Leaders battle over community’s R26 billion wealth

The fight for the soul of the Bakgatla Ba-Kgafela

Photo of king being crowned.

Kgosi Kgafela Kgafela II is crowned by Botswana president Ian Kgama. At left is former interim ruler Mothibe Linchwe.

By Olebile Sikwane

14 March 2016

The Bakgatla Ba-Kgafela people are helpless spectators to a battle for the leadership of the tribe, which straddles Botswana and South Africa, and its R26 billion wealth.

Last week North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo re-opened the battle for succession when he rejected recommendations on the chieftainship which had positioned an unknown, Merafe Ramono, as the rightful heir to the wealthy Bakgatla kingdom. 

Ramono is the son of the deceased former regent Tidimane Pilane who had tried to wrestle the throne from Kgosi Linchwe II, who died in 2007. Kgosi Linchwe II served Botswana as ambassador to the United States and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mahumapelo’s ruling favours Ramono’s cousin and son of Linchwe II, Kgosi Kgafela Kgafela II, for the Moruleng chieftainship seat. Kgafela II is the paramount Chief of Bakgatla Ba-Kgafela, originally based in Mochudi, Botswana.

Born in Washington in the US in 1971, a Botswana-trained and highly respected human rights lawyer, Kgafela is now a resident and citizen of South Africa, although under controversial circumstances. His mother Catherine Motsepe (affectionately called Mohumagadi Kathy or Mma Seingwaeng) is originally a Bakgatla Ba-Mmakau princess and was born in Pretoria.

Kgafela himself was crowned in 2007 in Mochudi in a ceremony characterised by pomp, sophistication and media frenzy, broadcast live on national television. In attendance were Botswana President Ian Kgama, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, two retired Presidents, kings and queens from the diaspora, and prominent business people including Patrice Motsepe, who is Kgafela’s first cousin.

But today, Kgafela’s erstwhile subordinate and millionaire uncle, Nyalala Pilane, insists Kgafela II is a South African citizen illegally and cannot occupy the Moruleng seat because he is a ‘fugitive.’ This is despite Pilane himself having written and sworn an affidavit to Home Affairs applying for Kgafela’s citizenship.

In 1995, Kgosi Linchwe II, President Nelson Mandela and Chief Lucas Mangope, who was President of Bophuthatswana, formulated a treatise in which Linchwe II (Kgafela’s father) remained the reigning supreme leader of Moruleng, ruling through a subordinate chief. Linchwe appointed Pilane as a regent. The regent was to take instructions from Mochudi, Botswana where Linchwe II resided. This has been the Bakgatla custom and tradition, with people on both sides of the border sharing cultural events, consulting each other and collectively making tribal decisions. A Supreme Court judgement cemented Kgosi Linchwe II’s position on the throne as the ultimate authority of Moruleng, the only one authorised to rule directly and indirectly through a regent, in this case Pilane.

In 2012, when facing assault charges in Botswana, Kgafela argued that the Botswana constitution was a fraud, the government was fraudulent and did not have the power to prosecute him. The state had argued that Kgafela’s regiments had unlawfully flogged subjects seen to be a nuisance in his territory. Kgafela was singled out by the state as the commander-in-chief of the regiments from whom they received instructions. This prosecution now pitted customary law against the laws of Botswana.

After expensive legal gymnastics and an aborted constitutional challenge, Kgafela fled Botswana to his ancestral base of Moruleng (Pilanesberg) and a decision was reached that Pilane would vacate that seat in favour of his supreme leader. Pilane duly resigned - but came back three weeks later to remove Kgafela from power. A monumental tug of war ensued, with expensive advocates, multiple lawsuits, pre-paid experts, assasination attempts, and very public fallout.

With Kgafela isolated, Pilane continued his commercial trajectory using Bakgatla assets. An example is the popular Bakgatla’s Siyaya Television which won SAFA’s television rights worth R2 billion. No one really knows the terms of the deal. Community development projects remained in Pilane’s hands, privatised and personalised with little accounting except to a coterie called the Traditional Council, whose members have been wholly rejected by Kgafela II who accuses them of corruption and questions their ties to the royal house.

The Bakgatla Ba-Kgafela tribe owns substantial stakes in three platinum mines and lucrative tourism ventures, hosts the Moruleng Stadium used by the Premier Soccer League, leases the land on which Sun City is located and owns a R400 million mall in Moruleng. But the community remain spectators while the wealthy royal family members clash publicly, with accusations that billions of rands are being syphoned off to overseas accounts.

In contrast, the equally wealthy Bafokeng nation in Phokeng (Rustenburg), not far from Moruleng, runs a successful community development programme that seeks to encompass the whole community. At the helm of this plan is King Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi II.

In February, a report issued by the North West Premier’s office recommended that Kgafela Kgafela II would no longer be the ultimate authority in Moruleng, stating that the Bakgatla of Moruleng had chosen to separate from authority in Mochudi, and that Pilane had been identified as the rightful chief of the Bakgatla in Moruleng.

But a few weeks later, the Premier rejected these recommendations and set aside the report. Instead he set up a judicial enquiry.

It is not clear who will sit on the envisaged judicial commission, when it will be expected to report, and what will happen in the meantime to Kgafela II and the community, hopeless spectators in the midst of wealth, reckless spending, exploitation, material arrogance and profligacy by those at the helm of their money and assets.

In Mochudi, Botswana’s fourth largest village and the capital of all Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela, dejection is palpable. However there is also exasperation mixed with a bit of hope within the community of 80,000 inhabitants about their king. Kgafela II, an intelligent man by all accounts, is seen as unapologetically hostile to received wisdom - his public declaration on the use of dagga caused havoc in Botswana when he recommended that cabinet ministers, the clergy and the Attorney General of Botswana must smoke dagga to heal and to lead properly. He is a prolific researcher, and questions almost everything.

For his people, the focus of their attention, they say, is not Pilane or the fight for the tribe’s mineral riches in South Africa. Their fight, they say, is with the Botswana government, over what it intends to do with Kgafela’s assault charges.

For now, no one knows when Kgafela will return to Botswana. He is living behind high security walls somewhere in South Africa, where he continues to write books. Following his first book, The King’s Journal, he is now working on a second book, The Regent. Only a select few have access to him.

As for Pilane, he continues to be in charge of a confused but rich tribe with reported wealth of R26 billion.

Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of GroundUp.