The Orphan And The Ants Part 13 The Prophecy

We last left off with the Bakwena Kgosi Motswasele II being warned by Mojela of the growing conspiracy against him. The Kgosi is said to have replied: “if they kill me they will not live together afterwards, but will fight among themselves”.

And so it was that Motswasele-a-Lgwale summoned his last letsholo (meeting in the veld attached to a communal hunt) to directly confront the conspirators, insisting that if it was his destiny he was prepared to die.

As the regiments gathered outside of Shokwane on the morning of the hunt, Motswasele was somehow separated from the loyal support of his own Mafiri mophato (regiment). He thus found himself among the thorns of this brother, Segokotlo Malalamitlwa and the Magwa of Moruakgomo. Thus was he surrounded and summarily executed.

Most traditions agree that the Bakwena as a whole had sanctioned Moruakgomo’s execution of Motswasele. In his account, Kgabo Tebele notes: “This was Motswasele’s own doing. He had taken away Bakwena wives, cattle and lands for himself. These were his sins, which is why the Bakwena did not prevent his murder.”

The Bakwena are by no means the only Setswana community to have once killed their kgosi. But among the regicides, that of Kgosi Motswasele II stands out. In its wake his morafe was shattered, only to be re-formed as the core of a greater polity under the leadership of his heir.

Popular traditions agree that in his last words Motswasele predicted that his fall would have significant consequences not just for the Bakwena, but also for others throughout the region. He had warned - “If I am killed the ants of my father shall come to avenge me.”

Before the axe severed his neck he is said to have further elaborated that the descendents of his great ancestor, Malope would be overwhelmed by the coming of a “time of black ants” (ditshoswane tse dintshonyana) who would bring in their wake tumult and terror. It is further recalled that he also spoke of the black ants being followed by “white ants” (ditshoswane tse ditshweunyana). In the decades that followed, Motswasele’s final testament has been generally interpreted as foretelling of the coming into Botswana first of Bakololo and Amandebele invaders, followed by the Boer trekkers and finally British imperialists.

The decades of dislocations brought about by the successive arrival of Motswasele’s ants altered the internal nature and external relationships of communities in the entire area we today known as Botswana.

Motswasele’s prophecy can be further understood with reference to the Setswana proverb – “The cause of the orphan is contested by the ants.” (“Molato wa khutsana o lwewa ke ditshowane”.) Generically the adage may be interpreted as affirmation of the need for society to secure the wellbeing of its most vulnerable, thus a call for collective dignity. But, in the context of the regicide, the proverb can be more literally interpreted as foreshadowing the subsequent struggles of Motswasele’s heir, Sechele.

The Sesotho term “Difaqane” and Isixhosa term “Mfecane” are more commonly used by historians as labels for the great upsurge in violence that occurred throughout much of Eastern and Central as well as Southern Africa during the early decades of the nineteenth century.

For Botswana, certainly no period in history was more destructive than the 1820s and 1830s, when the arrival of the Makololo and Amandebele left some communities completely ruined, while most others were weakened and scattered. To make matters worse, famine and internal conflicts also occurred, as local groups turned on one another to survive.

Historians do not agree about the origins of this tumult. It is indeed likely that several factors contributed to its outbreak. Until recently, it was commonly assumed that the violence began among the Northern Nguni of what is now Kwazulu-Natal. But more recent studies have also focused attention on events elsewhere in the region as well.

Prior to the period the Northern Nguni lived in small clans, which were sometimes loosely united into larger confederations. After 1810 these clans fought one another in an increasingly bloody series of wars culminating in the rise of the Kwazulu Kingdom under Nkosi Shaka.

It is uncertain what initiated these conflicts. The growth of the region’s human and cattle population may have led to greater competition for land, especially good grazing land. The outbreak of a period of prolonged drought, c.1800-10, may have also increased competition for food and cattle. This drought was made more severe by a growing dependency on maize, which had been introduced from the Americas; maize being less drought-resistant then indigenous cereals such as sorghum.

Another probable factor was competition over trade routes to the Portuguese ports in Mozambique. Among the products that the Portuguese sought were ivory and slaves. Ivory trading could have encouraged violence through the formation of large armed hunting parties, which competed over remaining elephant herds. As hunters began to acquire guns in exchange for their ivory, the region became more insecure.

While the spread of slave trading would inevitably have led increased violence, some further suggest that the Difaqane may have been largely driven by slavers.

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