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A statistical and qualitative analysis of the application of the 1972 Societies’ Act


Wim van Binsbergen

homepage | index page Botswana state and churches | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part V

3. Pastors and bureaucrats: qualitative aspects of church-state interaction in the context of the Botswana Societies Act

The quantitative analysis, however tedious and preliminary, has offered us at least a basic profile of the Botswana African Independent churches: their large number; their range of membership with the general tendency towards small especially urban churches of only one congregation; some elements of comparison with regard to cosmopolitan and other churches in the country; and their behaviour in the face of the Societies Act. The figures cited (233 African Independent churches having on the average fewer than 800 members each) show the extreme organizational fragmentation of these religious organizations, which certainly invites analysis (e.g. in terms of leader’s ritual and organizational entrepreneurship, and of group dynamics among the adherents) but does not in itself preclude the convergence of these many differently named churches in matters of theology, liturgy, healing, functioning in the wider society (their co-operation at funerals is particularly manifest) and perception by the general public. One very important finding is that the Botswana state does not have a total grip on these churches: dozens of them were never registered yet function on a modest scale; a similar number saw their registration cancelled yet some of these, too, can be assumed to continue functioning outside the law.

                        Let us now turn to a qualitative analysis of actual interaction between state and African Independent churches.

— Given the authoritarian, populist consensuality of the Botswana state, the idiom of co-optation should little surprise us and will be discussed first. Co-optation can be seen as one of the possible strategies to contain and control, rather than offensively prohibit and ban, organizational foci in the civil society rival to the state. We shall see how it functions even with regard to ethnic issues which in Botswana may not create quite the same level of disruption as in many other post-colonial African states but which still are far more prominent than an inspection of the social-science literature on the country would suggest.

— A more obtrusive strategy, which is deeply embedded in the Societies Act and the institutions it has created, is that of the imposition of a formal bureaucratic logic upon the churches. This is clearly a form of state encroachment, but one which can also be seen as an essential service rendered by the state, in the interest of church adherents who have no positions of power in their organisation, and offering outside venues for arbitration and protection of interests. The peculiar impact, of this bureaucratic streamlining, on church nomenclature will be briefly discussed. Also we shall pinpoint some of the numerous cases of bureaucratic overkill, when the Registrar of Societies, not by virtue of any specific legislation but simply tempted to ride his own hobby horses and make the churches feel what state power is like, imposes demands upon the churches which run so much counter to their doctrine, liturgy and general orientation that they have to present an official bureaucratic front, a compromise to bureaucratic discourse, which may greatly deviate from actual church practice.

— Finally, the case of the wealthy and powerful Guta Ra Mwari church show us where this may lead: to the limits to effective and positive state intervention in the internal affairs of churches. The bureaucratic forms imposed under the Societies Act become mere empty shells, and the state’s relative powerlessness vis-ā-vis the symbolic, financial and physical power generated in that church is only too manifest.


Co-optation and the use of a non-statal idiom circulating in the civil society

We have said that co-optation and the use of a non-statal idiom circulating in the civil society (concretely: state officials publicly and officially adopting the discourse of ministers of religion) constitutes one of the strategies open to the Botswana state in its interaction with rival foci of power in the society, including African Independent churches. One example out of many is the speech which the Minister of Social Welfare, culture and Registration, under whose department the Registrar of Societies falls, pronounced on the occasion of the opening of the nineteenth branch of the Spiritual Healing Church, in Tutume (North Central District), July 1987, at the invitation of the church’s Archbishop Rev. Motswasele. Having arbitrated in a series of vicious conflicts involving this church in the previous years, relations between the Cabinet Minister and the Archbishop would appear to have become quite cordial. The Cabinet Minister’s speech reads as an inside account, and a PR statement (not on behalf of the state but of the church) at that. After sketching the history of the church since its inception in the village of Matsiloje, near Francistown, in 1950 with the appearance of the prophet Mokaleng Jacob Motswasele (cf Lagerwerf 1982), the church is now claimed, by the Cabinet Minister, to have 18,000 members in 1986.[1]

‘To me, Chairman, this is an indication of the church’s accomplishment in bringing souls to Christ. It is also an indication of good progress under good management.’[2]

The Cabinet Minister then proceeds to sum up the socially beneficial projects of the church, including the Boikango Bible Training Institute, an inexpensive day care centre in Mahalapye (‘and yet in other Day Care Centres parents pay P60 or more per month!’[3]), Paje Primary School, a Mother’s Union started by the mother of the present Archbishop, in which connexion

 ‘I was gratified to learn of the active involvement of the church in the society beyond the spreading of the gospel.’[4]

Typical (since it reflects a standard insistence, on the part of the Registrar’s office, with regard to unhealthy conditions of baptism which ought to be avoided)[5] is the Cabinet Minister’s praise of the church’s baptism pools:

‘On realizing the number of reported deaths due to drowning during baptism, and also I presume as a response to health campaigns, the church decided to build baptism pools’ in Mochudi, Mahalapye and Mmadinare. The Mahalapye pool, not surprisingly [since church headquarters are located there] is the most up-to-date with dress rooms for women and men.’[6]

The Cabinet Minister ends, not with a statement on how the state sees its relationship with the African Independent churches, but with a minute’s silence for those founding members of the church, including the prophet, who died in the years 1964-1983...


Bureaucratic interference beyond the letter of the law

A totally uncritical, pious, statement such as the Cabinet Minister’s at the occasion of the Tutume branch of the Spiritual Healing Church would little suggest that at less public and festive occasions, in the familiar recesses of the bureaucracy, the Registrar of Societies imposes the most far-reaching demands on churches, particularly during the phase when they are still applying for registration. At this stage, and under the sanction of non-registration, a host of conditions are imposed which often are far more specific than the Societies Act stipulates.

                        In fact, registration is a society’s right under the Societies Act:

 ‘6.        (1) Every local society shall, in the manner prescribed and within 28 days of the formation thereof or of the adoption thereby of a constitution or of rules, regulations or bye-laws, make application to the Registrar for registration or for exemption from registration under this Act.

(2)       (a)      Subject to subsections (3), (4) and (9), upon application being made for registration, the Registrar shall register any local society.

(b) exemption only by Minister

 (c) issue of certificate, ‘which shall be prima facia evidence of registration or exemption’

Moreover, the Act is very specific as to the conditions under which registration may be refused:

6.        (3) The Registrar may refuse to register, and shall not exempt from registration, a local society where he is satisfied that such local society is a branch of, or is affiliated to or connected with, any organization or group of a political nature [my emphasis] established outside Botswana.

    (4) The Registrar shall refuse to register and shall not exempt from registration a local society where —

(a) it appears to him that such local society has among its objects, is being used for or is likely to pursue or to be used for, any unlawful purpose or any purpose prejudicial to or incompatible with peace, welfare and good order in Botswana, or that the interests of peace, welfare or good order in Botswana might otherwise be likely to differ prejudice by reason of the registration of such local society.

(b) it appears to him that the terms of the constitution, rules, regulations or bye-laws of such local society are in any respect repugnant to or inconsistent with any written law;

(c) he is satisfied that the application does not comply with this Act;

(d) he is satisfied that the society does not exist; or

(e) the name under which the society is to be registered or exempted —

     (i)      is identical to that of any other existing local society;

     (ii)          so nearly resembles the name of such other local society as, in the opinion of the Registrar, to be likely to deceive the public or the members of either society; or

     (iii)     is, in the opinion of the Registrar, repugnant to or inconsistent with any written law or otherwise undesirable.’

                        St Anna’s Church is now a well-established African Independent church in Francistown’s Donga township. The church applied for registration in 1979, enlisting from the start the services of the local law firm of Mosojane & Partners. In addition to the usual technical-legal criticism of the draft constitution the following objections were phrased by the Registrar against the constitution:

 ‘(a) Clause 9 which is about spiritual healers. I would be grateful if you could remove this clause from the constitution. The healing of [sic] churches is greatly causing concern to medical authorities in this country for such reasons that [sic]

(i) there is proved risk that such churches through their healing activities may delay ill people to seek competent medical advice while there is still time

(ii) That the constitutions of healing churches never specify who [sic] to be held liable in case of death.’[7]

Healing is practiced in virtually all African Independent churches in Botswana (Staugård 1995, 1986), and the experience of traditional healers’ associations in Botswana is that they are highly regarded by the government. Somewhat to my surprise therefore, the law firm accepted the point on healing, but their reply is not without an edge; with regard to liability they say:

 ‘We have enough laws in this country which adequately cover such situations.’[8]

Further points are made in subsequent correspondence, in which the law firm, on their client’s behalf, seeks to recover some of the ground that the Registrar has claimed as falling under his competence:

 ‘We also observe that you require that the Bishop should be a person capable of performing the duties imposed by the Societies Act. Is this a necessary provision in the Constitution of a Church? Do you seriously require that before a man become a Bishop he should first of all have studied the Societies Act?’[9]

And again eight months later, when (little surprising, after such letters) registration is still not forthcoming:

 ‘...our clients as well as ourselves are not satisfied that we understood what is really required, for instance, we do not know what qualifications for a Bishop are acceptable to you. No minimum qualifications have been laid down in the law. Freedom of worship is enshrined in our constitution not only for the educated but also for the illiterate.’[10]

                        In order to appreciate this obstinate and sarcastic stance of the lawyer involved it is useful to know that not only is he a Kalanga ethnic activist finding pleasure in the kind of confrontations that Tswana abhor, but also a major politician in the Botswana People’s Party (BPP), a major opposition party for which he was presidential candidate in the 1984 elections. As a lawyer, a politician and a ethnic activist he has a keen understanding of the authoritarian consensuality of the Botswana state, and seeks to challenge it at whatever occasion, often with a very witty choice of words; the reading of his letters written on behalf of Francistown-registered churches greatly added to the pleasure of my work in the Registrar of Societies’ office. Nor does his case stand on its own. Challenges of the Registrar of Societies’ authoritarian and unfounded action vis-ā-vis the African Independent churches can be found in the correspondence by other law firms on behalf of their clients. And I suppose Mosojane’s attitude may owe something to that of his predecessor in the BPP, that party’s founder Matante, who shortly before his death referred to the Permanent Secretary of the relevant Ministry

 ‘...complaining that the Registrar of Societies was interfering in the internal matters of the church. He was objecting to the acceptance of the new constitution submitted by Mr Molapisi...’[11]

                        Finally, on 14 January 1981, St Anna’s church is registered, two and a half years after its first application. No specific clause on healing is retained in the constitution, but under the ‘aims and objects’ we still read:

 ‘(d) Spiritual Healing through the Powers of the Lord Jesus Christ.’[12]

In other words, the Registrar did not succeed in suppressing the church’s healing concern from the public record. However, two other striking clauses among the aims and objectives suggest that the contact with the Registrar of Societies has not remained without its impact:

 ‘(e) to protect all members of the Church from all forms of exploitation.[13]

 (f) to work together with other organizations such as Village Development Committees, Parent-Teachers Associations etc. and hand in hand with the Government.’[14]

                        Phrases like the latter crop up time and again in constitutions of African Independent churches. Thus the first clause of the constitution of the Guta Ra Jehova church (GRJ) reads[15]

 ‘1. A person entering Guta Ra Jehova should produce his Passport, Registration Certificate or Identity Card and Marriage Certificate. G.R.J. co-operates with the Government. Single women should bring their Father’s or Guardian’s Identity Card for recording. After this, each should confess his or her sins to God. You then go and sit in line. Guta Ra Jehova sings for you.’

                        Clearly, accommodation to the state — and the desire to be seen accommodated to the state —, is one of the effects of the registration procedure. Probably, however, these phrases should not be taken as signs of actual submission to the state, but as verbal attempts to create, through lip service, as much freedom from state intervention for the church as its leadership feels is necessary. In the case of Guta Ra Jehova this did not really help: the church saw its registration cancelled, partly as a result of failure to submit annual returns. In other cases, when cooperation between church and state is put to the test of protracted arbitration procedures and the division of church property after schisms, tempers can fly high and threats may be exchanged back and forth between the Registrar and the clergy: threats of being declared an unlawful society from the former side,[16] of being punished by the divine powers or the sorcery attacks of the religious leaders from the latter.

                        he issues that came up in the registration of St Anna’s Church are typical, and repeated in many of the files of the Registrar of Societies’ office. Despite Mr Mosojane’s remonstrations, the Registrar’s insistence on minimal qualifications for the clergy of African Independent churches obtained the (mere) appearance of formalization when it was included in a guidance letters by means of which the Registrar has sought to reduce correspondence on church registration, by offering what comes close to a model constitution for African Independent churches — an extreme example of the alien imposition of a bureaucratic logic. The first circular of this type[17] phrased this requirement in the following terms:

‘9 Appointments of Ministers and [sic] Religion including Bishops, Deacons, Evangelists [sic] Lay Preachers and others

              Please state that qualifies [sic] member to become a head of the Church, Bishop, Minister, Deacon, Evangelist, Preacher or any other positions of clergymen. State academic qualifications and their minimum qualifications in theology. State how they are elected and appointed to those positions and provide for their terms of office. Please note that it is also important to indicate which body or bodies are empowered to ordain such members as Ministers and to suspend or withdraw the right to Ministry from a member so ordained and revoke the appointments.’[18]

The guidance volunteered by the Registrar of Societies is a strange — but for Botswana rather usual — mixture of paternalistic meddling and sound practical advice. The letter concludes as follows:

 ‘I take this opportunity to state that Churches are allowed to make any other provisions they consider essential for their operation in addition to the required provisions stated above. You are also advised to do the following:

              1) Elect members of the governing body or of any other committee who you beleive [sic] are able to perform the duties assigned to them including the keeping of proper records of meeting and members. The respective members should be able to manage your financial affairs and property, and perform duties imposed on them by the law.

              2) Churches are also advised to undertake measures to ensure that members are not baptised in ponds, dams or rivers which are polluted. Stagnant water should be purified with proper chemicals by those who know when and how they are used. [emphasis added] Measures should be taken to ensure that what is given to the sick causes no harm. There has been a number of cases reported about people who died as a result of administering harmful things to them or giving over [sic] doses.

              3) Hand over the property or whatever has been acquired in the name of the former Church if you are breaking away.

              4) Choose a different name from the names of the registered Societies. No new name should resemble the name of any registered Society in any way.

When you submit your application please ensure that you bring along with you or send the certificate of your clergymen showing their theological or bible training. Please send certificates under registered cover. Copies will be made and originals returned, and submit copies of minutes of meetings when your constitution was adopted and when your office-bearers were elected.

Yours faithfully

Registrar of Societies’[19]


Controlling the nomenclature of churches

Churches and other societies are registered under a particular name, and on this label depend all other juridical aspects of the interaction between churches and the state, or between churches and members of the public. The bureaucratic logic requires names of organizations to be clearly distinct and free from possible confusion.[20] As a result, the registration process often involves an alteration of a church’s name at the Registrar’s demand.

                        Let me cite one illuminating example out of the many that are available in my notes. At the far traditional end of the Botswana Independent churches exists the Hosanna Religious and Traditional Association, registered on 16 April 1981.[21] In a first reaction to this association’s application the Registrar of Societies replied:

 ‘Your society is a religious one and that should be reflected in the name.’[22]

Within three weeks this suggestion was adopted by the society, offering as the new name ‘Mwali Religious Traditional Hosanna Association’,[23] but registration was to meet with further conditions. In a long letter the Registrar of Societies cites a great many technical legal objections against the self-styled constitution which had accompanied the application — incidentally, along with letters of recommendation from headmen in the North-East district — but the principal objection lies not there:

 ‘Your constitution is not in order due to the following: —

(1) Your preamble has no relevance to your society. You will recall that during our long discussion in my office, you reiterated that although your Association believes in the miracles of divine Mwali, you also practice customs handed down by the ancestors. This explains why your society is religious (although it is not a Christian society) and traditional. You can leave out the word Mwali and call your association ‘Hosanna Religious and Traditional Association.’

                        The point may seem slight but it is of the greatest importance: without any reference to powers conferred by the law, the Registrar of Societies succeeds in deleting the crucial catchword, Mwali, from the society’s name, and offers advice on the society’s interpretation of its own goals and orientation. In a context of Tswana (particularly Ngwato) cultural hegemony in Botswana, where the sizeable language group of the Kalanga and the associated ethnic identity are constantly in the defensive, this deletion is highly significant: it excises, with the word ‘Mwali’, a major symbol of Kalanga traditional convergence and of multi-ethnic identification across the Botswana-Zimbabwe border. The Registrar of Societies uses his prerogatives to prevent a minority ethnic identity in Botswana to manifest itself publicly at the national level and gain respectability and recognition there. Of course one has to realize that 1978 was at the height of the Zimbabwean war of liberation, when border communities were considerably harassed as a result of hostilities spilling over from the Zimbabwean side; at the time, of course, relationships between the Mwali cult and the freedom fighters were close.[24]

                        In the end the society had to enlist the — no doubt expensive — professional services of ‘Mr Richard Lyons, Attorney, Notary and Conveyancer’. After further correspon­dence in which the Registrar of Societies insisted that, in the society’s draft constitu­tion, the provision for the management of property was insufficient, the society was finally registered in 1981. With the exception of 1983, when a reminder had to be sent by the Registrar of Societies, it has duly submitted its Annual Returns and the file reflects no further difficulties between the office and the association.

Although the underlying ethnic and political element in the registration of this society is unmistakable, its being mixed with traditional and international concerns may have been at least as important as its involving the Kalanga. For in a politically apparently far more sensitive case, registration — this time of a cultural association — did not meet with much objection: that of the Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language,[25] an initiative of students at the University of Botswana, and ever since its inception a source of heated debate both at the national and at the regional, Francistown level. In a letter dated 19th September, 1983, the Registrar of Societies did request specific cosmetic changes that did not affect the society’s obvious nature as a focus of ethnic mobilization. In response to a clause on the teaching of Kalanga in schools, he commented:

 ‘According to the present government policy on education only Setswana and English languages are taught in schools and used over the radio. Could you please[26] amend this clause to ensure that it is in line with the spirit of the present government policy (...)[27]

And while the constitution of this ethnic association wisely opened the membership to ‘all Batswana’,[28] the Registrar, as in ethnic collusion with the applicants, comments sweetly:

 ‘Could you substitute the word Batswana with Citizen of Botswana to avoid any misinterpretation. May I be informed why the membership is not extended to any interested person.’[29]

This contrasting evidence on the handling of ethnic aspects of voluntary associations would suggest that the strategy of the state via the Registrar of Societies is not so much to prohibit but to control: to exercise influence upon these associations precisely by encapsulating them in a bureaucratic structure — rather than debarring them from the sort of recognition, stable internal structure and outside accessibility that functioning under the Societies Act might produce.

                        After this ethnic excursion, let us return to African Independent churches. Their proliferation of names, and the remarkable variability these names turn out to have even in the hands of supposedly legal specialists like the Registrar and his staff, has already mentioned in section I of this paper. While the professional variability suggests that the legal formalism characterizing the discourse of the Registrar of Societies is in itself not an aim in itself (in the sense of Weber’s bureaucratic logic) but an idiom for something else that needs further investigation, the point I now want to make is that this proliferation of names is in itself partly a result of the churches being captured within a bureaucratic logic, where each church through its name can only occupy one fixed and unequivocal niche in the ‘nomenclatural space’.

                        The names of the African Independent churches in their endless permutation of always the same few elements such as ‘in Zion’ and ‘Apostolic’, or the name of a biblical figure preceded by the epithet ‘Saint’ (usually abbreviated to ‘St’), show that these churches largely draw from a common pool of imagery and identity reference. A detailed formal analysis of the list of well over two hundred names in the data set, such as I intend to undertake in the near future, is likely to yield clusters of reference and imagery by which church families stand out and testify to a common recent history of ideological innovation and organizational fission. A strikingly permutational logic appears to be at work when we overlook the entire list: often distinctiveness in nomenclature (and hence as an organizational body) is achieved by the insertion of additional naming elements which give the impression of a productive series, e.g.

church name formal representation of that name
Africa[n] Gospel Church B+A
Africa[n] Born Full Gospel Church B+C+D+A
After the Birth of Christ Full Gospel Church E+D+A


A = Gospel Church; B = Africa[n]; C = Born; D = Full; E = After the Birth; [...] optional addition

Note: formally speaking C and E could be regarded as transformations of each other

Table 5. Three examples of church nomenclature

We note that the permutational potential has been far from fully utilized; the unutilized paths suggest that theoretically one could expect further churches of this ‘family’ to be named as follows (reading de dendrogram from top to bottom):

Africa[n] Born After the Birth of Christ Full Gospel Church (ABCDE)

Africa[n] Born Gospel Church (ABC)

After the Birth of Christ Africa[n] Born Gospel Church (ABCE)

Africa[n] Full Gospel Church (ABD)

After the Birth of Christ Africa[n] Full Gospel Church (ABDE)

Born Full Gospel Church (ACD)

After the Birth of Christ Born Full Gospel Church (ACDE)

After the Birth of Christ Born Gospel Church (ACE)

Full Gospel Church (AD)

Gospel Church (A)

After the Birth of Christ Gospel Church (AE)

While some of these permutations are freakish (partly because of the intuitive interchangeability of ‘After the Birth of Christ’ and ‘Born’; however, some of the names in the data set are equally freakish in appearance), most would make perfectly acceptable names for African Independent churches in the Botswana context; the fact that none as yet appear in the data set may even cast further doubt upon its completeness!

                        This example could be augmented by dozens more. One is strongly reminded of the logic of group differentiation by the binary opposition of group-associated symbols (names of groups; names of deities, saints, totems, animal species, food taboos associated with each group) which has played such a large role in the analysis of social organization (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1962; van Binsbergen 1985). Even such frequently used elements as ‘Zion’, ‘in Zion’ and ‘Apostolic’ among the African Independent churches in the data set, which are apparently saturated with theological meaning and which have played such a major (but often misleading) role in the classification of African Independent churches, can often be seen to be used in just this sense of differentiation between groups which otherwise, in nomenclature, membership, doctrine and history, would appear to be adjacent. One major point of interaction between these churches and the state lies precisely in this contrasting nomenclature, and reinforces the permutational tendencies signalled here.

                        Thus the nomenclature of the African Independent churches should not exclusively be viewed from a point of view of specific contents. There is the tendency among analysts to take the church name as a deliberate statement of the group’s location within a broad spectrum of church types, of doctrinal and organizational variation: ‘Zionist’, ‘Apostolic’ etc. A closer examination of the hundreds of African Independent churches in our data set would suggest that the use of these broad inclusive labels in the church name is often ornamental, and does hardly imply specific doctrine and liturgy. The church’s specific, contrasting identification through its often highly complex name serves not so much to situate that church in a broad category encompassing scores of churches, but to offset it against adjacent, very similar churches, with which that particular church often has a relationship as parent/child and of sibling/sibling in the context of church fission. In this respect the church name serves the same function as the specific church uniforms, church flags, the specific combinations of colours featuring in these textile artifacts, badges,[30] emphasis on cotton threads of specific colours to be used in healing, imposition of food taboos on certain animal and plant species. All these are devices to mark group identity and group boundaries, in a context where (because of the relative absence of doctrinal and liturgical differences, the considerable ‘shopping around’ of peripheral members, and the fissiparous activities of the church leadership) boundaries between churches are weak and need to be constantly reconstituted.


The imposition of an alien bureaucratic logic — and its social gains

Registration involves the church in a process of accommodation vis-ā-vis the state, in which as a condition for registration the state manages to impose upon the churches a bureaucratic logic that is often irrelevant and alien to their original orientation. Names chosen for such good reasons as personal preference, a prophet’s dreams, their time-honoured emotional and symbolic power (Mwali!), distance from yet recognizable association with a parent body from which one has broken away, are put to the test of bureaucratic adequacy, ethnic and linguistic acceptability, juridically unequivocal identification. Offices, election to which is supposed to be governed by divine inspiration or hereditary succession, have to be re-defined so as to fit in with, e.g., ‘the democratic spirit of the Botswana constitution’. Unspeakable conflicts which ought never to arise in a living, inspired church have to be considered and catered for long before they inevitably do arise. Repressed aspirations of capital accumulation through religious entrepreneurship are confronted by the Registrar’s insistence on provisions for the management of movable and immovable assets. The widow’s penny collected at church gatherings has to be subjected to audited accounts...

                        But the result is not just an encroachment upon charismatic authority and informal, ‘traditional’ forms of organization. The power which is being generated in African Independent churches in Botswana is not only a diffuse orientation in the wider society, offering people subjectively meaningful alternatives and prohibitions in such fields as worship, healing, consumption of food and drink, patterns of recreating and reproduction. We are also, and primarily, looking at a highly successful mode of generating spiritual, therapeutic, financial and often also sexual power within the internal circle of the church, between leaders and adherents. Like all structures of power in any human society, the African Independent churches of Botswana are potential structures of internal extraction and exploitation. Perusal of numerous files of correspondence at the Registrar of Societies’ office, as well as personal interviews with the government officials involved have convinced me that they see the state’s responsibility largely on this point. This converges with Lagerwerf’s view:

 ‘One of the rights bestowed upon Botswana’s citizens with Independence was freedom of religion. This right greatly enlarged the possibilities for diversification [of the independent churches] , since neither the chiefs nor the established churches could interfere anymore [ sic ] . So it was not long before many independent churches emerged, either as local branches of a South African or Rhodesian church or, increasingly, as breakaways [ sic ] from the independent churches already existing in Botswana. For various reasons (...) this development became of great concern to the government, finally leading to the Societies Act of 1972 which aims at the effective control of societies, including spiritual and healing churches (...). The latter were not always at ease with the government’s attitude and underline their wish to be in line with the government’s aims of nationbuilding [ sic ]’ (Lagerwerf 1982: 46).

We may be critical of the authoritarian way in which clear, standard, legally sound formulae are imposed also in situations where the churches’ own draft constitutions, however conspicuous as the work of legal laymen, might yet be adequate while retaining the essential flavour of original expressions of identity. But at the same time exploitation and conflict do occur, with a regularity and a vehemence which makes it often difficult to see a sinister plot towards state encroachment behind the Registrar’s insistence on good legal handiwork.

                        Moreover, such insistence is in the professional and personal interest of this officer since, under the Societies Act, he and his Minister (of Social Welfare, Culture and Registration) are responsible for adjudication, and the allocation of assets, in case of severe conflict tearing an association apart. It is not only the registration of new churches takes up the time of the Registrar’s office, and to which with the exponential growth of African Independent churches has created a considerable backlog of pending applications; perhaps as much time is spent on the handling of minor and major conflicts. For the researcher this has the advantageous implication that precisely church conflicts are reflected in extenso in the Registrar’s files. However, I must reserve the discussion of selected cases for another paper.[31]

                        The extent to which financial and symbolic power are generated in Botswana African Independent churches can be gauged from the following example, that of the Guta Ra Mwari (City of God)[32] church (GRM) which was registered in 1974, soon after the enactment of the Societies Act.


Guta Ra Mwari (City of God)[33]

This church, originally established in Francistown as a branch of a Zimbabwe organization founded by the prophet T. Tayali in 1961, is one of the African Independent churches in Botswana whose assets have rapidly grown to impressive heights. The church first applied for registration in 1973 and since 1975 its audited accounts are available in the Registrar of Societies files. From the start the church laid much emphasis on the financial offerings members were to make. At the moment of confession, the sum of R 9.20 had to be paid,

 ‘and this confirms your confession. And you are allowed to offer some thanksgiving offering thereafter and God will give you according to your power in return.’[34]

These gifts come in the place of Sunday collections.[35] In a later draft constitution the financial aspect is spelled out in a way reminiscent of a commercial enterprise — a road show perhaps:

 ‘On your confession you have to fulfill [ sic ] the will of God, the Creator[36], by offering as follows:

              a couple $ 10.00 [added in ball-point: R10.—] [37]

              when a husband or wife comes later, $1.20 per month

              single adults $10

     children over 16 year of age accompanied by parents $1.20 (R 1.20) and under 16 free

              children under 16 years without the company of their parents $10 (R 10)

b. There is no credit on reception and all offerings will not be refunded.’[38]

The church claims a monopoly of healing as far as the adherents are concerned, although the draft constitution leaves them a nominal freedom to visit the hospital (‘when they are not within the reach of GRM services’)[39].

                        After an apparently minor revision of the constitution (the main alteration was the cancellation of a clause concerning the annual examination of under-age members for virginity) the church was registered in 1974. In 1975, church takings amounted to R566.58, with R351.20 cash at bank. Already in 1976, with R500 offertory, harvest gathering fees of R294.45 and R727.84 cash at bank, the church could afford to make a donation to the celebration of national Independence Day — no doubt to make up for its foreign, Zimbabwean connotations at a time that the Francistown region was greatly troubled by the war in Zimbabwe. The annual revenue steadily rises and is duly recorded, to e.g. in 1982: total offertory of P20,071.12 and cash at bank of P12,986.82, assets in the form of furniture and fittings assessed at P1,600.46; church equipments P441.34; building P3,120.20, and motor vehicle at P9,000. In the financial year 1985 the capital amounted to P62,321.44.[40]

                        While the church was in full expansion, financially and as to membership,[41] it came under a nasty cloud. Guta Ra Mwari became surrounded by remarkably widespread allegations of sorcery and ritual murder.[42] It is reputed to be particularly popular among businessmen, who find in the church to means to enhance their professional success. Popular rumour has it that such success is brought about at the expense of the sacrifice of one of the member’s children, preferably a first-born son, who is to be killed in a staged car accident. Similar popular beliefs concerning success medicine of commercial and ritual entrepreneurs extend all over the subcontinent to at least the Zambian Copperbelt; and with regard to Zambia at least, they were not entirely unfounded.[43] The original constitution and other materials do contain a few sinister hints, e.g. on learning to accept death as the ‘second stage’, the first being birth.[44] And such clauses as:

 ‘11. Congregation will bear responsibilities for burial matters of registered members of G.R.M.’[45]

 ‘Members are not allowed to wear mourning clothes’[46]

begin to take on a different implication.

                        It is only in 1987 that the Registrar of Societies confronted the church, largely on legal-technical flaws in the constitution which his office had accepted thirteen years earlier, in the first years of the Societies Act. However, official concern does not stop at legal technicalities:

 ‘I am concerned about the financial burden you seem to place on your members. Could you please indicate how often these fees are charged and what they are really used for?’[47]

A new constitution is drafted, but this time the Registrar is not so easily satisfied:

 ‘The proposed revised constitution which you have submitted very recently in compliance with our letter of 19 September 1988 was not drafted on a democratic basis — it is therefore not in keeping with the democratic ethic of Botswana.’[48]

                        Within a few months a detailed critique of the earlier draft is offered to the church’s General Secretary. It is pointed out that the church has no provision for: discipline; settlement of disputes; procedures for meetings; voting; removal from office.

 ‘It is important that the church in Botswana should not seem to be, or be passive [sic] entity when the church relies on the ordinary person’s contributions [original emphasis]; when the church raises funds and incurs debts in the name of the people. The general body should have a substantial degree of influence on all matters which affect them. The concept of the CHOSEN TWELVE [the church’s governing body according to the then prevailing constitution] would perhaps require explanation or description in the constitution. As it stands it implies hereditary succession or arbitrary appointments which possibly transcends the comprehension of the ordinary members.’[49]

                        This criticism is replied to in a sophisticated and elegant letter,[50] which is accompanied by a new constitution. The lively details of the earlier constitution, on healing, liturgy, fees, sex, marriage, virginity, etc. have been entirely replaced by a legally competent blueprint of what looks like a well-oiled modern organization. The Registrar of Societies is still far from convinced:

 ‘Your constitution at article 26 totally rejects the very essence of the fundamentals of the Botswana Constitution. Your constitution deliberately flouts the intent of the Societies Act.’[51]

She chides the church for the absence of democratic procedures, of an Annual General Meeting, and of a Special Annual General Meeting, adding (somewhat overstating the law):

 ‘Note that this aspect is not a religious function [in other words, that the Annual General Meeting should not be a mere prayer meeting] but a lawful requirement for management purposes.’[52]

                        The matter is further complicated by the fact that Guta Ra Mwari asked the Social Justice Officer, a senior official in the same Ministry, to intervene; he finds the amendments to the earlier constitution acceptable. Meanwhile however it turns out that the real issue is not in legal technicalities or even financial exploitation of adherents. The general rumours concerning the church appear for the first time on official paper, albeit undated (c. 1987):

 ‘We have gathered from unconfirmed sources that the Guta Ra Mwari society is not a religious organization as such. It is believed that they are an organisation that practises healing, bringing riches to those who aspire for it, or making it possible for those who wish to be married [sic]. When the treatment has been administered and the miracles realised, human sacrifice is a matter of must. The society was registered in 1975, and one wonders how many people have been sacrificed.

              Also it is alleged that once you join the society you cannot [original emphasis] leave, if you do so, a lot of mishaps strike your family.

              Despite the fact that I do not have full evidence to substantiate the allegations I am worried as we have received applications for appointment as marriage officers from some Ministers of GRM. (...) I do not think such a responsibility should be passed onto individuals who purpote [sic] to be Christians, when their deeds are highly questionable.’[53]

The file does not contain any written reaction to these uncommonly serious allegations. Personal questioning revealed that the matter had been allowed to lapse: where was the civil servant who dared confront an organization so sinister and powerful? The one time when one feels the Registrar of Societies had every reason to declare a society unlawful, such action is not even officially contemplated. The point is not, of course, whether the allegations made in the Registrar’s files against the Guta ra Mwari church were objectively true: to ascertain such truth would be outside the scope of the present argument, and would in any case require a far wider range of data than I have at my disposal. But while it cannot be the present author’s task to pass judgment on the Guta ra Mwari church, it was certainly the Registrar of Society’s task to do so, and the point is that in the face of serious written allegations, the Registrar apparently did not have the power to act.

                        Which means that here we have reached one of the limits of state control over African Independent churches: when the idioms of power they represent are considered to be superior to state power, or to belong to a realm where state protection is not considered adequate. Mystical powers of manipulation, acquisition and destruction — sorcery — cannot be confronted under the Societies Act; and even if the Registrar tries to substitute insistence on technical-legal provisions instead, the state power she can muster is probably inadequate. This also means that in this case at least, the good intentions of protecting the masses against Independent Churches as an exploitative structure, have utterly failed. The bureaucratic forms of church organization as demanded by the Registrar become empty formulae, which are easily exchanged for others; behind them a totally different process goes on inside the church, not only completely uncontrolled by the state but even sanctioned by the respect and protection state recognition affords.

                        Meanwhile our statistical analysis has brought out some of the other limits of state control over the churches: inconspicuity (because of small size and/or recent emergence), and — at the other end of the spectrum — established status as a cosmopolitan church.


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[1]       This very high figure, although offered by the Acting Registrar of Societies who wrote the Minister’s speech, is not supported by my quantitative data and has not been entered into the statistical analysis in section 2.

[2]       Minister’s speech 25.7.87, encl 71 in file H28/40/27.

[3]       Minister’s speech 25.7.87, encl 71 in file H28/40/27.

[4]       Minister’s speech 25.7.87, encl 71 in file H28/40/27.

[5]       See below, discussion of guidance letter.

[6]       Minister’s Speech 25.7.87, enclosure 71 in file H28/40/27.

[7]       Registrar of Societies to Mosojane, 22.11.79; enclosure in H28/30/71 — I, St Anna’s church.

[8]       Mosojane to Registrar of Societies, 14.12.79; enclosure in H28/30/71 — I, St Anna’s church.

[9]       Mosojane to Registrar of Societies, 18.1.80; enclosure in H28/30/71 — I, St Anna’s church.

[10]    Mosojane to Registrar of Societies, 22.8.80; enclosure in H28/30/71 — I, St Anna’s church.

[11]    Minute 2, 5.12.1980, by G.K. Eustice, Acting Principal Administration Officer and later Registrar of Societies, enclosure in H 28/30/22 — I, The Holy Free Corner Stone Apostolic Church. This is the church referred to in the statement concerning Matante.

[12]       Constitution, enclosure in H28/30/71 — I, St Anna’s church.

[13]    While this clause certainly reflects one of the aims of the Registrar’s involvement with the African Independent churches, it is quite possible that this particular phrase was included at the initiative of Mr. Mosojane, the opposition politician.

[14]       Constitution, enclosure in H28/30/71 — I, St Anna’s church.

[15]    Guta Ra Jehova constitution, enclosure in H28/30/38.

[16]    E.g. Registrar of Societies to Molapisi, 29.9.80, in H 28/30/22 — I.

[17]    ‘Application for registration of a church’, circular, Department of Culture, Registration and Social Welfare Matters, Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, P/Bag 00185, Gaborone. Author’s collection; believed to date from the mid-1980s.

[18]    ‘Application for registration of a church’, circular, Department of Culture, Registration and Social Welfare Matters, Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, P/Bag 00185, Gaborone. Author’s collection; believed to date from the mid-1980s.

[19]    ‘Application for registration of a church’, circular, Department of Culture, Registration and Social Welfare Matters, Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, P/Bag 00185, Gaborone. Author’s collection; believed to date from the mid-1980s.

[20]    Societies Act 6 (4) (e).

[21]    Gaborone, file no. H28/90/75 — I. The ‘traditional’ element in this association is so strong that Staugård doubts whether it is a church (1986: 83; on p. 84-85 Staugård copies the constitution of this society). Through his personal activities and those of his wife, the president of this association, the Mwali High Priest for the Southwestern region Mr Vumbu Ntogwa and as such probably the principal traditional religious authority in northeastern Botswana, does participate in two other churches of a more explicitly Christian designation; cf. Werbner 1989: 341, n. 3. However, the principles at work here illustrate the accepted attitude of various Registrars of Societies in the 1980s, and are not affected by our judgment as to the truly ecclesiastical nature of this association. Other examples will be taken from less peripheral or ambiguous church organizations. Incidentally, ‘Hosanna’ means: 1. biblical praise; 2. Mwali adept; 3. Apostolic follower of the Zimbabwean church founder Masowe (cf. Daneel, 1971: 86, 88, 178, 339-41; Werbner 1989: 257f)]. ‘Hosanna’ (2) is often pronounced, and written, as ‘Wosanna.’ Probably the word in the sense of Mwali adept has an origin independently from the biblical word, but of course in a context of Independent churches the phonetical convergence of the words offers endless opportunities for symbolic bricolage.

[22]    Registrar of Societies to Hosanna etc. 20.3.78.

[23]    Hosanna to Registrar of Societies, 13.4.78.

[24]    Cf. Lan 1985; and general writings on the Mwali cult as cited above.

[25]    File H28/90/258 — I, registered 7.8.84.

[26]    Note the difference in tone from that applied in the Hosanna case.

[27]    Registrar of Societies to Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language, letter dated 19.9.83

[28]    This is the term under which the citizens of Botswana are normally designated in Botswana colloquial discourse, but also — and this is the essence of Tswana hegemony — the ethnic designation for non-Kalanga, Tswana-speakers.

[29]    Registrar of Societies to Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language, letter dated 19.9.83

[30]    Such as the conspicuous ZCC badge, available in two varieties — ‘dove’ and ‘star’ — reflecting a church split which has not yet led to a differentiation of the name itself.

[31]    Very rich material is available, e.g., on the Spiritual Healing Church (file H28/40/27), on of Botswana’s first and major African Independent churches, which also received extensive treatment in Lagerwerf’s study, and which through schism, conversion and otherwise is connected to a considerable number of other local churches. Further e.g. St Anna’s church, H28/30/71 — I; Holy Free Corner Stone Apostolic Church, H28/30/22 — I; and many others.

[32]    The addition between parentheses is part of the original name, and is debatable as a translation of the main Shona name; ‘Assembly of Mwari’ or ‘Assembly of God’ would seem to be more appropriate, but would have created a conflict with other already existing churches. Note the spelling difference with ‘Mwali’ as used in the context of the Hosanna Religious and Traditional Association, vide supra.

[33]    File H 28/30/38 — I; registered 18.10.1974.

[34]    Clause 12 from an undated early draft set of rules, enclosure 1 in H 28/30/38 — I, probably early 1970s.

[35]    Clause 13 from an undated early draft set of rules, enclosure 1 in H 28/30/38 — I, probably early 1970s.

[36]    This is the literal meaning of the name Mwali.

[37]    In the early 1970s, the SA Rand was still the Botswana currency. Later the Pula (P) was introduced, roughly equivalent to Dfl 1. The $ is Zimbabwean.

[38]    Rejected by the Registrar of Societies on 3.5.73, Registrar of Societies to Guta Ra Mwari.

[39]    Draft constitution rejected in 1973 by Registrar of Societies, clause b.

[40]    Audited accounts, File H 28/30/38 — I.

[41]    An undated letter from the Guta Ra Mwari to the Registrar of Societies, by P.M. Senau, c. 1986, claimed ‘more than ten thousand members in Botswana’.

[42]    Author’s field-notes.

[43]    Author’s field-notes.

[44]    Early draft constitution Guta Ra Mwari, clause 5.

[45]    Early draft constitution Guta Ra Mwari, clause 11. In 1973 this clause was changed to exclude those who have been members for less than two years.

[46]    Constitution rejected by Registrar of Societies in 1973.

[47]    Registrar of Societies to Secretary Guta Ra Mwari 8.4.87.

[48]    Registrar of Societies to Nat Secretary Guta Ra Mwari, 16.12.88.

[49]    Registrar of Societies to General Secretary Guta Ra Mwari, 17.3.89.

[50]    General Secretary Guta Ra Mwari to Registrar of Societies, 28.4.89.

[51]    Registrar of Societies to General Secretary Guta Ra Mwari 10.10.89.

[52]    Registrar of Societies to General Secretary Guta Ra Mwari 10.10.89.

[53]    Registrar of Societies to Deputy Permanent Secretary, undated memorandum in Guta Ra Mwari file, c. 1987.

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