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Back 4d Future: The Detention Of Sekgoma Letsholathebe

The first Motswana to legally challenge the authority of the colonial state in its courts was the Batawana ruler Sekgoma Letsholathebe. Between 1906 and 1912 he was detained without trial by the British at Gaborone.

Sekgoma’s lawyers argued that this violated his rights under English law to either be tried or released. Unfortunately for him and other Batswana who followed in his footsteps, the courts ultimately ruled that as a British Protected Person, rather than a subject, Sekgoma had no legal standing. The absolute authority of the High Commissioner, acting on behalf of the British Crown, was thus upheld.Sekgoma’s detention was rooted in disputes over bogosi.

He came to power in 1891 as a regent (motswareledi-kgosi) for his then three year old nephew. But once in power, he tried to cultivate a large group of supporters who would help him claim bogosi in his own right. Sekgoma’s ambition was consistently opposed by most members of the royal family who looked forward to the succession of Mathiba. In 1905 with Sekgoma temporarily out of the way in South Africa, a group of leading royals summoned the now 17  year old Mathiba from school in Cape Town to have him installed. They also sent letters to Khama, whom Sekgoma had already alienated, asking him to convince the government that Sekgoma was not the real chief. This plan worked out, and Mathiba was soon on the train heading back to Ngamiland. Sekgoma heard about the conspiracy. He also got on the train in order to get home quickly. Then British government got involved because it did not want fighting to break out between the supporters of the two men.

Before they could reach Ngamiland both Sekgoma and Mathiba were detained by the British.

The government then decided to send a delegation to investigate who should be the Batawana Kgosi.

In 1906 the Resident Commissioner, Ralph Williams, went to Ngamiland and after consulting the Batawana, declared for Mathiba chief. Mathiba, he said, was legitimate by birth and had the support of the majority. Despite   his claims of impartiality, it is clear that Williams, influenced at least in part by Khama, had made up his mind before his arrival Mathiba was installed as Kgosi in late 1906, but Sekgoma remained in detention at Gaborone gaol. The Resident Commissioner justified this with the assumption that if set free Sekgoma would cause a disturbance in Ngamiland. He still claimed to be Kgosi. In British law such detention without trial violates the habeas corpus principle, which holds that a person cannot be held indefinitely without being charged and convicted of a crime. Sekgoma was detained on the basis of crimes he might commit.Sekgoma refused to accept his circumstance and began to legally challenge his detention. The High

Commissioner then sought to retroactively justify the detention by issuing the “Expulsion Law”- Proclamation no. 15 of 1907, which gave the colonial state the right to either detain or remove individuals from all, or a part of the Bechuanaland Protectorate who constituted “a danger to peace, order and good government.” Extrajudicial authority for this law was based on the sweeping powers bestowed on the High Commissioner by the 1891 Order-in-Council. Despite the Proclamation Sekgoma, encouraged by his friend Charles Riley, a Coloured trader, decided to press his demand for habeas corpus. After failing to obtain habeas corpus in the Cape, in 1909 Sekgoma sent Riley and two other friends to London.

There they hired a British lawyer to take the case as far as the Privy Council, the highest judicial body of the British Empire. But, the Council ultimately denied Sekgoma legal standing arguing that as a Protected Person he was a foreign subject not entitled to British legal protection.Bramstone’s rationalisation of the 1891 Order-in-Council was implicitly upheld. While expressing some discomfort at denying people under British rule in the Protectorate the legal safeguards enjoyed by themselves, the British judges noted that their misgivings were “made less difficult if one remembers that the Protectorate is a country in which a few dominant civilised men have to control a great multitude of the semi-barbarous.” Thus legal protections like habeas corpus could be “ruinous when applied to semi-savage tribes.” And so the literate Sekgoma, who typed his own letters and was married and divorced according to British law, was denied basic human rights due to his “semi-barbarous” nature. Likewise, the “uncivilised” status of all other blacks within the Protectorate was confirmed. Before 1966 many others, including such figures as dikgosi Sebele II, Nswazwi VIII, Tshekedi, Gobuamang, Molefi and Seretse Khama would become victims of the 1907 Expulsion Law. Back in Ngamiland Sekgoma continued to enjoy a large following. In 1908 the “Special Commissioner” for Ngamiland, Jules Ellenberger, had pro-Sekgoma “ringleaders” arrested. When “a mob of 150 men” tried to release the men they were forcibly disarmed by the police and Mathiba’s men. For good measure Ellenberger fired off a maxim gun, which he later claimed had “a most excellent effect on the mind of any who might still have felt inclined to oppose Mathiba”. An ailing Sekgoma was finally allowed to settle at Chobe in 1912. 

There he was joined by about half of Ngamiland’s population.  He died there in 1914, and most of his followers thereafter drifted back to Ngamiland.

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