Wednesday, January 19, 2022


Babirwa are disappointed that the Government has decided not to release the findings of the task force that was appointed by the Minister of Local Governments to look into their chieftainship dispute. They were hoping to find a magic wand that could help resolve this nocuous issue that is threatening to tear them apart.

The Government should take part of the blame. Either the Minister was not advised of the procedure for resolving a chieftainship dispute when he appointed the task force or, if he was, he simply did not care to manage the expectations of the tribe by explaining that its findings would be of no consequence to the chieftainship issue.

To begin with, the office of a chief of the Babirwa people is not vacant. Since the bogosi seat is not vacant what was the excitement all about that led to the appointment of a task force? The Bogosi Act provides that where there is a vacancy in the bogosi of a tribe, either by reason of death, deposition, abdication or retirement, the tribe assembled at a kgotla shall designate the rightful successor to the throne in accordance with its customary laws or its tribal norms and practices. The Act goes on to say that where there is a dispute as to eligibility of the person so designated to succeed, the President, on the advice of the Minister, may appoint a Judicial Commission headed by a judicial officer or someone who has held a judicial office to help the Minister determine the question that has arisen.

Therefore, the task force that was appointed by the Minister does not fit the definition of a judicial commission as envisaged by the Bogosi Act because (i) the office of the chief of Babirwa is not vacant, (ii) the task force was not appointed by the President and (iii) the task force was not led by a person who holds or has held a judicial office. It follows that its report cannot be used to determine the question of the chieftainship of the Babirwa tribe, now or in the future. Whether it’s made public or not is of no consequence to that issue.

The question of who the rightful chief of the Babirwa people is is an emotive one on both sides of divide. For those on the side of Kgosi Mmirwa Malema, the less it is spoken about the better. It revives the bitter memories of the manner in which Babirwa were ill-treated and their Kgosi humiliated in the hands of Kgosi Khama.

The Sekoba, on the other hand, are wondering why having settled at Bobonong much earlier than the other members of the tribe they now have to be ruled by a kgosi from Molalatau.

This tension has a historical source. It has more to do with the dispute between Kgosi Malema (Kgosi Mmirwa Malema’s grandfather) and Kgosi Khama (President Ian Khama’s grandfather), over the eviction of Babirwa from their ancestral land in the Tuli Block area.

Historically, Babirwa are a breakaway group of the Pedi Kingdom that lived in the Northern Transvaal until the 18th century. The kingdom collapsed under the leadership of King Sekhukhune during the Nfecane wars when people fled to seek refuge in the mountain cliff-tops to hide away from the marauding Shaka Zulu’s impis and aMaNdebele. As a tribe Babirwa originally come from Blouberg near Tzaneen in the Limpopo Province. Their Chief was Molaba, variously known in recorded accounts as Molava, Bolamba or Bolana.

When in 1895, the Limpopo Valley was parceled out as a part of the British Bechuanaland Protectorate and handed over to Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, the Babirwa who had lived there for centuries suddenly found themselves without a land to call their own.

Around 1916 after being told that the land now belonged to BSAC, some Babirwa, presumably the Sekoba of Madikwe, moved to Bobonong where they lived under the chieftainship of a Mongwato headman. Later on, the British were to show more interest in the Tuli Block because of the need for land to resettle the returning World War I veterans. By 1920, the British were already exerting tremendous pressure on Kgosi Khama to remove the Babirwa from that area. At that time Kgosi Malema had his capital at Mmamagwa near the confluence of Motloutse and Limpopo where the British had also established a Police Station headed by a young WWI veteran called Captain Whittleton.

The Babirwa were not attracted to the idea of moving to Khama’s land even though they had lost their land to white settlers. The emissaries (Mabusa and Ramoleele and later Captain Garbutt) sent by Khama to persuade them to join the Sekoba at Bobonong had not only told Khama of this position but had warned him of Kgosi Malema’s capacity to resist the planned eviction.

On 24 December 1920, a heavily armed regiment of about 500 men arrived at Kgosi Malema’s capital. There was pandemonium, commotion and mayhem, as the Babirwa capital was literally burned down, crops and ploughing fields destroyed, all the small stock killed, people beaten up and tortured and then forced on a 6 day march to Bobonong. The Sekoba group that had remained with Kgosi Malema, under the headmanship of Sebatana, the great grandfather of Adam Masilo, was part of this main Bobirwa community that was evicted from Mmamagwa. Kgosi Malema himself was in South Africa when Khama’s regiments invaded his territory.

At Bobonong, Babirwa were ruled by one of the most despotic of the Gammangwato headmen, one Modisaotsile, the son in law of Kgosi Khama. It’s interesting to note that one primary school in Bobonong is named after him.

Following an inconclusive trial presided over by Sir Charles Sloley in which Kgosi Malema complained to the Protectorate Administration for what in modern day legal parlance would be regarded as crimes against humanity ÔÇô territorial invasion, rape, torture, captivity, slavery, etc., Kgosi Malema was asked go back to Bobonong where he would rule as Modisaotsile’s deputy. In Kgosi Malema’s view, one that kept him in exile in South Africa for over 30 years, it was near sacrilege for a kgosi of a whole tribe to be ruled by a headman of another tribe.
In the meantime, Modisaotsile had a free reign over Babirwa because Kgosi Khama, who himself was as equally feared as he was revered, had snubbed Sir Charles’ recommendation for his (Modisaotsile’s) replacement. Babirwa were coerced into denouncing Kgosi Malema as their chief – even the mention of his name in public gatherings was regarded as treasonable offence. Modisaotsile appointed headmen from the Sekoba as his deputies, and so did those Bamangwato chiefs who came after him.

Kgosi Malema returned in 1954 to live with his people in Molalatau. He died a gravely distressed old man a decade later. He had predeceased his son Selamolela, Mmirwa Malema’s father. Bobonong had continued to be ruled by chiefs from Gammangwato, whereas the major surrounding villages of Molalatau, Mathathane, Gobojango, Semolale, Mabolwe and Tsetsejwe were ruled by Babirwa headmen who were more or less loyal to Kgosi Malema, some of whom had defiantly refused to denounce him as their chief.
At independence, Botswana became a unitary state. The national constitution recognises bogosi as an important part of the country’s democratic makeup, as can be seen from the controversial sections 77, 78 and 79 of the Constitution.
By 1972 when the tribe first allowed the opportunity to be ruled by one their own, it is understandable that more than half a century of brainwashing, coercion and cajoling, the recognition of Kgosi Malema as the Babirwa chief to some was as elusive as their understanding of how they got to be in Bobonong. It is for that same reason that Babirwa are today divided between Adam Masilo of the Sekoba and Mmirwa Malema, not to mention a few sympathisers of the Serumula.

Our sense is that, two important events ÔÇô though separated by more than 3 decades – should help put this issue to rest. First, the appointment of Mmirwa Malema from Molalatau over other pretenders to the throne in 1972 has frustrated efforts to undermine the Babirwa chieftainship. Kgosi Mmirwa Malema was appointed against the will of certain tribal authorities. Twice his name was rejected and in total three elections were held in which he received overwhelming endorsement form his own people.
After half a century state of limbo the Bobirwa chieftainship was returned to its rightful owners. Kgosi Mmirwa Malema had rightfully succeeded his grandfather as the chief of the Babirwa tribe. He has been holding that position, and in that he has done extremely well, for 40 years now.

The second event has more to do with the establishment of a formal legal structure for designation and recognition of a chief of a tribe. Realising that bogosi is not an institution that fits the mould of electoral practices because of its hereditary nature, the Government passed the Bogosi Act of 2008 with the objective of facilitating proper devolution of the reins of tribal authority from one kgosi to another.

Previously there was no such formal structure let alone a recognizable legal process for resolving chieftainship disputes. As it happened in 1972 when the higher authorities resisted the designation of Kgosi Mmirwa Malema as chief of the tribe, elections were held. This exercise could easily have ended in disaster. Any opportunistic pretender could have gathered his supporters at the kgotla and succeeded in being elected as a chief of the tribe. The risk is ably demonstrated by the case of one Batshidi Kgathi, who without even the remotest association with bogosi had contested the “bogosi elections” – lucky, he and the Sekoba favourite (Akoonyatse Randome) lost to the rightful heir.
The designation of Kgosi Malema’s successor as chief of the Babirwa tribe when he retires would hopefully be done in accordance with the customary laws and the established norms and practices of the tribe as contemplated in the Bogosi Act and not through an electoral process as it happened in 1972. Bogosi according to Bobirwa customary law, and the norms and practices of that tribe, as is also true with other Tswana tribal customary practices, is hereditary. So, who should succeed Kgosi Malema when he retires in 2015?

Abel Modimo Mmapetla


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