In this column I comment on the change to the power of bogosi. Centrally I argue that the powers of the kgosi have been eroded by multiple factors over a long period of time and largely through the cooperation of the dikgosi themselves. These changes did not come after independence. I contend that much of the power of dikgosi rested on the ownership of land by merafe, whose power was vested in the kgosi. This explains in part why the kgosi was called monngammu. I also argue that the kgosi has participated in the dismantling of Tswana culture and he hasn’t always been its effective custodian as he is usually portrayed.
The loss of power by a kgosi is not a new phenomenon. Way before independence the powers of a kgosi had begun to be eroded considerably and much with his cooperation. These changes were evident in the 1800s. In colonial times, it is fairly accurate to say that the kgosi was “at the bottom of the colonial order” (Morton & Ramsay, 1987:3). Above the kgosi were the following in their increasing order of seniority: the Resident Magistrate, The Divisional Commissioners (Gaberones & Francistown), Resident Commissioner (Mafikeng), High Commissioner, Dominions Secretary (London) and British Parliament. Dikgosi were expected to serve the colonial government just like any other colonial official. Principally, their role was “controlling their people, collecting tax and implementing changes introduced from above”. Even then, they were paid something like a salary since they were allowed to keep 10% of the hut tax collected. They “were allowed to change and abolish customary laws and practices, maintain their own police force and administrative staff, raise money and conscript labour for public purposes and banish their opponents from the Reserve. In so doing, however, they remained subject to the approval of colonial Government.” And the kgosi did exercise these powers extensively, especially that many of them like Seepapitso III, Bathoen II, Sechele as well as Khama III converted to Christianity. Some of the customary practices that came under attack when Botswana was a protectorate were bogwera and bojale which missionaries saw as opposed to the spread of Christianity. These initiation schools were seen as pagan and satanic, spirit-worshipping schools. The missionaries succeeded in undermining Tswana culture and ensuring that they convinced the dikgosi to shut the institutions down. “Eventually the missionaries succeeded in ending bogwera almost everywhere in Botswana. Khama banned it first, followed by Bathoen, Sebele and later Mathiba in Ngamiland” (Ramsay, Morton & Mgadla, 1996:187). In this way dikgosi were not only bystanders in the destruction of Tswana culture. They were active participant. Bojale and bogwera were not the only elements of Tswana culture which felt the weight of missionary gospel. The missionaries preached against polygamy too. The effects were so devastating that Kgosi Sechele had to divorce three of his wives to demonstrate his commitment to his new-found Christian faith. Even bogadi was condemned by missionaries to the point that within many merafe there were parallel systems of Christian and traditional Tswana wedding practices. This brought much conflict and confusion especially in instances where the bride’s parents demanded bogadi and the groom’s parents refused to give bogadi on account of their Christian conversion. In most instances, it was the kgosi who facilitated this cultural transformation since he was a Christian convert.
The dikgosi were so powerful that they could banish individuals from the land or offer residence to anyone they welcomed in the land they controlled. They were bannga-mmu (the owners of the soil) in a real sense compared to the modern dikgosi who lack such powers and are called bannga-mmu only out of respect. Modern dikgosi don’t own the tribal land they “rule”. They can neither banish any person from any territory nor allocate land to any person, including to themselves. This is in huge contrast to the dikgosi of old who could banish someone from their territory as a consequence of political or religious differences or out of sheer jealousy. Two examples here are worth noting. The first is from the Bangwaketse territory, while the second is from the Kgatla territory. The tale of one LMS trained Mothowagae Motlogelwa is an interesting one. In 1893 he asserted his independence from the LMS and set a rival school to the LMS school in Kanye. His school was free. This offended the jealous missionaries, Kgosi Bathoen & his successor Kgosi Seepapitso, both of whom were members of the LMS. Mothowagae was banished from the Ngwaketse capital to Lekgolobotlo in 1910 together with his King Edward Bangwaketse Mission Church.
Now to the Bakgatla; After Kgosi Molefi became Kgosi he was given too much to excessive drinking. He loved to party and loved fast cars. He was seen generally as an irresponsible Kgosi. He was suspended from bogosi and banished from Kgatleng by Charles Rey, the Resident Commissioner. He fled and ended up in Segeng amongst the Bangwaketse. Queen Seingwaeng, mother of Kgosi Molefi fought for the restoration of her son. She joined the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) in 1938 and together with the ZCC, which was perceived as a threat to the Dutch Reformed Church, campaigned for the removal of Isang Pilane (motshwarelela bogosi) and the reinstatement of Kgosi Molefi who was in exile. In a strange twist of events, after the reinstatement of Molefi to bogosi, Seingwaeng and the Zionists who had fought for the return of Kgosi Molefi were now seen as political threat by Kgosi Molefi and the ruling elite. Kgosi Molefi expelled them from Kgatleng. He didn’t just do this; he first flogged his 64 year old mother in public and together with a group of Zionists bundled them into a lorry and sent them out of Motshodi towards Mafikeng. They were banished from Kgatleng territory by a kgosi.
To conclude, I have tried to demonstrate one major point: that the dikgosi historically have been part of a complex system that facilitated the destruction of traditional Tswana culture and that contrary to belief, they have not been its consistent defenders as it is sometimes claimed. I have also demonstrated that dikgosi have for a long time been part of government, salaried somewhat as they are today, but never at the top of the governing system. The erosion of dikgosi powers is not a new phenomenon that came post-independence. The dikgosi have been weak for a long time. Although the dikgosi of old had power over land, the modern dikgosi lack such powers, and for good reason.