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The Rod Of Moleta

In a previous (19-4-21) instalment of this series, it was observed that in recent years there has been a popular upsurge of interest in the potential business as well as military strategy lessons to be drawn from the career of the Zulu Kingdom’s founder, Nkosi Shaka kaSenzangakhona to the exclusion of other notable regional peers whose military strategies, tactics, and organisational methods have in some cases been better documented.

An example is Motswaledi-Kgosi Sebego I (regency 1825 – 1844) of the Bangwaketse who was certainly one of Southern Africa’s most formidable early 19th-century military leaders. While consistent with the general popular neglect of pre-colonial Botswana based history, Sebego’s relative anonymity amongst 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 of Sebego’s audacious storming of Sebetwane’s fortified settlement at Dithubaruba on August 28, 1826. Key aspects of his week-long military campaign leading up to the final assault were detailed in the diaries of an ivory trader named Andrew Geddes Bain, who had accompanied Sebego, as well as in surviving Sengwaketse accounts and additional contemporary references. The Bain diaries were, moreover, published by the Van Riebeeck Society back in 1949.

In life Sebego’s celebrated martial prowess earned him the praise name ‘Thupa a Moleta’ (‘Rod of Moleta’), referring to his grandfather Moleta who is credited with first establishing the Bangwaketse as a regional power. The following extract is from a praise poem as recorded by Kgosikobo Chelenyane at the Kanye main kgotla in 1938:

“Sebego opelo, ofa mapiritlwa, kebonye athelesetsa Matebele; oneile baba mmala wathebe. Kemmoditswe ke Thupa a Moleta, ke Makabe Rrabarekwakang; bare ngwana waga Matshadi oetsa thwadi’ oetsa thalabodiba, Sekokotla. Lomoreetseng lware moabi? Loko lorile motlhasedi, gongwe lware sebua bogale. Ketswa lemotlhasedi Tlammeng [from ‘Matlamma’ referring to Ovaherero/Ovambandero and

Damara]; ketswa gobona kaditlhaba dilwela, banna bajana kasepuutlela salerumo.”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.

Having first emerged as the Kgosi of the Bafokeng bagaPatsa, by 1824 Sebetwane was the leader of a larger coalition who local Batswana originally referred to as the ‘Makgare.’ This is before they assumed their more enduring identity as the ‘Makololo’. The latter name only emerged in the 1840s in honour of Queen Setlutlu of Makolla (MmaSekeletu), the mother of Sebetwane’s heirs; thus reflecting the primacy by then of matrilineal descent within his middle Zambezi kingdom.

Of Sebetwane’s earlier career we know that by 1822 the BagaPatsa, having been repeatedly raided in their original homeland

near the Senqu (alternatively Gariep or Orange) River, had begun their northwards migration. Sebetwane is said to have then told his people:

“My masters, you see that the world is collapsing. We shall be eaten up one by one. Our fathers taught us peace means prosperity, but today there is no peace, no prosperity! Let us march!”

In 1823 the BagaPatsa merged with another southern Batswana group, the Bataung. Together with the two merafe, under Sebetwane’s leadership,  raided the Bahurutshe, Barolong, Batlokwa, and Bangwaketse. The Bahurutshe were defeated in a battle near modern Zeerust, while the

Barolong and Batlokwa fled for safety, with a faction of the latter group moving north to temporarily join the Bangwato. Only the Bangwaketse, then led by Makaba II, were able to initially repulse the attackers. In the early months of 1824, Sebetwane’s forces raided merafe further to the east. Amongst their additional victims were the Bakgatla bagaKgafela, then ruled by Motswaraledi-kgosi Motlotle. Following his defeat, Motlotle fled to Kweneng, where he was later killed by members of his morafe.

By the end of 1824, Sebetwane once more led his mephato westward into Kweneng. Legend has it that he had been originally invited to join forces with the Bakwena Kgosi Motswasele II, a possible alliance that was thwarted by the Mokwena’s assassination, which Sebetwane subsequently vowed to avenge. Another possible motivation for the Makgare’s westward migration may have been the arrival from the east of Mzilakhazi’s more powerful Amandebele.

In Kweneng, Sebetwane certainly found that the Bakwena were divided as a consequence of the recent regicide. One of the leading executioners, Moruakgomo, led the largest section of the morafe. But another faction, which included Motswasele’s young heir Sechele, had moved to Gammangwato, where they lived under the protection of Kgosi Kgari.

Unable to resist Sebetwane on their own, Moruakgomo’s Bakwena joined forces with the Bangwaketse and their Bakgatla bagaMmanaana allies. Thus it was that Makaba II led the combined force against Sebetwane at Losabanyana, which resulted in his death in a battle that is otherwise believed to have been costly to both sides.

During the engagement, Sebetwane himself was seriously wounded in the chest. He recovered but a quarter-century later the same wound reopened following a fall, which at least contributed to his death shortly thereafter.

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