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Botswana Parliament and The Kgotla System

The parliament supposedly represents the modern form of political governance, especially for former colonies and protectorates. By inference this suggests that prior to the adoption of modernised governance there was traditional governance system in use. In the case of Botswana, the Kgotla was the traditional system and forum for conducting the affairs of an ethnic group, tribe, community, family, or a village settlement within the nation. 

The Kgotla was, and is still is, the authority domain of a paramount chief, a chief or a headman. Likewise, both the traditional and modern systems of governance have come together, and are working together in Botswana. 

This article discusses these two bodies to highlight the similarities and differences they embody, and how they have been merged to offer Botswana a form of governance system.

Botswana Parliament

The current Botswana Parliament is the 12th since attaining independence in 1966, whose tenure runs from 2019 to 2024. Batswana have voted in elections every 5 years since the first elections in 1965, and on each tenure parliament has been set by members from different political parties, consistent and reminiscent of the primary character and role of the institution, serving as,

  • a legislative body of government at national level
  • overseeing the smooth running of the state’s affairs
  • making laws and changing or improving old ones
  • representing the wishes of the people who voted them

Botswana currently has seven political parties in existence being the Botswana Democratic Party, Botswana National Front, Botswana Congress Party, Botswana Patriotic Front, Botswana Alliance Movement, Alliance for Progressives and Botswana People's Party. However, the BCP, BNF and BCP have come together to form an umbrella party called the UDC. There are candidates who are not affiliated to any political party and they are known as independent candidates. A party with the most seats in parliament gets to be the ruling party and since independence, the BDP has not lost this position in all the 12 sets of elections.

Features of Botswana Parliament

The following are the characteristics of the Botswana parliament the majority of which are similar to a parliamentary structure anywhere else in the world.

  • The Parliament of Botswana was built after independence in the nation's capital, Gaborone 
  • The leader of parliament is the president 
  • Various representatives of constituencies propose during a parliament hearing, the developments that they require for their constituencies 
  • When parliament is in session the public is allowed to attend 
  • After a bill or law is passed, it is signed for by the president, and then it is implemented

The members of parliament work hand in hand to ensure that there is development in the country. For a bill to be passed, the majority has to be in agreement. The chief speaker of the parliament oversees the proceedings and maintains order in the parliament. Laws are also passed by the parliament. This means that the parliament has the last say as to whether a law be passed or not. In a nutshell, the parliament is a regulatory body that ensures the proper running of the state by making laws and ensuring that they are followed. The parliament is responsible for development at national level, making decisions that affect the nation. It does so by working hand in hand with other structures of governance. These structures are basically intermediaries between the masses and the parliament.

The Kgotla traditional governance system

The Kgotla – structural (gathering place) definition

What is a Kgotla? Before elaborating on the Kgotla system of governance, a physical and metaphorical definitions of the Kgotla are made. 

In Setswana a Kgotla is an open meeting place or place of gathering to discuss matters that affect all members of a tribe or community with the chief presiding. In fact, proceedings are not in effect until the chief is present. 

The traditional structure of a Kgotla is a setting of a kraal built by tree logs erected next to each in a semi-circle, almost within the proximity of the chief’s compound. However, the modern structure although similar, uses a typical brick and cement wall called leobo instead of tree logs for the outer structure, and may be set far from the chief’s abode.

The physical structure of the Kgotla is both unmistakable and unmissable to all native citizens. In fact, the Kgotla is set as the focal point of any big village, with major roads tending to converge around it or ending in the place.

The Kgotla – symbol of community consensus definition

'Mafoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe' – is a Setswana expression that loosely translates to all views in a gathering add value and are welcome. This expression sets a tone of the value of consensus, and opens the way for all members of a community to feel both valued and welcome.

Traditional and modern features of the Kgotla

  • Kgosi or Chief in a Kgotla

The kgotla then represents an established feature from traditional practice to enhance modern governance in Botswana in support of the parliament. The highest authority in a Kgotla is the chief or headman, however, a novel structure with oversight over chiefs called Ntlo Ya Dikgosi or House of Chiefs was established by central government to afford chiefs a role in the modern governance structure. It was after independence that the kgotla was given more recognition by various acts of parliament (such as the chieftainship act, customary courts act, tribal territories act, local police act, house of chief’s act, etc.). (Sharma, 2014) continue to assert that even some tradition-based structures were established by the constitution of the independent Botswana being the house of chiefs or ntlo ya dikgosi.

  • Morafe or Tribe and community

Every native of Botswana belongs to a particular tribe.

However not every community is made from one tribe. Even though each region helped to identify by district zones belongs to a particular tribe, Batswana have intermixed by employment, social and movement reasons such that the Kgotla is for all than for the particular.

  • House of Chiefs

In the modern government system of Botswana, by extension the kgotla is connected to the house of Chiefs than to the parliament. Whereas the Kgotla is connected to chiefs who are in turn connected to their respective tribes, the parliament is connected to people by political party affiliations. This structure allows for chiefs or dikgosi also sitting in parliament and having a contribution to the decision making process and present matters of interest of their tribes or villages. There is a leader for the ntlo ya dikgosi who is voted for by the other chiefs and mediates between the parliament and the other dikgosi. The kgotla is a traditional structure whose powers are derived from tradition partly and mostly from the laws of Botswana. Every tribe has a chief who is their leader. There are eight main chiefs leading the eight tribes that exist in Botswana. Even so, as the population grew and some tribes migrated to other places, every village came to have its kgosi or chief. Since independence, the dikgosi as well as their supporting staff who work at the kgotla are considered as public/ civil servants and were now paid from public funds and are given the responsibility to run public office. 

The modern kgotla is therefore a public office. The kgosi is ultimately responsible for reporting to the area’s Member of Parliament on issues concerning his or her village.  The kgotla is therefore basically just a forum for development policies to be provided and implemented at village level (Sharma, 2014).

  • Customary law

Furthermore, the kgotla is responsible for ensuring justice; it does this through the customary courts which are very common in rural areas. This is meant for easy access by the patrons as they are cheap and not too modern. The customary court’s authority and jurisdiction on some cases is cut off; cases such as treason, rape, murder and other extreme crimes. They have the right to sentence a person to a fine, imprisonment and corporal punishment. 

The kgotla is a platform on which to set consensus to impact action at communal and national level. At a communal level consensus may be made on social, economic and especially development  positions to be adopted, as each community has responsibility for the development of its area. Any matters of agreement are taken from the people to the government.

  • Village development committee

This is done through another structure called the village development committee which together with the kgotla work hand in hand to ensure development in a village and the implementation of whatever plans have been made. These are mobilised by them as they also have to ensure that they submit them to the district commissioner.

  • Customs and norms within the Kgotla

Today the kgotla still retains some customs that were practiced before the introduction of the parliamentary system, although some are relaxed. Women were constrained in the olden days from helping in the decision making because of the strong patriarchy that existed then. On top of that, the youth were also prohibited from partaking in the kgotla proceedings due to old beliefs that the old were wiser; however, today both women and the youth are welcome to contribute in Kgotla sessions.

Some traditions have still been withheld; a typical example is the tradition of women being disallowed to wear trousers and expected to always have a headscarf on in the kgotla. In some kgotlas especially those bearing the old infrastructural features, women sit separately from men and there is a part of the kgotla where women are prohibited from sitting. Apart from this, there is only one part where people can enter and exit. For all these there is usually a fine or corporal punishment if it is contravened.

Democracy in the kgotla has been practiced for a long time. The kgosi though is not elected into the position. The chieftainship is a hereditary position, however, in the case of a headman an individual maybe nominated from a non-royal family to lead. In the case where the role is inherited the installation moves from parent to last born offspring upon the parent’s death, illness, old age or just retirement. This offspring is usually but not always a male, however today women are nominated into the role.

The VDC, which works together with the kgotla, is voted for by the locals; but members may opt to join by volunteering. Other staff who are office bearers in the Kgotla government offices are selected through the normal recruitment process based on their qualifications and experience just as it is with every other government or public office.

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