Saturday, July 13, 2024

Why Majaga’s kgosikgolo question matters

It is possible that there is a future in which former president and Bangwato supreme traditional leader, Ian Khama, is on friendly terms with the sitting president and attends presidential meetings at the Serowe kgotla. Should he be introduced as Kgosi Khama or Kgosikgolo Khama? The answer to that question is important because whatever title is used would have to be in line with the National Order of Precedence (NOP), which recognises traditional leaders of Khama’s stature.

Kgosikgolo is in the news on account of a parliamentary question that was posed by Nata/Gweta MP, Paulson Majaga, to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. Majaga wanted to know “whether the title Kgosikgolo exists in the Constitution of Botswana or any other law in Botswana; and if not, to state: why Batswana are allowed to call their paramount chiefs with names that do not exist; if he realises that this causes confusion for the nation; and what action he has taken so far or will take to correct this anomaly.”

The response by the Assistant Minister Kgotla Autlwetse was that it is customary to call traditional leaders by unofficial titles like Marara, Morena, Mmabatho, Mongwammuokeogatang le Kgosikgolo. He added that such titles are not officially recognised and are merely used by subjects to show respect to their traditional leaders.

“Officially, there are only two titles: Kgosi and Kgosana,” he said.

Some understood this question to be an attack on Khama and while “attack” may be too much of a stretch, Khama has since his public spat with President Mokgweetsi Masisi, been referred to as Kgosikgolo on an industrial scale. The intent may not have been to tap into tribal sentiment and assert Khama’s royal pedigree in a power struggle that continue to date but that has been the effect. Following this development, Kgosikgolo is gaining traction as a title for the dikgosi of eight tribes that the original constitution recognised.

Online and offline, by commentators both frivolous and substantive, Majaga is being hauled over the coals for taking tribalistic potshots at Khama & Privileged Co. People who have never been gravely concerned about the time-wasting antics of MPs at a time that the nation faces a plethora of crises are now expressing grave concern that Majaga is engaging in time-wasting antics at a time that the nation faces a plethora of crises. While there is no denying that the issue has very strong tribal undercurrents, there can also be no denying that Majaga asked a very legitimate question. 

For starters, nobody should pretend that Kgosikgolo has always been part of regal Setswana terminology because to be perfectly clear, the term entered public lexicon after May 2018 when Khama’s fight with Masisi became public. None of Khama’s forbears, not Ngwato who founded the Bangwato, not Mathiba who made Bangwato completely independent of the Bakwena and certainly not Sekgoma II who was the last substantive Bangwato kgosi, was ever called Kgosikgolo. While he is only too happy to luxuriate in Kgosikgolo, as president Khama never cared too much for the title because if he did, he would have officialised its use. Within such context, calling Khama Kgosikgolo falls outside historical and cultural norm. That is incontrovertible fact and the confusion that Majaga spoke of is real and down the road will manifest itself. 

As Bangwato kgosi, Khama is recognised in the NOP and in the future everybody hopes for – when he gets along with the state president (President Advocate Duma Gideon Boko?), he will be part of the high table when important meetings are held at the Serowe kgotla. At meetings where the NOP is followed, only official titles are used. That means that Khama won’t be introduced as Kgosikgolo Khama but as Kgosi Khama. Those of Khama’s subjects unaware of this protocol will think that their traditional leader is being demoted and might leave the kgotla in a fit of rage. This is the confusion that Majaga was referring to.

Majaga wanted the Ministry to clear this confusion but in his response, Autlwetse added another layer of confusion. He accorded the same status to a religio-regal title that retains official use in Lesotho (Morena), a folksy regal term of endearment (Mmabatho and Mongwammuokeogatang), a religio-regal term of respect (Marara) and an informal regal title (Kgosikgolo). No one thinks of Khama when they hear Mong-wa-mmu-o-ke-o-gatang but that is certainly what most people do nowadays when they hear Kgosikgolo

In appreciating this issue, there are two layers of irony one has to peel. Firstly, Kgosikgolo is actually direct Setswana translation of a term that is already used officially – “Paramount Chief.” The British didn’t think that black supreme traditional leaders were worthy of the “king” title and some, like English explorer, William John Burchell, actually said so bluntly. Thus such leaders were called “chiefs” and “paramount” was used to differentiate the powerful ones from all the other chiefs. At independence in 1966, eight Batswana supreme traditional leaders were designated “paramount chiefs.” While a Paramount Chief continued to be called Kgosi in Setswana, the translation would have yielded Kgosikgolo. In that regard, each and every Paramount Chief is a Kgosikgolo and Khama was a Kgosikgolo from when he was installed in that position in 1979. 

Only that title has never been used officially but should be because there is a practical problem that it solves. Within tribal administration, there are eight positions whose holders are all called kgosi: headman of arbitration, headman of records, tribal authority, senior tribal authority, chief’s representative, senior chief’s representative, regent and paramount chief. That hypothetical kgotla meeting in Serowe in 2025 will be attended by people who hold those positions and the only way to differentiate Khama from the rest is to refer to him as Kgosikgolo. And indeed he is a Kgosikgolo because he is a Paramount Chief – which translates as Kgosikgolo.

Autlwetse’s cop-out answer reveals long-standing reluctance by the government to resolve an issue that most people care very deeply about. The Chieftainship Act referred to Paramount Chief but upon its repeal and renaming as Bogosi Act, adopted only two titles that Autlwetse mentioned: Kgosi and Kgosana. However, there was a sloppiness to this cop-out because while “paramount” was dropped, eight dikgosi retained all their exclusive privileges and remained paramount. All are ex-officio members of Ntlo ya Dikgosi (the lower house of parliament), have enough staff complement to manage the executive tribal office and earn more than all other dikgosi in the country. 

As used in the Bogosi Act, “Kgosi” was simply meant to create an illusion of regal equality that doesn’t exist. Kgosikgolo should be used in order that we can resume the painful process of democratically resolving some cultural rights issues which, two decades after the Balopi Commission, still remain unresolved. Pretending the Act doesn’t create a tribal caste system is mistaken and poses a national security threat that is slowly but surely accumulating destructive force and has an explosive limit.  

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