The daily life of a shark is dominated by two imperatives: the need to kill and the need to remain in motion. A shark that stops swimming will both sink and suffocate; a shark that stops killing starves. Sharks never sleep.
Even so not all sharks are mindless coldblooded killers. Besides being warm blooded, the Great Whites off the shores of South Africa have evolved into nocturnal hunters by taking advantage of the illumination of urban skyscrapers.
Although hailed as the Great Lion, prowling far from any coast, among the members of the animal kingdom the shark reflects the dilemma Mzilakazi faced in the 1830s. Having accumulated power as a predator, the Tautona struggled to transform his growing following into a stable polity, challenged by the imperative of keeping his standing army ever on the move, feeding on the pillage of their next prey. While constant mobilisation, recruitment and battlefield experience created a truly fearsome force, it also incited resistance.
Mzilakazi’s first large scale move against Sebego ended without any serious engagement between the two. Having subordinated the merafe east of the Madikwe ÔÇô e.g. the Bafokeng, Bahurutshe, Balete, Baphiring, and Bapo, as well as various Bakgatla and eastern Bakwena communities – in 1831 Mzilakazi mobilized a massive force to terrorise what was left of the free Batswana on his western border, namely the Bangwato and scattered remnants of the Bakwena, as well as the Bangwaketse.
The Matebele swept through eastern Botswana destroying the Bakwena communities then living along the Limpopo, before next turning their attention towards the already battered Bangwato under Kgosi Sedimo. The main Matebele force was thus in Gammangwato when they received an order to return with haste as their king and kin were under threat.
Just when the fortunes of the descendents of Masilo aMalope seemed to be at their lowest, Kgosi Pilane aPheto of the Bakgatla bagaKgafela had instigated a rebellion against the Tautona. That Pilane had a relationship with the Bangwaketse as well as the Bakwena at the time is certain, but whether Sebego was thus privy to his scheming is unclear.
After a period of exile, Pilane had assumed leadership of a faction of the BagaKgafela at Letlhakeng, before returning to the hills that now bear his name to unite the rest of his merafe under his authority. Before long his bold if not reckless ambitions began to clash with the Tautona’s requirements. Pilane then became a link between dissident Batswana living north of the Vaal and the emerging coalition of Batswana refugees and Griqua south of the river
The key conspirator was, however, Makaba II’s old partner, Barends Barends. In June 1831 the Griqua Kaptien had secretly scouted Mzilakazi’s domains, while courting allies. With so many of Mzilakazi’s regiments occupied with beyond the Madikwe and Limpopo, he decided that it the time was ripe for a major offensive. Returning to his headquarters at Boetsap, he rallied a commando of over 400 armed Griqua who, accompanied by Barolong and Bahurutshe regiments, pushed north to link up with Pilane’s Bagatla and others.
Meeting little resistance as they advanced, the commando captured great herds of cattle, a feat that soon distracted them from their military mission. In the absence of Barends, who had gone off to link up with others, the main body of Griqua became increasingly careless, believing that the Matebele were afraid to challenge their guns. Indeed, Mzilakazi had no intention pitting his assegai against musket fire in daylight. Having initially been taken by surprise, he was instead content to lure his opponents into complacency, offering no resistance, while shadowing their every movement.
With each passing day the number of unobserved Matebele stealthily approaching the Griqua grew. Finally as the invading enemy began break up, with most of the Griqua determined to drive their captured cattle towards the Vaal, the Matebele prepared their attack. At this point some of the captured Matebele women tried to warn the Griqua not to underestimate the Tautona’s capacity to strike when they least expected. They anxiously advised them to picket their encampment lest they be ambushed during the course of the night, further warning that while many warriors were away a home guard of veterans, operating under the cover of darkness had taken the field after their arrival.
That same evening, as the Griqua slept off an excessive evening of premature victory feasting, their camp was quietly surrounded by the Matebele, who attacked before dawn. As the Matebele approached within two hundred metres of the sleeping Griqua, an alarm was finally sounded, but it was too late. Many were speared as they reached for their guns. In the darkness and confusion even those who managed to get off a shot are said to have killed their comrades as well as opponents.
Only three of the over 300 Griqua escaped; eventually reaching the mission station at Makwassie, where they were able to report the fate of the others to Barends. The rest lay dead at the foot of the hill where they had camped. A few years later when Boer trekkers came upon the site they were horrified to find the ground still littered with hundreds of bleached skeletons, calling the place “Moordkop” (“Murder Hill”), by which it is known to this day.
Having thus slaughtered the Griqua, the Matebele made short work of the Bakgatla bagaKgafela, who were intercepted nearby at Kgetleng. Pilane escaped to find refuge among Balanga of Kgosi Mapela in today’s Limpopo Province.
Thus, in the winter of 1833, Sebego found himself the natural leader among the handful dikgosi still holding out against the Tautona. The tragic example of others had at least given him time to prepare his strategy, which was based on drawing the Matebele deep into the inhospitable expanse of the central Kgalagadi.
Sebego’s own disposition was a mystery to the warriors who assembled at Mzilakazi’s kraal at eGabeni. Their assumption was that he was at Letlhakeng, which was the invaders initial target as they set out with instructions to punish the Bangwaketse with the same zeal as had been demonstrated against the Barolong, Bakgatla and Griqua.
And so Matebele, whose ranks included younger regiments who had pleaded for the opportunity to wash their spears, advanced from eGabeni in a north-west direction. As to who were their commanders and what were the names of their regiments no known memory survives. Such details were lost with an ignominious defeat so complete as to have subsequently become unmentionable at the Tautona’s court. Their coming is at least remembered by the Baloongwe and Kua (Basarwa) as well as Bangwaketse, who were in the path of their advance.
Finding Letlhakeng abandoned, the invaders encountered and gave chase to Bangwaketse units whom Sebego had ordered to act as bait, luring the enemy into his trap. The Bangwaketse along with their allies, thus played a cat and mouse game, appearing only to vanish, all the while drawing the Matebele after them ever deeper into the sandveld.
With each passing day the pursuing Matebele grew weaker. They were unfamiliar with the local melons and tubers used by the locals to refresh themselves, as well as watering points and other aspects of the environment. When water points were reached, they were invariably poisoned.
According to Sengwaketse accounts Sebego employed Basarwa, i.e. Kua, spies to misguide the Tautona’s men away from any sustenance. In this respect the Setswana and Shekgalagari traditions are consistent with long overlooked Kua folk memory.
Beyond any links to the Bangwaketse via the Baloongwe, the Kua would have undoubtedly had their own motives for frustrating the Matebele trespassers, who are remembered as the “Kibere” of “Musiyacheche”.
Kuela Kiema provides an account of a great hunter named Tchaanqabo (this author’s spelling) who launched a solo attack on the Matebele to divert them from his own nearby village. Captured, Tchaanqabo guided the invaders away from his settlement for several days before making an escape. Kiema also relates an additional tradition of Matebele warriors being lured to their death during a trance dance. [Kiema, Tears for My Land, 2010. Also Nakagawa and Osaki who give an account about a Kua hero named “Guru”].
Whatever may have been their motive, there can be no doubt that the Kua played a critical role in Sebego’s broader scorched earth strategy.
Eventually, the Matebele found their way to the outskirts of Dultwe pan, where Sebego had brought his mephato together. As a final lure herd boys were sent out with beasts to entice the exhausted and famished invaders, who obligingly gave chase towards a solid phalanx of white shields. Out of the enemy’s sight Sebego’s horns were already coming together.
The Bangwaketse attacked the Matebele on all sides. Few, if any escaped. A handful of Bakgalagari families, who today claim Matebele descent, may be a legacy. Otherwise, it is said, none ever returned to eGabeni.