The Orphan And The Ants – Part 1 The Sons Of Matsieng

“The State is a compact formed by the living to link those who are dead with those who are yet unborn” - Edmund Burke “Molato wa khutsana o lwewa ke ditshowane” (“The cause of the orphan is contested by the ants”.) - Setswana Proverb

There is an old Setswana phrase: “BaKwena ba ga se bolaya kgosi”, that is “the BaKwena of one who kills the king”. Over the decades these words have been said with pride, shame and resignation, as a praise and a curse, about those whose forefathers once committed such an audacious deed.  The saying is rooted in the c. 1821 regicide of Kgosi Motswasele II near Shokwane. It was an event that proved to be both terminal and seminal for the BaKwena bagaKgabo of Botswana in that it shattered their morafe or “tribal” community, which, in turn, led to its reconstruction as a new kingdom under Motswasele’s son Sechele.

As the head of the morafe, Kgosi Motswasele II had been its supreme ruler, judge and military commander. He was the personification of its laws and customs, who also served as the ultimate trustee of communal land and wealth. 

Motswasele’s authority, moreover, transcended temporal matters for he, assisted by his dingaka, was also positioned by genealogy to act as an intermediary between the world of the living and that of the badimo, the ancestors or spirits of the dead who were understood to act as the mortals’ unseen guardians.

It was the badimo who were credited with investing a Kgosi with his divine right authority. At his installation Motswasele was probably warned of his responsibilities in this respect, perhaps with the admonition that the people being placed under his care were not his, but rather his father’s (“Ga se batho ba gago, ke ba ga rrago”). 

Motswasele was the son of Legwale of Seitlhamo of Motswasele of Legojane of Motshudi of Kgabo who had broken away from his senior brother Magopa of Tebele.

The latter was, himself, the descendent of an early BaKwena Kgosi named Malope from whom the royal lineages of the BaNgwaketse, BaNgwato and BaTawana as well as various branches of the BaKwena in South African and Lesotho as well as Botswana all claim common descent.  The original Malope was in turn separated by a now unknown number of generations from Motone, who in the existing genealogical record is the earliest remembered Kgosi of the people who dance to the kwena or crocodile totem.

While more modern accounts have affirmed that MoHurutshe, as well as Kwena, Ngwato and Ngwaketse were the literal sons of the early Malope; comparative analysis of the surviving genealogies for each of these merafe, along with other material evidence, calls into question the belief that the principal royal lines of the BaHurutshe and BaKwena, including BaNgwato and BaNgwaketse, all literally converged in single generation of siblings.

Ngwato may have predated Ngwaketse by at least two generations, while the division between the progenitors of BaHurutshe and BaKwena royal lineages almost certainly go back much further.  There is a tendency in any oral culture for traditions to compress events and personalities over time. 

What the folk memory does preserve is an enduring appreciation of common roots. In this respect, what is not in dispute is that the ruling families of each of the above merafe, as well as those of the BaKgatla and BaRolong, including such offshoots as the BaKaa, all claim descent from an ancient ruler named Masilo.

Beyond common kinship, the putative descendents of Masilo, along with neigbouring BaKgalagari groups such as the BaKgwatheng (BaKgwatlheng), share an even deeper genesis myth about an ancestor named Matsieng, who is said to have come into this world through Lowe’s cave, which is adjacent to Rasesa.

Throughout Southern Africa, Sotho-Tswana traditions generally agree that the first ancestors emerged from the ground through sacred caves. While a number of reputed “caves of life” exist throughout the region, those merafe tracing their descent from Matsieng are consistent in their focus on Lowe’s as their place of origin.

The cave is named after a one-sided modimo who appeared in the form of a single legged giant. Legend has it that Matsieng once lived without care in the underground realm of Tintibane, before being tempted by Lowe to follow the light to the surface world between the earth and the sky. Banished from returning to his former underworld comfort, Matsieng initially suffered from hunger.

Tintibane then took pity on him, giving him wild animals to hunt and goats to domesticate, including the giraffe who ultimately guided Matsieng to the place of women.  In Motswasele’s time Tintibane was venerated as a demigod protector by the various descendents of Matsieng, who were united by a common origin oath:

“Ke a ikana ka Tintibane, a ngwana wa Mafatshe, ka thibe ka lefatshe ka lelemela sefonyana se se kwa go Moseki.” (“I swear by Tintibane, the child of the Earth, sealed by the earth, I crept stealthily in a small flight at Moseki.”)  The oath refers to the fact that, besides being the lord of the lower world, to whom the dead were returned (thus the rite of burial) Tintibane was known as “Ngwana wa Modimo le Mafatshe” (“the child of the Supreme God and of Earth”).

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