THE LAND QUESTION: Dikgosi and the politics of land

SHARE   |   Sunday, 25 January 2015   |   By Dr Boga Manatsha

We often hear our dikgosi crying loud that the government has alienated them from land administration (especially tribal land administration). This, according to them, causes unnecessary problems, chaos, controversies and confusions. Should the dikgosi be allowed to play any role in land administration? What kind of role? They are those who sympathise with them while others view their alienation as appropriate. What I know is that the Bogosi Act unequivocally expects the dikgosi to promote the welfare of their tribes (merafe), inform them of development initiatives and government policies. Ironically, the Tribal Land Act (hereinafter TLA) renders their role in land administration almost ‘irrelevant’. I read somewhere that former President Festus Mogae, whose relationship with the dikgosi was a bit lukewarm, once commented that the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) led successive governments made the dikgosi “more responsive to community service needs on customary matters such as marriage and traditional ceremonial activities while the land boards were empowered to manage all tribal land” (Mogae 2013:5). President Ian Khama’s view is that the dikgosi are “key to nation building’ but laments their ‘limited powers” (Tautona Times 6 February 2010), (which were drastically reduced by his father, President Ketumile Masire and President Festus Mogae during their terms). My colleague at the University of Botswana, Jeffrey Barei, contends that “The government is not under pressure to repeal parts of the Acts that have eroded the chiefs’ powers” (Barei 2000:65). 

My aim herein is to explain how the process of excluding the chiefs from land administration came about. I will comment on the role they can still play in the next instalment. Since 1966, the BDP led governments effectively alienated the dikgosi from land administration under the pretext of democratising and modernising resource management. The alienation happened through the passing of laws and legislations. As early as 1965, President Sir Seretse Khama denounced the chiefs’ control of land as anti-development and anti-nation building. This surprised many dikgosi, his peers. Some, perhaps in protest, joined the opposition parties: the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) and the Botswana National Front (BNF) formed in 1960 and 1965 respectively. The BDP political bigwigs masterminded the alienation of the dikgosi through the introduction of the TLA in 1968 and the Land Boards in 1970. Initially, the alienation was politically motivated and personalised. As the process continued, it was rehearsed and fine-tuned. It then received acceptance from most Batswana. Yet, the dikgosi have never fully embraced it. Those familiar with Botswana’s history are aware of the animosity between the then Bangwaketse kgosi and Ketumile Masire in the1960s and 1970s. Masire viewed the dikgosi as despotic and unable to transparently manage land. It is thus true that Ketumile Masire, who later became the president, spearheaded the introduction of the TLA. He was the president when it was revised in 1993/4. In his words, the TLA was aimed at removing “the arbitrary power of the chiefs” (Masire 2006:184). The Land Boards replaced them. Thus, the TLA section 13 (1) clearly states that  “All the powers previously vested in a Chief and a subordinate land authority under customary law in relation to land […] shall vest in and be performed by a land board acting in accordance with powers conferred on it by or under this Act”.


Section 13 further outlines the functions of the Land Boards as (a) the granting of rights to use any land (b) the cancellation of the grant of any rights to use any land (c) the imposition of restrictions on the use of tribal land (d) authorising any change of user of tribal land or (e) authorising any transfer of tribal land. To discourage the perceived tribalism and promote what the ruling elite call ‘nation building’, the TLA states that “All the rights and title to land in each tribal area […] [is] for the benefit and advantage of the citizens of Botswana and for the purpose of promoting the economic and social development of all the peoples of Botswana” (section 10 (1)).The TLA was amended in 1993 to replace the word ‘tribesmen’ with the phrase ‘citizens of Botswana’ to ensure that no morafe claims exclusive ownership of any land. Since then, eligible applicants can acquire land anywhere in the country. However, all over Botswana, the dikgosi are, rightly or wrongly, disgruntled by the lack of genuine consultation by the Land Boards. As studies have shown, the relationship between the Land Boards and other local governance institutions, especially bogosi, is very complicated. I have argued, elsewhere, that the elitist nature of the Land Boards make them  less appreciated by the communities, and thus they end up being accused of all sort of things. The dikgosi are ‘land overseers’ though they usually designate some relatives or village elders to take this ‘inferior’ position. As land overseers, their role has been “reduced to that of completion of certificates of no objection, indicating that the land required has not been allocated to anyone else” (Government of Botswana 1983). Being ‘land overseers’ is another ceremonial role the dikgosi perform. It is worth noting that under normal circumstances, a kgosi would know his/her territory well. It is for this reason that his/her consent is (sometimes) sought to avoid double allocations. In some cases, the Land Board may assume that the land is ‘vacant’, yet the kgosi would present otherwise. As Sarah Berry (2001) correctly states, “chiefs know their boundaries” better. Though the dikgosi have been effectively alienated from land management, they still play a major/critical role in their respective communities as the Bogosi Act requires. 

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