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“Pathogens, Pauperisation And The Protectorate”

COVID-19 is certainly not the first virus to shake Botswana society. In addition to HIV/AIDS, our country has been rocked by other invasive pathogens, both viral and bacterial, in the past, some of which, such as smallpox arrived in the form of epidemics before becoming endemic for generations of Batswana.

Others came and went, while still leaving a lasting legacy of traumatic transformation. In exploring the role of disease in shaping our past, present and possible future this author is currently working on an account of past pandemics by initially focusing on Kweneng’s social transformation into a labour reserve for mining capital. The following is a draft introduction.

During the early 20th century indigenous communities in south-east Botswana became dependent on migrant labour for their subsistence. Working on contract in the South African mines was the common life experience of most able-bodied adult males, while women and children struggled to sustain domestic production at below subsistence level.

Although this transformation was reinforced by colonial state impositions, it was initially driven by the catastrophic appearance of a series of viral pandemics that devastated the territory’s animal as well as human populations between 1890 and 1920.

As a contribution to the broader study of the role of disease in the consolidation of imperialist hegemony this chapter focuses on the impact of invasive pathogens in the Bakwena Tribal Reserve or Kweneng, where virtually the entire population suffered severe material losses and a consequent decline in livelihoods.

In the face of repeated trauma its people struggled to recover their welfare and sense of natural and social order. A century later, as Botswana copes with another transformative pandemic it is opportune to recall Kweneng’s tragic passage into the purgatory of its mid-twentieth century new normal. 

As a polity Kweneng had grown in wealth and regional influence during the mid-19th century under a king or “kgosi” (plural “dikgosi”) named Sechele, when it was a nexus for regional commerce and armed indigenous resistance to the expansion of white settlers from today’s South Africa. Although of diverse origin, its inhabitants were collectively known as the Bakwena; after the 1885 imposition of British overrule being still officially recognised as the subjects of the territory’s paramount ruler, who was now gazetted with the colonial title of “chief”.

By 1890 Kweneng’s earlier prosperity as well as political autonomy had waned, but most of its inhabitants were still able to sustain local livelihoods through agropastoral production supplemented by hunting, transport riding and various cottage industries, notably including the export of local game products.

From the 1870s age regiments had on occasion been sent to acquire firearms and other goods by working in the Kimberly Diamond Fields.

While this had set a precedent, labour migration was not as yet a path of long-term livelihood. 

Sechele’s death in 1892 unleashed feelings of angst. At the central village of Molepolole, women invaded the royal kgotla or meeting place, crying: “Our king is dead, where shall we flee?” A certain Rangwadi prophesied that his passing marked the beginning of the end for the kingdom he had built.

Ominous songs were sung. One, “Diremogolo,” spoke of an angry white man who would steal the Bakwena’s land and chieftainship.

Another, “Rasekete,” alluded to impending internal divisions, its lyrics telling of a kgosi who dies in possession of fine black and white cattle, which then grew grey and developed dangerous horns. In the face of such anxiety, the late Sechele’s brother Kgosidintsi convened a meeting where the senior tribesmen were doctored with protective medicines as they gathered to sanction the dynastic succession of Kgosi Sebele I.

Inasmuch as the foreboding that greeted Sechele’s demise may have evolved with hindsight, there were already grounds for unease.

Having defined its untrammelled legal jurisdiction in a May 1891 Order in Council, the colonial regime was tightening its political and economic grip over its Protectorate; a development that coincided with Bechuanaland’s role as the springboard for the 1890-93 colonial conquest of Zimbabwe.

Legal claims by dikgosi to be the “Sovereigns of the Soil” were summarily dismissed. Even before his father’s death, Sebele’s own jurisdictional disputes with the British had threatened to escalate into violent confrontation. In this strained context, Batswana throughout the Protectorate were required to register their firearms, which in October 1892 became a prerequisite for the controlled purchase of ammunition. Resistance to this decree led to an immediate decline in hunting, resulting by 1893 in a two-thirds drop in the up until then lucrative export of ostrich feathers from the territory.

There were also indicators of an emerging ecological crisis, with poor rains and locust infestation disrupting crop production.

Individually, neither of these developments was exceptional. Botswana has always been a semi-arid country prone to drought, with seasons of poor rainfall having occurred in each decade of the nineteenth century.

Locust swarms were less common, having not been seen for many decades. At first their reappearance in 1891 was an, at least edible, nuisance. But, as the decade wore on, the swarms kept getting bigger (to be continued)

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