We left off in 1897-98 when, in the aftermath of the rinderpest epidemic that had destroyed over 90% of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s livestock, along with much of the wildlife, human mortality rates of up to 20% were being reported in some communities as a result of famine and fever due to famine and unspecified fever.
In face of this continued adversity people throughout eastern Botswana desperately sought out any means to make a livelihood. Between March and September 1897 many men were temporarily employed constructing the railway line from Mahikeng to Bulawayo. The project’s completion permanently deprived many Batswana who had become transport riders along the route. A few thereafter made a living harvesting timber along the line of rail. For most, the only option was to seek work in the mines of South Africa. The Protectorate’s Annual Report for 1897-98 observed that: “All of the tribes, except perhaps Linchwe’s, are at present very short of food, and many have not the means of purchasing sufficient food for their families.
They are, however, making an effort to obtain money for the purpose of buying food by going out to work in Kimberley, Jagersfontein, Johannesburg, and other places.” Affirming that “so many men have gone that most villages present a quite deserted appearance”, the report added that the territory was “flooded by both white and coloured persons calling themselves Labour Agents.”
The licencing of such agents was introduced in 1899.
By 1905 the South African Native Affairs Commission calculated that out of 22,206 able bodied men in the Protectorate between fifteen and forty years of age some 15,000 sought labour of which only 2,000 found work within the territory. An indicator of the importance of labour migration among the Bakwena was the practice, by 1898 of regularly sending royal representatives to locations in South Africa to look into the welfare of, and later collect taxes and levies from, fellow tribesmen.
If food for work was the carrot designed to lure Batswana into wage labour dependence the imposition of Hut Tax was its stick. As one official observed at the time of its introduction: “it has a twofold advantage, it drives young men to work and it raises revenue.” While in Britain in 1895 Sebele, along with fellow dikgosi Bathoen and Khama, had accepted the inevitability of taxation during their negotiations with the Colonial Office.
But, at the time of its April 1899 imposition, Bathoen protested in vain that: “Owing to famine not many people were left in his country; that most had gone to work or look for food, that this was the fourth year in succession that their crops had failed; that he was almost alone in the village; that the young men had gone out to the mines and were now living there.”
As the ecology of the Protectorate began to slowly recover enforcement of Hut Tax payments remained an important factor in assuring a steady flow of migrant workers. The link between mining contracts and Hut Tax payments was made explicit in 1909 when officials became responsible for overseeing contracts.
Those dikgosi who were recognised chiefs of “tribal territories” were allowed to annually pocket up to 10% of the Hut Tax money collected within their reserves. By the 1920s many dikgosi were ordering any able-bodied men who failed to pay their tax to sign contracts with local labour recruiters.
In 1924 out of the £3725 in Hut Tax receipts paid in Molepolole, £1768 was directly remitted by labour recruiters as cash advances on 861 new contracts. At the time, the Anglican missionary William Clissold observed that “nearly all the men go to work for periods of 6 to 12 months from time to time as the need for Hut Tax arises.” Almost all of the Hut Tax revenue was applied to meet recurrent administrative costs. In Kweneng this meant paying for the local white magistrate and his externally recruited police. Ironically, for many years the major function of this establishment was the prosecution of tax defaulters. Of the 335 criminal cases brought before Molepolole’s Resident Magistrate between 1921 and 1925, 262 concerned failure to pay Hut Tax.
Other laws, such as those against poaching, cattle smuggling and vagrancy were also enforced whose effect, if not cause, was to further encourage migration. Indeed, the construction of the Police Camp was practically the only project initiated by the British. Otherwise, the few public works that existed prior to 1966 were the products of local initiative, at times assisted by non-government actors.
The Hut Tax thus not only contributed to the local economy’s loss of the surplus value of its labour but also deprived it of revenue that could have contributed to internal development.
In 1916 Bechuanaland’s Financial Secretary, in a minute on new taxation proposals commiserated: “I am not sure that we are not gradually putting the territory into an economically unsound position by seeing interest and I believe capital go out of the country and laying no foundations for new trade nor for the betterment of existing ones.”
By 1910 the total value of Protectorate exports in non-crisis years, mostly maize, livestock, hides and skins, was less than two-thirds the value of imports.