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.
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 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
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
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
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
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
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