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The exact origins of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela are uncertain. Oral traditions teach that the ancestor of all Batswana was Molope. He had a son, Mokgatlo, who is believed to be the ancestor of all Bakgatla.

In about 1650, after the death of Kgosi Mogale, the Bakgatla tribe was divided between supporters of his daughter Mosetlha from his great house, and his son Kgafela from his second house. There was a disagreement over who would be the new leader. One faction defied the usual tradition of male leaders and acknowledged the female, Mosetlha, as their kgosi. Those who supported Kgafela then broke away. They are the direct ancestors of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela.

'A Short History of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela' in full. Download a pdf

Today there are five main branches of the Bakgatla, all resident in the central and western areas of the former Transvaal and the southeastern parts of Botswana:

1 | Bakgatla-ba-Mmanaana
2 | Bakgatla-ba-Mmakau
3 | Bakgatla-ba-Mosetlha
4 | Bakgatla-ba-Motsha
5 | Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela

It is only from the 1800s that people started referring to themselves as Motswana (singular) or Batswana (plural).

There are two uses of the word Batswana. One refers to all people who embrace Tswana culture, heritage and the Setswana language. The other refers to all citizens of the Republic of Botswana, regardless of their ethnicity.