Botswana 'fugitive' in fierce battle over the wealthy Bakgatla kingdom in SA

Chief of the Bakgatla, Nyalala Pilane.
Chief of the Bakgatla, Nyalala Pilane.

A Botswana chief, Kgafela Kgafela, who is a “fugitive” in South Africa has been accused of using “bulldozing tactics” in his attempts to take control of the platinum-rich Bakgatla ba Kgafela community in the North West.

Kgafela left Botswana after his chieftaincy status was revoked by the government in 2011. He faced assault charges and a warrant for his arrest was issued after he absconded court. But Kgafela arrived in Moruleng village near Sun City – the seat of the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela traditional council – to a warm welcome by his royal relatives in 2012.

A Toyota bakkie was bought for him to use and he was given a house to stay in.

Relations started souring when the 44-year-old Kgafela allegedly “forced” the incumbent chief, Nyalala Pilane, to resign. Pilane was later ordered to withdraw his resignation by tribal council in what marked the beginning of a bitter row between Kgafela and his royal relatives in Moruleng.

The council opposed Kgafela’s demands for Pilane to authorise “R23 million from tribal coffers so he could build himself a palace in Botswana”.

Ulterior motives?

They now believe that the motive behind Kgafela’s continued bid to reign supreme over their tribe was aimed at gaining total “control of the tribal purse strings”. The Bakgatla Ba Kgafela in Moruleng are believed to be worth more than R20 billion with interests in mining, agriculture and other business ventures.

Another cloud dangling over Kgafela’s head was the controversial issue of his South African citizenship, which was revoked.

City Press has seen a copy of a July 2014 letter from the office of the Public Protector in which Kgafela is described as an “illegal immigrant” and a non-citizen after his identity document was blocked by home affairs amid suspicions that it was not issued accordingly. An investigation was launched by home affairs. At the time of publication, it was unclear whether it had been concluded.

A human rights lawyer by profession, Kgafela is known in Botswana for openly criticising the country’s constitution and calling for “the free smoking of dagga”.
Kgafela’s claim to supremacy over the wealthy South African community comes from history. The Bakgatla ba Kgafela were divided and found themselves straddling Botswana and South Africa after country borders were put in place.

Two groups

The traditional leaders of the Bakgatla lived in Botswana. Those in Moruleng believe they are independent from their Botswana royal relatives because each group is individually recognised by the legislation of the country in which they live.

A member of the tribal council in Moruleng, Segale Pilane, said Kgafela was using the customary seniority status to advance his attempts to take over in South Africa.

“He is disregarding our laws here and using customs to hijack our chieftaincy. To us [Kgafela] is a relative and has no say in our affairs unless we go to Botswana and seek advice or intervention from traditional leaders there,” said a member of the traditional council, Ntshadi Tsheole.

“We’re linked to Bakgatla in Botswana by our forefathers ... [Kgafela] must go back home to deal with his differences with the state there and take his rightful seat as a chief there.” 

Segale said Kgafela had on several occasions “tried to impose decisions here and launched a number of failed legal bids to take control”.

“He also ran up a legal bill of R5 million, which he wanted the tribal administration to settle, but we refused. [Kgafela] has no powers in Moruleng other than the respect that we have been affording our traditionally elders in Botswana,” Segale Pilane said.

“He is planning to remove Nyalala Pilane and install an illegitimate person as a chief. For someone who is in the country illegally he is wreaking havoc, causing instability here. Our government is allowing him to do it when Botswana’s government would have arrested us if we did the same there.”

The tribal council in Moruleng recently issued a statement titled: “It is gloves off as Bakgatla Ba Kgafela tackle Kgafela Kgafela.”

The council stated that it was “preposterous to think that anybody and a foreign national for that matter can think that they can walk in and usurp the powers of another kingdom”.

Tsheole vowed her community was not going to allow Kgafela any chance to “do as he please” in Moruleng.

“We cannot allow him to disrespect the laws of our country and keep quiet ... he will remain our relative but he is not going to control us. He doesn’t appear anywhere in the records of South Africa and we cannot be bound by customs and anything that occurred before the Constitution of South Africa was adopted,” she said.

The King's Journal

Attempts to get hold of Kgafela were unsuccessful but he wrote in his 2014 book The King’s Journal: “My leadership challenges in South Africa ... include litigations to demand accountability within tribal office in Moruleng. The litigation was also about protecting the throne from the unwarranted usurpation from the incumbent regent and politicians.

“My father installed the regent in 1996 to rule as caretaker ... the regent became too powerful, and lot of tribal money was at his disposal but he refused to account for it while enriching himself in the royal seat.”

City Press understands that Kgafela has hauled Nyalala Pilane before court, accusing him of financial mismanagement. A source close to the case said Pilane would base his argument on Kgafela’s recognition status in South Africa as well as his skeletons back home in Botswana in a bid to disqualify him from the legal challenge.

A royal family member in Moruleng, Rampho Pheto, who is fully in support of Kgafela as the paramount ruler, told City Press that Kgafela has chosen not to take media interviews due to “distortion” but went on to explain his position. 

Pheto said a resolution was taken by the local Bakgatla villages on April 24 1994 affirming their Botswana side of traditional leadership as the “paramount” who would reign in both countries. He said the resolution stated that the Muchudi – the seat of Bakgatla in Botswana – could decide on their preferred person to lead in Moruleng.

Pheto is Kgafela’s chosen candidate to take over as a chief of the Bakgatla in Moruleng from the incumbent, Nyalala Pilane.

He said Kgafela was being resisted in Moruleng not only because he wanted to remove Nyalala Pilane but because “he followed up on allegations of financial mismanagement by Pilane”.

“It is within his powers to do so when community members have approached him with allegations and this was his sin."

On why he left Botswana, Pheto said “[Kgafela] has had some run-ins with government and was dragged to court in a bid to silence him. He also realised that if he continued challenging the government in Botswana he ran the risk of finding himself on death row.

“He also strongly believes that a traditional leader needs no government paper or recognition to reign but that a chief is a chief by blood and their tribe. We regard him as the paramount chief or King of the Bakgatla in both Botswana and South Africa,” Pheto said.

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