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By Richard Moleofe
Pay day at Botswana Defence Force barracks was like a day of celebration. All officers and the non-commissioned cadres were in a jovial mood. April 26th was the day many were looking forward to as it was the official payday.
However, the evening of April 25 was equally full of activity as some banks had already paid the soldiers by late evening. In the military, there is always a name to everything. Those that are able to squeeze their accounts the previous night call the cash “premature.”
All this hype comes in great anticipation to the salary increase of the decade. The president has made it a point that soldiers get a reasonable increase to their salaries as well as restructuring the pay scales. I am told he has honoured a 2004 proposal for salary increase. Maybe that opens a window of opportunity for me to go back and claim because I was still in active service at the time.
The creativity at BDF is endless. This salary increase has a name to it. It is called Ntlole, a small mammal known as spring hare in the queen’s language. This animal has extra-ordinary abilities in jumping. The salary increase is such a leap. This will improve the lives of many.
While all soldiers in active service are celebrating, there are those in the retired cadre who are watching in disbelief. Many retired soldiers are living in abject poverty and are so much in need for Ntlole to jumpstart their lives.
BDF was established in total haste in 1977 and by now all the founding members are retired. The salaries were very low and as I remember in 1979 when I was still in primary school, a private soldier earned P79.
These men were enlisted to fight the Rhodesian War. This was the war of liberation for Zimbabwe. When BDF was established, the economy of the country was not ready to support a military organization. This meant that salary increases were not really a priority of our government because in any case there was no money in state coffers.
In our day the economy of the country is awash with a lot of money and this is why the president has taken a decision to reward every man and woman within the military. And what about the Rhodesian War veterans?
These veterans know what suffering entails. They spent months on border patrol duties because there was no one to relief them. I remember one of my cousins, Seth Moleofe came for a one week leave after spending nine months in the bush. He showed us boot marks which was as a result of staying booted endlessly.
These men were never rewarded for their stalwartness and resilience at a time when this country needed them most. These were selfless men who in the national hour of need, literally sacrificed their lives.
Like I said all of the Rhodesian War veterans are now retired. But some left before reaching the age of retirement because of permanent disabilities. They sustained irreparable injuries during the skirmishes with Ian Smith’s soldiers.
Botswana soldiers suffered a great deal because they were up against a well-equipped and well trained military. Training at BDF at the time was so rudimentary and equipment was as basic as one could get. In the first few months after BDF was formed, the biggest calibre of weapon was a 50mm mortar.
Later in the months the new military was equipped with aircraft. The fastest of the Britten-Norman Defender multi-role utility transport aircraft that doubled as a bomber could be out run by today’s BMWs sold in the Mogoditshane garages. Bombing with such a slow aircraft was not only stupid, but was rather totally insane.
Here were the men who took orders and like orders, their patriotism was not questionable. Unlike today’s soldier, their driving motive was not money. Remember that at the time unemployment was not at its current epidemic levels. The economy was small but there was still freedom of choice when it came to jobs.
President Mokgweetsi Masisi does not have any military background and for that reason I will excuse him for not being in concert with the needs of these veterans. When General Ian Khama came into power in 2008, a lot of these retired veterans were hopeful that he would turnaround their poverty situation.
Gen Khama has not honoured the motto “Leave no man behind.” The Rhodesian War veterans are the men that took orders directly from him. When he ascended to the seat of the presidency, active and retired soldiers were hopeful that he would come to change their lives. The fact that he was the first president with military credentials was the reason for this optimism.
For President Masisi to act on the plight of the war veterans, a thorough study needs to be undertaken to determine the real situation of these men. They have gone through immense socio-economic troubles and that needs to be addressed adequately.
Anyone who joined BDF from 1977 to 1980 when Zimbabwe acquired independence should be regarded as a Rhodesian War veteran. It is for this reason that those should live under a special dispensation compared to other retired soldiers
We have it from the news media that the president has ordered that a veterans’ office should be opened at the relevant ministry. That is good news. This office should have come a decade ago. There is a lot of hope and anticipation from retired soldiers I have been meeting.
Further to this, President Masisi will be attending the retired members’ conference in Palapye this year in the month of June. This will be the first time a president would be gracing that meeting.
The Palapye conference has for a long time been a ritual and meaningless. It is time it becomes meaningful to the retired soldiers. It can only become meaningful if the leadership of the organization is completely changed.
*Richard Moleofe is a security analyst