While he would later execute a master stroke and wriggle free, the Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Kgotla Autlwetse, had at first struggled to tame a very simple question: are dikgosi (traditional leaders) equal before the law? The answer is just as simple (No) but well aware of how it would sound, Autlwetse used far too many words to avoid such directness.
The original 1966 constitution created a tribal caste system that recognised only eight (but not all) Tswana tribes. Dikgosi from those tribes became ex-officio members of the House of Chiefs – renamed Ntlo ya Dikgosi. A motion tabled by Oliphant Mfa, who was MP of what was then called Sebina-Gweta constituency, led to the repeal of sections of the constitution – Sections 77, 78 and 79 – that created such caste. As a direct result of such repeal, Ntlo ya Dikgosi was reconfigured and expanded. However, dikgosi from the eight tribes retained their privileges: they are still ex-officio members of the house, are provided with personal secretaries and an official car and earn the highest salaries in tribal administration.
The issue of this pecking order occurred within the context of a question that had been posed to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development about the use of the Kgosikgolo title. The MP who posed the question (Paulson Majaga, Nata/Gweta MP, who is Mfa’s successor) made up a follow-up about the pecking order on the basis of the answer that Autlwetse gave. At first the assistant minister sidestepped the question, noting in his response that Majaga was asking a completely different question that would have to be milled through the quite elaborate, multi-day parliamentary processes. However, two more MPs (Carter Hikuama of Ngami and Sam Brooks of Kgalagadi South) also followed up with the very same question.
“Are dikgosi from the eight tribes senior to those from other tribes?” Brooks asked.
Changing tack, Autlwetse invoked a favourable parliamentary standard. MPs are custodians of the law as it is written and applied. In that regard, while MPs in the current parliament may not have made the law that created a pecking order that places eight dikgosi above all others, they are responsible for such law. If they find laws problematic, they can propose amendments. While the three MPs (and many more) are unhappy with such pecking order, none (in the manner Mfa did during his time) has proposed an amendment of the law in question. Autlwetse made this point to neutralize the attack that he was being subjected to. This explanation closed the matter.
The house was reconfigured under President Festus Mogae but even he found that he couldn’t be as radical as he wanted to be in terms of levelling the playing field. The changes he brought were attended by the emergence of intense tribal rivalry that threatened national security. According to one of Mogae’s cabinet members, ultimately he (Mogae) deemed it wiser and more practical to let sleeping dogs lie. In private conversations, Mogae is said to have used a salacious metaphor about how extremely difficult it is to withhold earthly pleasures from someone accustomed to them as opposed to someone who hasn’t even tasted them.