At a time that the government wants to turn Botswana into an education hub, a plaque at the Three Dikgosi Monument at the upcoming CBD in Gaborone mis-educates visitors (some of them students) about why Batswana men fought in World War Two.
The plaque reads: “Batswana fought alongside Allied forces for freedom and against racism.” At the time of the war (1939-1945) present-day Botswana was a British dominion called Bechuanaland Protectorate. The fact that the Protectorate people (they were not called “Batswana” then) were ruled from outside means that they were not free. This raises the question of why a people living in bondage would sail thousands of nautical miles to Europe to fight for the freedom of people keeping them in bondage and not for their own freedom. That Botswana has something called Independence Day also negates the message on the plaque. Why would free people want independence?
While it raises the same questions that can be asked for ‘freedom’, the racism aspect is even more confounding. The Britain of the war period, as today’s, was mired in racism and Winston Churchill, the country’s wartime leader, was an unreconstructed racist.
“I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, has come in and taken their place,” he said in 1937.
Other than his overt racism, Churchill dedicated his life to expanding and defending the British Empire whose existence denied people around the world their freedom. This is the man on whose behalf Batswana men fought “for freedom and against racism.”
On their way to Europe, the Batswana conscripts passed through an officially racist country (South Africa) where fellow blacks were held in bondage and sailed thousands of kilometres to experience racism from the British army itself. Upon arrival in Europe the 10 000 Batswana men were organised into the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps which was a subgroup of the Royal Pioneer Corps. AAPC’s wages were the lowest in the latter. Kgosi Sechele of Bakwena sought and won separation of his conscripts from South African fighters because he did not want them to be subjected to racism. He got the full backing of the kings of Lesotho and Swaziland.
There is no way in the world that British society would have been racist and the Protectorate not.
“Hotels had occasional cinema shows, though hotels in railway towns were racially segregated and indoor shows would have been for whites-only,” writes Dr. Neil Parsons in a study on the cinema experiment in Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1944 to 1946.
Archival records show that when opened in the colonial era, Cumberland hotel in Lobatse was the first ‘multi-racial’ hospitality establishment in the entire Protectorate. In his biography, “The Story of a Hidden Treasure”, Gobe Matenge recalls an unpleasant experience he had when he worked in Francistown as a messenger/interpreter in the colonial government. In an almost literal sense, Matenge found himself in a cleft stick when he showed up at the house of Dr. Austin Morgan, a white medical doctor working in the district, to deliver a telegram. Mrs. Morgan, the only person home, would not take the telegram straight from the hands of a black man. Instead, she ordered him to get a stick, cleave one end into two, wedge the telegram in the cleft, then holding the other end, reach over to her to deliver the telegram with the stick “in such way that she could receive it without our hands touching!” It is safe to assume that, in the words of the plaque, an uncle of Matenge’s “fought for freedom and against racism” in World War Two.
Three years after the war ended, the Batswana war veterans – with all the international experience of fighting racism they had acquired, could not stand up against South Africa when it opposed Seretse Khama’s marriage to Ruth Williams on racist grounds.