In our examination on the pre-19th century clan history of south-eastern Botswana, we have so far focused primarily on the Bakwena bagaKgabo and Bangwaketse royal lineages, including their subjugation of the Bakgwatheng.
Also numbering among the merafe of the region, who had been united under the kingship of Motshodi the Good, were the Bangwato.
The Ngwato dynasty’s roots date back to at least the 16th century with the birth of its progenitor, Ngwato, who was a junior son of a Kgosi of the Bakwena bagaMagopa in what is now South Africa. According to common legend, Kwena, followed by Ngwato and Ngwaketse, where the sons an ancient BagaMagopa ruler named Malope, or alternatively his son, Masilo.
This fraternal relationship is often cited to affirm the unity of the Bakwena, Bangwaketse, and Bangwato, along with the Batawana (later offshoots of the Bangwato), whose pre-colonial kingdoms collectively incorporated much of the territory of modern Botswana.
Other variations of the story also place Mohurutshe, the putative founder of the Bahurutshe in the same generation as Ngwato, Ngwaketse and Kwena.
More detailed genealogies of the BagaMagopa royal lineage, however, suggest that while Ngwato and Ngwaketse were in each case real figures, they belonged to different generations.
It was Ngwato himself that is said to have adopted the duiker (phuti) rather than the crocodile (kwena) as his totem. The story goes that he was being pursued by a war party when he took cover in some bushes. As his pursuers approached his hiding place a duiker sprang from the bush, leading them off Ngwato’s trail.
Some versions of the story have Ngwato fleeing from Kwena, but this seems unlikely given that the Bangwato only broke away from the Bakwena many generations later. For several generations the heirs of Ngwato, along with Ngwaketse, remained as sub-rulers under the authority of the senior BagaMagopa lineage.
The known royal descendents of Ngwato are his son Molwa who was the father of Thamasiga, who begat Serogolo who begat Madirana.
It appears likely that it was during Madirana’s time the Bangwato joined the Bakwena of Kgosi Kgabo in settling in what is now Botswana.
Madirana was succeeded by Kesitilwe who begat Makgasana who begat Moleta and Mokgadi.
Not much detail is otherwise known about Ngwato’s descendents until the appearance of Moleta’s son Mathiba, whose turbulent reign was marked by both the Bangwato breakaway from the Bakwena and the Batawana breakaway from the Bangwato. Accounts dating back to the 1800s all agree that Mathiba became the first independent Bangwato ruler, after being expelled from Kweneng by the Bakwena Kgosi Motswasele I, who had previously served as his mentor.
As a young boy Mathiba lived with his father, Moleta, at the hill known as Boshwelakgosi, not far from Gaborone. After Moleta’s death Mathiba’s uncle Mokgadi became the Bangwato regent.
Mathiba’s mother feared Mokgadi, suspecting that he might try to kill her son in order to become Kgosi in his own right. She therefore arranged for him to be brought up in Motswasele I’s household.
At this time, Motswasele was married to a daughter of Mokgadi. He is then said to have also requested to marry her sister as well, but Mokgadi refused. Motswasele then asked Mathiba why Mokgadi was refusing. Mathiba replied: “Why do you ask me, am I the Kgosi?”
Motswasele responded: “You are not the Kgosi now, but if I make you Kgosi what will your attitude be?” Hearing this, Mathiba knew Motswasele wanted him to assume the throne from his uncle. But, Mokgadi was apparently unwilling to surrender the throne.
At any rate it is said that Mathiba, accompanied by members of his mophato, ultimately went to Mokgadi’s house at night and strangled him.
After the discovery of Mokgadi’s corpse, people began to suspect Mathiba, whose movements had been noticed. Some went to Motswasele to report their suspicions. But, the Mokwena told them that Mathiba, whom he described as a mature young man, had been with him throughout the night in question.
Thereafter, Mathiba assumed his place as Bangwato Kgosi. But, he sat uneasily on his stool as one of Mokgadi’s sons, Mongwe, was determined to take revenge.
At first Mongwe and his followers pretended to accept Mathiba’s innocence. He further advised the new Kgosi to assert his authority by doing things without Motswasele’s permission, such as ordering his people to plough.
Motswasele, however, was initially indifferent to such modest provocations. So Mongwe waited until it was time for Bakwena girls to enter initiation school (bojale). He then incited the Bangwato, alleging that the Bakwena were stealing their cattle. In the uproar a number of Bangwato are alleged to have violated the initiation camp, even stripping two of Motswasele’s wives. In response Motswasele’s attacked and defeated the Bangwato at Kope hill (whose name is said to have been derived from one of the fallen Bangwato). As a result, Mathiba led his followers northwards to Shoshong.