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Bolata In The Kgalagadi

Few would consider it reasonable to discuss the roots of racism in the Americas without referring to the legacy of slavery. Likewise, it would be absurd to ignore Apartheid’s role in shaping modern South African society.

Yet, it is still common to talk about the status of Khoe or Basarwa communities in the Kgalagadi without any acknowledgement of their past subordination by other ethnic groups. 

By the 17th century a pattern was emerging throughout much of the Kgalagadi, in which Khoe, sometimes semi-assimilated as Balala, were forced to work for Bakgalagari masters. This unpleasant truth further undermines the archaic stereotype of them as “wild Bushmen” who should be protected as an isolated hunter-gatherer culture.

In Setswana, such servants were often referred to as either Malata or Batlhanka. In this respect “Lelata/Malata” is arguably more precise term for classifying those who were regarded as virtual property. While the sale of Malata to outsiders in the past apparently occurred on only modest scale, the concept of owning Basarwa/Balala servants was widespread. The following is an English translation of extract from a large collection of Shekgalagari oral texts, published in 1945, is typical:

“Only rich people own Balala and Basarwa. They provide their masters with moretlwa berries and with the skins of the silver fox and jackal. Their masters give them tobacco and dogs, so that they may go out and hunt, and live on the meat, bringing the skins to their masters. The wives of rich people own Basarwa and Balala women. They come along with moretlwa berries which they give to the wives of the rich men.” 

Basarwa were also commonly exploited as goatherds, domestic servants, porters and concubines. Dogs and goats, along with such things as iron traps, generally remained their master’s property.

Inevitably, subjugation promoted abusive stereotypes. Amongst Bakgalagari and later Batswana it became common to despise Basarwa as “animals” (“phologolo”), “just things” (“bilo hezi/dilo fela”), and “thieves” (“bosuru/magodu”). Social barriers were created to the marriage, as opposed to sexual exploitation, of Basarwa women. If a Mokgalagari man treated a Mosarwa woman like a second wife, his first wife might rebuke him saying: “Ha ke bate go ngwalelwa le etya yame.” (“I do not want to be taken in marriage together with my dog.”)

Notwithstanding the above, some independent Basarwa were respected and remunerated for their skills as traditional healers and rainmakers. Others not reduced to servitude were feared for the effectiveness of their poisoned arrows.

The following are translated extracts from an account of how some Khoe became the property of Bakgalagari,  which forms part of a 1936, collection of Shekgalagari texts that were dictated by Gaoonwe Seloilwe, the then the Kgosi of the Baboloongwe booMorimo at Letlakeng. The text refers to

an event during the reign of Gaoonwe’s ancestor Kgosi Seloilwe I:  

“Long ago the Basarwa were a nation [sechaba], they were not owned by Bakgalagari, nor did the latter govern them. The Bakgalagari wished to govern the Basarwa, but the Basarwa did not wish to be governed by the Bakgalagari.

“Whenever the Bakgalagari used to send the Basarwa about, the Basarwa did this through compulsion. And when the Basarwa ruler heard that the Bakgalagari were compelling the Basarwa, he became very angry, and he spoke to the Basarwa saying, ‘you must no longer do what the Bakgalagari say you should do.’

“And when the Bakgalagari came to the Basarwa village [modzeng; i.e. motseng], the Basarwa ruler said, ‘Bakgalagari, go and tell Seloilwe this: ‘I am not your servant [mothanka] if you wish to govern my people you must first come and conquer me’….

“But Seloilwe merely kept quiet. And whenever wild animals were killed, the Bakgalagari would make the Basarwa carry them, and when their ruler heard this he became very angry….

“A long time passed but the Bakgalagari still did not agree with the Basarwa. If a Mokgalagari ordered a Mosarwa about, and the Mosarwa refused, the Mokgalagari would take up a club and break in his head with it. And when the Basarwa Kgosi heard of this he became very angry. After a long time, he sent one of his messengers saying, ‘Speak to Kgosi Seloilwe, tell him to get ready, because I want to fight with him.’…

“Early in the morning the Bakgalagari set out; and at daybreak they found the Basarwa still dancing, although some had fallen asleep, and the army fell upon them. When the army attacked the Basarwa Kgosi shouted out ‘Seloilwe this day is the last.’ The armies came together, starting at sunrise. At noon they were still fighting together. The Basarwa shot with their arrows, but did not injure the Bakgalagari. The Bakgalagari killed many Basarwa, slaughtering them.

“Finally there remained only the Basarwa Kgosi. As he fled the Bakgalagari pursued him, during which time his arrows got finished, When the Mosarwa became tired he turned and shot reeds to try to trick the Bakgalagari, who soon noticed that he had no more arrows in his quiver. “He was seized…and his head was severed. Thereupon the Bakgalagari Kgosi ordered that the Basarwa women and children should be rounded up and brought home. Beginning here, in the time of Kgosi Seloilwe I, the Bakgalagari began to own the Basarwa.”

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