Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Builders of Botswana: ZK Comes Home

This week we conclude our examination Professor Z.K. Matthews with a summary
of his final years.

The 1950s was a publicly extraordinary, but privately trying, time for the
Matthews. Due to events at Fort Hare, Z.K. was unable to attend the June
1955 Congress of the People he had inspired, which adopted the Freedom
Charter he had co-drafted. With the passage of the Bantu Education Act, the
apartheid regime sought to take control of the campus in the face of student
and staff resistance. Z.K. then assumed leadership as Acting Principal. But,
after all efforts to block the transfer had failed, in 1959 he resigned,
forfeiting his pension.

Like other ANC leaders, Z.K. became accustomed to continuous police raids
and surveillance. Preliminary acquittal in Treason Trial was followed by 135
days in detention in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre. The Matthews
were also forced to abandon “Phuting”, when their beloved home was declared
to be in a white area.

Throughout the period, Z.K. maintained contact with Botswana. Having leaned
heavily on Z.K.s expertise in establishing Moeng, Tshekedi tried in vain to
recruit him to head the institution. But, by 1960 Z.K. was finally ready to
return to his father’s people:

“I was considering going to Bechuanaland (Botswana) to set up a legal
practice and had arranged for my admission to the Bar there. My friends
Chief Bathoen II, Seretse Khama, and Rasebolai Khama, the Native Authority
of the Bammangwato, were anxious that I should come to Botswana, my
ancestral home… I had been to Lobatsi to look for an office and a house,
and had been granted residential rights in Botswana. In Alice I had already
employed a junior who would carry on the practice in my name.”

His plans were put on hold, however, when he moved to Geneva as the World
Council of Churches first Secretary for Africa, a post of global
responsibility that was well placed to promote the regional struggle. Free
to travel without Pretoria’s restraint, he visited the Soviet Union among
other places. The experience and contacts he gained with the WCC proved
invaluable to his final assignment as Botswana’s first Ambassador to the UN
and USA.

In 1965 Z.K. wrote to newly elected Prime Minister Seretse Khama, informing
him of his intention to retire in Botswana in the following year. The two
were subsequently re-united in London in July 1966 when Z.K. joined the
Batswana delegation then negotiating final details of the transition to
independence. There, Seretse convinced him to become the new state’s voice
at the UN and in Washington. As Frieda would later recall:

“His deep sense of service, and this time his own chief and people, made it
impossible to refuse. For many years, he had wanted to be more involved with
Botswana, not simply as an advisory capacity, as when Chief Tshekedi needed
him, but in more practical ways. As Ambassador he felt that he could put
Botswana on the map. As someone remarked in Washington the question was not
‘Who is the Ambassador of Botswana?’ but ‘what country does Professor
Matthews represent?”

While still in London, Seretse released a statement announcing Z.K.’s
appointment, which established nascent Botswana’s credentials as something
other than a defacto Bantustan, silencing potential critics at the OAU and

Accompanied by Moutlakgolo Nwako, Z.K. arrived at New York in October 1966
to present Botswana’s case for UN admission, which was quick and unanimous.
Nwako later recalled:

“This was my first trip and visit to the United States, and of course New
York and Washington, but in Matthews’ company I found myself at home and
very well received by people of all walks of life. I was pleasantly
astounded at the most friendly reception my delegation was accorded – mainly
because of Z.K.’s presence.”

In the months that followed Z.K. played a duel role of raising Botswana’s
public profile, while giving private advice on the formulation of the new
Republic’s foreign policy. From a 10th May 1967 letter to Seretse:

“The country is faced with the need to make comprehensive and long-range
policies in relation to foreign policy if the country is not to be overtaken
by events. The crisis in Rhodesia, the South West Africa issue, the refugee
problem all these intractable issues call for examination. The policy of
reacting to events as they occur is hopelessly inadequate.”

Unfortunately, Z.K.’s contributions were cut short by a coronary condition.
Out of a sense of duty, he remained on post, resulting in his spending his
last two months at a Washington hospital. There he died on the 11th of May

Among those touched by his passing was the then US President Lyndon Johnson,
who besides extending personal condolences to Frieda took the unusual step
of arranging for a Presidential Aircraft to transport Z.K.’s remains, along
with his family, back to Gaborone.

Memorial services were held at the UN headquarters in New York and Geneva,
various locations in South Africa, as well as at the National Cathedral in
Washington. The South African Ambassador, Harald Taswell, attended the
latter service, while Pretoria representatives also appeared at the U.N.
memorials. Their presence alongside mourners of various African liberation
movements was an unexpected and for the period unique moment.

Among the multitude who attended the Gaborone burial was Gatsha Buthelezi,
then still associated with the ANC, who observed:

“There were hundreds of people of all races from all parts of South Africa,
Botswana and Lesotho…I thought it was absolutely marvellous that, during
the latter part of his life in the service of God and fellow men Dr.
Zacariah Keodirelang Matthews should have died in the harness, serving a
non-racial country in a non-racial setting, something he always strove for
in the country of his birth.”


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