Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 10 Ngwato

The Ngwato

I Schapera, “The Political Organization of the Ngwato of Bechuanaland Protectorate,” African Political Systems.

- one of the 1st things to notice is that the pattern of residence is very different as compared to the Nguni, such as the Zulu.

Nguni pattern—separate homesteads, each having essentially an extended family. The theoretical model has the family head, his wife or wives and their children, perhaps adult sons with their wives and children, grown up but unmarried sons and daughters, perhaps sisters and brothers (latter perhaps with wives and children), perhaps mothers (any widow of his father would be considered a ‘mother’ whether or not his birth mother).

- i.e., normally, all members of a homestead are usually relatives by birth or marriage of the homestead head. In practice, except for very rich men, most homesteads did not have all of the above in each homestead.

- homesteads are separated from each other and are usually located on land which they use; thus, the population is dispersed and similar to the pattern of farm families in North America, although the latter have much larger land holdings and are much more dispersed residentially.

Ngwato pattern—live clustered in towns or villages.

- extended families (more extensive than among the Nguni) live clustered together in what Schapera calls ‘wards’ and these are distinct political units. Other extended family ‘wards’ are also clustered in the town or village as separate neigbourhoods. The lands they all use for agriculture and pasturage are in the areas surrounding the towns. Thus, this pattern is similar to the agricultural village in Europe.

- the political system is more typical than the Zulu model. Certainly, the role and powers of the king are much more typical.

- notice that the Sotho-Tswana peoples did have an age-regiment system long before the northern Nguni began to adopt it. Thus, the inspiration for that innovation was almost certainly these neighbours rather than some unknown white man.

- also, the institution itself did not necessarily lead to a militarisation of society. The militarisation of northern Nguni societies seems to have been more a product of the economic and political situation which emerged there than it was the result of the borrowed innovation itself.

- this is an excellent example of how and why institutions come to get borrowed, but how they are adapted, often very significantly, as they are incorporated into the borrowing society.

- the process of incorporating outside peoples into a growing kingdom is also more typical of Africa than the forced and brutal techniques in Shaka’s kingdom. Individuals or families would be assigned to sons or other members of the royal family in order to swell that individual’s following.

- however, groups were usually left intact and settled as a block together; their leaders would remain as sub-chiefs or headmen, but would come under the authority of the king. They would, however, continue to retain some separated identity; gradually, as they intermarried and interacted with others in the kingdom, their differences and separate identity would diminish.

- the Ngwato, as described by Schapera, were almost certainly more heterogeneous than normal because of the difaqane. Like Moshoeshoe, Kgama brought heterogeneous groups of people (often refugees) together and created a stable, orderly political structure based upon traditional attributes of chieftainship. Moreover, he took advantage of assistance from whites such as the missionaries; he encouraged and provided leadership in adopting economic and other innovations. In the end, both kings succeeded in creating large-scale societies with structure and identity without the extreme methods and aspects employed in building the Zulu kingdom. Both Moshoeshoe and Kgama created their kingdoms out of wreckage and carnage.

- notice the importance of male relatives in the political system; while many expected to be involved, they also posed a threat against the king. Strong leaders did not have to worry so much because male relatives realised that they would not be able to make much headway against a strongly supported king. However, weak and unpopular leaders could encourage and enable these relatives to make trouble and even perhaps supplant a king.

- Schapera’s description shows the more normal powers and roles of a king/chief. Kgama and Moshoeshoe (creator of the Basotho kingdom) show a much more admirable example of African political leadership than Shaka. Of course, these individuals were exceptional, but they show the more normal mould for African political leaders. Good leaders attracted people and grew stronger; poor or bad leaders saw people drifting away and divisions of their chieftaincy (they might even be replaced).

- in addition to being strongly affected by the difaqane, Ngwato society had also been influenced by the coming of whites. Missionaries appeared quite early in the 19th C. Not only had Christianity spread among the Ngwato, but Kgama himself became a Christian. He became a strong advocate of social and economic change. This was unusual because few chiefs or kings could become Christian and still retain the loyalty of the traditionalist members of their society.

- another feature of this chapter is the fact that Ngwato society was under colonial rule. We shall be studying colonial rule in the 2nd term. Ngwato society is an example of an approach used widely by the British—indirect rule. This means that the colonial administration tried to govern through the traditional leaders and structures. As is pointed out here, kings/chiefs were increasingly put into a difficult, even impossible, position by the demands of colonial administrations The people looked to them to protect them from many of the demands of the administration. The administration insisted that the chiefs impose the changes and demands of the colonial government. The chiefs could not satisfy both: if they obeyed the administration, they became unpopular with their people; if they tried to satisfy their people, they got into trouble with the administration and faced being deposed. Not surprisingly, the tack they often took was to equivocate or do nothing; this often raised dissatisfaction on both sides!

Terminological caveats

- some of this is specific to South Africa, but much also applies to Africa as a whole; we must be sensitive. Some terms over time acquired pejorative, derogatory connotations. In fact, some terms which originally were relatively neutral subsequently came to be terms of abuse and highly derogatory. As a result, some terms should be used only as part of a direct quotation which should be quoted exactly; they should never be used otherwise. Other terms should be used carefully and must avoid superciliousness; this requires special care because the terms may be used very casually in the sources, but we have to demonstrate awareness and sensitivity and not simply follow the sources like mindless sheep.

- the term ‘kaffir’ (sometimes spelled ‘caffre’) was derived from the Arabic word meaning ‘unbeliever’ or ‘infidel’ and applied as a general term to non-Muslims. When asked by the newly arrived Portuguese in the 16th century, the Islamic Arab/Swahili people in the coastal east African cities replied, perhaps dismissively, that the negroid African people in the interior were ‘Kaffirs’. Kaffirs became a general term used by the Portuguese to refer to all Bantu-speaking Africans of eastern and southern Africa. This usage was picked up by the Dutch as they supplanted the Portuguese in the 17th century and brought to South Africa with the founding of Cape Town in 1652.

- the nearest Bantu-speaking people to the new Dutch colony at Cape Town, the southern Nguni—the Xhosa especially—were about 600-700 miles eastwards in the eastern part of the modern Cape Province and Transkei. By the end of the 18th century, contacts and conflict began to increase in the eastern Cape Colony between the westward migrating Xhosa and the eastward migrating white Trekboers. ‘Kaffir’ in the 19th century acquired a more specific meaning and referred especially to the Xhosa proper to distinguish them from other southern Nguni groups such as the Thembu, Mfengu and Mpondo. It was not meant as an insult and was capitalised; many Xhosa used the term in this way in referring to themselves. It was with this meaning referring to the Xhosa that it was used in such terms as Kaffir Wars, Kaffirland and British Kaffraria.

- however, especially among the Trekboers, the term had always been used in a generalised way to refer to Bantu-speaking Africans (as distinguished from San and Khoikhoi); as racism grew, so did the pejorative connotations of the term. By the end of the 19th century, the term had similar connotations and uses as the term “nigger” had. As a result, the term became unacceptable both to the Xhosa (as well as other Africans) and to the more polite among whites. Thus, it disappeared from official and polite use. Today, only the very offensive, pejorative connotations and uses of the term remain in South Africa.


- this general term refers to someone born and reared in a particular area. In the period of European imperialism, it became the term to refer to indigenous peoples of the territories being seized as colonies. It was for a long time relatively neutral and free from negative or derogatory connotations. In South Africa, ‘native’ had long been used in this way as a general term for Africans; government departments dealing with Africans were called Native Affairs and policies towards Africans were called ‘native policy’. As ‘Kaffir’ became pejorative and derogatory, ‘Native’ (capitalised) came to be the preferred term used for Africans.

- in the climate of arrogance and racism which developed by the late 19th C, ‘Natives’ came to be a term applied to non-white peoples of the European empires and frequently carried the definite connotation of being inferior and lesser human beings. As a result, this use of the term became increasingly objectionable to Africans and about Africans.

- however, ironically, to whites in South Africa after 1945, it also became undesirable as a term because it implied Africans’ prior rights to be there—natives as opposed to non-natives! As they were building apartheid and as the rest of Africa began to be freed from colonialism and domination by whites, the Afrikaner National Party government was trying vigorously and desperately to assert the claim that whites had just as much right to be in South Africa as Africans had. The terminological problem was a difficult one for them. The term ‘African’ posed a 2 fold problem: (1) ‘African’, which was the term increasingly being used by Africans themselves and adopted by the outside world, implied that they were the people of Africa and had even greater implications than ‘native’ about prior rights to the land and the country; (2) ‘Afrikaner’ is the Dutch word meaning ‘African’ and thus in Afrikaans, they were claiming the term for themselves.

[This usage originated early in the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope and was used to distinguish whites who had been born in the colony from whites who had been born elsewhere and migrated to the colony. As they developed a sense of identity as a distinct people and later (under nationalism) as a ‘nation’, the term came to be the very essence of that identity. Also, after the takeover by the British at the beginning of the 19th C, the term came to have additional significance to distinguish themselves from the British and even to signify their prior claims to possess South Africa against the claims of British imperialism.]

- it was in this context that the government fastened on the term ‘Bantu’ as their replacement and set about to replace it everywhere. The Department of Native Affairs became the Department of Bantu Affairs; Bantu Education became not only the government department administering education for Africans but also the entire philosophy and approach of a different education for Africans from that provided to children of other groups. The term became an integral part of the imposition of apartheid which placed Africans in the lowest category in the racial hierarchy and which subjected them to intense policies of discrimination. It very quickly came to be hated and rejected by Africans. As a result, except in reference to language, the term came to be highly objectionable; except in direct quotations, it should not be used as a term for African people.

Tribe, tribesman and tribalism

- these terms do not have the very derogatory connotations of some of the above terms, but should be used carefully and without condescension. ‘Tribe’ is used loosely and ambiguously to describe rather different entities—an ethnic group or as a distinct section within an ethnic group. In some instances, the groups being referred to had been united under a single political structure, but in other cases, while the people being referred to share a common language and cultural background, they were never united into one political entity and may even have been organised into competing and hostile polities. With such a variety of usages, the term loses its value as a description when you don’t know what it is describing.

- moreover, too often the terms are used as a subtle putdown. When we observe ethnic identities elsewhere in the world, we have much less tendency to use the term ‘tribalism’, with the implication that it is something backward and primitive, than we do in Africa. ‘Tribe’ too has implications of being backward and outmoded rather than terms like ‘nation’; yet, the ethnic identities and the ethnic hostilities in Africa are essentially the same as we observe in many areas of the world—former Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom, etc.—even Canada!.

-finding alternative terms is not easy. ‘Nation’ has so many meanings that it is really meaningless. When possible, use a more precise term such as kingdom or chiefdom. However, one must, even when it is rather awkward, frequently use a phrase—ethnic group, socio-cultural group, etc.

 Return to

 Return to

 Mills home page

 History 316 lecture list