Tshekedi Khama would have made a great president

Tshekedi Khama wrote to the chiefdom’s agricultural and livestock adviser in 1949:

“The few herds of my cattle which you saw at Mamosarwane are the result of over ten years of hard work and colossal expenditure, and it is only now that I am beginning to see the results and even then, the stock I have is nowhere near in quality to what Chief Khama possessed. I calculate that it will take me at least another ten years of concentrated work to bring it to what it used to be.”

According to Diana Wylie in her book A Little God: The Twilight of Patriarchy in a Southern African Chiefdom, she states in clear terms that Tshekedi was a rich chief by all standard and measure. In 1949 he had in possession a herd of cattle numbering 2 500 and 2 000 goats. The statistician failed to account for horses and donkeys which of course are the backbone of any cattlepost that size. In fact I would suggest without hesitation that this amount of wealth was spread around several cattleposts. However, it is noted in the book that all this livestock was stationed at Mamosarwane, a single location. When using today’s rates and being as conservative as one can get, Tshekedi’s wealth was anything in the region of 120 million and 132 million pula. These figures would account for his immovable properties and money at local banks and those stashed in off-shore bank accounts. For Tshekedi, going to Cape Town or London was like visiting the neighbourhood. He was a man of good taste as he was the only one driving a red Jeep in the entire Ngwato territory.

It is not Tshekedi’s wealth that I want to discuss here, but rather, it is his way of life and how visionary he was during those colonial years. Tshekedi was not only wealthy but he also wanted to see his chiefdom rise from the ashes of poverty. How I wish today’s leader could emulate this man.

I am challenged to discuss Tshekedi Khama (and not Tshekedi Khama II, the president’s brother) in this episode and make a thorough comparison with the post independence political leadership in Botswana. Tshekedi has often been conveyed as a ruthless leader who ruled his people with an iron rod. Of course that was his dark side, but I want to beam my light on his bright side. Having read several history pieces that record the life of this extraordinary man, with my wishful thinking I would like to place him into today’s political environment.

Regimental labour had always been a way of life for any tribe in colonial Botswana. When Tshekedi took over as regent of Gammangwato in 1926 at the age of twenty-five, he channelled regimental labour into more useful endeavours for his people. Regimental labour is collective labour provided by able bodied men for the common course of a village or a tribe. A regiment in a strict tribal sense is a group of age mates who would have attended an initiation school together. It applies to both men and women.

Tshekedi tapped into this organised form of free labour to develop his chiefdom. In 1930 he ordered the removal of silt from the clogged Serowe dam which was the primary source of water for both human and livestock. Regimental labour had been detested by many who saw it as some of form of partial slavery because they worked without pay. That year when Tshekedi gave the order for the dam, some vanished into the countryside to try and avoid the conscription. Some men hated the practice to a point of petitioning the Resident Commissioner against “enslavement.”

Tshekedi’s work did not go unnoticed. In 1931 a history professor named Margaret Hogson arrived in Serowe, the Ngwato capital with a single intent of studying “The Impact Industrialism on the Tribalized Native.” The British had noted that Tshekedi had made a significan deference in the industrialization of his chiefdom. Among other efforts, he had significantly improved the areas of animal husbandry and crop agriculture at a large scale.

Not long after Tshekedi took over the seat of power as regent of Gammangwato, the global turn of events went against him with the setting of the world recession of 1933. In the previous year of 1932, the whole country of Botswana as we now know it was hit by a severe drought that lasted for four. Even though people of that era possessed very little ability to mitigate the effects of such a natural disaster, through his leadership, Tshekedi and his people pulled through the toughest spell of their life. He did not have the resources of our day and yet he cushioned all under his chiefdom from the effects of drought and the subsequent femine.

Though Tshekedi was filthy rich by the standards of his time and as well as in today’s economic terms, his countrymen were reeling in abject poverty. Because of this dire need for all forms of necessities he strived very hard to develop his chiefdom. Tshekedi knew very well that he was a regent and therefore his stay in the seat of power relied heavily on when Seretse his nephew would be ready to assume the throne. During the above mentioned famine, Tshekedi literally lived in the Resident Commissioner’s office because he did not want to see any one of his subjects perish because of this natural calamity.

As though the famine was not enough, the foot and mouth epidemic fell upon the chiefdom. In the same manner regimental labour was sprung to action in the construction of cordon fencing. In fact this series of calamities forced the chiefdom to have a new approach to driving the economy. Droves of young men boarded the train heading to South Africa’s Witwatersrand to dig gold. More often than not, Tshekedi was always at logger heads with colonial administrators over one major resource which was revenue. Tshekedi believed strongly in that the hut tax required from every male person should be used to develop the chiefdom rather than be taken to London. For such views, Tshekedi attracted a host of European detractors.

Certainly the fortunes of the Ngwato chiefdom changed severely during the reign of Tshekedi. The economic context of the Ngwato tribal territory certainly changed during the time when Tshekedi was at the helm of power. There is a great deal that today’s government can learn from Tshekedi’s approach to economic development of his people. I hold a very strong opinion that if Tshekedi was in power now, he would turn around the economic fortunes of every citizen of this country.

Tshekedi was an astute ruler and yet skilled at turning the odds against him into fortunes. Remember that unlike today’s rulers, he had limited powers on the levers of the economy and particularly on issues of taxation. He wanted the tax paid by Africans to be spent in the development of the chiefdom. No wonder one Resident Commissioner preferred to call him in the most derogatory terms when said; “Tshekedi Khama is a pig headed little beast.” Tshekedi always stood his ground in defence of his tribal subjects and did not just want to watch the colonial masters short-change the fortunes of his people. Tshekedi was a regular at trespassing the wishes of the colonial masters. At a later stage Tshekedi brought to life the idea of establishing an indigenous secondary school that could rival the likes of Lovedale and Tiger Kloof in the white ruled South Africa. He built Moeng College through the efforts of regimental labour. Tshekedi was a visionary and he believed in education even though he could not be counted among the educated based on the standards of his era. Today, Moeng College serves as living legacy of Tshekedi Khama.

One outstanding feature of this colossal figure named Tshekedi was his resistance when the British wanted to yield to the nagging demands of Jan Smuts to annex the whole of Bechuanaland Protectorate into being a part of the Union. This idea really got Tshekedi mad.

Certainly Tshekedi has had a hand in the fashioning of the current political order and the economy. If he had not stood his ground we could have just become independent in 1994 with the rest of Africa. Long live the spirit of Tshekedi and six feet underground to the spirit of corruption and mediocrity which may be found upon any ruler in this land of our ancestors.

*Richard Moleofe is a Retired Military

Officer (Distinguished Service Medal).

Editor's Comment
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