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The Orphan and the Ants Part 18 – The Amandebele

Given the tumult that was by then engulfing the Southern African region, Sechele’s pushing aside his uncle Molese to assume leadership of the “Bomosima” faction of the Bakwena would have appeared to a relatively minor event.

The Bakwena were still divided between Sechele’s followers, who he moved back to his father’s old settlement site Shokwane, and those of Bubi and Kgame.

After repeated losses to the Makololo and others probably none of three groups principal settlements exceeded more than a few hundred, in contrast to the tens of thousands who had lived under Motswasele II.

Sechele’s following was modestly expanded c.1835 by the arrival of a party of Bangwato led by Bobjwale, the widow of Sechele’s former protector Kgosi Kgari. After the early death of her childless son Khama II, Bobjwale had sought to act as regent for Macheng, her infant second son.  Macheng was actually the biological son of Khama II’s regent Sedimo, who had raised seed on behalf of his late brother Kgari in accordance with the old Setswana practice of seantlo or substitute spouse. His status as Kgosi Kgari’s second heir was in this respect generally accepted. But, with the passing away of Khama II the throne was usurped by his elder half-brother, Moitsheki’s former student, Sekgoma I.

Bobjwale then fled to the Bakwena with Macheng, joining her daughter, Sechele’s wife, Mokgokgong.

The marital status of Mokgokgong has been a source of controversy. Some have maintained that she should have been his Mohumagadi o Mogolo. In the immediate aftermath of his seizing the throne from Molese, Sechele had taken his slain uncle Segokotlo’s daughter Kebalepile as his senior wife. But, she died while giving birth to Sechele’s first born daughter, Ope.

Thereafter Selemang, daughter of Kgorwe, was placed in the deceased MmaOpe’s house, an act justified in terms of her taking her sister’s place in accordance with seantlo. Selemang subsequently gave birth to Sechele’s eventual heir, Sebele.

MmaSebele’s elevation as the new Mohumagadi o Mogolo is unusual given two undisputed facts. First, although related to Kebalepile, she was not in any way her sister. In addition she had already been engaged to Moikabi (RaNtsono).

According to one account, Sechele sent two agents, Selemogo (RaPhutegelo) and Nkane, to fetch Selemang from Moikabi’s after her initiation (bojale). Another plausible account, however, maintains that Sechele was actually absent hunting when Kebalepile died and found Selemang already installed in MmaOpe’s place through the intrigue of her family and his uncles. This is said to have occurred after Sechele’s move to Tshonwane, which would place it during or after 1842.

Whatever may have been the circumstances of her placement, it is, nonetheless clear that following Sebele’s birth, Selemang was popularly accepted as the rightful Queen-Mother. Her seniority was sanctioned by the leading

Bakwena notables who preferred to have a well-born Mokwena, rather than a Mongwato royal, as the mother of Sechele’s heir. In this respect, they may have feared the influence that the Bangwato royalty could come to exert in the context of Sechele’s extended residence and initiation among his maternal uncles.

Throughout the 1830’s Sechele’s followers lived in the shadow of Motswasele’s second wave of ants, the Amandebele of Mzilikazi. The Amandebele originated in Natal. Mzilikazi began as the leader of a small Northern Nguni group known as the Khumalo. For a period he submitted himself to the authority of Shaka of the Amazulu.

But Mzilikazi was too ambitious to accept this subordination. To build up his own power he captured cattle from the Basotho, which he then refused to surrender to his Amazulu overlord. In 1821 Shaka sent an army to punish Mzilikazi, who, along with most of his Khumalo followers, escaped across the Drakensburg mountains, initially into the highveld of modern Mpumalanga-Gauteng.

At the time Batswana living in the region referred to all Nguni as “Matebele.” This name is said to be derived from Motebele who was defeated by his younger brother Motebeyane in an ancient struggle over Bahurutshe chieftainship. Motebele had been supported by some Northern Nguni, who were therefore called “Matebele”. While staying in the South African highveld Mzilikazi’s people adopted the name, ultimately modifying it to “Amandebele.”

Mzilikazi began to build up his power by attacking local Basotho and Batswana. At first no merafe could withstand his age-regiments, amabutho, which were well-trained and disciplined. Usually the Amandebele fought to completely destroy their opponents. They then captured their women, children and cattle after battle. The women and girls became Amandebele wives and were charged with growing food. The boys herded Mzilikazi’s cattle before being trained as members of the amabutho.  As a result of this policy many Batswana became Amandebele. By 1835 over 80% of the Amandebele were said to have been of Batswana origin.

Among the groups that Mzilikazi’s amabutho fought with were the Bakwena bagaMagopa. The BagaMogopa were the mother morafe of Botswana’s Bakwena, Bangwaketse, and Bangwato. Although independent, during the early 19th century, members of these merafe sometimes still identified themselves as BagaMagopa.

The BagaMogopa were renowned fighters, though their Kgosi, More, had grown old and infirm. After a series of fierce battles, in 1827 the BagaMogopa were defeated by the Amandebele. More, along with his sons, was then executed. His fate may have convinced his Botswana relatives never to surrender to Mzilikazi.

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