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The Tswana People

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The Tswana People

Tswana is the name applied to a number of groups who all speak the same language and share similar customs but have separate names. Tswana are defined as a member of the Bantu people inhabiting Botswana, western South Africa, and neighboring areas. They are also called Batswana or Bechuana. The language Tswana is defined as the Sotho language of the Tswana people and is a Bantu language. It may also be referred to as Setswana or Sechuana, and it was the first Sotho language written to have a written form. The principal Tswana clans are the: BarÐ"Ò'lÐ"Ò'ng, BakwÐ"Єna, Bangwaketse, Bamangwato, Batawana, BatlÐ"Ò'kwa, Bakgatla, and Balete. None of these people ever knew themselves as the Tswana because foreigners gave them this name, the meaning and origin of which is unknown.

The Tswana people migrated from Eastern Africa into central southern Africa in the 14th century. They lived as hunters, herders, and cultivators in the high plains where there was plenty of game and grass, no serious livestock diseases, and fertile soil. The Tswana were able to grow sorghum, beans, pumpkins, sweet melons, gourds, and after being introduced by the Portuguese, maize was also highly productive. They existed as thriving agricultural communities.

The Tswana are Bantu speaking people originated in the Katanga area that is today part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Between 200 and 500 CE, this group expanded across sub-Saharan Africa, crossed the Limpopo River, and entered into the area known today as South Africa. This migration occurred in two broad waves, by the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana. The Sotho-Tswana settled primarily in the Highveld, the large and relatively high central plateau of southern Africa. And, by 1000 CE, the Bantu had colonized most of South Africa, with the exception of the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, which were inhabited by Khoisan people.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sotho-Tswana society was shaken by two major developments. First was the Difaqane or “the crushing.” This was the forced migration and upheaval caused by the rise of the Zulu nation. Within two decades, under the reign of Shaka, this nation evolved from a typical Bantu-speaking decentralized pastoral society into a highly centralized nation-state with a powerful standing army. The second disruption was the advance of Boer settlers from the Cape Colony into the interior territory that has been populated by Sotho-Tswana peoples. The settlers were called voortrekkers and sought to leave British rule after the British seized the Cape Colony from the Netherlands.

In an effort to repel attacks from the Nguni groups fleeing Zulu conquest, King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho people was able to weld numerous clans into a kingdom and reach an understanding with the Zulu to prevent their attempting to conquer his kingdom. This state was strong enough to keep the Boers at bay and maintained its independence after the formation of the Orange Free State. Then, as tensions between the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal and the British increased, Moshoeshoe maneuvered between them and ultimately fought to a stalemate when diplomacy had failed. As a result, Britain protected Lesotho, previously Basutoland, as a Crown Colony. Thus, it never became a part of South Africa and became the independent nation of Botswana in 1965.

Further north, the less centralized Sotho and Batswana did not fare as well as the Basotho during the Difaqane. The Matabele rebelled against the Zulu and fled KwaZula, or Zululand. The Matabele killed many of the Batswana before they became better prepared to fend off invasion attempts and the Matabele finally settled in the southwest region of modern Zimbabwe.

Later, the British and Boer South African Republic divided the territory of Batswana. Then, after the British defeat of the South African Republic in the Anglo-Boer War, some of the territory became part of South Africa in the formation of the Union of South Africa. The remaining territory became the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, which became the independent state of Botswana in 1965.

The Tswana are closely related to the Sotho people of Lesotho and South Africa. The Sotho-Tswana peoples are alike in language, customs, and they claim a common ancestor, Mogale. They also share an agrarian culture, social structures, political organization, religious and magical beliefs, and similar family structures. All of the Sotho and Tswana languages are inherently intelligible, but they have generally been considered to be three separate languages for political and historical reasons. Also, the larger sub-tribes are often considered as separate tribes with their separate languages.

Traditional Tswana society is comprised of men, women, children, and “badimo,” or ancestors and living dead that possess metaphysical powers. A Tswana does not think in terms of individual rights, but of responsibilities to his or her family and tribe. The father serves as the head of the household and is to be obeyed and respected by his wives and children at all times.

Further, the Sotho-Tswana are organized by lineages that developed as the tribe grew. These lineages are organized into subunits and communities in which every level exhibits the same social organization and institutions such as the Kgotla, the traditional court with various officials assigned various duties in the social structure at each level. In traditional Tswana religion, tribal animism, “Modimo” is the great God, or “The Great Spirit.”

The Tswana, as with all Bantu societies, were highly decentralized. They were organized into large clans that were headed by a chief who maintained a loose alliance to the nation’s head chief. Individual chiefdoms comprised a number of sociopolitical units, the smallest of which was the family household. This consisted of a man, his wives, and dependent children. Traditional housing is the rondavel, in which the walls are made of cow dung and mud and the roof is of thatch. If stone was available, stonewalls were erected to separate family homesteads. Several households would be linked together patrilineally through a common male ancestor and situated close together within the same village, forming a family group. This group was presided over by a male elder and was concerned with such domestic matters as marriage negotiations, the organization of feasts, and the division of an estate. Further, a number of these family groups made up a ward that was a distinct administrative unit, occupying its own separate part of a village and headed by a hereditary headman. Each ward also possessed its



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