ere mention of Tshekedi Khama raises the hackles of those who believe he was an unreconstructed tyrant. On the other hand, the late Bangwato royal was a hero par excellence to some people and yesterday at press time, they had gathered in Pilikwe to honour him.
On the Kgosi Tshekedi Khama Facebook page, Marx Garekwe, the Publicity and Communication Secretary of the commemorative event posted some time back: “Betsho, This is to brief all about a commemorative event coming up at our very beautiful village this September. The Pilikwe community, in collaboration with the grandchildren ofKgosi Tshekedi Khama of Bangwato has organised this event to commemorate and celebrate the life and legacy of Tshekedi. The event is scheduled for Saturday 12th September at the main kgotla. Activities of the day will commence in the morning. The occasion will be graced by the attendance of His Excellency the President, Cabinet ministers, Dikgosi from various merafe in the country and from outside, including the paramount chief of Baherero from Namibia. (Note that Baherero used to live in Pilikwe, hosted by Kgosi Tshekedi Khama from persecution of colonial authorities in Namibia), member of the diplomatic community, amongst others.” The Namibian tribal leader is Advocate Vekuii Rukoro who was expected to bring a 2000-strong delegation of Hereros from Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
When Bangwato kgosi, Sekgoma II died on November 17, 1925, his son, Seretse, was only four years old. On January 19, 1926, Sekgoma’s brother, Tshekedi, discontinued his studies at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, took up supreme tribal leadership as regent. Tshekedi was fond of his young ward and wanted the best for him and reportedly never beat Seretse, considering him to be his royal senior. “If he needed to punish Seretse, he sent him to the cattle-post,” wrote Michael Crowder in an unpublished typescript.
Years later, uncle and nephew would have an epic falling out when the latter reached the age of majority and against the wishes of a man who had raised him like his own son, married a white English woman called Ruth Williams. In an interview with the writer, Klaas Motshidisi, the now deceased Botswana National Front veteran, revealed a detail that is completely missing from the story of this historical feud. Motshidisi said that the main reason why Tshekedi was virulently opposed to Seretse’s choice of wife was because he (Tshekedi) had found the young man what he deemed to be a more suitable Mongwato bride from a prominent Mmadinare family with royal links. The dramatic highpoint of this rivalry was the termination of Tshekedi’s regency. In 1952, he relocated to farmland 30 kilometres south west of present-day Palapye and founded Pilikwe village.
An advert flighted in Peolwane, Air Botswana’s in-flight magazine, touts Tshekedi’s virtues by stating: “His regency is best remembered for innovative initiatives. Tshekedi used an existing resource of age regiments, called mephato, by first increasing their numbers then tasking them with a number of projects, including building primary and secondary schools, grain silos, and water reticulation systems. In other colonial matters, Tshekedi frequently confronted colonial British authorities about occasional maladministration of justice in Ngwato territory.” Tshekedi built the Serowe primary school that former president Festus Mogae as well as former and now deceased vice president, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe, went to.
To some, “occasional maladministration of justice in Ngwato territory” would be the same as Gaborone Dam calling Bokaa Dam dry: the Bangwato regent could also be atavistically mean to everyone ÔÇô Ngwato, San, Kalanga, European. Tshekedi had running battles with Kalanga chief, John Nswazwi, and to this day, some people are still bitter about the heavy-handed way in which a Bangwato age-regiment dealt with Nswazwi’s people. In an interview with Mokgosi, the now-defunct Setswana newspaper, Naledi Seretse, Tshekedi’s niece and sister to Seretse, recalled that as a student at Fort Hare in South Africa, some now prominent Kalanga leaders taunted her about the misdeeds of her uncle.
Conversely, Gasebalwe Seretse, author of Tshekedi Khama: The Master Whose Dogs Barked At absolves the Bangwato regent of all blame in an incident which a Bangwato regiment kraaled Nswazwi’s people like animals for refusing to pay tax.
“The truth of the matter is that Oteng Mphoeng, the leader of the regiment and a World War II veteran who was known for his harsh dealings with the Kalangas, had used his discretion to contain the potentially explosive situation,” Seretse writes.
Afterwards Nswazwi relocated to present Zimbabwe where he died. When his remains were exhumed and reburied in Botswana in 2002, one of speakers described Tshekedi as a “terrorist”. On the other hand, former president, Sir Ketumile Masire, has reached for a Shakespearean quote to explain the generally unflattering characterisation of Tshekedi: “The evil that men do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones.” In his book, Seretse, a former Mmegi journalist who is now Pilikwe’s Sub-Tribal Authority, asserts that “the good that he did far much outweighs the bad”. Another way to put it is that defining Tshekedi by his failings is fundamentally flawed because at the most basic level, such definition fails to acknowledge the three-dimensionality of his character. Masire’s own belief is that Tshekedi was an administrative genius who, in some respects, can be likened to Lee Kuan Yew, the highly meritocratic (and autocratic) Singaporean leader who transformed his nation from third world to first world status in a single generation ÔÇô a world record.
Whilst he may have lacked “book intelligence” (he was a mediocre student at Fort Hare), Tshekedi handled real-life situations with amazing brilliance. He combined force of character and knowledge of the white man’s law to negotiate his way out of sticky situations. Following the attempt on his life on Easter Monday, 1926 and his subsequent extreme retaliation, there was a trial where, by all accounts, Tshekedi acquitted himself brilliantly. Though it was his first time in a European court, the 21-year old regent comfortably fielded hostile questions from Dr Lang, a Johannesburg lawyer engaged by his would-be killers. After the trial, Tshekedi contacted Jutas, Cape Town booksellers to enquire about the cost of some law books, including two on evidence. Those books would have proved useful 10 years later when Tshekedi clashed with Charles Rey, Resident Commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate between 1929 and 1937, at the High Court in Lobatse over the implementation of the Proclamations that severely limited the power of tribal leaders. Tshekedi was no push-over and in his memoirs, Monarch of All I Survey, Rey acknowledges that: “Buchanan’s opening speech was rotten, but Tshekedi was good. Blakeway, who is a very bad cross-examiner and who did not know his brief, could not shake him.” Blakeway was the colonial administration’s Attorney General while Douglas Buchanan was Tshekedi’s lawyer.
There were days during Tshekedi’s rule when being poor limited one’s freedom of speech at the kgotla. At a meeting to discuss, Seretse’s controversial marriage to a white woman, Tshekedi decreed that the poor should not be given opportunity to speak. Seretse’s book suggests that the reason for this was that Tshekedi’s support was confined to the upper class. In one of his tours, Rey discovered that Tshekedi, who owned 1300 San servants according to one survey, had bad debts and “showed no indication that he intended paying them”. One white trader, it is reported, told Rey that Tshekedi had run up such a large account with him for petrol that to save himself, he had given up selling it. The trader feared being shut down by the regent if he refused him more credit.
Interestingly, one of Tshekedi’s biggest fans is Gobe Matenge who was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs when he retired from the civil service and is now better known as a businessman and opposition politician. In 2011, High Court judge, Dr. Key Dingake, published Matenge’s biography, Unearthing The Hidden Treasure: The Biography of Gobe Matenge. The book says that during the interview phase, Dingake asked Matenge whom he admired the most and the answer so surprised the interviewer that ‘truth be told, I nearly off my chair!’
Dingake writes in the book: “He laughed briefly, as he always does, as if to ask why the question was relevant, cleared his throat, shook his head and said: ‘Tshekedi Khama!’ Dingake says that given stories that he had heard about Tshekedi terrorising the Kalanga, he certainly did not imagine that the Bangwato regent would be a role model to a Kalanga chief. Matenge is himself of royal stock and his explanation for his rather unusual choice of hero is that Tshekedi was an excellent leader.
“I believe that leaders must not only lead but must be seen to lead. They must not be scared to take tough decisions. They must not be indecisive. They must not be cowards. They must not equivocate in terms of showing the direction they want to take the people in. They must be able to crack the whip when the need arises. Tshekedi was one such leader,” Matenge is quoted as saying in the book.
Matenge’s love for Tshekedi is so deep that he wanted his biography to be modelled on the latter’s. Tshekedi’s biography, written by Mary Benson who had been his secretary in exile, was published in 1968. Matenge instructed Dingake to make his biography brief and to the point – like Tshekedi’s.
Yesterday’s commemorative event kick-started a long-term plan to expand Tshekedi’s vision through initiatives (Garekwe gives the example of a trust fund which is being set up) that would benefit the Pilikwe community, Bangwato and Batswana as a whole.