Contrary to popular belief that Batswana were always a peaceful, subservient and 'cowed' people, TSHIRELETSO MOTLOGELWA argues that the pre-colonial reign of Bangwaketse's warrior Kgosi Sebego proves that this theory is a recent and largely colonial construct.
"Warriors! The honour of your country is now at stake and you are called upon to protect it. Long, long have the scum and the dread of the earth had possession of our finest fields, driven us from our flourishing towns and are still feeding on the fattest of our flocks and herds" , so commands Kgosi Sebego of the Ngwaketse; warrior-king to his 3000-plus strong army before the attack on Sebetwane's Bakololo. It was August 25, 1826 and the following days would be recorded as some of the most violent in the history of this country. A European writer and traveller, Andrew Geddes Bain, traversing the expanse of the southern African land found this drill in progress and took a few notes for posterity. The notes now sit at National Archives in Gaborone.
When Kgosi Tshosa Mokgowe Tshosa of Sebego ward in Kanye talks about Kgosi Sebego he glows. Kgosi Tshosa has a theory; "We tend to glorify politicians when speaking about our history, forgetting that this nation was not built yesterday, but was brought together over years, a long time ago by kings, queens and warriors. It is a product of struggle and even multitudes of deaths". As far as Tshosa is concerned, politicians are recent and may even be blowing out of proportion their own contribution to the creation of Botswana. A man not known for many words, it is perhaps surprising that he has such a mouthful about the history of this country as it has come to be known. Afterall, this year is the 40th anniversary of this country's independence, which most may argue, was secured by politicians, if by anyone. He begs to differ; this country came into being more than just 40 years ago.
Kgosi Tshosa is the great grandson of the controversial Ngwaketse Regent, warrior, and sometimes 'rebel' Kgosi Sebego. Kgosi Sebego is known amongst his tribe as arguably one of the finest leaders of Batswana tribes during the tumultuous era of Difaqane, which spanned a major part of the 1800s. Kgosi Sebego's story may be a story of rebellion, self-centred ambitions and violence, but it is also about excellent military technique and above all the relentless fight for freedom, to be free of oppression and servitude. The story of Kgosi Sebego, although one of the most striking of pre-colonial Botswana, seems to have been lost among the general populace, except perhaps for only a few historians and their paling pages of obscure editions.
Kgosi Sebego, the first son of Kgosi Makaba II of the Bangwaketse was born in 1825 and died in 1844. He was the first-born son of the second Queen, which means he was not directly entitled to the throne. According to filmmaker Moabi Mogorosi who made Black Ants; A Sebego Story, a short biographical documentary on the Ngwaketse warrior, Kgosi Sebego grew up in the era of Difaqane. This is known to many Botswana tribes and others in southern Africa, as perhaps the most violent period in their history. In the early 1800s tribes in the southern tip of Africa, such as the Zulu and Ndebele, went through major strife and internecine fighting. Many historians argue that King Shaka of the Zulus on expanding his kingdom and territories encroached into other areas pillaging and wreaking havoc.
"Many tribes were displaced. Villages were burnt down. Slaughter ensued. Crops were set alight and any weak tribe would be swallowed by a stronger tribe," explains cultural activist Kabo Ditlhakeng. Kings escaping occupation such as Mzilikazi of the Ndebele and Sebetwane of the Bakololo came northwards meting out their own violence on tribes of what is now Botswana. The entire period spanned about 20 years. According to history books, many tribes in the area now known as Botswana were faced with the threat of attack and eventual occupation by the newcomers.
"This time called for strong leaders," explains Mogorosi. A tribe without strong leaders faced extinction. Historians Thomas Tlou and Alec Campbell in their book History of Botswana say, "The kgosi was to the morafe like the heart is to the body. He pumped the life-blood, which kept the morafe alive. He brought rain and health to the people, strengthened the army and defended the people". Kgosi Makaba II offered that leadership for the Bangwaketse, "Makaba was not just a king but he was a warrior. He never sent men to fight without leading from the front," explains Tshosa. "It was whilst fighting the Bakololo invaders that Kgosi Makaba II, Sebego's father died. He was trampled to death by warriors during the pandemonium of battle," explains Tshosa.
"There are different accounts as to what happened but it seems many people think Sebego, with an eye for the throne was reluctant to help his father during the battle. Others dismiss this argument. Whatever happened, one thing clear is that Kgosi Sebego wanted the throne since the rightful heir Gaseitsiwe was very young," says Mogorosi. Kgosi Sebego took a big faction of Bangwaketse and led them into the Male Hills, just outside of modern-day Kanye. "He set out to revenge his father's death as well as regroup," argues Ditlhakeng. "Kgosi Sebego should be understood in that context. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand him and other leaders of his era," explains Mogorosi.
On August 1826 Sebego's ambition to finally deal with the occupying military power of King Sebetwane were reaching their final stage. Kgosi Sebego was a military strategist par excellence, argues Ditlhakeng. Having perhaps different - if not - lower expectations of the organisation of an African army, Bain piles praise upon Kgosi Sebego and his army. "We could not help admiring the good order and discipline which prevailed among the people and the alacrity with which the Chief's orders were executed," writes Bain. "He never slept the nights following that attack. He spent the time devising plans of attack with his generals. He had specific orders that had to be followed for the war to be won. There was dissentions amongst his men," explains Ditlhakeng. On August 26, in the early morning, Kgosi Sebego halted his men's march to Sebetwane's village for one last motivational address. Immediately they descended on Sebetwane's village of about 20,000 people. The attack was swift an d brutal.
"The shrieks of the women and children were most heartrending for wherever they turned they were met by a bloody battleaxe of the dreadful sound of our thunder. Kgosi Sebego stood by us, calmly looking on and giving directions to the numerous aides de camp about securing the cattle," writes Bains.
Historian Jeff Ramsay, in the documentary Black Ants-A Sebego Story, points out that Kgosi Sebego's use of the so-called Buffalo's horns style of attack and the meticulous planning he carried out shows him as one of the best warrior commanders ever in the history of Botswana. "Sebego's terrifying assault on Dithubaruba remains one of the bloodiest and most decisive in Botswana's history," he explains.
Perhaps even more interesting is that contrary to the Bantu Education myths that Shaka, the Zulu King pioneered the short stabbing spear and the Buffalo-horn method, it has been shown that Kgosi Sebego was already not just utilising those but was an expert in their application. Sebego's attack severely limited Sebetwane's ability to colonise other tribes. He moved northwards wounded and dispirited. Although he was very controversial for his attempts to purge the rightful heir Gaseitsiwe, Kgosi Sebego remains a giant in the pre-colonial period of Botswana's history. Mogorosi argues that above anything else Kgosi Sebego may have contributed, is the fact that his story shows that Batswana were not really the cowardly subservient people most historical literature portrays them to be.
"Kgosi Sebego showed decisive leadership and his hunger for independence will forever serve as the evidence of the visionary leadership that our people have always possessed. He is only one amongst many. For example, the Bakalaka are known to have built an empire and were some of the first people to possess and use firearms in the sub-continent," explains Mogorosi. "The fight for independence for this country and its people should be seen as something which started way before even Europeans settled here. If people like Kgosi Sebego never acted on that vision we would perhaps have been captured and swallowed by other tribes.
Maybe there would be no Botswana to speak of. Maybe we could have been little clans in larger tribes in South Africa or Zimbabwe," argues Ditlhakeng. He feels that these figures should not be allowed to disappear into obscurity because they can still act as vital anchors for any future visionary leadership in this country. Kgosi Sebego was survived by his son Kgosi Senthufe, who continued to rule his faction of Bangwaketse until 1853 when the whole tribe was re-united under Kgosi Gaseitsiwe.
"Modern leaders could learn from such a legacy. It helps to know that we did not just sprout from nowhere but that this country resulted from the efforts of many people over many years," argues Kgosi Tshosa.