African chiefs under colonial rule are conventionally described as collaborators. Those who failed to co-operate with their colonial masters were deposed. Tshekedi Khama, Regent of the Bangwato for his nephew, Seretse, from 1926 to 1950, does not fit this description. During the first ten years of his regency, he was almost continuously locked in conflict with the British on a whole range of issues both large and small. His sustained opposition to the British is the more remarkable in that he became regent at the age of merely twenty without having been specifically prepared for the governance of the largest of the Tswana states under British rule.
This article explores the reasons for Tshekedi's opposition to the British and the way in which he conducted this opposition, and asks why the British did not depose him as they almost certainly would have deposed a chief who behaved remotely like him in one of their other African territories. It concludes that while Tshekedi basically accepted the colonial situation in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, he was determined that the British should make no inroads into the powers of the chiefs as determined at the end of the nineteenth century when his father Khama III had accepted British protection. He was also resolved to hand over the chieftaincy intact to his ward, Seretse. Furthermore Tshekedi, unlike most African chiefs of his day, was Western-educated, having attended Fort Hare, and believed that the function of the British Administration was to teach him ‘how to govern…not how to be governed’. He reacted strongly against measures that were imposed on him without consultation or explanation, especially, those which he suspected were designed to limit his power or might affect the welfare of his people. In opposing such measures, he employed both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ resources and was as skilful as any African nationalist of the time in mobilising press, parliament and public opinion in Britain in his support.
While the British did consider deposing him, and in 1933 temporarily suspended him from office, they were confronted by the fact that there was no other leader in Gammangwato who would be accepted as a legitimate alternative by the Bangwato or who would be remotely as competent as he was. After ten years of wrangling with Tshekedi the British learnt that it was in their interests to collaborate with him. For the next decade Tshekedi and the Administration worked largely in harmony. It was only in the late 1940s that Tshekedi began to use his formidable intellectual powers and administrative experience to challenge the colonial system itself.