Traditional Spatial Demarcation and Formation: A Kgotla Setting, Botswana

Traditional Spatial Demarcation and Formation: A Kgotla Setting, Botswana

Résumé en français

Soixante pour cent de la population du Botswana réside dans des zones urbaines. En raison des processus d'urbanisation, la plupart des établissements autochtones se sont transformés au fil du temps. Ils se sont dotés de nouvelles infrastructures physiques en raison des conditions économiques, sociales, culturelles et politiques qui prévalent. Cependant, l'impact de cette transformation sur l'altération du paysage des kgotla n'a pas été objectivement documenté. Cet article traite de la transformation des récits et de la conception du paysage des kgotla au Botswana sur la base d'une documentation et d'une recherche sur le terrain. Il utilise des sources d'information primaires et secondaires, les données étant acquises par le biais de visites et d'analyses sur le terrain. L'étude a observé et documenté les pratiques spatiales traditionnelles du paysage, où il a été constaté que le paysage des kgotla s'est considérablement transformé au fil des ans, avec de nouvelles typologies de bâtiments publics introduits dans le cadre des kgotla et avec les anciennes huttes traditionnelles tswanas dikgotla qui ont été laissées à l'abandon. En plus de ces changements, la structure générale de l'établissement est passée d'une structure organique à une structure en grille. L'article propose un paysage hybride qui tient compte de l'utilisation traditionnelle et de la valeur de la kgotla dans un environnement Setswana.

Sixty percent of Botswana’s population resides in urban areas. As a result of urbanisation processes, most indigenous settlements have transformed over time. These settlements have aggregated new physical infrastructure as a result of the prevailing economic, social, cultural and political conditions. However, the impact of this transformation on the alteration of the kgotla landscape has not been objectively documented. This paper discusses the transformation of the kgotla landscape narratives and design in Botswana based on documentation and field research. It used both primary and secondary sources of information, data being acquired through site visits and analysis. The study observed and documented the traditional landscape spatial practices, where it was found that the kgotla landscape has transformed significantly over the years, with new typologies of public builidings introduced within the kgotla setting and with old original dikgotla traditional Tswana huts having been left to decay. In addition to these changes, the general pattern of the settlement has changed from organic to grid pattern. The paper proposes a hybrid landscape that takes into cognisance the traditional use and value of the kgotla in a Setswana setting.


According to the UN-Habitat (2009), cities and towns in all parts of the world are very different places to what they were when planning first emerged as a profession over a hundred years ago. While the 20th century as a whole has been a time of major urban transformation, the last few decades, coinciding with the global restructuring of the economy and society, have seen new and particular impacts on urban growth and change. In recent years, attention has been drawn to the fact that more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas and the bulk of these urban dwellers live in the global South. Many of these Southern towns and cities are dealing with challenges which are often compounded by interpretations and perceptions (UN-Habitat 2009).

Boussora (1990) opines that it is widely acknowledged that the uncritical embrace of an international modernism which dominated the design practices of most developing countries in the past is ill-suited not only in terms of environmental and economic conditions, but also in terms of cultural appropriateness to Africa. Similar concerns were raised by Rapoport (1977) who asserts that there is a tendency of the human mind to impose an order on the world through “schemata” and that environments are thought of before they are built. He contends that these environments are not randomly built, or built by “primitive tribes.” Laburn-Peart (2002) further, argues that such built environments are actually planned because there is logic to their layout.

Further, Rapoport and Hardie (1991) argue that culture and cultural change, adaptation or syncretism, has important implications for designers. Consequently, there is a need to be conscious of the fundamental community characteristics that have influenced layout in the past and the principles that may be of relevance for present-day planning and design. That notwithstanding, Ellen (1997) cautions that an Afrocentric design approach can only be successful and relevant if it does not aim at an anachronistic recreation of traditional architecture but at its transformation and evolution. Person (1995) proposes a creative blend between technology and traditional forms (or traditional and western forms).

The views espoused here, have been rekindled by postmodernist critique of modernist design concepts and practices. Central to postmodernist viewpoints is a renewed interest in traditional vernacular designs worldwide in the global South. Furthermore, the accomplishment of political independence, advancement and competition in the global market has encouraged the development of a regional style based on local traditions to assist the establishment of a post-colonial national or cultural identity.

This paper uses the villages of Molepolole and Tlokweng to document the traditional landscape design and spatial practices, i.e. how the public spaces are marked, demarcated and formed. Further, the paper investigates the landscape design transformation in the planning, layout and landscaping associated with indigenous communities in Botswana. In particular, the paper studies ways in which Botswana gather as people in their traditional setting, using the Kgotla example, and proposes a hybrid landscape model that integrates traditional and modern landscape forms.

Background to Study Areas

The villages of Molepolole and Tlokweng are two of the major villages in Botswana. Molepolole is located 40km west of Gaborone, one of the largest village towns in the south-east part of the country with a population of 62,739 (Statistics Botswana, 2001), and is the central administrative centre for the Kweneng district.

Tlokweng is a dormitory settlement for Gaborone, located directly adjacent to the capital in the South-East District and considered part of the conurbation of Gaborone. In 2011, the population of Tlokweng was estimated at 36,326, the village providing a main entry point from South Africa (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Molepololeand Tlokweng Location Map


This paper is part of on-going research on indigenous settlements in Botswana using the cases of Molepolole and Tlokweng, based on both documentation and fieldwork. It used both secondary and primary sources of information, secondary data being obtained through analysis of historical and topographical maps. Primary data collection was done through site visits and analysis by observing and documenting traditional landscape design and spatial practices. Specifically it documented how space is marked, demarcated and formed at a dikgotla (plural) setting. Molepolole and Tlokweng were chosen as case studies because they are considered ideal examples of emerging settlements that encompass traditional and contemporary contexts.

Conceptual Frameworks

The study is guided by three conceptual frameworks of spatial transformation and culture, kgotla and traditional Tswana settlement.

Spatial transformation and culture:

As pointed out by Lewis (1996), the landscape reflects culture. In that respect changes in the appearance of a landscape are likely to indicate change in national, regional or local culture. Used in context here, landscape is understood to refer to the perceived settings that frame people’s sense of place and community. A place is a socially meaningful and identifiable space to which historical dimensions are attributed. In this case, a kgotla in a Tswana setting holds such historical attributes.

Cosgrove (1984) pointed out that to accept the ambiguity and severally layered meaning of landscape does not excuse us from their careful examination and origins. Rather, it obliges us to pay greater attention to them more than we have done in the past. The origins of landscapes are seen as a way of discovering and linking broader historical structures and process in order to locate landscape study within a progressive debate about society and culture.

Urbanising settlements, such as Molepolole, are rich in culture. With urbanisation taking place at an uncontrolled pace, space transformation has led to a conflict of traditional spatial layouts and modern planning models with spatial transformation at the kgotla precinct eroding its cultural identity.

The basis of understanding transformation is rooted in the idea of understanding a place. Hunt (1988) describes place-making as an “art of milieu” that involves not only inhabitants and users but the history of the place that is being made or re-made and the story of the site over time. He further recognises the importance of time in landscape architecture, and that transformation processes occur over time. In support of this assertion, Tate (2004) argues that the importance of understanding and interpreting a site before intervening in its human and biological processes is a fundamental value in landscape architecture.


As a place and space, the kgotla in Botswana is a formal public assembly associated with the institution of traditional leadership. The kgotla is one of the most sacred and prominent emblems of heritage to Batswana. It is where rituals, trials, sentences, punishment and other court dramas take place (Moumakwa, 2010). Within every tribe there exists the kgotla which acts as a platform/space/place where people can freely come for meetings and other relevant activities. It also exists as a mechanism for conflict resolution among the local people. The kgotla is led by the chief, with the help of headmen, who lead the lower structure of a kgotla (dikgotlana). It is important to note that these public assembly points of gather are common in most African countries (Moumakwa, 2010).

The original horseshoe form of the kgotla created a sense of place because it was a public space where people gathered for different activities (Figure 2). The old dikgotla are seen as historic places which used to host rituals and other activities whether political or religious. It carries with it memories of the place and its people - a social space, political space uniting people. In the past it was often a wooden structure in the form of a kraal or sometimes just an open place usually under the shade of a large tree (Mabena, 1997).

However because the kgotla setting has been transformed, some of the activities no longer take place. Urbanisation of the settlements has meant that new typologies of public spaces have been introduced such as bars and restaurants, some being closer to the vicinity of the dikgotla.

Traditional Tswana settlement:

The internal organisation of the Tswana settlement was not geometrically organised, but derived from the conceptual model of the social structure of the society. A settlement started with the strategic placement of the main kgotla which is the main public gathering space for the whole settlement (Figure 2). It is a large open space surrounded by a circular fence of stout poles and usually a few big trees for shade. Everything then radiated hierarchically from the kgotla. Throughout decades or centuries, traditional Tswana settlements have aggregated new physical infrastructure as a result of manifestation of the prevailing economic, social, cultural and political forces. The spatial transformation of the indigenous settlement pattern, layout, structure and morphology over time needs to be documented.

Figure 2: Organisation of the kgotla space

Results and Discussion

Transformation of traditional Tswana settlement:

The old dikgotla and the sorrounding areas have been affected by the transformation of the larger context. Both Tlokweng and Molepolole spatial transformations can be witnessed within the kgotla where traditional Tswana huts have been left to decay and replaced with new types of modern houses with new building materials and technology. This is observed across the broader spectrum of the settlement pattern. Figures 3 and 4  show a transition from the old village section with the organic pattern to a new settlement layout with grid patterns for Molepolole and Tlokweng respectively.

Figure 3: Molepolole Settlement Transformation
Figure 4: Tlokweng Settlement transformation

Comparative analysis of traditional and contemporary kgotla:

The kgotla used to have a strong sense of presence in a village where people identified with its distinct features prior to its contemporary form. It had features that belonged to the settlement pattern (Mabena, 1997). Figure 5, shows the original Tlokweng kgotla situated in the older section of the village, while Figure 6, shows the new Main Tlokweng kgotla located between new developments.

Figure 5: The original Tlokweng Main Kgotla at the Old Village
Figure 6: The New Tlokweng Main Kgotla Precinct

Figure 7 shows the Molepolole precinct in which the kgotla no longer orientates the general setting of the settlement. Traditionaly, the conceptual understanding of the kgotla as a space was that it was used to hold and give structure to the settlement, with a pattern of buidings that radiated away from it. Figure 7 shows how the institutional transformation of the country has led to the spatial transformation at local level, with the administration duties of the kgotla shifted to cater for a contemporary developing society. This meant that the Chief‘s sphere of influence is only limited to his area of precedence, above him is the central government with all its structures such as the Land Board, local authorities, village development communities etc. (Larsson, 1996).

Figure 7: The Molepolole main kgotla precinct

A synthesis of the  new Tlokweng and Molepolole main kgotla precincts reflects the introduction of new structures to the setting with  the original organic nature of the kgotla being lost. Both of the contemporary kgotla layouts indicate buildings added to the precinct, most of these being in a modern rectilinear style. The spatial experience now lacks an interaction with the public domain, physically, by activity and in some cases even visually. The materials and design of the buildings do not represent the cultural setting of each tribe and there is no particular hierarchy in the arrangement of the buildings.

In the traditional old dikgotla setting the hierarchy was achieved by the traditional Tswana huts, leobo and the kraal that framed the public space, which gave the villages their identity. With the transformation of the built fabric within the kgotla, the dominant forms today are flat roofed rectilinear blocks, the hip and valley and the gabbled roofs, evident throughout the settlements, lacking the earlier organic pattern. (Figures 8, 9 and 10).

The spatial experience of the new dikgotla:

It is evident that the new structures have altered the spatial experience of the kgotla, the kraal having been changed from wood to stone or concrete walls and barbed wire fences in the case of Tlokweng. Sawn and treated timber has replaced the simple untreated wood from local trees to construct the Leobo (a hall). Among the new structures are modern shelters or concrete platforms meant for government dignitaries, administration offices, tribal police offices and the tribal hall (Figure 7).

New plants have been added to provide shade, while the traditional kgotla was anchored around one tree. Additional amenity structures, including telephones, toilets, parking space and a flag display space at the centre of the kgotla, have been added (Figure 10).

Some elements still remain intact in their original setting, however modifications and renovations, such as silos or grain storage have been altered using modern building materials (Figure 9). These silos, although in brick and concrete, still represent the old traditional kgotla system, whereby part of each family‘s grain produce would be stored for future use. Both contemporary dikgotla cannot be identified as spaces of importance because their spatial pattern has been altered.

Figure 8: Space demarcation in Molepolole
Figure 9 The kraal and the silos have been modified.
Figure 10: New Tlokweng Main Kgotla


Dikgotla are fundamental parts of Batswana‘s heritage. However, their importance as a space is gradually losing meaning as a result of spatial and landscape transformation. Traditional kgotla artifacts are being replaced by modern ones, following the general pattern of settlement alteration, eroding the cultural fabric of the kgotla landscape. Appropriate strategies are therefore needed for the design of public space to reflect the traditional importance of a Kgotla and its cultural fabric in an urbanising society.

Even though traditional villages are rapidly changing and developing, they can be guided by interventions which take into account the role of culture in shaping and understanding the essence of place. Consequently, the current generation of planners and designers face new challenges in response to western models of development. New settlement planning models should be responsive to the local culture. The historical essence of a place should be recognised through the use of materials in both landscape and buildings. Public access to identified spaces and structures should be incorporated into the envisioned framework forming the public realm.


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All figures by the Author