Standard ÔÇô the last he did with the paper, the former president announced that it was now his turn to “do my job as a servant” – lelata is the Setswana word he used. He then proceeded to pour tea for the writer from a gleaming tea set laid out on a coffee table. If Masire thought he was anybody’s servant, he would not have had protracted battles with the Bangwaketse royal house for decades. There is a lot of self-denigration in folksy Setswana (especially at the kgotla) that is never ever literal self-description. That was the context in which Masire used lelata and in which it would have been acceptable for Masisi to use lelope in the sense most believe he did. That is the context in which Batswana routinely use “mongwame” with people who have never been their masters.
Bolope came with a lot of privilege, material and otherwise. When what was then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate acculturated into a western identity, among the first Batswana students to go to schools like Tigerkloof and Fort Hare in South Africa were the children of malope. Masisi’s grandfather would have had to be within this privileged circle to have afforded to send his son (Masisi’s father) to Tigerkloof. Masisi himself went to elite private schools (Thornhill and Maruapula) before leaving for university education in the US.
Should Masisi have been rapped over the knuckles for what he said? Definitely, but not for the reason he was. This is what Masisi was actually saying: “I am Executive Counsellor, I am an Executive Counsellor’s son and an Executive Counsellor’s grandson.” In the White House, Counselor to the President is a title used by high-ranking political advisors to the US president. Trump’s former campaign manager turned down the powerful Press Secretary role, insisting on the even more powerful bolope role. Far from degrading himself, Masisi was bragging about his membership of an exclusive, centuries-old tribal club that both speeded up and eased his journey to State House. Conversely, the journey of less privileged citizens to that prestigious address can start with having to sing various voice parts within a single party song during freedom-square performances by the branch choir before they are even considered eligible for running for a boondocks council seat.
To sum up: “Ke ngwana wa lelope” doesn’t mean “I am a bootlicker’s son.”