Sunday, December 3, 2023

Katlholo shut down Umkhonto weSizwe shebeen, won’t shut out DISS

Some 44 winters ago, the Station Commander of the Central Police Station, Lesedi Mothibamele, sent two of his officers on an operation that resulted in the shutting down of one of the major Umkhonto weSizwe hubs in Southern Africa. One of those officers was an officer called Tymon Katlholo. Like his boss, Katlholo would continue scaling rungs of the civil service ladder until he was perched at the top-most.

This story begins in 1974 when Onkgopotse Tiro, a South African refugee who was one of the founders of the South African Students Association, was killed by a parcel bomb courtesy of everybody knows who. At the time, Tiro was living at the Roman Catholic Mission in Kgale, on the outskirts of Gaborone. Tiro was from Dinokana, a small village near Zeerust in the North West Province. Not satisfied with having murdered Tiro, the apartheid regime, which was then led by Prime Minister Johannes Vorster, refused to allow his body to be buried in Dinokana. Resultantly, he was buried at the Bontleng cemetery in Gaborone. Only in March 1998, when Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s president, would Tiro’s remains be repatriated and reburied in Dinokana.

The funeral ceremony was held at the Gaborone Secondary School playgrounds and was attended by both Batswana and South Africans. Some in the latter group were living in Gaborone as refugees and others had travelled from South Africa for the funeral. Among the Batswana was a Mochudi woman called Meisie Pilane. It was during this funeral that Pilane made the acquaintance of some African National Congress (ANC) members who were living in Gaborone. Shortly thereafter, the South Africans asked her to open a shebeen at her house and were quite forthright about the reason.

“They said that they wanted a secure place where they could discuss their liberation struggle business far from prying eyes and out of earshot of spies for the apartheid regime,” Pilane recalled to Sunday Standard 10 years ago.

Pilane’s gut reaction was to decline because being a shebeen queen was not in her career plan. However, the ANC men persisted until she gave in. Giving in meant freeing up some space in the Botswana Housing Corporation house in Extension 12 that she rented in order to keep the stock and entertain the patrons. The deal sealed, the ANC men bought the first stock: two cases each of Prinz Brau and Prinz Lager beer, a 750 ml bottle of Limousine brandy and a one-litre bottle of ginger ale. To provide the other staple of shebeens – music – an ANC man rigged up a sound system around the house, putting the loudspeakers between the ceiling and the roof for maximum acoustic effect. More importantly, the loud music was a ploy to drown out the voices of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadres discussing military operations. The first LP record the shebeen bought was Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg.

“For the first three to four months following the opening of the shebeen, the Mannenberg LP played 24 hours; that is why the shebeen was called Mannenberg,” Pilane said.

On account of being a round-the-clock shebeen, Mannenberg became a beehive of MK activity. Pilane said that the cadres would divide themselves up into two groups. While one group was inside the house dancing and drinking, another would be out in the backyard, burying or digging up weapons or planning covert operations. Along the way, Pilane also came to be an MK courier, delivering messages and parcels to and from South Africa.

Future South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who had helped to establish the ANC’s office in Botswana a year before Tiro’s death, would swing by on his way to and from the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. Botswana People’s Party leader, Phillip Matante, himself a liberation-struggle stalwart, would also stop by to knock back a few when he was in town. Pilane said that when elderly customers like Matante visited, she would play the more sedate Jim Reeves or Brook Benton.

Following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Gregory Botlholo, one of the MK cadres, told Pilane that a certain boy would be coming to spend a couple of nights at Mannenberg. When the boy called, she noticed that his face looked familiar and soon realised that this was the same boy whose picture had been plastered on the front pages of newspapers, carrying the slain Hector Pieterson. Mbuyisa Makhubo, as the boy was called, was still wearing the same pair of Wrangler jeans in the picture. What she recalled of the boy was that he was still traumatised.

“He was jumpy, restless and his eyes were all over the place. He would spent the night at Mannenberg and in the morning would be taken away to sleep at a safe house somewhere in town. He was here for more than a week, stayed in Mochudi for some time, then disappeared for good,” Pilane said.

Appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, his mother said that she last received a letter from him posted in Nigeria in 1978.

For all the excellent liberation work it was doing, Mannenberg was also a national security threat and after four years of operation, the police stepped in. Mothibamele, sent two of his officers to raid the shebeen. As Pilane recalled, one of those officers was Katholo. Following the raid and confiscation of the stock, Pilane was charged with operating a liquor outlet without a trading licence. When the case came before the Village Magistrate Court, she was represented by one of her customers, Jama Mbeki, Thabo’s now deceased younger brother. Katholo’s raid was on July 14, which just happened to be Pilane’s birthday. Momentarily re-enacting Mbeki’s theatricality in court, Pilane said that the argument he presented in court was that Pilane had merely been celebrating her birthday, not selling alcohol as the prosecution alleged. Case dismissed. However, the curtain was closing on Mannenberg. Understandably fearful of what could happen to them, neighbours complained to the BHC about the house’s ANC links. The Corporation responded by evicting Pilane.

Years after Mannenberg had been shut down, Mothibamele retired into politics, becoming Kgalagadi MP and being appointed cabinet minister by President Sir Ketumile Masire. Katholo went high enough in the police service ladder to be appointed the first citizen Director (now Director General) of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime. His first stint was relatively problem-free and where his boss had retired into politics, he did so into the private sector. Last year, President Mokgweetsi Masisi recalled Katlholo into DCEC and a dramatically changed civil service. When he was DCEC boss the first time, national intelligence was the prerogative of the Special Branch, a small unit within the Botswana Police Service. Under Masisi’s predecessor, General Ian Khama, the Special Branch became the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security (DISS).

Whereas DCEC has been dismissed as a “toothless bulldog”, DISS was specially bred from a Bulldog and a Rottweiler and has a bite worse than its bark. Having got into an ugly public scuffle with DISS, Katholo is now sitting at home nursing hideous bite wounds.

By Katlholo’s account, DCEC is investigating allegations of corruption against DISS officers. DISS itself claims to be investigating DCEC. The two Departments are still in a Mexican stand-off: on Thursday, DISS trumped DCEC when Katlholo was suspended from duty but the next day, DCEC won a case against DISS. Expulsion (or redeployment) appears the likeliest outcome because DISS, which is an OP department, was created to expand already monarchical powers of the presidency. The latter strongly suggests that the man who shut down the MK shebeen will ultimately not be able to shut out DISS from DCEC.


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