The Jazz King (11): Sebele's "White Slaves"

“In the meantime the Boers had become the serfs of the kraal, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. They are still there, performing menial tasks for the natives.

You may enter Sebele’s kraal and discover a grand piano which he bought in Cape Town and has had transported, by some miraculous means, into this desert home. As a host Sebele is charming. He will play last year’s jazz melodies on a piano to amuse you, and, if it is a special occasion, his chief wife will wear an evening frock which was also bought in Cape Town some years ago and the white serfs of Molepolole will serve you with the kaffir beer that is brewed for such distinguished visitors.”- W.J. Makin Across the Kalahari Desert (London, 1929).

We left off with Kgosi Sebele II having imposed price controls on the predominantly white Afrikaner (Boer/Maburu) and mixed race blacksmiths in Molepolole. In addition, he further required them to buy wood for their furnaces from Bakwena. As a conservation measure he also banned Kweneng residents of all races from commercially cutting green wood, while raising the fees for the commercial gathering of deadwood.

Among the Bakwena, the above initiatives were well received. As M.O.M. Seboni would recall in his 1956 profile of the Kgosi:

“Whites and Boers [“Makgoa le Maburu”] who were engaged in wagon smithing were refused permission to cut trees without the Kgosi’s consent, they were also refused permission to use or sell such logs outside Kweneng. He fixed the prices the smiths could charge for fixing things. Good leaders make it a point to protect their people from being cheated by traders; here Sebele II was displaying good insight by protecting the ignorant buyer from the cheating trader.

“Sebele II later prohibited smiths from cutting young trees altogether. He fixed new prices that they could charge for their goods and services. Even though he was feared like lighting there was more happiness in his village than many others or the ones we know presently. He believed in the freedom of people and the advancement of the nation.”

Like his father, Sebele II also attempted to introduce price controls on local shops, which led to the matter being taken up by members of the European Advisory Council. Some of the resulting rumblings were picked up by an imaginative reporter while travelling through the country with the Union [anti-] Locust Expedition, which resulted in the first of a series of exaggerated South African newspaper stories bearing such headlines as “White Serfs of a Negro Chief”.

By 1924 the “serious” journal Zuid-Afrika felt the need to devote two issues to the supposed problem of “Blanke Hollandsche slaven bij een Bechuanenhoofdman.” (White Dutch slaves in Bechuanaland). In popular literature, cross border fascination over the status of Molepolole’s Maburu became further associated with the tragic tales of heroic Thirstland trekkers:

“Dropped muskets lay scattered about the veld. Men, women and children staggered vainly from sand dune to sand dune in hope of finding water, became delirious and wandered madly on until death came as a mercy. The bodies of the victims of that foolhardy trek lay sprawling across the face of the desert. The jackals and the vultures left only gnawed bones to bleach in the blazing sun. ‘Yes, a bad business’ said the mourning survivors. And in the months that followed the derelict wagons were consumed by the raging flames of seasonal veld fires....The descendants of the ill-fated party of trekkers are still living in those native villages. For instance, at Molepolole, the royal town of the Bakwena, there is a compact colony of about fifty. The huts nestle cosily in the hills, and over the surrounding country the Chief of the Crocodiles holds sway.” - Julian Mockford, “The Trek-Lust of the Boers” (1931):

In July of 1928 the London based Daily Mail and Overseas Daily Mail newspapers introduced the legend of Sebele II’s white serfs to their wider British and Empire readership under the headline: “Black Chief’s White Slaves - No Desire to Leave the Desert”. The Daily Mail reporter went on to observe: “I wonder if there is in the world any more extraordinary story than that of the white slaves of Molepolole? Molepolole is a native kraal ruled over by a black chief buried some miles in the desert.”

In direct response to the above paragraph the then popular satirical British magazine Punch composed the following lyrics: “Though our buried chief is black, We decline to wander back, to the company of whites, and their civilised delights, Having utterly lost touch, With the British and the Dutch, But continuing to be wholly, Satisfied with Molepolole!”

Such fake news hysteria was still generating headlines when an actual attempt to force a resident Boer to respect the local ban against travelling by ox-wagon on a Sunday resulted in renewed conflict between Sebele and his British colonial overseers, the correspondence of which gives some insight into the temperaments that would ultimately result in the Kgosi’s political detention.

Editor's Comment
Escalating fuel prices cause panic

Nowadays it is not uncommon to purchase an item for a certain commodity and return to the shops in a week, to find the same item has gone up by a significant amount of money.Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority (BERA) last week announced yet another fuel price increase, which follows yet another increase that came into effect on March 29. Hardly two months later on May 12 boom, BERA announced yet another increase, which came into effect at a...

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