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Diamonds In The Rough

In our last instalment it was noted that during the 1920s the colonial authorities suspected that Sebele II, working with other leading Bakwena, was at the centre of an extensive underground economy.

Much of the officials’ attention had centred on the Kgosi’s perceived partnership with Max “Raphalane” Hirschfeldt in the procurement and processing for overseas export of Kgalagadi game-products. Attention was also drawn to allegations that the Bakwena tribal administration was turning a blind eye to cattle smuggling rings operating in their territory, which was indeed the case at the time throughout much of the Protectorate.

The authorities were also disturbed about another undeclared export that was allegedly being traded through the Bakwena Tribal Office – diamonds. One intelligence report alleged that Sebele himself had a jar full of rough stones in his office, which he discretely offered for purchase to visitors. If this was true, the Mokwena’s sales remained discreet. No evidence is known to have been uncovered of him having ever illicitly traded in diamonds smuggled by Bakwena miners, as initially feared.

A more likely source for any rough diamonds that found their way to Molepolole was the Kgalagadi interior. In this respect, what is certain is the existence of local knowledge about the presence of diamonds through there occasional surface discovery in the period before the 1960s discoveries of Kimberlite concentrations in the Boteti region.

In his 1929 book “Across the Kalahari Desert” W.J. Makin, the Daily Mail journalist who had accompanied the Clifford expedition and was otherwise responsible for introducing English tabloid readers to the “White Slaves of Molepolole”, described an interview with one local prospector:

“Diamonds were the obsession of this old prospector. He clasped his glass of Cape brandy in his sunburnt and calloused hand, and told me of a mythical diamond field in the Kalahari that would make Kimberly seem an absurd little pothole...”                                                                                                                                 One may ask why didn’t such random reports arouse the interest of mining companies before the 1960s? The simple answer is that they did, which is why the British South Africa Company and its successors for many decades jealously guarded their otherwise unexploited mineral rights within the Bechuanaland Protectorate. As Makin further observed in his book:

“There may be diamonds in the Kalahari. There is almost certain a diamond field somewhere in the midst of that sand and scrub. But if all the stones that are now found in Africa were suddenly placed on the market they would be as cheap as artificial pearls. And after all there is no reason why charwomen should not appear in diamonds. The supply is more than

equal the demand.”

While the extent of Kweneng’s underground economy under Sebele II remains unclear, despite the occasional investigative efforts of the Protectorate Police, it certainly formed a backdrop to the continued tensions between the Mokwena and the British, as reflected in his hostile relationship with Molepolole’s Resident Magistrate A.G. Stigand.

In 1925 Sebele’s uncles Kebohula and Moitseelasilo complained that the Kgosi had beaten people outside the kgotla. They also took exception to his reluctance in seduction cases to award fines to parents of impregnated daughters.

Stigand responded by holding a public inquiry in the hope that the two “elder headmen” would incite others into declaring themselves against the Kgosi. But instead, it was Kebohula and Moitseelasilo who faced the greatest criticism when the Bakwena were assembled. Undeterred, the following year Kebohula and Moitseelasilo used Sebele’s assault of one of his mistresses (he did in fact have a history of what we would today call Gender Based Violence) to draw up a petition against him, which was signed by two dozen others.

Stigand, without success tried to use the document to get Sebele charged in court. Instead the then Resident Commissioner, Jules “Rramaeba” Ellenberger held a public inquiry, having been convinced by Stigand’s reports that key Bakwena would now support the removal of Sebele. But, the inquiry failed to achieve its purpose, as the Bakwena overwhelmingly, albeit not uncritically, continued to give their support to Sebele. Members of the Borakalalo faction were thus once again exposed as an isolated minority.

Only sixteen people voted for Sebele’s censure amongst the many hundreds who had gathered. Disappointed, Ellenberger subsequently wrote that: “We missed our chance by not removing Sebele from the Reserve.”

Stigand’s own perspective of the colonial establishment’s failure in their attempts to impose their authority over Sebele, in the face of his continued popular support, bordered on anti-Semitic paranoia. Writing to the Government Secretary in Mahikeng he at one point ominously warned his superiors that: “We are faced with an alternative government”, which he repeatedly referred to in his correspondence as “The Hidden Hand”. Who was behind this “dangerous power that is controlling the Chief and a good proportion of the tribe”? Stigand reported that “I have reason to believe that the alien Kurland Jew Storekeeper, Max L. Hirschfeldt is as the bottom of it in collaboration with the Greek Jew Joseph Zakar, recently licensed as a labour agent for Hadley’s.”

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