THE LAND QUESTION: What Role do the Dikgosi Play in Tribal Land Administration?

SHARE   |   Sunday, 01 February 2015   |   By Dr Boga Manatsha
Kgosi Malope Kgosi Malope

In my previous instalment, I explained how and why the dikgosi have been largely ‘alienated’ from the tribal land administration process since independence. That the dikgosi are frustrated about this is not a secret. They may not openly talk about it on daily basis, but whenever they are given a platform, they show their frustration. Do the dikgosi play any role in tribal land administration? Should they play any role? I will not claim to provide definite answers, but my aim is to stimulate a debate on this controversial issue. When the dikgosi were alienated from the tribal land administration process, it was done in order to promote ‘nation-building’ and ‘democratise’ land administration- so we are told. To a larger extent, this was a sound reasoning. Ironically and interestingly, amongst the proponents of the ‘democratisation process’, some had personal problems/issues with their dikgosi. Others just disliked the bogosi institution. If one was to read Sir Ketumile Masire’s memoirs, he would clearly understand my argument.

In some African countries, the chiefs are in control of land (they ‘own’ and allocate it) and are very powerful- political and economic wise- because of land (remember the Igwe in Nigerian movies). However, the problems associated with allowing the chiefs to take charge of land (at least in the case of some African countries) are that they become too corrupt such that they even sell land cheaply to foreigners, multi-national corporations and some unscrupulous businessmen. The Chinese, for instance, have managed to ‘grab’ swathes of land in many African countries through the deals they have signed with both the chiefs and some corrupt politicians. In other African countries, there have been disputes between the governments and the chiefs over the ownership and allocation of some pieces of land for national development projects. Moreover, some chiefs have been found to be practising nepotism, corruption and favouritism when it comes to the allocation of land to their subjects. By nature, the chieftaincy institution is undemocratic and unaccountable. This has made the chiefs in many African countries to be viewed as mini-Gods, but revered and feared at the same time. This becomes quite problematic when the issues of resource management are concerned. However, the chief (in many African societies) is not the absolute owner of the land in the context in which the colonisers understood. Corrupted by power, some chiefs have purposely come to view themselves as the absolute owners of the land and all the resources in their communities. This, as I have argued, make them gullible to foreign land speculators and capitalists alike. Customary land tenure, in its original form, was/is not bad. What was/is bad is the manner in which some chiefs wanted to manage it, especially after the intrusion of the capitalist economy.


In Botswana, the dikgosi’s role in land administration is less understood. To start with, there is no doubt that they have considerably lost their power in many respects. Festus Mogae, a former president of Botswana, says that the “global acceptance of democracy forms the basis of translating the same principles into transparent land governance in our different countries and regions” (Mogae 2013:3). This is the base upon which Botswana’s land administration is anchored. Mogae was speaking at the annual World Bank conference on land and poverty in Washington in April 2013. He also remarked that “the chiefs had over time become too dictatorial, conservative, and resistant to progressive changes on land”, and maintained that the “principles established immediately after independence, continue as the tenets of land administration and development in Botswana today” (2013:5). The dikgosi play a role in selecting the members of the Land Boards. The eight available Land Boards’ board positions (for membership) are advertised through the media and applied for. The committee that assesses the applications comprises of the District Commissioner, the kgosi, the Land Board secretary and the District Council secretary. After this committee has identified the qualifying eight candidates, their names are forwarded to the Minister. His/her role is to choose the Land Board chairperson and his/her deputy from these names. The dikgosi are also ‘land overseers’. The dikgosi usually elect their trusted people to be land overseers. Land overseers assist the Land Boards in that they sign forms indicating that the land applied for is ‘vacant’ or available for occupation. The problem is that the land overseers seem to discriminate against other people- preferring to allocate land to their relatives, tribesmen and or those who bribe them. This kind of behaviour causes problems between Batswana and the Land Boards. Since the Land Boards are the ultimate allocating authority, they usually fail to ensure that there is harmonious relation between them and the bogosi (land overseers). In other cases, the land overseers deliberately frustrate the Land Boards’ efforts to allocate land due to issues related to the politics of land and tribalism. The dikgosi should actively monitor/supervise the people they elect to the office of land overseer-ship. The chiefs should, as expected of them, attend the Land Board sittings so that they can ask questions and comment on certain decisions. They are ordinary members of the Land Boards, but most seldom attend the Land Boards’ sittings. Their attendance, I believe, will assist them and their Ntlo-Ya-Dikgosi to make informed debates on issues related to tribal land administration. Well, most of them argue that they should be made ex-officio members of the Land Boards (the position they previously held). I, however, argue that the concept of the Land Boards, if run properly, is far much better compared to the chiefs running the show. The problem is that our Land Boards are inundated by all sorts of problems, some trivial. The government should critically look at how best the dikgosi and the Land Boards can work together. As for now, there is institutional rigidity, lapse and confusion at the local level. All the local authorities, the Land Boards, the Tribal Administration, the District Councils and the District Administration, should closely work together on land management. I argued, elsewhere, that the relationship is well articulated on paper; practically, there are lapses and gaps. Some of the disputes we often hear between the Land Boards and the local communities are mainly caused by the lack of teamwork at the local level. The dikgosi should use Ntlo-ya-Dikgosi to debate this issue. How do they want to be involved? 

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