Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

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Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999

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After six previous censuses of variable quality, Botswana had its first systematic national census in 1964. Total population was estimated at 550,000, with 35,000 absentees - mostly adult male workers in South Africa. Since 1964, the population has grown at about 3.4 per cent a year, thus exceeding one million soon after 1980 and doubling every twenty years.

Meanwhile the rate of labour migration abroad has been reduced by a combination of restrictions by South Africa and increased employment opportunities at home. Botswana also provided a home and eventual citizenship for numbers of refugees between the 1950s and the 1970s - from Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and most recently Namibia.

The 1991 census showed improved life expectancy of 67.0 years at birth, up from the 1981 figures by eight years to 68.4 years for females and by ten years to 64.8 years for males, due to the falling death rate. However these figures were drastically revised downwards in 1998 to take into accounts projected deaths from the AIDS pandemic.

The 1991 census also showed that Botswana is one of the southern African countries experiencing a falling birth rate in response to improved infant life expectancy.

The age and gender composition of the population was weighted by an increasingly youthful population. Approximately one fifth was under 5, and nearly half younger than 15. Females exceeded males in age groups over 15; below that age the gender ratio was more or less equal - because of recently reduced male infant mortality.

The American CIA's World Factbook 1998 lists life expectancy in Botswana at 40.09 years, with no note on the drastic reduction on previous statistics because of 1998 HIV/AIDS mortality projections.

The estimated total population (1997) is 1.53 million. The 1991 census showed that half the population is urban. One quarter of the population lives in six 'modern' towns and cities (Gaborone 1997 est. 183 000, Francistown 88 000, Selebi-Phikwe 46 000, Lobatse 30 000, Jwaneng 15 000, Orapa 10 000), and one quarter in twenty 'traditional towns and large villages (Molepolole 1997 est. 43 000, Kanye 35 000, Serowe 32 000, Mahalapye 31 000, Maun 29 000, etc.).

See UB Demography Department, and the internationally recognised Population and Sustainable Development training programme at the University of Botswana - previously based at the Institute of Social Studies at the Hague, Netherlands.

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As everywhere in the world, social classes in Botswana are fluid without definite boundaries. Class identities can change subtly within a couple of decades and dramatically over generations. Families and individuals are also stretched between "traditional" and "modern" models, between changing popular acceptance of feudal-type and capitalist-type social status.

The "traditional" model of social hierarchy in a Tswana state was of the Kgosi (paramount chief) and his ruling clan relatives seen as aristocrats, other (often non-Tswana) clans with cattle-holding headmen seen as commoners, and families without their own clan headman seen as servants or serfs (semi-slaves). Rich and poor were basically distinguished in people's eyes by ownership and holding of cattle.

The "traditional" class structure was compressed during the colonial period, notably between about 1910 and about 1950 when drought and depression drastically reduced the value of cattle. The typical colonial class structure has been described as a "peasantariat", an insecure worker-peasanthood that served the interests of the very big mining capitalists in South Africa.

Impoverished aristocrats were forced to work in the mines of South Africa, and some serfs returned from the mines with sufficient property to gain the status of commoners. But the greatest changes were to emerge among families blessed with more productive agriculturalists and craftworkers. They invested their modest gains in the modest expenditure of sending children, particularly girls, off to school.

The result was a small educated elite, of commoner as well as aristocrat and headman roots, that benefited when prosperity began to return in the later 1960s and particularly in the early 1970s. This new élite supplied a bureaucracy who were share-holders in the growth of the new Republic of Botswana. During the 1970s they invested their gains in cattle and petty commerce, and thereafter invested in landed property and larger enterprises. In Botswana, if rarely elsewhere in Africa, the "bureaucratic bourgoisie" has led to something like a "national bourgeoisie".

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Gender relations should be seen in the context of changing class relations. The "traditional" expendibility of young men as soldiers in war (with high status given to survivors), for example, was converted to expendibility as migrant workers in the mines in the colonial period.

Royal and aristocratic women were always at an advantage over commoner and servile women. They also benefited from the first, Christian wave of Westernization of "traditional" law around 1900, in the recognition of their property and succession rights. A child was no longer, as in most "feudal" societies, the automatic "property" of the father.

Gender relations among commoners were changed dramatically by the prevalence of male labour out-migration in the 1930s-50s. Formal marriage (by marriage payments between families) and female monogamy declined, and women often became de facto heads of household. The gains of royal and aristocratic women in Tswana "traditional" law were extended to commoner women.

Botswana shares with Lesotho, and the parts of South Africa between them, the unusual feature for Africa over the past century of more girls than boys going to school. (More girls in elementary classes, but more boys post-elementary.) This is no doubt a major cause of rising feminine consciousness, which was both cause and effect of the reforms in Tswana law. In the biggest "tribal" state, the Ngwato, women standing up for their interests as women can be seen among women aristocrats from around 1900 and among women commoners from around 1950.

Some observers have suggested a jealous male backlash against the widespread education of women, seen in increasing accusations of witchcraft against women during the 20th century - the feminization of evil. But this hypothesis needs to be tested against historical records.

Botswana today has women cabinet ministers and a woman high court judge. But ironically women are worse off than men in the "modern" sector than in the "traditional" sector. Households headed by women have half the average income in "modern" towns, and two-thirds the average income in "traditional" towns and large villages, but have an equal share of poverty (less than a quarter of the "modern" town income level) with households headed by men in rural areas.

For female aspects of gender see Metlhaetsile Women's Information Centre (MWIC).

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The dominant ethnic identity in Botswana is Tswana, with its whole population being characterized as Batswana (singular, Motswana) whatever their original ethnic origin. Though no attempt to count population by ethnic origin has been made since 1946, probably less than half the population is "ethnic Tswana" by origin. (There being a greater number of "ethnic Tswana" in South Africa, where a Tswana autonomous region called Bophuthatswana, also referring to its population as "Batswana", existed between 1976 and 1994.)

Tswana ethnic dominance in Botswana can be dated to the eight Tswana states which ruled most of the area in the 19th century. The populations of these states were given the official colonial status of "tribes", a term still used officially today, under British colonial rule. (See Page 1: Brief History).

Most Botswana nationals today still acknowledge membership of one of these eight "tribal" state identities - Tawana (Batawana) in the north-west, Ngwato (Bangwato, Bamangwato or Bagamangwato) in east- central areas, Kwena (Bakwena) and Ngwaketse (Bangwaketse), Kgatla (Bakgatla) and Tlokwa (Batlokwa), Malete (Balete or Bamalete) and Rolong (Barolong) in the south-east. The dominant group within each traditional state was Tswana. Except among the Tawana of Ngamiland, most non-Tswana groups were left in their own wards with their own chiefs subordinate to the Tswana rulers.

Within south-east Botswana the other main ethnic identity, that of the Khalagari (Bakhalagari), has become so incorporated within Tswanadom as to be now almost indistinguishable. Khalagari (who could be referred to as 'Western Sotho') people and their language, anyway closely related to Tswana ('Central Sotho'), have become so acculturated that even their name is now usually rendered in the Tswana form as Kgalagadi - and this remains the official Tswana term for the 'desert' named for the people, still called Kalahari in English.

The Ngwato of east-central Botswana constitute in numbers and territory the largest traditional "tribal" state, but are probably by origin less than one fifth ethnically "pure" Tswana. Besides those of Khalagari origin, the other major ethnicities are Tswapong (Batswapong), Birwa (Babirwa) and Kalanga (Bakalanga). The Tswapong and Birwa living on the edges of the Limpopo valley are related in kinship and language to the Pedi ("Northern Sotho") peoples across the river in South Africa.

The Kalanga living in the north of the Central District, and those around Francistown, are related to the Kalanga and other Shona peoples of Zimbabwe. Many Kalanga have hung onto their own "tribal" identity while adopting Setswana culture and becoming fully integrated into Botswana national society.

The Tawana state of north-west Botswana can be seen as having had the least successful "tribal" identity, with most of its subjects only coming to see themselves as Tswana in the second half of the 20th century. A very small ethnic Tswana group ruled over a large majority of Yeyi (Bayeyi) [sometimes written "Yei"] and Mbukushu (Hambukushu), who were given only servile status under Tswana headmen, rather than as free citizens in their own wards with their chiefs recognised by the Tawana rulers as headmen. Only the Mbanderu (Ovambanderu) and Herero (Ovaherero), with close relatives across the border in Namibia, and other Tswana minority groups were given such citizen status. See article by John Bock.

The Subiya (Basubiya) along the Chobe, with close relatives in the Caprivi Strip (Namibia) and Zambia, nevertheless retained their 'tribal' identity by being excluded from the Tawana "tribal" reserve by the British.

Small and scattered groups of Khoesan people inhabit the south- western districts of Botswana, as well as being found semi- incorporated with other ethnic groups elsewhere. These Khoesan (otherwise Basarwa,'Bushmen', etc.), speak languages characterised as Khoe (or Khwe) and San. They include some communities with their own headmen, and poorer groups without recognised headmen employed by Tswana and white or Herero settler cattle-farmers - or attempting to hunt and gather in game areas. See Kalahari Peoples Fund web-site; alsothe University of Cologne project on Hunter-gatherers in transition.

Khoesan communities with their own headmen include now Tswana- speaking or Kalanga-speaking Khoesan cattle-farmers on the Nata and Boteti Rivers in the north, and Afrikaans-speaking Khoesan cattle- farmers on the Molopo River in the south (related to Orlam-Nama people in South Africa and Namibia).

White settlement in Botswana, consisting of Afrikaners and fewer English settled in border farms, totalled less than 3000 people in the colonial period. Since then a larger "expatriate" population from Europe, North America, South Asia and elsewhere in Africa (n.b. Zambia and Ghana) has been drawn to the main towns to service Botswana's remarkable post-colonial development.

Though the cultural-linguistic demands of educated Kalanga and others continue, Botswana has not experienced significant ethnic friction since independence. There has been the growth of a new middle class and new working class, largely resident in the modern towns, bi-lingual in Setswana and English and expressing clear national identity over "tribal" identity.

The American CIA World Factbook 1998's Botswana page's note on Ethnicity is: "Batswana 95%, Kalanga, Basarwa, and Kgalagadi 4%, white 1%." This is obviously based on a confusion over the term 'Batswana' which is officially used refer to all citizens of Botswana, and thus to all speakers of Setswana as their national language. In fact the only full ethnic national census was in 1936, and the last racial national census was in 1964. See Ethnologue's "Languages of the World" 13th edition (Dallas Texas, 1996) Languages of Botswana for more recent, unexplained statistics of numbers of language speakers.

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Western dress has been common among people in Botswana, except at the poorest level, for more than a century. Traditional dress having consisted of tailored leather and fur clothing, effective against the winter cold, and sandals or soft leather shoes.

Common diet and cuisine consist of sorghum and maize porridge, melons, seeds, wild plums, beans and pulses and traditional spinach, supplemented by tomato and potato or onion and oranges usually purchased from stores. Meat consumption, (traditionally consisting of occasional wildlife or goat, and beef but rarely) has become more common with the opening of small butcheries selling beef. Beverages include forms of soured milk, sorghum or maize beer, and bottled or canned soft drinks and lager beers. Consumption of chemically preserved canned drinks has greatly increased with the spread of cash income.

Families in rural villages live in traditional compounds, usually with two or three small houses with cylindrical clay walls and conical thatch roofs, set round an open fireplace and surrounded by low clay walling. Most recently built houses are square with metal roofs, while many houses in the north-west are made of reed. Furniture and crockery are usually of Western type, though traditional sleeping mats and large traditional pots (for cooling liquids) also remain popular.

Most cooking in villages is on open wood fires, and lighting by candle and paraffin (kerosene) lantern, though coal fires have become general in poorer urban households without electricity.

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Botswana is blessed with a generally dry and warm climate generally conducive to good health. The incidence of tropical diseases, notably malaria and bilharzia and sleeping-sickness, is limited by the environment and lack of surface water. Until the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the most common fatal diseases are intestinal (diarrhoeal and digestive diseases) and respiratory (pneumonia and tuberculosis), resulting from poverty or ignorance of nutrition, sanitation and housing. Measles and hepatitis are also fairly common.

Apart from HIV/AIDS, the main threats to health, besides poverty and ignorance, are diseases associated with changing lifestyle, particularly diet. Salt intake associated with greater consumption of red meat is resulting in increased incidence of high blood pressure, fatal strokes and heart disease. Sugar intake associated with soft drinks etc. is leading to more and more dental caries in older children.

The spread of HIV/AIDS, initially along trucking routes and from mining areas in the north, is closely associated with the incidence of other (hetero-)sexually transmitted venereal diseases. See the Botswana AIDS Action Trust

Since 1973 government health policy has been based on the provision of basic health services, in the form of health posts in every village with a population over 500, and clinics in every area with more than 4000 people in a 15 kilometre radius. Every post was first supplied with a centrally-trained but locally-selected family welfare educator, and then by a professional nurse.

Since the later 1980s there has also been extensive investment in two large national referral hospitals, at Gaborone and Francistown. There are eight older government hospitals, three Christian mission hospitals, four mining company hospitals, one government psychiatric hospital, and a private clinic-hospital at Gaborone. There are also schemes for the blind and handicapped coordinated by the Red Cross and other voluntary bodies.

The use of government health services is for a small nominal fee, There are private health insurance schemes covering fee-charging private medical practitioners. There are up to 200 Western-certified physicians in private practice, and more than 2000 traditional herbalists, healers and diviners. See HealthNet Botswana pages with statistics produced by the Botswana Ministry of Health.

There is now a modest state pension scheme for people over 65 years old. See Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs. See also Botswana Council for the Disabled and Cheshire Mogoditshane Rehabilitation Centre.

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Isaac Schapera is the doyen of social scientists who have worked on Botswana. His field notes, dating from 1929, are deposited in the London School of Economics' Schapera achive and in the Botswana National Archives.

The Adventures of George Silberbauer is a somewhat patronizing piece on an anthropologist among the Kalahari Khoesan in the 1950s.

For details of the numerous publications of the Botswana Society see their publications page.


(13a) Bessie Head, Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind (London & Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1981)

(13b) Isaac Schapera, Adam Kuper & John Comaroff, The Tswana (London: International African Institute, 1976 edn.) [bibliog.]

(13c) Laurens van der Post & Jane Taylor, Testament to the Bushmen (New York & London: Viking Penguin, 1984) ISBN -14-007579-8

(13d) Edwin N. Wilmsen, Land Filled with Flies: a Political Economy of the Kalahari (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) ISBN 0 226 90015 0

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

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Last updated 19 August 1999