Bechuanaland Reserves

The Bechuanaland Reserves were created in 1885 after the Batswana living in this region fell completely under Cape colonial rule.  The reserves were meant for occupation by supposedly distinct "tribal" groups, and the land was inalienable; in other words white farmers and settlers could not encroach onto this land. The Bechuanaland Reserves can be divided into two areas. The first comprised of the reserves around Mafikeng, known as the Setlagole, Molopo and (much smaller) Mosita reserves. These were occupied mainly but not solely by people owing allegiance to the Ratshidi baRolong. The other section comprised a jigsaw of eleven  pieces of land closer to Vryburg. These were occupied by the baRolong boo raTlou boo Mariba, some baThlaro and some  baTlhaping factions.   Specifically, the  Mariba were allocated land in the Ganyesa area, and the Tlakganeng and Morokweng reserves; the baThlaro lived in the Heuning Vlei reserve and at Madibeng and Dinopeng and the baThlaping were allocated the Thlakweng and Klein Chwaing portions of the Vryburg resreves. 

The Bechuanaland Reserves were by and large very arid, and prone to drought and pestilence, such as locusts, which invaded the area especially in 1925 and 1933. Outbreaks of foot and mouth were common as well. As resources in the Reserves  were limited a number of the black residents moved onto adjacent white farms as tenants. Occasionally, this led to skirmishes between the reserves-based baTswana and the white farmers, which the colonial  and Union administration had to find ways of resolving in an amicable way.   The lack of adequate fencing, and long distances and inhospitable terrain complicated this task for the local officials.   

There was also considerable competition between the residents in the reserves, again due to a shortage of arable land and water sources.  For example, two baRolong factions, the Ratshidi and Rapulana fought over control and '"ownership" of a fountain at Lotlhakane about 25 kilometres south-east of Mafikeng .  The government had to adjudicate who had rightful possession of this water source, eventually the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein  ruling that the Rapulana, as the "senior" faction of the baRolong, were the legal owners.  It was a cause of bitterness between the two Rolong factions for several decades. Similarly,  west of Mafikeng, the baThlaro living at along the water course at Disaneng  fought with the Ratshidi baRolong over control of the area. The baThlaro challenged the right of the baRolong to extract tribute from over rights of occupation. The matter also had to be resolved through legal means. Though the circuit court in Mafikeng ruled in favour of the Tshidi in 1913, it was not the end of the affair. The baThlaro under Jan Masibi instigated an aggressive policy against Ratshidi overlordship. Tensions flared up again in the early 1940's when Masibi ploughed land in the vicinity of Ratshidi cattle posts.    In these disputes the British tended to to support the Ratshidi. 

Despite the environmental hardships and political friction, the inhabitants of the Bechuanaland reserves made  some modest economic improvements between 1885 and the mid-1950's. In some districts herds of cattle and sheep increased in numbers, In good seasons the land could produce reasonable yields; for example n 1959 the Ratlou at Setlagole   had 1 558 non-irrigated morgen under cultivation which ultimately yielded 559 sacks of  white maize and 221 kilograms of sorghum.  The Union government also tried to improve the situation by sinking boreholes in the reserves, by running demonstration plots on which they introduced modern farming methods and by introducing a better bred of animals into the reserves. A number of baTswana agriculturalists, such as Morara Molema and E. Gaboutloeloe were involved in these schemes. 

Inevitably, though the South African Department of Native Affairs tried to make the reserves self-sufficient, many men and women were forced to find work outside the reserves  in the mining areas of the Transvaal or Griqualand West or in the large urban conglomerations on the Rand. In the mid-1950's Bantu Authorities were established in the Bechuanaland Reserves as a cornerstone of the apartheid policy. Seven different "authorities" were created in the Molopo/Setlagoli reserves alone, further dividing the communities living there. Ultimately, the African population living in the reserves lost whatever economic resilience and political independence they still enjoyed.    

South Africa's North-West province: A Guide to its History and Heritage. © 2017

With special thanks to our sponsors