Analysis of egalitarian dynamics among the G/wi

This is a post in my organizing ”between and beyond” series. Other posts are here. The purpose of this post is to explore the egalitarian dynamics among the G/wi-speaking people in the Central Kalahari Reserve of Botswana. The analysis is summarized here.

The egalitarian dynamics among foraging societies hold clues to a deeper generative ”order” for organizing. The example below is from Politics and history in band societies edited by Eleanor Leacock and Richard Lee. George Silberbauer spent time together with the G/wi in 1958–66. The G/wi were the only permanent inhabitants in the remote and arid heart of Botswana.1 Exploration for, and exploitation of, natural resources have disrupted the lives of the G/wi. The close-knit, self-sufficient organization of the G/wi were gone already in the 1950s.2


The community (the band)

  • The social community is the band.3
  • The band has a stable identity as a group of people living in a geographically specific territory and controlling the use of the resources of that territory.4
  • Membership of the band is less stable than its identity. Members are free to join other bands and are, therefore, free to leave the current band.5
  • The size of the community is limited by available resources of food etc. The community is open, but is nevertheless a finite one.6

Groups (cliques)

  • Cliques are unstable groups which which shift when moving to a new campsite every three to six weeks. The group’s composition is determined by the preference for one another’s close company.7
  • Interaction within a clique is much more intense than between cliques. The exchange of goods and services is higher within the clique. The women usually form a food-gathering group, and the men assist one another.8
  • Cliques also become focuses of opinion and function as sub-units of agreement within the band.9


  • Leadership is the extent to which an individual’s suggestion or opinion attracts public support.10
  • The leadership is authoritative, rather than authoritarian. Knowledge, experience, and firmness are characteristics which win support. Expertise in one area may be seen as not at all relevant to another area.11
  • Leadership shifts unpredictably. Many discussions and lack of competitiveness separates idea from identity.12


  • The process of reaching a decision is initiated by somebody identifying and communicating a problem which calls for decision.13
  • Decisions affecting the band as a whole are arrived at through discussion in which all adult, and near-adult, members may participate.14
  • There are many ways to discuss: A quiet, serious discussion; A campaign of persuasion; Or a public harangue.15 The ‘forced eavesdrop’ avoids direct confrontation. Opponents are free to do the same.16
  • The time taken for discussion is naturally limited by the urgency of the matter. Less urgent matters can be debated for long with the subject cropping up from time to time until a satisfying solution to the problem is reached.17
  • If discussion becomes too angry or excited, debate is temporarily adjourned by the withdrawal of the attention of the calmer participants until things cool down.18
  • Public decisions cover a wide field. That which is not public is permitted to be private, but there is little which escapes the concern and insight of band fellows.19


  • Decisions are arrived at by consensus. Consensus is a term in common use but without common meaning. It is not unanimity of opinion or decision. In the same way as egalitarian doesn’t mean equality.20
  • Consensus is reached by examining the various possible courses of action and rejection of all but one to which there remains no significant opposition.21
  • Significant opposition is the dissent of those to whom the proposal is not acceptable, who are unable to live with it, and who are not prepared to concede the decision.22
  • The fact that it is the band as a whole which decides is both necessary and sufficient to legitimize what is decided and to make the decision binding.23


  • The consent in consensus negates coercion, and vice versa.24
  • The openness of the band gives members freedom to move to another band.25
  • The power lies in what the band decides and in book-keeping of material benefits and social balance.26
  • The leadership is facilitative, rather than forceful, seeking ways of getting things done, while accommodating dissent.27

The example above shows how deeply leadership and decision-making is embedded in the social context of the G/wi. The leadership is authoritative, rather than authoritarian, and shifts unpredictably depending on the situation. The decision-making is done in many ways depending on the kind of decision and the urgency of the decision. Individual band members choose freely which groups to join, and strives for cooperation in the activities he or she wishes to undertake. It is also interesting to notice how the openness of the band gives members freedom to move to another band. The freedom to move to another band is an effective way to meet coercion. The loss of many band members would be costly to those remaining. An open, egalitarian, social structure is authentic because it’s based on a natural belonging together, while a closed, coercive, social structure is counterfeit because it’s a forced belonging together.

1 Ibid., Eleanor Leacock, Richard Lee (editors), Politics and history in band societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 23.
2 Ibid., p. 24.
3 Ibid..
4 Ibid..
5 Ibid..
6 Ibid., p. 26.
7 Ibid., p. 28.
8 Ibid..
9 Ibid..
10 Ibid., p. 29.
11 Ibid..
12 Ibid..
13 Ibid..
14 Ibid., p. 26.
15 Ibid..
16 Ibid., p. 27.
17 Ibid..
18 Ibid., p. 29.
19 Ibid., p. 30.
20 Ibid., p. 31.
21 Ibid., p. 32.
22 Ibid., p. 34.
23 Ibid., p. 32.
24 Ibid..
25 Ibid., p. 33.
26 Ibid., p. 34.
27 Ibid..

Related posts:
Organizing in between and beyond posts

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  1. Simon Robinson

    This is really interesting Jan. I feel that there is a little more to say in terms of Henri Bortoft’s observations about counterfeit wholes being ones where there is a sense of totalitarianism when the whole is seen as some kind of ”super-part”. Hence the *belonging together* (authentic) also relates to the the way in which these systems are seen in a dynamic manner.



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