Saturday, May 25, 2024

Prince Harry laments ‘wrongs’ Britain inflicted on colonial Botswana

An English prince who has demonstrated genuine love for Africa and African-origin princesses, is being unfairly hauled over the coals for saying something that would be very easy to prove in Botswana. To be perfectly clear from the get-go, nowhere in his interview with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust did Prince Harry mention Bechuanaland Protectorate. However, he used a set of words that left no doubt that he was talking about it when he said that a body headed by his grandmother must right “wrongs” of the past.

“When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past,” Harry said in an interview about the fight for racial equality that has drawn fierce criticism from the British press.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary organisation involving 54 nations and all except Rwanda and Cameron are former British colonies. It was founded in 1949 and its ex-officio head is the English sovereign, currently Queen Elizabeth II, who is Harry’s grandmother. Harry’s comments were part of an ongoing debate around historical racism and racial injustice around the world. This debate is spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement and has been sparked by the death of George Floyd in the United States.

While some in the British press would rather the past was swept under the carpet, the effects of that past are still visible day. Ironically for people who lamented heathen practices by Batswana, there is ample evidence of the British engaging in human sacrifice themselves. In order to meet administrative costs of a national government that was set up to serve colonial interest, the British imposed a hut tax that compelled young Batswana men to work in South African mines as labourers. Some of these men perished in underground mines and those who lived were cruelly exploited. The health standards of the time, such as they were, were uniformly basic, leading to respiratory-diseases infection in most of those who returned.

This cross-border work programme brought social ills that that had the net effect of undoing the social fabric of local communities. Women were not allowed at the hostels that mine labourers lived in, which meant that married men couldn’t move in with their husbands. It often happened that a man returning home from South African mines with badly-damaged lungs would find his wife pregnant by another man. This work programme also affected agricultural productivity because society’s most able-bodied abandoned farming to work in mines and upon return, were almost drained of youthful energy. It is unclear how much of today’s deficit in agricultural production can be attributed to this period in history but it was during the colonial era that such production dropped precipitously.

Colonialism also robbed Batswana of land that still remains in the hands of white settler communities. While some of the descendants of these settlers don’t live in Botswana, they are still holding on to land that they have no connection with. One of the reasons why Lobatse has taken on the character of a ghost town (the town centre especially) is because of some land is owned by absentee landlords. This problem is most pronounced in and around urban areas and has led to severe land and accommodation shortage that affects indigenous people.

Land dispossession of indigenous people is most acute in the North East where, as former Tati East MP, Guma Moyo, stated in the past, white-owned farms take up 80 percent of the land. Local people have to use the remaining 20 percent for residential and agricultural purposes and when their cattle stray onto farms, have to pay as much as P500 for their release. One of Moyo’s councillors, Kudzani Tobokani of Themashanga, said that while an ordinary person in the area has to make do with little more than a 40 metre by 30 metre residential plot, white commercial farmers can own a farm that measures 40 kilometres by 50 kilometres. Resultantly, this situation has led to near-collapse of agricultural life in the area.

Sandy Grant, a historian who has studied the North East land issue traces the origin of this problem to 1866 when gold was discovered in the expanse of this area. Mining couldn’t immediately begin because the land was claimed by four parties: the Bangwato, Ndebele, Boers and British. There were also the problems of lack of working capital, the “brighter attractions of the Reef and Kimberly and the difficulties of working the ore.” Rather than resolve the dispute, the colonial authority resolved to give the land to Tati Concessions Ltd, renamed Tati Company. In terms of the Tati Concessions Land Act of 1911, the area in question is “from the place where the Shashe River rises to its junction with the Tati and Ramokgwebana Rivers, thence along the Ramokgwebana River to where it rises and thence along the watershed of those rivers.” Writing in the newsletter of a British socialist organisation which espouses the principles of democratic socialism, Grant noted that “the Tati concession in northern Botswana was an example of colonial generosity to a private company with the property of local people.”

Elsewhere, Dr. James Kirby of La Trobe University in Australia has written that the economic interests of a small white minority took precedence over those of the majority of indigenous black people when Botswana gained independence in 1966. The latter possibly explains why, in independent Botswana, the government of the founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, complicated this matter further by signing an agreement with and Tati Company in September 1970. Some 50 years later, this agreement restricts Francistown’s growth and on occasion, the government has to buy land from Tati Company at prohibitive cost.

Not all in the British media disagree with what Prince Harry says. Writing in The Guardian, Afua Hirsch observed that both the new and old order are organised around British interests: “The Commonwealth is a vessel of former colonies with the former imperial master at its helm. Or, as I like to call it, Empire 2.0. All countries use diplomacy to lobby in their own interests – there is nothing wrong with that. In Britain’s case, the Commonwealth has served very nicely to advocate its particular shopping list: liberalised, extractor-friendly regimes, low corporate tax rates, and a creative system of tax havens predominantly located in – you guessed it – other Commonwealth countries.”

There has emerged a low-key, mostly underground campaign to have former colonial powers like Britain pay reparations for the colonial wrongs that Harry, who is married to a black woman, spoke about. If the US example is any guide, at a point where the reparations-for-colonialism movement gathers steam and its “our economies can’t breathe” messages become more insistent and strident, a company previously called Tati Concessions will certainly be forced to make concessions.


Read this week's paper