Tradition of Democracy and Consultation

The " way of life" of Botswana society is the entrenched belief in consultation and democratic practices. This "way of life" is encapsulated in the Setswana saying that, 'ntwa kgolo ke ya molomo' (the highest form of war is dialogue). Tolerance of opposing views is a long established tradition, which predates the colonial period, and it is generally held that consultation is a process that can never be overdone. The latter attributes explain why to-date Botswana remains one of the most democratic countries in the world.

The Kgosi

A Kgosi is a hereditary traditional leader of a tribe or village(s). As head of the tribe, the kgosi enjoys exalted authority, respect and privilege among his people. Even outside of his own tribe, a kgosi is always treated with dignity by other tribes, which act is always reciprocated.

The Kgosi is responsible to his people in maintaining law and order, and carries out his duties with the assistance of dikgosana (Deputies or Headmen) and bagakolodi (principal advisors). Most of the latter are members of the royal family, such as the Kgosi's uncles and brothers, and may also include other village elders of acknowledged experience or achievement. Every adult member of the tribe has, however, a say in the running of tribal affairs and his word counts.

The kgosi is expected to be modest, compassionate, diligent, lead an exemplary life, respect and follow tribal customs and practices. The predominant belief is "kgosi ke kgosi ka batho" (a kgosi is a kgosi by the grace of his people).

Although technically the kgosi can disregard the tribe and run its affairs autocratically, this would be in violation of the very institution which confers authority on him, and consequently undermining his own legitimacy.

The Kgotla

The most important and unique institution in the Kgosi's administration is the Royal Kgotla, an assembly courtyard at which tribal issues are discussed and major decisions taken. It is the seat of traditional government and a forum for free exchange of views in a village democratic system. It is here that any member of the community has the opportunity and privilege to address the Kgosi directly. A Kgosi convenes a meeting at the kgotla whenever there are important matters to be discussed and decisions taken. On a regular basis, the kgotla is used as a tribal court where cases are heard, an administrative centre to determine property rights, and consult on general village community projects.

The kgotla set-up is replicated at lower levels, such as outlying smaller villages, village wards, family units. At each level, there is an order of precedence which is always maintained.

Nowadays, the Kgosi may also convene a kgotla meeting to receive representatives of the central government such as the President, Cabinet Ministers and senior public officers. As a continuation of the traditional political culture based on morero (consultation), even the country's Head of State consults citizens through kgotla meetings, amongst others, where they are free to ask him questions directly.

Bogwera and Bojale (Initiation Ceremonies)

As stated at the beginning of this section, pre-colonial Botswana society was orderly and well structured. The following ceremonies and practices, were intended to serve crucial social functions:

Bogwera (boys' initiation)

When young boys reached puberty they were sent to bogwera (initiation school for boys) which marked the passage from boyhood to manhood. In order to become a 'man' and be accorded all the respect and privileges in the affairs of the tribe, including marriage, every boy was expected to undergo these rites of passage which involved toughening-up, lessons on morality, respect for other people, and responsibility to one's society. Every cohort of initiates would be given a permanent name upon graduation, and every member would proudly identify himself with this name.

Bojale (girls' initiation)

When young girls reached puberty, they were sent to bojale (initiation school for girls) which, like the boys' bogwera, marked passage from childhood to womanhood. Girls of the same peer group were led by the chief's daughter, of their age group, or another member from the chief's relatives.

As in the case of boys, the young girls were taught the tribe's values, customs, responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, and how to relate to persons of the opposite sex. In most cases, the ceremony would start around the same period as that of the boys.

Once the girls had gone through the ceremonies, they were regarded as women and were thus ready for marriage. The peer group who graduated from the same ceremony would constitute a regiment which could be called upon to perform important communal projects from time to time.

Mephato (Age Regiments)

In traditional African societies, which had no standing public works ministries, armies, etc. community projects or emergencies had to be carried out on a self-help basis. Such public works projects, among others, were carried out by a mophato (age regiment) or mephato (age regiments) for the benefit of the community.

Regiments were formed around men of the same age range (regiment) who would normally have graduated from bogwera at the same time. The kgosi's son would be the leader of the regiment which can be clearly identified by its permanent name. The new regiment, thus formed, would be called upon to carry out community assignments which may be of routine nature or as emergencies.

The bojale, bogwera, and mephato practices were intended to serve very important social functions. Besides promoting group solidarity amongst the various graduates of the ceremonies, they instilled key common values amongst the participants, and within society. The practices were however disliked by the colonial administrators because they clashed with the latter's objective of spreading Christianity.

It is a major consolation though, that much of the spirit of self-help, which was cultivated by the past generations, is still evident in modern day Botswana.


Traditional Botswana economic life was dominated by cattle ranching. Cattle provided not only livelihood but also status in society. An adult who did not have cattle was considered poor. In many Tswana tribes, a better-off relative would give some of his cattle to the poorer relative to look after on his behalf. The cattle loaned out in this manner were known as mafisa. Such cattle were very useful to the beneficiary family which could use them as draught power and as a source of milk.

After a number of years the cattle would be claimed back by the owner and some left with the caretaker family as a form of gratuity. The size of the "gratuity" depended on how well the cattle were looked after and whether they had increased in number. The system of mafisa is commendable evidence of how the Tswana traditional society took care of its less privileged members.


Masotla were massive ploughing fields which were held in trust by the kgosi on behalf of the tribe. The fields were ploughed by the regiments on a quasi-voluntary basis.

Although the work was supposed to be voluntary, every able-bodied man was expected to participate and those who did not perform the function could be fined. The harvest from masotla fields was stored at the kgosi's granaries for use during the periods of drought and for supporting the under-privileged members of the tribe. The system of masotla provided a form of food security, and is yet another example of the orderly system within traditional Tswana society.


Letsema is a form of voluntary work performed by members of a tribe on behalf of a family. If a family wanted to clear a ploughing field, for example, such family would invite other members of the ward or immediate community to a letsema. The host family would then brew traditional beer and slaughter an animal for consumption on the day of letsema.

A family unit could thus perform a demanding task with the assistance of its community in return for a small gesture, such as providing beer or an ordinary meal for the day. What motivated the community to respond was, however, not the beer or meal but the knowledge that anybody could expect similar support in future should he/she convene letsema.

Traditional Administration of Justice

In present day Botswana, law and order and dispute resolution are administered by both customary courts (headed by the kgosi) and Western- style courts (headed by magistrates). A modern police force alongside tribal police support the administration of justice through law enforcement structures dispersed throughout the country. Parties to a dispute have the option of using the modern system or the traditional structures. Serious cases such as homicide and rape are reserved for the modern courts.

Under the traditional set-up, the range of offences conformed to what may be regarded as violations of the law. The latter included offences against the person such as homicide, assault, defamation, insults, rape, defilement, adultery, seduction, homosexuality and incest. Other offences included defiance of the authority of the chief, practice of witchcraft against another person, and failure to participate in a communal project such as letsema and mophato.

In the case of many offences, particularly those against the person and property, there are first resort remedies (out of court settlements) allowed by Setswana tradition. When someone else's cattle stray into a ploughed field and destroy the crops, for example, the owner of the field is entitled to confiscate one of the animals which destroyed his crops.

In cases where a boy seduces an unmarried girl and impregnates her, the parents on both sides can settle the matter by negotiation and payment of a traditionally established fine. The latter ranges from four to ten head of cattle, depending on the tribe.

When a younger person insults an older person, the aggrieved adult would report the offender to the latter's parents or elders. On an agreed day the offender would be tried by both households and flogged by someone from his side in the presence of the offended party, or a material fine imposed. In all cases where the accused person is unhappy with the verdict or fine imposed on him, he/she may exercise his/her right of appeal to the Kgosi or Paramount kgosi for the matter to be reviewed. At that level the verdict or fine can either be quashed, reduced or increased.

Cases which can not be resolved as above are referred to higher judicial authorities, depending on their seriousness. Homicide cases are dealt with exclusively by the High Court, which can impose the death penalty against the offender. The traditional Setswana society firmly believes that a person who takes away another person's life must also lose his. This is certainly the case where such death was neither in self-defence nor accidental. The death sentence is therefore readily accepted by the majority.

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