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The Kaross King

During the 1920s the colonial authorities in Mahikeng suspected that Sebele II was at the centre of an underground economy. Much of their concern was focussed on his perceived partnership with Kweneng’s leading trader, Max Luis “Raphalane” Hirschfeldt.

Of Latvian Jewish origin, Max, along with his brother Adolph “Ranku” Hirschfeldt, had arrived in Molepolole around 1895, subsequently marrying into the local community.

By the 1920s Raphalane had established a lucrative business exporting of local game-products. Notwithstanding the 1899 declaration of the Ghanzi District as Crown Land, through the 1930s Bakwena tribute collectors continued to exercise defacto authority over much of the area.

Many of the skins collected by Bakwena through organised hunting parties as well as tax or tribute were processed by some 500 dedicated sewers in Molepolole, who in turn supplied Raphalane.

A 1929 colonial report noted that the sewers had that year produced 17,911 lbs. of karosses valued at the then considerable sum of 4,212 pounds sterling. Hirschfeldt in turn exported the karosses to merchants in North America and Europe.

As the resident Anglican missionary, the Rev. William Clissold, observed at the time: “Hunting forms another industry, and is chiefly carried out by the Makalahari on the edge of the desert, and their Bushman retainers. The ‘Wild’ Bushman of course live entirely by this means...The Makalahari leave their homes after the rains for the haunts of the desert buck, lions, leopards, wildcats, wolves and other animals that come south at this period. They spend 4 or 5 months in the interior, hunting with dogs and guns.”

Kaross sewing along with hunting continued to allow many to avoid the prospect of seeking employment in South Africa. As Clissold further observed:  “After the hunting season the Makalahari bring the skins to their Bakwena masters or to the stores if they are lucky enough to retain a surplus which is not claimed by the former. The sewing of these karosses is a great industry amongst Bakwena men, and they have done it for years, very skilfully indeed. Nowadays traders often employ several hundred men at a time, but many men carry on the trade ‘on their own’, selling karosses at the stations and sidings of the railway. A good wild cat kaross costs about £3-10-0 at the store here, but in England it would cost twice as much or more.”

The Mahikeng authorities proved hostile to the expansion of the commercial trade in game products under Sebele II, notwithstanding the fact that it was sustained through the enforcement of indigenous conservation measures. Their reaction can be understood in the context of the colonial regime’s goal of encouraging Kweneng residents, including Bakgalagari and Kua (Basarwa), as well as Batswana, to become migrant labourers in the

Gauteng mines.

In 1928 a Protectorate Police camel patrol was sent into the Central Kgalagadi for the first time on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for a larger Trans-Kalahari Expedition in the same year by the then Imperial Secretary Bede Clifford. The reconnaissance reported that they had found Padi Sechele (RraBonewamang) in the region collecting tribute for his elder brother, Sebele. Padi’s movements had been traced along a line of then largely seasonal settlements stretching from Metsibotloko to Ghanzi, including Kikao, Molapo, Kaotwe, Tshukudu, Kukomo, and Kgomodimo.

In a follow-up report, Molepolole’s Magistrate, A.G. “Sekoanyana” Stigand, concluded that: “The Chief Sebele and the Bakwena Headmen will have to be informed by Administration clearly and definitively that Kikau is a long way outside their Northern Boundary. All the Bakgalagadi and Bushmen living in that veldt and northward thereof acknowledge Sebele as their Chief.”

Subsequently, at Kgomodimo, a member of Clifford’s tour fixed a Lee-Medford rifle belonging to an “old Bushman” who was identified as the local “chief”. He refused to answer queries as to how he had obtained either the gun or ammunition. In the Trans-Kalahari expedition’s report, however, it was stated that: “Through the Central Kalahari there were numbers of natives living a Gomodimo, Kaotwe and no doubt other parts who have never heard of hut tax. They are natives employed by Chief Sebele of Molepolole for hunting on Crown Lands. Nearly all the skins collected by these people are taken by the Chief’s messengers and brought into him. They informed me that they sometimes received in payment a little dagga or a dog and on one occasion a native got a sovereign. To me it seems most unfair that these natives are made to work under these conditions instead of being able to sell their own skins and pay their hut tax.”

The assumption that all central Kgalagadi inhabitants weren’t paying Hut Tax, however, proved to be incorrect. Many were subsequently found in Bakwena registers. This arrangement was ultimately accepted for the remainder of the colonial era.

Besides uncovering further evidence of tribute collection, Clifford’s party also encountered livestock all along their route. Between Zuwe and Kgomodimo the spoor of a large herd was discovered and identified as evidence of a cattle smuggling ring run by a certain Jim Taggart, in collaboration with local Batswana.

Cattle were moved through the central Kgalagadi from Ngamiland to Kweneng and Gangwaketse before being smuggled across the border for the then restricted South African market.

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