Botswana: Early British Protectorate (1895-1945)

Updated June 2009

The administration of the Bechuanaland Protectorate proclaimed in was seated outside the territory until 1965, first at Vryburg until 1895 and then at Mafekeng, both in the Cape (Dale 1995, 13, 14; Acemoglu et al 2001, 12). The location of the capital was symptomatic of the temporary character of the Protectorate for initially it was expected to form a part of the expanded British territory to the north east and later, after its formation in 1910, to be incorporated into of the Union of South Africa (Parsons 1999; Acemoglu et al 2001, 12, 13). In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes' British South Africa Company (BSAC) invaded the territory of the Ndebele in Matabeleland to establish the nucleus of what was to become Southern Rhodesia and Rhodes began pressing for the incorporation of the Protectorate into the new BSAC territory (Dale 1978, 8; Land 1966, 10). The Tswana chiefs petitioned Queen Victoria to prevent the BSAC taking control over the Protectorate and with the support of the London Missionary Society and other liberal groups they were able to rally British public opinion to their side and matters were left as they were (Dale 1978, 8; Land 1966, 10; Acemoglu et al 2001, 13). However, the chiefs had to agree to the building of a railway by the BSAC through their territory to connect Southern Rhodesia with the Cape Colony (Parsons 1999).

The colonial administration of the Protectorate, such as it was, was focused on collecting taxes and maintaining order and very little else; the largest area of expenditure until the 1930s was on the police force (Murray & Parson 1990, 181). The High Commissioner defined the situation thus (Acemoglu et al 2001, 13):

We have no interest in the country to the north of the Molope [the Bechuanaland Protectorate], except as a road to the interior; we might therefore confine ourselves for the present to preventing that part of the Protectorate being occupied by either filibusters or foreign powers doing as little in the way of administration or settlement as possible.

The effect of this was to leave the effective governance of the territory to the heads of the various chiefdoms (Acemoglu et al 2001, 12, 13). Not only was administration rudimentary, but no investments were made in the territory and the provision of services such as education and healthcare were left in the hands of the missionaries (Murray & Parson 1990, 183; Parsons 1999). Missionary primary schools (there were no secondary schools until 1949) from the 1920s onwards were financed by the Native Fund, created from taxes imposed by the Batswana on themselves, and the chiefs were able to obtain a measure of control over them and force the missionaries to adopt more practically orientated curricula; in the period that followed the Native Fund was used to build additional primary schools (Murray & Parson 1990, 183). However, little land was alienated for White settlement (Parsons 1999).

In the early 1890s declining revenue from the demise of the hunting trade was offset by the ability of people to earn incomes by working on the Rhodesian pioneer road and telegraph and especially by selling food to people passing on it (Parsons 1975, 384). In 1896 the cattle based economy of the Tswanas suffered a massive setback when the rinderpest epidemic wiped out an estimated nine out of every ten cattle, leading also to the banning of cattle exports by neighbouring colonies just when the arrival of rail road had made mass exports feasible, and this was followed by a series of droughts and falls in the price of beef that undermined agriculture as a source of commercial exports (Murray & Parson 1990, 161; Hitchcock 1987, 239; Curry 1984, 451). Cereal production in the territory plummeted and in the 1920s and 1930s grain had to be imported (Parsons 1975, 384). Earnings from food sales to travellers on the pioneer road disappeared with the opening of the Mafeking-Bulawayo rail road (Parsons 1975, 384).

In the 1880s and 1890s the Tswana became increasingly accustomed to the purchase of consumer goods and were thus drawn into the commercial economy (Murray & Parson 1990, 161; Curry 1984, 451). In the midst of declining incomes, a hut tax was imposed by the Colonial authorities in 1899 placing further pressure on the Tswana to earn cash, so forcing many to become migrant workers on the mines in South Africa and by the 1930s Bechuanaland was hardly more than a reserve for cheap labour for South African industry (Murray & Parson 1990, 161; Hitchcock 1987, 239; Curry 1984, 451). The collection of the Hut Tax was placed in the hands of the chiefs and they were given a 10% commission for performing this task, supplying them with additional income to administer their chiefdoms (Parsons 1975, 390; Good 1992, 71, 72). In 1919 an additional head tax was levied, increasing the burden (Acemoglu et al 2001, 13). The migrant labour system stripped the countryside of male labour for agriculture, impacting on production, even as it deepened the ties of dependency of the protectorate's people and economy on South Africa; almost half of males between 15-54 were working outside the Protectorate (Curry 1984, 451; Acemoglu et al 2001, 13). The Protectorate's entry into the Customs Union with South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland consolidated the subordination of its economy and its dependence on South Africa (Murray & Parson 1990, 162, 163; Parsons 1975, 385).

The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 presented the Tswana chiefs with new difficulties. Though they managed to ensure that the Protectorate was not incorporated into it from the beginning, the South Africa Act of 1909 passed by the British Parliament provided for the possibility that Bechuanaland (along with Basotholand and Swaziland) could be absorbed into the Union at some undefined point in the future (Dale 1978, 8). This event the chiefs were anxious to avoid, particularly when in the 1930s the South African government began to systematise racial discrimination and economic exploitation of people of colour in the Union while at the same time pressed for the incorporation of the Protectorate (Dale 1978, 11; Munger 1965,19).

In 1920 racially separate councils without legislative powers were established to represent the interests of permanent residents to the colonial authorities, a European Advisory Council and a Native (later African) Advisory Council (Dale 1978, 10). The European Council was elected by a universal adult suffrage (Dale 1978, 10) The African Advisory Council was comprised of seven colonial officials, the the heads of the Tswana chiefdoms and their delegates and some representatives of Africans living outside the eight Tswana chiefdoms (Proctor 1968, 60). That the two councils had an unequal hearing before the government is illustrated by the Credit Sales to Natives Proclamation of 1923 that purported to equitably segregate the economic interests of Whites and Africans, but was actually used to suppress commercial initiatives by indigenous people in the economic depression that followed World War One (Dale 1978, 10; Parsons 1975, 407, 408). The anomalousness of the situation is indicated by the fact that there were only 1700 Whites in 1921 to an estimated 150 000 Africans (Munger 1965,5). In the 1930s the system of administration through police officers was overhauled and civil servants, though not of a high calibre, were dispatched to assist (Dale 1978, 13).

Nevertheless, for the most part, the British continued their tradition of parsimonious neglect and it was left to the Tswana chief to initiate and drive the development of infrastructure and improvements such as boreholes and the development of new grazing lands, but these were regarded as the private property of the developer, leading to the privatisation of communal assets and the reduction of land occupants to labourers or tenants (Good 1992, 72). The process of dispossession and reduction of the poor to relations of dependency was advanced by the terrible drought of 1930 (Land 1966, 10). Some well meant attempts by the administration to initiate mining and agricultural projects in 1934, but this required the subordination of the chiefs to new administrative structures (Parsons 1999; Acemoglu et al 2001, 13). These efforts were retarded by legal challenges by the chiefs, who feared that they would lead to tighter control over them by the government, land alienation and to an influx of White settlers, and were shelved with the outbreak of the Second World War (Parsons 1999; Acemoglu et al 2001, 13).


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