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The Great Petition

In our last episode we observed that the initial protests of Dikgosi Bathoen II and Tshekedi Khama, along with the emergence of rising BoSebele agitation within Kweneng convinced Rey that Kgari should be quickly enthroned as a full Chief.

Thus it was that on September 1, 1931 Kebohula placed a leopard skin on Kgari’s shoulders in ceremony designed to signify his assumption of bogosi.

Even the British, however, continued to have doubts about Kgari’s legal status as Chief given his appointment as Acting Chief coupled with the fact that Sebele had been banished but not legally charged much less deposed.

In an ill-conceived effort to bolster Kgari’s wavering authority further, Rey decided to raid the Bakwena Tribal Fund in order to build his Kgosi a new house between Ntsweng and Borakalalo, the two sometimes rival sub-villages of Molepolole. It was hoped that members of the fractured morafe would move toward the new royal residence, thus bringing the village together. Neale wrote, “until the whole scheme is complete we cannot consider that the Bakwena troubles have been satisfactorily dealt with.” But, for several years thereafter, the Chief’s only neighbours were his tax collector, Martinus Seboni, and the tribal police.

While Kgari worried about installing his veranda, the BoSebele were actively appealing “that the British tradition of fair play and justice be observed.” Their efforts culminated in the “Great Petition” of March 6, 1933, a document that contained 1,407 signatures representing most of Molepolole’s family heads. 

The size of the petition, along with another one containing 516 signatures, which had been submitted the previous year, was unprecedented. In contrast, the petitions that had been filed against Sebele in the past had never included more than 25 names. Both documents, which were legally drafted, denied the legitimacy of Sebele’s removal and Kgari’s “election,” calling for their Kgosi to be either returned or tried in a court of law. The petitioners had benefitted from the continuing support of Bathoen and Tshekedi, who also managed to get the question of Sebele’s detention brought before the British House of Commons. But, their efforts to raise the issue at the local Native Advisory Council were overruled.

Sebele’s cause was also loudly taken up at international as well as regional level by the Communist Party of South Africa. Locally, BoSebele scored a symbolic victory by holding up renegotiation of mining concessions until the exiled Sebele was formally consulted.

Having committed themselves at Kgari’s investiture, the British nevertheless felt obliged to uphold his authority (to the point of extra-judicially quashing a charge of attempted rape against him), despite their increasing misgivings about his character. As the local British magistrate reported: “As far as I can see his

principal hobbies are motor cars and cogitating as to how he can increase his income with the least trouble to himself; if he ever gave a thought to tribal interests it must have been a long time ago and he has solved how to rule a tribe, to his complete satisfaction, by doing nothing.”

Without local legitimacy there was in fact probably little that Kgari could accomplish. When not dependent on the coercive power of the colonial state, bogosi ultimately had to function according to a moral consensus forged within the makgotla.  During the early years of Kgari’s reign junior makgotla, for the most part, simply disregarded Kgosing’s role as the ultimate arbiter of their disputes.

Ignoring the Great Petition, Rey’s men pressured Kgari to take a firm stand against all opposed to his rule. Leading BoSebele were threatened and fined. Some teachers, including Kgari’s younger brother Kwanyangkwanyang lost their jobs.

As repression grew others, not directly part of the movement, also suffered. At Gabane, Kgari’s deposition of the local ruler, Sebele’s ally Masokwane, began a cycle of strife that was to last for decades.

In the Kweneng-Kgalagadi the Chief’s implementation of Rey’s Native Administration and Justice Proclamations resulted in the Bakgalagadi communities being placed under generally unpopular Bakwena overseers.

Political persecution reached a crescendo in 1937. In that year nine members of the Church of God, an independent Pentecostal movement, were given prison sentences of two months each with hard labour for their refusal to abandon their faith.

Others were fined and in some cases imprisoned for attending the first of many underground bogwera and bojale schools.

But the greatest single act of repression inflicted during the sad year was the forced removal of both the Ntsweng and Borakalalo sections of Molepolole to the area around Kgari’s house.

Six years of effort to make the people move through the “persistent application of pacific pressure” had failed. Besides being an embarrassment, the continued isolation of the Chief’s residence made it easy to ignore his authority.

In November1933 Rey also adopted as an additional goal residential race segregation. Sebele had clashed with the British and members of the European Advisory Council over his insistence that Sekwena law “applies to all, European and Non-European.” 

As readers may recall during the 1920s official South African, as well as British, concern about race relations in Molepolole had been further excited by the periodic appearance of newspaper articles bearing such headlines as “Black Chief’s White Slaves.”

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