Are Tswanas different?

A survey reveals that Tswanas are the most radical African nationalists in the country.
Why are Tswana speakers different? This question was thrown up by last year's Consolidating Democracy opinion survey carried out by the Helen Suzman Foundation, which showed that the Tswanas of the North West province had a political profile which differed sharply not only from the strongly contrasting Xhosa and Zulu groups but even from the more closely related Northern and Southern Sotho-speakers. The oddity of this profile was that on the one hand the Tswanas emerged as the most radical African nationalists anywhere in the country, exhibiting an almost blind party loyalty, hegemonic in their dislike of opposition and determined to see the best in the government in every way. This radicalism was not explicable by a high Cosatu membership - indeed the North West tied with the Northern Cape with the lowest (3 per cent) proportion of unionised respondents. At the same time the Tswanas were notably more fearful than others and also took a more politically correct view of life than anyone else. In all the following respects this group set record levels:-
  • 93 per cent supported the ANC - a figure equalled only in the Northern Province.
  • On all questions relating to the degree of satisfaction felt about social and economic conditions, the Tswanas of the North West invariably displayed far higher levels of satisfaction than did any other Africans.
  • This was matched by similar record levels of political satisfaction: record majorities of Tswanas pronounced themselves satisfied with the President, the government and their provincial legislature on all manner of issues -while Africans elsewhere recorded high levels of disappointment and dissatisfaction. Thus 56 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied with the government's record in reducing unemployment. Even in the ANC's greatest bastion, Northern Province, the figure was only 4 per cent.
  • 34 per cent of Tswanas wanted to abolish traditional chieftaincy and the same number wanted political parties to play an even greater role in their local affairs.
  • 26 per cent said they wanted no Opposition to the present government.
  • Only 13 per cent agreed that in the rest of Africa conditions for ordinary people had not improved in recent years (equal with Mpumalanga)
  • 59 per cent wanted fewer parties so as to increase national unity and to reduce the criticism expressed about the government.
  • 44 per cent strongly agreed that they would stand by their party and its leaders even if they disagreed with many of its policies and actions.
  • 85 per cent rejected the view that South Africa was mainly a country for blacks and insisted that all South Africans should be treated equally and have the same opportunities.
  • 83 per cent said they would never be able to support parties that used to be supported by whites before 1994, no matter how good their policies might be.
  • On questions about crime and vigilantism Tswanas showed the highest levels of respect for law and order.
  • 79 per cent said it was difficult or impossible to live in a neighbourhood where you disagreed politically with your neighbours - a figure equalled only in Mpumalanga.
  • 61 per cent said you had to be careful about criticising the government because you never knew how one might be harmed as a result.

But are Tswanas really so different? I am a Tswana-speaker myself and I don't think so: at least, when one talks to one's family and friends in more private circumstances than an opinion survey allows, one gets the impression that actually Tswanas are just as likely as anyone else to feel dissatisfaction over poor delivery, for example, and they are usually moderate people who do not easily adopt radical views. In that sense the survey results may be misleading - but the question remains, is there a specific Tswana culture which somehow inhibits the freer expression of such views?

Peace-loving people

Certainly there is a specific Tswana culture but the puzzle is that in many ways it is the gentlest and most liberal of African cultures. Tswanas see themselves - and are generally viewed by others - as a friendly, peaceable people who eschew violence and value good neighbourliness. There is no warrior tradition or history of military conquest among the Tswanas: racist stereotypes of Africans as violent and aggressive people fail completely here for Tswana culture stresses non-violence and acceptance of authority, even though among the Tswanas such authority was never backed up by military might as it often was among other African groups.

The Tswana themselves employ a variety of terms to denote their rules of conduct. They lay great stress on manners or etiquette, traditional practices, taboos and on notions of duty and obligation. Tswana tribal law, initiation schools and the power of the elders all ensure a continuing conformity with these recognised norms of conduct. And while the values thus inculcated may be liberal, this pressure for conformity is, of course, in itself illiberal.

Thus Tswana traditional culture is authoritarian: the notion of respect plays a vital role in a child's upbringing and the obedience that implies is strongly emphasised. It is, for example, culturally quite unacceptable that a child should argue with an adult, no matter how wrong the adult may be: the child's role is to accept orders and be obedient.

Totems and taboos

Tswana culture requires respect not only for tribal law, but for a complex code of taboos and totem animals. It is, for example, a serious offence to kill a python since it is believed that this would bring illness to the tribe, just as it is for a man to enter a maternity hut or for a widower to pass through a herd of cattle. Totem animals are important and it is acceptable practice to call someone by the name of his totem animal, a custom which could play a significant part in the forthcoming libel case in which the ex-president of Bophuthatswana, Lucas Mangope, is suing Kader Asmal, the minister of water and forestry affairs for calling him a baboon. In fact a Tswana might well call Mangope "tswene" (baboon) because that is the totem animal of the Bahurutshe clan to which Mangope belongs. Asmal, of course, is an Indian who may know little of traditional Tswana culture. Much may hinge on how this cultural factor is viewed by the court.

The downside to Tswana traditional values is that they may well contribute to the creation of a less dynamic society. Respect for law, order and non-violence is a fine thing but, as most peoples down the ages have been forced to rediscover, some freedoms are with fighting for - and have to be fought for. Tswanas tend to be timid, not to be open to criticism, scared of being unpopular, too accepting of authority of any kind and are often not ready enough to stick up for their democratic rights.

Tswana-speaking communities are homogenous, distinct groups which regard unity highly. Hence, the common saying: Se tshwarwa ke ntsa pedi ga se thata (Unity is strength). The Tswana sense of unity implies a strong group feeling: indeed, every undertaking in Tswana tradition involves a group. In Tswana culture, for example, an individual does not get married to another individual, but to a family and even to a wider clan grouping. Tswanas feel

strongly bound into these families and clans and the pressure to maintain family and clan unity can strongly inhibit individual expression and liberty.

This, Tswana stress on homogeneity and unity often implies an unaccommodating attitude towards people who have different ideas, beliefs and cultures. Tswana tradition is quite intolerant of other traditions and of cultural pluralism. There is no intrinsic respect for an individual's free choice and free association and, for example, Tswana people generally disapprove of marriage to members of other tribal groupings such as Zulus and Xhosas. For Tswana tradition is wary of the cultural conflicts and misunderstandings which could occur between members of tribal groups with different cultural backgrounds.

This peculiar combination of liberal values with an illiberal code of behaviour was, in a sense, well represented by the former homeland of Bophuthatswana which claimed to have brought about a genuine liberation by its "independence" in 1977. Bophuthatswana claimed it was a liberal multiparty democracy, founded on the principles of democracy, free enterprise and a mix of public and private ownership.

Certainly, the constitution of Bophuthatswana was liberal and included a declaration of fundamental rights, guaranteeing equality before the law, the rights to life, liberty and property and the freedoms of expression, assembly and religion. But in fact the Mangope regime's liberal reputation was totally undeserved.

Bophuthatswana's constitution was actually illiberal. It prohibited public gatherings of more than five people, allowed for the imposition of curfews, gave the police the authority to detain and interrogate suspects without trial or access to legal advice, made it an offence to make a subversive statement, forbade the organising or taking part in a boycott, and made it an offence to refuse to obey a chief or headman.

Bophuthatswana was characterised by massive political repression through detention, harassment, arbitrary dismissals from work, deportation, torture and sometimes execution. Mangope's regime took action against individuals and political parties that opposed corruption in government circles, such as the National Seoposengwe Party and the People's Progressive Party, making it clear that Bophuthatswana was no place for political opposition. Though presented as a place for all and a haven of non-racism, it discriminated against non-Tswanas by denying them citizenship, work permits, pensions, etc. Mangope was not open to criticism, and, as a result, removed chiefs such as Chief Lebone Molotlegi of Phokeng and the Taung Chief, Mankurwane.

Success with women

Mangope nonetheless enjoyed a certain success, especially in rural areas where most rural women supported his Bophuthatswana Christian Democratic Party's women's league. Moreover, Tswana habits of acceptance of authority played into his hands -people were scared to criticise the government and he was able to rely on intimidation and patronage to keep control, without needing to deploy the sort of violence seen in KwaZulu-Natal. When Mangope's regime was first challenged in an attempted coup led by Malebane Metsing in 1988 many privately welcomed the coup but could not say so openly. Only in Bophuthatswana's townships (Mabopane, Mamelodi, etc.) in Pretoria did Tswanas oppose Mangope's regime without fear, and they did so under the UDF/ANC banner, not in defence of liberal principle. This passivity towards authority continued virtually to the end. But in 1994 Mangope finally fell, partly through the incursion of outside forces, and partly due to action by the Bophuthatswana police and military.

Without much doubt Rocky Malebane Metsing, who led the 1988 coup, would have been the popular choice as the premier of the new North West Region, but the ANC's choice fell upon the former UDF leader Popo Molefe. Even a casual visitor to the North West's bound to realise that Molefe's government is far from popular -though the traditional Tswana passivity towards authority means that his position is secure enough.

The problem is in part that Bophuthatswana, thanks to its income from the platinum mines and the Sol Kerzner empire, was the richest of the bantustans. That wealth is now largely lost to the North West and is appropriated by South Africa as a whole. Moreover, the loss of its exclusive gambling privileges have meant that Sun City has lost money steadily for five years now - causing large job layoffs. The result in the North West capital, Mafikeng, is budget cuts, retrenchment, redeployment and an unpopular new tax system -all greatly disliked. In addition, ex-President Mangope is back on the political scene and his claim that Tswanas were better off under him by no means always falls on deaf ears.

If one is a Tswana and revisits one's old friends in the North West, one cannot be unaware that levels of dissatisfaction are high, despite the overwhelming figures to the contrary provided by our opinion survey. Similarly, most Tswanas exhibit the same natural tolerance they always did and one cannot help but feel that many of them gave "politically correct" answers to our survey out of a feeling of timidity and a belief that that was what those in authority wanted from them. To some extent what our survey was measuring was this culture rather than the attitudes lurking underneath. If one strips that discrepancy away one finds that their real political and social attitudes are not so different after all.