When Chiefs were Kings, there was no republic

Botswana has often been hailed as a democratic example that is a cut above the rest.

Many writers, social scientists and political commentators ascribe the well built democracy to the traditions of the kgotla system which they view as the critical foundation of our current system of governance. I think in a lot of ways, the two systems are as far apart as the south is from the north.

From several history books that date as far back as the beginning of the colonial era, Batswana chiefs had a good stranglehold on their subjects. Bogosi (chieftaincy or monarchy as you may prefer to call it) was more draconian than many of us have ever imagined. Before we delve deeper into the subject of bogosi, allow me to define the term in a more precise way. “King” Mogomela who is a self proclaimed “King” of Batswana argues that there is a serious deficiency in the way we run our country in regard to bogosi and he blames the colonialists for that error. Mogomela argues the reason why Botswana was the only one of the three satellite colonies of Britain who could not have a king, while Lesotho and Swaziland enjoyed the rule of monarchs.

According to Mogomela, the colonialist felt that if monarchs in Botswana would be allowed to hold that title, there was bound to be immense confusion. Here is the root of Mogomela’s argument: Unlike Swaziland and Lesotho where nations are not defined through tribal lines, Botswana has a more cosmopolitan cultural diversity that forms the nations. Botswana’s polity is more rooted along tribal groupings which remained more autonomous during the colonial era. Their traditional leaders were kings in their own rights.


Mogomela observes that in the initial stages of the arrival of the colonisers, the British themselves referred to the royals here as kings. And the old man is absolutely right. It is noted in the history books that Sechele-a-Motswasele-a-Moruakgomo was often called King Sechele. Even Khama III has been recorded in history as king. The two kings mentioned above controlled vast territories of land much bigger than Britain. Magomela argues that the problem arose when the structures of colonialism were formalised and the resident commissioners felt that there were going to be too many kings if each tribal grouping was allowed to call their own royal, king. He further says that King George’s subjects felt that there were going to be too many kings, thus making mockery of their own king. That would mean having eight different kings in one colonial administrative country because the British recognised only that number as principal tribes.

I think until I write about this matter, no one would have even attempted to give an ear to Mogomela’s line of argument. But the “King” has a valid point. It must be noted that whether these royals were referred to as chiefs or kings, effectively their powers remained the same. Remember that even in Lesotho and Swaziland these powers were cut to the same size as those in Botswana. But they remained kings. When Tshekedi Khama studied in Lovedale College in South Africa, he roamed among other royals and among them was Sobhuzha III of Swaziland.

The issue of the tailor cut powers of the African royals was paramount in the discussion of two future leaders of Gammangwato and Swaziland. But the end point is here; chiefs ruled as kings. Elizabeth Nkile, a wise octogenarian from Gabane shares her sentiments about the errors of Kings or bogosi. She says that she doesn’t understand why some politicians are still driving the crusade to bring back bogosi to replace our current system of governance. She says such politicians are speaking from ignorance and hence their trumped up crusade. She says magosi (kings) were cruel to their subjects.

Many people who lived in the two different dispensations would not wish bogosi back because magosi lorded it over their subjects. Colonialists allowed magosi to exercise their powers in certain areas and not others. They were allowed to banish their subjects at will. A clear example of this was the creation of Lentswe-le- Moriti village as kings uprooted whole communities for religious reasons. For a few elders who still remain in that village, they will tell you that the arrival of democracy was like crossing the Jordan river into Cannan, the promised land. To this day, this ZCC village has chosen to be lead by a priest as chiefs are viewed as dictators.

When Botswana gained independence in 1966, her people chose the path of a different kind of rule. They made their country a republic. In so doing, they slowly strangled life out of a millennia old system of government and polity.  Even though many have in the past hailed the kgotla system as a precursor to the current political dispensation, there seems to be a gap in the way the two systems function. Of course the kgotla is a forum which could be regarded as the tribal parliament, not all subjects formed part of the polity. During this era, servitude was highly practiced and it is these subjects that I referred to who were excluded from fully taking part in the way the kgotla democracy worked.

The creation of a republic allowed every member of the public to equally participate in the decision making process of our nation and this was done at the ballot box each time at half a decade. The creation of a republic quickly eroded the powers of the kings. In a lot of cases tables turned as kings found themselves under the control of their subjects. A case in point is what happened in Gangwaketse where Ketumile Masire just became the second most important man in the country overnight. Masire as vice president, he was literally viewed by many royals and their subject as deputy king and not the vice president. Many at the time did not understand the difference between royalty and politics, a situation that Seretse Khama exploited to the last degree. Seretse ascended to the presidency because of his royal credentials and we all know that he maximised profits from this. Of course to some extent he benefited from the sympathy votes from the previous trouble he faced when he married a white woman.  

After independence, King Bathoen of Bangwaketse realised that he had lost a lot of ground in as far as power is concerned. To make up for this, he ditched bogosi for a political place in the halls of parliament. Seretse was a wise man, rather let me say he was clever. At the time he planned to become a political leader of the country, he laid no claims to the right of being king again. He did not only do this because of the pressure he received from both his unless and the British government, but rather he had seen that the winds of change were gathering fast across the continent of Africa. This according to his judgement, bogosi’s days were numbered.

When King Bathoen decided to go into politics, he joined the opposition Botswana National Front and ascended to become its leader. Seretse being a royal, he clearly understood the immense power and clout that King Bathoen was bringing into politics. Seretse being the schemer that he was, he moved the general elections a year forward to 1969 instead of the following year. That was meant to derail King Bathoen’s triumphant entry into parliament. But the people spoke in one voice and took their king to parliament.

Since then, Kings have always chosen to exchange their leopard skins for three piece suits in parliament. Therefore allow me to discuss the coming of another king to parliament in the next week’s instalment. Should we call him the soon coming king?

*Richard Moleofe is a Retired Military

 Office (Distinguished Service Medal)

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