Klaas Motshidisi, the Botswana National Front veteran who was laid to rest yesterday in Palapye, was one of the five people who were charged with sedition, just one year after Botswana gained independence from the British. It would take 47 years for anybody else to face a similar charge.┬á
Standing in the dock with Motshidisi were party leader, Dr. Kenneth Koma as well as Obonetse Menyatso, Henderson Tlhoiwe and Pretty Molefhe. From that group, only Molefhe is still alive. The charges related to articles published in the July and August editions of Puo Phaa, the BNF’s newsletter, which the government deemed to be seditious. The trial was held at Hands Hall in Mahalapye. Built in 1936 as a memorial to Reverend Lawrence Hands, a Rhodesia Railways parson who had died in Palapye two years prior, Hands Hall is now a dilapidated structure that squats next to rail tracks.
The case didn’t go too far and by Motshidisi’s account, that had to do with an intervention by President Khama. The founding president is supposed to have had a one-on-one meeting with Koma at Gaborone Dam where the latter was warned that his politicking was going too far. In exchange for the BNF toeing the line Khama drew in the sand, the charges were dropped.
For Motshidisi, this would have been a test of his loyalty to someone (a chief of his tribe) whom he had sacrificed his job for days earlier. When he learnt that Khama was finally returning home from exile with his family, Motshidisi applied for leave from his white employers and when they refused, he just walked out. He was among multitudes of Bangwato who thronged the Francistown airport to welcome Khama home. Recounting this event decades later, Motshidisi remembered his pair of trousers tearing badly as he and others ran madly towards where Khama’s plane had landed. Years later, he would become a senior civil servant and would meet Khama on a fairly regular basis. Motshidisi said he would jokingly tell Khama to replace the pair of trousers that was ruined on the tarmac of the airport as he rushed to welcome him back home.
The penal code provision on sedition would not be invoked for the next 47 years until last year when security agents came for Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone. His paper had published a story about President Ian Khama driving himself at night and being involved in an accident and the government was not at all happy about this story. The case is still before the High Court with Mokone’s lawyers having made their own application to challenge the constitutionality of the provision that establishes this charge.
There are interesting similarities between the 1976 and 2014 sedition cases. In both cases, the president was a Khama (father in the former, son in the latter). In 1967, the suspects were picked up by the Special branch and last year, Mokone was arrested by the agents of the Directorate on Intelligence Services which used to be the Special Branch.