Through the ages, the phathisi dance has been an enthralling pastime for both young and old among the Bakwena tribe in Botswana. The dance has since spread throughout the country, and beyond to places like South Africa.
At its origin, the dance was performed during special tribal rituals, and the name grew out of the costume worn during the performance. This observation is backed by researcher Otukile Phibion, who confirms both its origin in the Kweneng District and that it was one of the Bakwena’s tribal symbols.
Performances of the dance among the Bakwena tribe is estimated to have started between 1914 and 1916. Men or boys who performed the dance wore shorts known as motseto or mongato in the local parlance and put on diphathisi made from old goat or sheep skin.
Curator at Kgari Sechele I Museum, Kawina Kawina said phathisi was a distinctive feature for Bakwena. He said it was initially a ritual dance meant to thank Badimo or ancestors for good harvests.
Kawina noted that phathisi dance had grown in leaps and bounds, spreading to the southern African region.
“It became vital in uniting Bakwena communities and had that potential to even unite Batswana with other nations as it has grown across borders. As part of our cultural heritage, it is seen as a critical agent in cultural integration,” he said.
Mr Kawina said as phathisi evolved, it could be packaged in such a way that it could be profitable to its practitioners.
“The promotion of phathisi should be in line with aspirations of our national long-term vision, especially the aspiration for unity,” he said.
Mr Kawina said though research was yet to be conducted to establish the link, some cultural observers had drawn similarities between phathisi and the gumboot dance which traces its roots in South Africa.
According to research, gumboot dancing was born in the gold mines of South Africa at the height of the migrant labour system when the country was under the apartheid system. It has been suggested that the gumboots dance may have evolved after Bakwena young men working in the South African mines performed the phathisi to while away time and entertain fellow miners.
Gumboot dancing has developed into a popular uniquely South African dance among the working class with a universal appeal. The dance has been performed on some of the most prestigious stages in the world.
The mine workers were not free to move around at will and were separated from their families for long periods of time. At best, working in the mines was a long, hard, repetitive toil. At worst, the men would be taken chained into the mines and shackled at their work stations in almost total darkness.
The workers were forbidden to speak and as a result created a means of communication essentially their own unique form by slapping their gumboots and rattling their ankle chains, the enslaved workers sent messages to each other in the darkness. From this came an entertainment as the miners evolved their percussive sounds and movements into a unique dance form and used it to entertain each other during their free time.
Gumboot dancing has developed into a working class South African art form with a universal appeal. The dancers expand upon traditional steps, with the addition of contemporary movement, music and song.
Quizzed on the influence of the African culture with linkages to Botswana, veteran historian, Dr Jeff Ramsay said Botswana’s greatest contribution to itself, as a model for Africa and the wider world, was of building a society that had been at relative peace with itself.
He said the ideal was captured during the early years of the republic with the concept of Kagisano and the principles of Botho, Ipelegeng, Puso ka Batho along with development and progress.
“Sir Seretse Khama was a statesman who in word and deed combined pragmatism with a genuinely national vision. Fortunately for us, many of his words, which have become more timeless with each passing year, have been preserved,” said Dr Ramsay.
He said an early manifestation of Seretse’s national vision was articulated in April 1958 when for the first time he rose to speak as a member of the Joint Advisory Council. He said this was several months after his return from enforced exile in the UK.