The hidden shame of triba
Long-simmering rocky relations between the Bangwato and Kalanga tribes of Botswana have bubbled to the surface and are now staring everyone in the face.
The country has more than eight tribes, which have been dominated by the majority Bangwato tribe for centuries. There is intensifying friction between the Bangwato and the minority Kalanga-speaking people, a conflict exposed to the outside world through a proposal to reform Botswana’s constitution.
The government of Festus Mogae has proposed to reform Sections 77,78, and 79 of the country’s constitution, which regulate the naming of the country’s provinces and districts and also the composition of its chiefs’ assembly. Minority tribes view the reforms as an attempt by the Bangwato to perpetuate their dominance.
The country’s Vice-President and Bangwato Paramount Chief, Lieutenant Seretse Khama Ian Khama, recently acknowledged the gravity of the simmering conflict at a symbolic reburial of a Kalanga chief who was forced into exile by similar tribal disputes during the colonial era.
(Kalanga chief John Nswazwi died in 1960 in exile in Jetjeni, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was banished from Bechuanaland (now Botswana) by the colonial government as a result of a conflict with the Bangwato regent Tshekedi Khama. Tshekedi Khama was the uncle of Ian Khama. It is this conflict that led to the banishment of Chief Nswazwi and 34 others to Mafikeng in Zimbabwe.
The late chief Nswazwi was born in 1875 at Nswazwi in then Bechuanaland. He was the nephew of the Chichana family in Serowe, where the Kalangas had settled on their way from South Africa. Chief Nswazwi got married in 1991 to the first of his six wives. He was installed as chief of the Nswazwi clan in 1909 in Bechuanaland and was the chief of Baka-Nswazwi until he died in 1960).
The vice-president lashed out at unnamed individuals bent on dividing the nation along tribal lines, and called for unity despite the country’s diverse ethnic nature.
"Tempers should not flare up nor should emotions rise when the Nswazwi conflict is discussed because it is now all history. I consider the conflict to be water under the bridge," said Lt. Khama.
The vice-president said it was not the time to start judging or trying to determine who was right or wrong during the Bangwato and Bakalanga conflict, as it was not in the interest of nation building and peaceful co-existence.
He urged people to guard against "elements who would like to use historical events and past conflicts to cause disharmony amongst our people.” This was in apparent reference to two pressure groups, Society for the Prevention of Ikalanga Language (SPIL) and Pitso Ya Batswana (PYB), which have been involved in public spats over the relationship between Tswana-speaking tribes and Bakalanga.
"Such people are our worst enemies and indeed enemies of this nation,” said the vice president. “Society is dynamic, hence we keep on coming up with pieces of legislation to deal with contemporary issues that face our nation due to cultural, scientific, technological, socio-economic, and political developments."
He said Baka-Nswazwi have lived in Ga Mmangwato side by side with Bangwato for a very long time and there had been mutual respect for each other. Lt. Khama called for a strong relationship between the two tribes as they had developed a lot in common in the Tribal Territory in Serowe where the two tribes share common ground.
Lt. Khama said historical events should be drawn from the archives and be written without fabrication and told objectively as facts or events of the past. "There is nothing wrong in writing or talking about such events today because we should be living above such differences as we have been doing since we attained our independence in 1966," said Lt. Khama to a round of applause from the large, predominantly Kalanga crowd.
An element of uncertainty had prevailed prior to the reburial, which began with the exhumation of the remains of Nswazwi in Jetjeni, south west of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.
The country’s press had warned that there would be fireworks as rival tribesmen wanted to take advantage of the event to score political points against each other. But the vice president managed to cool tempers and the re-burial was completed without any incidence.
Chenjelani Chengeta, a Kalanga elder, claimed that the Bangwato were afraid of the dark as they (Bakalanga) had long extended the hand of reconciliation that was somehow treated cautiously.
Lt Khama said the re-burial of Chief Nswazwi was the final chapter in a process of democratic nation building that began in the late 1950s with the repatriation of the Baka-Nswazwi at Maropong.
"Only ill-health, leading to death in 1960, prevented Chief Nswazwi from also being able return to this country during his lifetime. Today he is at last once more part of the soil, as well as history of Botswana. The reburial of Chief Nswazwi adds on to the social heritage of Bakalanga-baka-Nswazwi and Botswana as a whole."
While Chief Nswazwi was living in banishment, the conflict continued and others fled to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where they were given refugee status and settled in Jetjeni in the Bulilimamangwe District in southern Zimbabwe in 1947. In 1948, Chief Nswazwi and his other 32 surviving tribesmen were released from banishment in Mafikeng and they followed the other group to Jetjeni.
In 1959, the Nswazwi people in Rhodesia negotiated with the Rhodesian and Bechuanaland governments for the repatriation of those in exile and this was granted.
Chief Nswazwi was old by then and not well. He asked Mampori Muchawacha (his nephew) to lead the group that was ready to be repatriated. He had said he would follow in due course, but while the group was preparing to go back to Rhodesia to collect Chief Nswazwi, he passed away on May 14, 1960.
As a gesture of reconciliation, the Botswana government has offered to move over 600 villagers of Jetjeni into Botswana and settle them in Nswazwi village following the re-burial of their late chief. The villagers have already set up a committee that will deal with all the preparations for the repatriation.
The chairman for the committee, Madeswi Nleya, said over 600 people had indicated their willingness to return to Botswana.
“Many of us are happy to be returning back home,” he said. “We were looking forward to this moment when we will be invited to come back after so many years of exile.”
The villagers agreed to have the remains of their late chief exhumed on condition that they would be allowed to move to Botswana.
A similar arrangement to allow some people to return from Zimbabwe after the banishment of Nswazwi and the Baka-Nswazwi people took place in 1958 when borders between the two countries were opened. Most of the Jetjeni villagers crossed into Botswana and settled in Maropong, along the Zimbabwean border.
However, tribesmen and pressure groups are refusing to take heed of Lt Khama and other leaders’ peace calls and tensions continue to flare.
A prominent Kalanga activist, Richard Mannathoko recently described Tshekedi Khama as a “terrorist.”
He told people gathered at the reburial that “the Bakalanga used to call Tshekedi “Tshidubu” which means terrorist. He was a warmonger. First he fought some Bangwato tribesmen who opposed his ascendancy to the Bangwato throne, and then he fought Nswazwi and forced him out of the country. He then fought Seretse Khama and lost. We as Bakalanga celebrate that loss.”
He described the conflict between the two tribes as culminating from years of oppression by the Bangwato.
“Bangwato and Bakalanga are neighbours. There are no masters and servants and that is why we are fighting,” he added.
Mannathoko urged the vice president to take a stand against Bangwato tribesmen who utter inflammatory statements against other minority tribes. The two tribes are also fighting over the constitutional reforms that are now awaiting the approval of the government.