Monday, June 1, 2020

Botswana’s last surviving 1967 sedition trialist passes away quietly

Even among some Botswana National Front members and Kopong residents, the name Pretty Molefe doesn’t ring a bell but decades ago, it set off all national-security alarm bells and was on the charge sheet of Botswana’s first sedition trial.

In the immediate post-Independence period, politics was largely a male vocation but there were very few Batswana women who stepped up to the plate. Molefe was one of them and beyond imbibing all that Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong and the rest of them commies had written about communism, was more than eager to share her knowledge with a mostly politically illiterate nation. The BNF had a party newsletter called Puo Phaa (straight talk) which, in the July and August 1967 editions, published something that the government of President Sir Seretse Khama was not happy with. The result was that Molefhe was charged with sedition alongside party founder Dr. Kenneth Koma and Central Committee members, Klaas Motshidisi, Obonetse Menyatso and Henderson Tlhoiwe. All were members of the editorial board and Molefhe was the only woman among them.

At this point in time, Mahalapye (the adopted home village of the Serowe-born Koma) was the hub of BNF operations. Not far from the Mahalapye Community Hall (eastwards) was a homestead that served as the party’s headquarters. In the early 2000s, Motshidisi told the writer that he and other members were once arrested at this homestead in the late 1960s by a Special Branch team from the Botswana Police Force (renamed Botswana Police Service) that was led by Bill Grant, a white officer who was a holdover from the colonial government.

The centrality of Mahalapye to BNF activity probably explains why the sedition trial was initially held not in Gaborone but Mahalapye at a dilapidated railside building that village residents from a certain era know as Hands Hall – or Kabidikama Primary School. Its actual and full name is Lawrence Hands Memorial Hall and when built in 1937, was a whites-only school for children of Rhodesia Railways employees stationed in Mahalapye. By oral accounts, Hands Hall couldn’t accommodate the crowd that turned up and a marquee was erected outside for purposes of doing what the hall couldn’t.

The case never moved to trial stage where the accused would have had an opportunity to explain themselves and decades later, the explanation that Motshidisi would give was that President Khama and Koma reached a gentleman’s agreement. The two men were distant relatives and had studied in Europe around the same time. Such agreement, whose details remain murky, happened during a private meeting between them at Gaborone Dam in 1968. Soon thereafter, the sedition charges against all five accused persons were dropped.

When Motshidisi died in 2015, Molefhe became the only surviving 1967 sedition trialist. She passed away last month at the age of 89 and while she retained interest in BNF affairs, often travelling from Kopong to attend court in major cases that the party was party to, she had long retired from active politics. Someone holding the title of last surviving 1967 sedition tribalist would certainly have had a very interesting story to tell. However, when Sunday Standard sought to interview her about her political career and the trial, Molefhe said that she couldn’t remember a lot of what had happened in the past.

Some 50 years later, another Motswana would be charged with sedition for what he had published and once more under the presidency of a Khama: Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone. It’s unlikely Mokone and former President Ian Khama ever met at Gaborone Dam to reach a gentleman’s agreement but the charges were also subsequently dropped.

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