Clients were poor men contracted to work for a chief or rich man for payment in kind. Impoverishment could easily occur in pre-colonial South Africa. A man could lose everything through war, disease or natural calamities. He would then approach a more fortunate individual for cattle on loan. He would receive a portion of the milk of the cattle he tended and rebuild his own herd by keeping some of the calves he reared.
Clientship should therefore not be confused with servitude, as clients were in a transitional state back to economic independence and full membership of the society. Types of servitude did exist, though, particularly in Tswana society, when the status of a client became permanent and was passed on to his descendants. This was known as the Botlhanka system.