Please allow me to take a long break from writing anything about politics. The year 2019 which was an election period in Botswana has been the most hectic of all the ones I have gone through in my adult life. Some of my readers and particularly the students at Botswana Defence Force Defence Command and Staff College have particularly noticed that I have slowly drifted away from military issues in favour of the political debate.This past year many of you know very well that Ian Khama has received quite a significant bashing from my writings. This was necessary because the man was intended on derailing our country from its democratic traditions. I am moving away from that to focus on educating the nation on our military past. But mark my words, Ian Khama is not done with us yet.
There is so much that we can glean on when it comes to military history issues in Botswana from the Mfecane wars to the days of wars of liberation in southern Africa. Botswana has at many and different levels participated in these conflicts and we need to revisit these historic instances and understand our military past.One of Ian Khama’s ancestors, Khama III was a military man and has a very interesting past that most of you have not learnt about so far. We all know that during the Mfecane wars, the Ndebele played havoc over our country and beyond. And when an opportunity opened to take on Lobengula son of Mzilikazi, Khama III did not hesitate.One morning in the Ngwato capital of Palapye, Khama received a telegram from Cecil John Rhodes. The latter was sending an envoy to Palapye to seek military assistance. Rhodes who owned the British South Africa Company understood the geo-political situation of southern Africa very well. At the time, he knew very well that Khama would not leave an opportunity to deal a decisive blow on his sworn enemy in the Ndebele.
This military campaign is in fact known as the First Matebele War and it took place between 1893 and 1894. It was here that Lobengula’s forces were pitted against soldiers of the British South Africa Company and a force approximately two battalions from present day Botswana. The BSA which was a privately listed company immensely served the interests of the British government in every sense of the word in southern Africa.Lobengula had the strength needed for commandeering an army even in today’s terms. The Matebele forces numbered 80 000 spearmen and 20 000 riflemen who were equipped with reasonably high calibre weapons of their time. Meanwhile the company troops only numbered a paltry 700 but this was seriously augmented by their modern weapon systems. It was the iconic Maxim machine gun that won the war for the company troops with the immense support of Khama’s soldiers.
Matebeleland was approached in a two pronged assault as the company forces descended from the north while Khama’s forces were making the southerly approach. Khama had acceded to the request by Rhodes to turn in his soldiers to support the campaign. The Ngwato king had amassed an army numbering a total of 1000 men who were equipped with modern weaponry.Khama’s two battalions were almost unimpeded as they scored victory upon victory against the Ndebele. It is not clear in the account whether Khama’s army had the Maxim machine gun in its inventory. But one would want to believe that yes indeed they had access to the use of this weapon because they would have been otherwise overwhelmed by the 20 000 riflemen of the Ndebele Army.The Ndebele were mainly equipped with the Martini-Henry rifles which were no match for the Maxim machine gun.
According to eye witness accounts, during the battle at Shangani River, this machine gun was literally mowing down enemy forces as never seen before as this weapon was seeing action for the first time.Upon their first taste of defeat, the Ndebele fled from Bulawayo. The party that was pursuing them had so much difficulty in reaching Lobengula because of the persisting rains. Once the mop-up operations were completed in and around Bulawayo, Khama and his men immediately left for Gammangwato. When the British raised an issue on his sudden withdrawal, Khama noticed them that they could tarry no more as they had to go back and begin to plough their fields. Khama ruled an agrarian society and they could not miss out on the ploughing and planting season.
Khama’s decision became very unpopular with the British owners of the company but the man stood his ground. I have always wondered why the Shona were never part of this short war as they were often bullied by the Ndebele, a historical conflict that still defines the political fault lines on present day Zimbabwe. Why was Khama more willing to do the dirty work for the white settlers? Of course the fellow wanted to put the Ndebele issue to rest, for good.In the era of the mid 1800s, the Ndebele were marauding in our country and every tribe has a story to tell about these warriors. For Khama it was a sweet revenge on the people who were frequent unwelcome visitors to Shoshong which was the Ngwato capital at the time of the invasions. Sekgoma who was Khama’s father had battled it out with Mzilikazi the father of Lobengula. It was now time for the sons to seal it.
The Ndebele had the numbers as they had been the dominant force in this part of the world until the white man arrived with gunpowder. Khama must have been well received as a hero who crushed Lobengula son of Mzilikazi of the Ndebele, a breakaway tribe from the Zulus who equally gave everyone sleepless nights.Khama had his own genuine reasons for his assault on the Ndebele, but the white settlers obviously had their own reason half a world away from those of their ally from the south. The white settlers were creating more room for their expansionist ambitions.