Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation

The Batswana attempted to use their advisory councils to shape colonial rule on key issues, but they faced British efforts to use the councils to legitimate tax increases and erode Africans’ rights.

Summary of Event

British imperialism in southern Africa in the early twentieth century remained intertwined with the interests of the settler regimes in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). Colonies such as the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now known as Botswana) received little attention and often faced administrative decisions that inhibited development. The British were reluctant to expend resources in the protectorate because they anticipated no real gain from economic investments. They assumed that the territory would someday be transferred to South Africa. Imperialism;Botswana
Bechuanaland Protectorate
[kw]Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation (1920)
[kw]Botswana Natives Limited Representation, Advisory Councils Give (1920)
[kw]Representation, Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited (1920)
Bechuanaland Protectorate
[g]Africa;1920: Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation[04940]
[g]Botswana;1920: Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation[04940]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;1920: Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation[04940]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;1920: Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation[04940]
Khama III
Khama, Tshekedi
Rey, Sir Charles
Ellenberger, Jules

The British sought to normalize their administrative and political position by instituting a government that was efficient and inexpensive. They intended to provide better communication between “colonized” and “colonizer.” After World War I, the British created the Native Advisory Council Native Advisory Council (called the African Advisory Council African Advisory Council after 1940) and the European Advisory Council European Advisory Council as mechanisms to meet these objectives. These councils did not substantially enhance the rights of the indigenous peoples.

Perhaps the key issue that led British resident commissioner J. C. Macgregor to suggest the idea of councils related to tax increases. He had established the Bechuanaland Protectorate Native Fund, which taxed residents an additional three shillings. The Native Advisory Council was to aid in collecting, administering, and disbursing this revenue. There was no high commissioner proclamation to give statutory authority to the councils, so the councils’ advice would have no formal standing. The councils did provide a forum for dissent and a basis for cooperation with the colonial administration, but it was not until the 1950’s and the formation of the Joint Advisory Council that genuine collective action occurred.

For the Batswana (the people of Botswana), the first session of the Native Advisory Council in 1920 at Gaborones raised fundamental questions about how effectively this new colonial institution would work. In particular, there were serious concerns about its impact on local politics. Khama III, the most influential chief, refused to participate and sent no BaNgwato representatives because he believed that the council would undermine his authority and the limited autonomy of his people. Other chiefs wondered how the council could function if the largest Tswana group stayed away. Eventually, each of the major Tswana ethnic groups would participate in the council. Initially, the BaKwena, BaNgwaketse, BaKgatla, and BaMalete were joined by the BaTlokwa. By the third session, the BaRolong belonged. The BaTawana joined in 1931, but the BaNgwato waited until 1940 to become official members, although they regularly attended sessions before this.

The council considered some important issues and challenged the colonial administration to respond to Batswana needs. The key concerns surfaced quickly in the council deliberations. It became clear that the colonial administration primarily would address its own interests at Botswana’s expense.

When the Batswana made demands that conflicted with neighboring South Africa, they encountered British priorities that were most often to South Africa’s advantage. Discussions about transferring the colony to South African control, as a schedule to the 1909 South Africa Act delineated, indicated that the Batswana were united in their opposition to British-South African negotiations without their consent. The council provided an important forum on this issue. It showed that the Batswana had articulate spokespersons who understood South African policies. The debates on this topic seemed to indicate the potential for the council as a mechanism to shape colonial rule.

On other issues, Africans on the council were less effective in gaining British cooperation. Funding for the education of African children was limited. The government did not create an education department until 1935. Tribal treasuries were responsible for funding education out of their own scarce resources. African representatives to the council spoke about educational needs at each session, but the government proved unresponsive. Those few Africans who could afford to educate their children sent them to South Africa or Southern Rhodesia. There was no secondary school in Botswana in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Tiger Kloof, a mission school inside South Africa, served as the colony’s best access to education. The council regularly recommended expenditures of their tax revenues to support the school, even though it was in South Africa.

The council supported the Batswana’s most important economic concern, their cattle industry. They sought improved markets, expanded veterinary services, access to water, better breeding opportunities, and upgraded transportation links. The colonial administration acknowledged these needs but provided minimal assistance. When South Africa limited the colony’s cattle market and embargoed Botswana’s cattle, the Batswana received little support from the administration. In fact, the British sided with the South Africans on the embargo.

More general concerns about the protectorate’s development found only marginal British support. Questions concerning exploitation of mineral deposits and other development schemes elicited responses indicating the limited capital funds available. In other words, the administration was unwilling to fund development.

The Native Advisory Council made few inroads against the colonial administration. It provided an important forum for presenting issues of concern, although it did not empower the Batswana to alter British policy. It proved most useful in expressing distrust of South Africa.

The European Advisory Council was approved in 1920 and had its first meeting in 1921. The council was initially made up of three representatives of the European settlers, although the government had agreed to four members, a farmer and trader each from the North and the South. By the second session, the council had one representative each from the white land blocks of Gaborones, Tati, Tuli, Lobatse, and Ghanzi. By 1948, the council had expanded to eight members. Unlike the African Advisory Council, which initially met inside the protectorate, the European Advisory Council met in Mafikeng, the protectorate’s administrative capital, located within South Africa’s borders. Collaboration with the colonial administration, however, did not prove easy. Probably the most important objective for the European residents was the transfer of the colony to South African control. The European settlers pressured the government well into the 1950’s to make this change. Most of their arguments were based on economic opportunities. Their underlying racial attitudes were always clear and often stated. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, they identified themselves closely with the South African white community.

The colonial administration responded to many of the settler demands. Education for white children received government financial support, although the children went to school outside the colony. The European cattle industry suffered from South African restrictions on the colony’s beef, so efforts to use the council to lobby for change did not work well on this issue. In the early 1920’s, the council successfully negotiated some loans for white farmers. The council asked the administration to reduce its allocation to fight lung sickness among diseased African-owned cattle. In this period, the European Council remained hostile to African priorities and showed no interest in working with the African Council.

The two councils shaped the debate over issues, but usually not the outcome. The European Council demonstrated little interest in cooperating with the Batswana until the 1950’s. By then, the Joint Advisory Council had assumed the lead. In 1960, each of the councils was disbanded and a Legislative Council was created.


Although the advisory councils were probably not pivotal in changing the course of events for human rights in Botswana, the councils did provide an important dimension in the political struggles of the colony and created part of a legacy that influences Botswana down to the present day. Tshekedi Khama, who became regent of the BaNgwato in 1925, worked outside the Native Advisory Council to resist British attempts to move toward the transfer of the colony to South Africa. There can be no doubt that his efforts were most effective when the council followed his lead. In this way, that council served as an indispensable mechanism in pressuring the British. That the transfer never took place was largely the result of Tshekedi Khama’s resistance, backed up by the African Advisory Council.

The strength of South Africa’s influence over Botswana is indicative of the limitations of the colonial institutions. The European Advisory Council contributed to a closer economic relationship with South Africa. Its initiatives legitimated the colonial administration’s attempts to make Botswana economically dependent on South Africa.

The British set up the councils in order to control events in the protectorate. They offered the Batswana and the European settlers a voice in administration, but it was clear that the British wanted to shape cooperation. Jules Ellenberger, a key colonial officer in the 1920’s, had grown up in the midst of Tswana society and used his knowledge of it to weaken traditional institutions rather than to protect indigenous peoples’ rights. Sir Charles Rey, the resident commissioner in the 1930’s, followed a similar course. His aggressiveness in attacking the chiefs and their indigenous institutions in the name of economic development and modernization brought sustained resistance both inside and outside the African Council. It seemed as though Rey wished to restructure Batswana society by centralizing colonial institutions. Although he was unsuccessful in his political objectives, he did weaken local political institutions. His economic development plans suffered from a lack of resources and thus brought South Africa into a more dominant position.

In the 1950’s, the councils offered a conservative model for political and economic development. Traditional chiefs had used the African Council to retain their influence. Settler leaders had shaped policies that maintained private holdings, close relations with South Africa, and race relations that preserved their privilege. The councils’ legacy was preservation of this order for more than a decade past Botswana’s 1966 independence, and it may well have contributed to Botswana’s enjoying an uninterrupted period of democratic elections and government, a record virtually unparalleled in the rest of the African continent. Imperialism;Botswana
Bechuanaland Protectorate

Further Reading

  • Crowder, Michael. The Flogging of Phinehas McIntosh: A Tale of Colonial Folly and Injustice—Bechuanaland, 1933. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Excellent account demonstrates the tensions between Tshekedi Khama and those in the British colonial administration, especially Sir Charles Rey. Details the absurd lengths to which the British were willing to go to assert their political control over the Bechuanaland Protectorate in the 1930’s. Successfully shows the effectiveness of Tshekedi Khama’s leadership.
  • Morton, R. F., and J. Ramsay, eds. Birth of Botswana: A History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1910 to 1966. Gaborone, Botswana: Longman, 1987. Collection of essays edited by two scholars who know Botswana well provides an excellent introduction to the country’s history. Emphasizes the role of the Batswana.
  • Parsons, Neil. A New History of Southern Africa. 2d ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1993. One of the best surveys of southern Africa available. Emphasizes indigenous perspectives and places Botswana in the larger context of the region.
  • Ramsay, Jeff, Barry Morton, and Fred Morton. Historical Dictionary of Botswana. 3d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1996. Presents concise descriptions of the individuals, places, institutions, and events that make up Botswana’s history.
  • Rey, Sir Charles. Monarch of All I Survey: The Diaries of Sir Charles Rey. Edited by Neil Parsons and Michael Crowder. London: James Curry, 1988. Provides Rey’s views of events in the 1930’s and reveals his attitudes toward the Batswana. Includes several accounts of and reflections on the activities of the councils.
  • Schraeder, Peter J. African Politics and Society: A Mosaic in Transformation. 2d ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Examines trends in continuity and change in African politics and society since precolonial times. Includes maps, tables, figures, and index.
  • Sillery, Anthony. Botswana: A Short Political History. London: Methuen, 1974. Brief history by a former British colonial administrator who served as resident commissioner in Botswana, 1946-1950. Reveals hints of paternalism while showing a genuine fondness for the Batswana.

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