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The Orphans And Ants Part 21: Sebego, The Rod Of Moleta

Last week’s episode focused on Kgosi Sebego’s decisive 1833 victory over the Amandebele at Dutlwe. Sebego, who served as the regent of the Bangwaketse from 1825 until his death in 1844, was certainly one of Southern Africa’s most formidable early 19th century military leaders.

Yet when people speak of notable ‘Difaqane’ era figures, his name is more often ignored in favour of such peers as Mzilikazi and Sebetwane, despite the fact that Sebego decisively defeated both of the latter figures in battle. It was his celebrated martial prowess that earned him the enduring praise name ‘Thupa a Moleta’, referring to his grandfather Moleta who is credited with having first established the Bangwaketse as a regional power.

Sebego’s relative anonymity among this region’s past who’s who is certainly not due to any dearth of historical evidence about his deeds on, or for that matter off, the battlefield. This is especially true his storming of Sebetwane’s fortified settlement at Dithubaruba on the August 28, 1826, which is the best documented of any Difaqane era battle.

Sebego assumed leadership of the Bangwaketse following the death of his father Kgosi Makaba II, another celebrated practitioner of the art of war, who in 1825 (if not late 1824) perished in battle fighting Sebetwane’s followers at Losabanyana.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Sebego, who was the son of Matshadi, one of Makaba’s junior wives, assumed the regency on behalf of his nephew, Gaseitsiwe-a-Tshosa. This was in the context of the continued exile among the Barolong booRatshidi of the late Tshosa’s maternal brother Segotshane [who along with his followers was thus present during the Amandebele attack on Khunwana]. Embedded in this dynastic circumstance were the seeds of future conflict and controversy.

Sebego’s initial actions as Motshwareledi-Kgosi were, however, well accepted. These included his vow to avenge Makaba’s death.

During the first months of his reign, the Bangwaketse remained on the defensive. They were initially based at Kgwakgwe, but, in the early months of 1826 the settlement was largely destroyed during a Makololo attack, causing the morafe to resettle at Selokolela. In the immediate aftermath of this setback, Sebego began to organise a massive counter-strike on the Sebetwane’s stronghold at Dithubaruba.

His plan was audacious. By the nature of its topography, Dithubaruba hill is a natural fortress that is only easily approachable from its western side, which the Makololo would have kept well guarded. Sebego’s plan was to march an army of over 4,000 men undetected to the hill in order to scale its southern, eastern and northern approaches under the cover of darkness. By this feat, they would be well positioned for a surprise attack at dawn. Sebego’s goal was nothing less than to end the Makololo

presence. In his preparations, the Mongwaketse must have calculated that the Makololo would not anticipate such a bold move from a recently twice defeated foe.

Sengwaketse accounts of Kgosi Sebego’s campaign against the Makololo are augmented by entries in the diary of Andrew Geddes Bain, an ivory trader who, with his partner John Biddulph and five others (three Griqua and two Batlhaping all armed), accompanied the Bangwaketse on their campaign.

Bain’s journal provides us with what is arguably the most detailed picture of any indigenous Iron Age military formation in Southern Africa.

Bain and Biddulph had come into Gangwaketse with the purpose of acquiring ivory and other game products. But, upon their arrival they immediately became a part of Sebego’s military planning. Like his father, Sebego had been eager to establish trading links with the Makgoa. In the case of Bain and Biddulph’s timely appearance, he was further determined that they and their guns should join him on his imminent expedition against Sebetwane.Having passed through the site of the previous clash between the Bangwaketse and Makololo, which Bain described as a valley strewn with the skulls of the fallen, the visitors were reluctant to get involved. At Selokolela, they were greeted by a welcoming party led “by the King’s two brothers” who brought with them a large bag of madila “as much as two men could carry, part of which they poured out in their hands and tasted to show that there was no poison”.

A cow for slaughter was also sent, while sentinels were posted to guard the visitors’ wagons. The guests were further informed that the Kgosikgolo would join them at moonrise. Bain and Biddulph reciprocated by giving their hosts presents of tobacco and other goods.

The identities of Sebego’s two supposed “brothers” were Kowe and Malmanyana, who while not actual blood brothers of the Kgosi at the time served as his most trusted lieutenants. Kowe was also a paternal uncle of Sebego’s brother-in-law, the Bakgatla bagaMmanaana Kgosi Kontle.

As promised, the Kgosikgolo arrived at the visitors’ camp with the light of the moon on his shoulders. After honouring his guests by pulling their noses and allowing them to do the same to him (an old customary form of special greeting), Sebego apologised for what he claimed to be the poor condition of his people’s homes, asserting that the Makololo had but recently destroyed “the comfortable dwellings they had been accustomed to”.

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