The word kgotla is a polysemous word. By polysemous, we mean that it has multiple related meanings in its use. It is used to mean a ward, that is a group of families living together in the same area in a specific part of a village. The cluster of households usually forms a circle or a semi-circle around a central kraal that is shared by the members. In a traditional Setswana village setup each village is constituted by multiple wards, each headed by kgosana or ralekgotla (a headman). Membership to a ward is usually by birth or marriage. In other cases it is by transfer from another kgotla of one’s birth. The tribal chief devolves power and authority to the headmen to establish a decentralised control of the village or tribe. “The lower-level kgotlas constitute the public domain of the respective residential sections and subsections of a village – entities also denoted as kgotla. All villages are divided into such wards.” (Gulbrandsen, 1995:420).
Every member of the village belongs to a ward since a ward forms a distinct social and political unit of the village. A ward is also known as lekgotla (pl: makgotla) or simply as kgotla. Schapera in his discussion of the kgotla observes that amongst the Bakgatla (ba ga Kgafela), Balete and Batlokwa, a ward is also known as kgoro (pl: dikgoro) while amongst the Bakwena (ba ga Sechele) and the Bangwaketse, for a long time a ward has been known as ntlha (pl: dintlha). Amongst the Bangwato, a ward is known as a motse (pl: metse) (Schapera, 1994:19), which is the same word that is used to mean a village. The terms ntlha and motse as identified above by Schapera have largely fallen out of usage and have been disputed by some Setswana native speakers. The word (le)kgotla can also be used to mean “either the men’s meeting-place or the body of men gathered at such a place for the specific purpose of dealing with public business (Schapera, 1994:19). Traditionally those admitted to lead makgotla and be kgosi’s advisor were “male persons but not women”.
The second meaning of kgotla is that one defined by Schapera (1970:8) as “a booth-like or crescentic windbreak of stout poles where the men of the hamlet meet to discuss their affairs”. This structure exists in at least three places. First it exists at the kgotla-kgolo (also known as the main kgotla or kwa kosing) which is found at the morafe capital, for instance for the Bangwato it is in Serowe, for Bangwaketse it is in Kanye and for the Bakwena (ba ga Sechele) it is in Molepolole. It is the administrative centre of a tribe where disputes are settled and where matters of tribe or village concern are discussed and debated. It functions as both a customary court where cases are heard, as well as a community space where village meetings and rituals (such as dikgafela) are conducted. “Besides serving as the appropriate place for national ceremonies and gatherings, the royal kgotla thus constituted the forum for the kgosi’s conduct of political meetings and for the administration of justice in his capacity as the supreme judge” (Gulbrandsen, 1995:419). The kgotla–kgolo of the morafe is therefore from whence the kgosikgolo (the paramount chief) presides over village matters and rules supreme over his territory (Mompati and Prinsen, 2000). Traditionally, the kgotla is a male space. It is constructed by men and its attendance is by men.
The physical space that we call kgotla, where people congregate, is not only the kgotla-kgolo where the kgosikgolo rules. Each ward also has its kgotla, where members of the ward gather and where disputes in the ward are heard. Such a kgotla is shaped like the main kgotla, but it is smaller. Therefore every ward has its own kgotla where ralekgotla “a headman” presides. It is usually smaller than the main kgotla and adjacent to a kraal. Third, just as there is a kgotla in a ward, usually every household or a group of very close families in a ward also have their own kgotla. This is where men sit around the fire during funerals and weddings. It is also an exclusively male space.
A kgotla is therefore central to the Tswana life. While people identify themselves with the main, central kgotla, they also have strong allegiances to their wards. These allegiances are based on the fact that relatives usually constitute wards.
As an embodiment of tribal leadership the kgotla gives the tribe a sense of direction and existence. It is an image of chieftaincy and leadership. It is a political, legal, communal and religious space. Cases are heard at the kgotla (customary court) and village meetings (lebatla) are held here as well as village rituals (such as dikgafela, the harvest celebrations). In the past the kgotla was an exclusively male domain, and in many ways it still is, though it has increasingly developed into a place where women are occasionally welcomed to attend and contribute. It must be stated, nevertheless, that there is still a strong link between men and kgotla to the extent that all Setswana kgotla names are male. In this way kgotla names (such as Kgotlaetsile (the kgotla has arrived), Kgotlayame (my kgotla) and Modiakgotla (one who delays the kgotla proceedings)) are fashioned by gendered spaces and power relations between men and women amongst Batswana.
Having presented this short discussion above one must conclude that: in any imaginable form, it would be wrong to consider the kgotla a democratic space. Those who preside over the kgotla proceedings are not elected to their positions of influence. They ascend there through an accident of birth and stay in such positions of influence until they are deposed by death. James Shirley is right: “Death lays his icy hand on kings: Sceptre and Crown Must tumble down, And in the dust be equal made With the poor crooked scythe and spade.” Second, how can the kgotla be a democratic space when it has systematically excluded half of the village population: women and girls? Finally, kgotla proceedings themselves are not democratic. In case of disputes and disagreements, there is never voting. The idiot and the genius have a chance to be heard since mafoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe, but lefoko la kgosi le agelwa mosako, so usually the kgosi’s preferred opinion always has the day.
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