Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Lobatse treasure hidden in plain sight

Misfortune similar to one that befell a small French village two weeks ago is a real possibility for Lobatse. And if that eventuality does come about, it would be second unlucky for the old colonial town that boasts immense but yet unexploited tourist potential.

A fortnight ago, an 18th century chateau in Yyrac in the Bordeaux region of France was mistakenly bulldozed by mistake. Construction workers hired to renovate the 140┬á000-square-foot manor and raze a small building on the same estate mixed up the two buildings and ended up demolishing a historical monument from the Baroque Period that was the joy and pride of the village. The owner, a Russian businessman, now plans to build a replica of what was known as the┬á“Chateau de Bellevue.”

That’s in France. In Lobatse, local authorities don’t know the location of an old disused house that was the official residence of the first British Divisional Commissioner’s Pro-Consular. Last year, the Lobatse Town Council brought together the business community and relevant government departments to brainstorm on how the almost comatose town can be restored to good economic health. An official from the Botswana Tourism Organisation told the meeting that the pro-consular’s house, which is now rotting away somewhere in the town, could be renovated to its former grandeur and used as a tourist attraction. The problem though is that town officials, including the mayor, Caroline Lesang, don’t know where this building is located.

“I don’t know where it is,” Lesang says.

However, she is aware of some buildings of historical importance in the town that are to be preserved.

Radio Botswana started operating in Lobatse before it was moved to Gaborone. The first strip of tarmac road in colonial Bechuanaland Protectorate was laid in the town ahead the visit of British royals.

According to Kopano Lekoma (a former underground operative of the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto WeSizwe, who later became Botswana National Front’s vice president under the late Dr. Kenneth Koma) the decision by the ANC to wage an armed struggle was taken at a meeting held in Lobatse at the Peleng home of late Rivonia trialist, Fish Keitseng.

By Lekoma’s account, Nelson Mandela was smuggled into Bechuanaland Protectorate through a white-owned farm along the border into Lobatse. Subsequently, the town hosted both Mandela and the late Mozambican president, Samora Machel.

Both men sought refuge in the town while undertaking covert missions to liberate their respective countries. Lobatse would have hosted the independence talks in 1965 but some local politicians (notably national anthem composer Kgalemang Motsete) insisted on a neutral venue which was why the talks were moved to London in the United Kingdom.

When he returned home bringing with him his family, Botswana’s future president, Sir Seretse Khama, stayed in Lobatse for some time. Decades later, that house is no more because it has been demolished.


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