Monday, May 17, 2021

Builder’s of Botswana: Black, White and Red

“One day, the whole of Africa will surely be free and united and when that final tale is told, the significance of George Padmore’s work will be revealed.” ÔÇô Kwame Nkrumah at Padmore’s burial in Accra, 1959.

Last week we cited the writings of George Padmore as a starting point in trying to appreciate why Seretse and Ruth were once perceived to be a threat Britain’s post-war imperial ambitions.

The enduring notion that London was somehow betraying its principles to appease Dr. Malan in Pretoria obscures the racist nature of Britain’s own imperial edifice.

Leading members of the Labour as well as Conservative Party during the period not only believed that the British Empire had a long-term future in Africa, but in line with prevailing Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) thinking, also perceived the white settlers in Eastern as well as Southern Africa as critical to achieving their ambitions.

With respect to South Africa, the CRO was more concerned about placating Jan Smuts and his successors than the Malan’s Afrikaner Nationalists.

For his part George Padmore never set foot in Botswana. He was, however, no stranger to our country. An outspoken opponent of the Union of South Africa’s desire to incorporate the Protectorates, i.e. Lesotho and Swaziland as well as Botswana, his detailed analysis of local conditions is evident in many of his writings dating back to his Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (1931) and How Britain Rules Africa (1936) as well as articles in support of Tshekedi Khama’s early struggles.

His earliest insights into our region were shaped by contacts with South African Communists, such as Albert Nzula, Moses Kotane and L.L. Leepile. (Kotane was a South African born Mokwena, while Leepile is said to have been Mongwaketse. Unfortunately little is currently known about the latter’s life beyond his few surviving writings, which among other things advocated the independence of “Botsoana” as a republic in the 1930s.)

Padmore is also reported to have had contact with Batswana soldiers during the Second World War, when he worked as an international war correspondent.

After the war Padmore was both an acquaintance and through his newspaper articles prolific supporter of the Khamas.

Seretse and Padmore belonged to a wider circle of London based African and Caribbean intellectuals who, notwithstanding their ideological and national/ethnic diversity, were united by a common and urgent commitment to the liberation of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. While Padmore can be characterised as a Pan-African Marxist revolutionary and Seretse as a liberal democratic evolutionary nationalist, the two also shared common ground in their pragmatism, intellectual curiosity and vision of racial equality in a non-racial world.

But to fully appreciate Padmore’s local legacy one should first know something of his own story and global profile.

Padmore was an adopted name. He was born in Trinidad in 1903 as Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse. After completing secondary school in 1918 he became a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, where his early radicalism is said to have been cultivated while covering labour struggles on the island.

In 1924 he migrated to the United States, where he studied at Columbia, Fisk and Howard Universities. In Tennessee, at Fisk, he confronted the harsh “Jim Crow” racism of the American South both on and off campus. It was at Fisk where he also first met and developed a lifelong working relationship with Nnamdi Azikiwe, who would eventually become Nigeria’s first President.

Thereafter, commuting between Washington D.C. and New York, he thrived as a student at the then all black Howard University, while immersing himself in the flowering Harlem Renaissance.

It was in Harlem that in 1927 he also joined the American Communist Party, quickly earning himself a reputation as a correspondent and analyst in its newspaper the Daily Worker, using George Padmore as his nom de plume. The following year he became a member of the party’s National Negro Committee and the assistant editor of the Communist sponsored Negro Champion newspaper, in the process casting aside his legal studies.

In 1929 Padmore crossed the Atlantic for the first and last time, when he was called to the Soviet Union to attend the 4th World Congress of the Communist International (COMINTERN), leaving behind his wife and daughter.

He remained in Moscow as a member and later head of Negro Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). He also served on the Moscow City Soviet. In 1930, as part of his Bureau responsibilities he acted as COMINTERN’s desk officer for the South African Communist Party, being tasked with ensuring its implementation of the 1928 “Native” or “Black Republic” directive, which elevated the overthrow of minority rule and colonialism, rather than multi-racial worker solidarity, as the party’s principal task.

In 1931 Padmore was sent by RILU to Germany to head the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW), based in Hamburg. He also edited the ITUCNW journal, Negro Worker, and published his first book, Life and Struggle of Negro Toilers, which detailed working conditions of blacks around the world, including Batswana migrant workers. (To be continued…)

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