A University of Botswana scholar, Professor Christian Makgala, has re-ignited an old debate about whether the Botswana government chose a culturally inappropriate symbol for its coat of arms. What is perhaps the most astounding detail is that last year, a former British colonial officer whose wife designed the coat of arms, came out to explicitly say that the shield on the coat of arms is from an alien and not Tswana culture.
This debate was started in 1975 by Dr. Neil Parsons who at the time was a lecturer at the University of Zambia and would move on to UB years later. Upon learning that Botswana wanted to have its own currency, Parsons appealed to its designers through The Botswana Daily News letters page, to “not to make the same mistake as on the country’s coat of arms, where a Zulu rather than a Tswana type of shield is used.” He made rough sketches of the two shields to back up his case, showing the authentic Tswana shield to have an hourglass-shaped while the Zulu one is oval-shaped.
As the debate progressed, Parsons pulled out a drawing from Robert Moffat’s 1842 book, “Missionary Labours and Scenes”, showing a tussle between two warriors, one using a Tswana-type shield and the other a Zulu/Ndebele shield. Among those supported Parsons’ assertions were the late Bangwaketse kgosi and Botswana National Front president, Bathoen Gaseitsiwe. Weighing in on the issue, Gaseitsiwe asserted that Parsons had actually mixed up the Tswana shield with that of the Sotho. However, he agreed that “the oval-shaped shield appearing on the Botswana national coat of arms was undoubtedly of Zulu origin, and [that] the Zulus still carried it during their traditional dances and festivities.” Makgala points out that there were those who challenged this account and most notable among them was Ron Pahl, a United States Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in Kanye at the time. Pahl differed with Parsons on the shape of the traditional Tswana shield and claimed to have consulted elderly tribesmen who confirmed that the shield on the coat of arms was the right one. “According to Pahl the wars between the Batswana and the Amandebele from 1826 to 1884 also evidently influenced the design of Botswana’s shield. He also noted that Amos Pulane [Pilane], a renowned oral historian of the Bakgatla, once said the Batswana increased their shields after fighting the Amandebele. The latter were said to have carried very large Zulu shields which many Batswana warriors copied afterwards,” Makgala writes. This side enlisted its own illustrators, with “many old Batswana traditional historians” drawing “pictures of shields basically the same shape as the one on the national emblem.”
This debate came to nought in terms of effecting a change of mind on the part of the government because when the new Botswana currency was unveiled on August 23, 1976, the coat of arms had been retained with absolutely no changes. Almost 40 years later, Makgala has reignited this debate in an article that has been published in the latest edition of the South African Historical Journal. The article is titled “Neil Parsons, National Coat of Arms, and Introduction of the Pula Currency in Botswana, 1975ÔÇô1976.” The coat of arms itself was designed by Bridget Winstanley, whose husband, George, was a colonial government official who had himself designed the national flag. For her feat, the former received the Member of the British Empire (MBE) medal from Queen Elizabeth. As part of his research, Makgala contacted George Winstanley, who was Botswana’s first Clerk to the Cabinet and now lives in the United Kingdom, to learn about his position on the matter. The latter’s response was: “I am sure that what is said [by Parsons] is perfectly true and that the type of shield shown is wrong.”
Somewhere in that sentence he could have mentioned that his wife is responsible for that mistake but he chose not to. Makgala suggests that the main reason why the authorities did not heed Parsons’ and Gaseitsiwe’s advice may be that it could have been cumbersome and expensive for what was then a very poor country. He also floats another suggestion – originally given currency by Janet Herman, an anthropologist, is that the government’s decision may have been a result of the bad blood between Gaseitsiwe and then Vice President and Minister for Finance and Development Planning, Quett Masire. “Masire writes in his memoirs that in the 1950s when he was trying to become a successful commercial farmer in his Ngwaketse tribal area, Gaseitsiwe was determined to sabotage his efforts. The Monetary Preparatory Commission appointed in 1974 with a view to introduce the new currency also fell under Masire’s Ministry of Finance and Development Planning. Masire and Gaseitsiwe were also in rival political parties. Therefore, the ruling party may have felt that it would be giving political mileage to Bathoen’s Botswana National Front if it adopted his idea as it had previously tried, unsuccessfully though, with another opposition leader Kgalemang Motsete’s composition of the national anthem,” Makgala writes. In the final analysis, the UB scholar concludes that by default, the government of Botswana may not have been wrong in adopting the ‘Zulu’ type of shield.
The reason he gives is that Batswana may have used the Zulu-type shield to hunt big game long before their initial contact with the Ndebele during the Difaqane wars in the first half of the 19th century. “Some tribes may have used hourglass-shaped shields in war situations as well as round ones even though the latter is very rare in traditions and European missionary and travellers’ written accounts. Moreover, some maverick Batswana warriors may have devised other shapes such as rectangular ones which European observers travelling in southern Africa never got to see owing to scarcity!”