Saturday, July 13, 2024

Security Tragedies of 1978

The year 1978 was very much eventful when it comes to security issues. Top on the list was the infamous Lesoma ambush which to this day remains to be most prominent event of that year. There was a bomb scare at Mophane Club in Francistown just when the year started in January. It was later discovered that this was a hoax. The previous year a hand grenade had been tossed into the same club and it killed three people and maimed others.

It in the same January, a group of soldiers had just graduate from their training as recruit privates. On the morning of January 27th 1978, Major General Merafhe addressed this lot on the grounds of what was known as “E Coy” in Gaborone. The Daily News quotes him saying, “Botshelo jwa lesole ke jwa sekgwa ebile re duelelwa go swa eseng go ya go nwa ko President Hotel (The life of a soldier is in the field and we are paid to die but not go and drink at President Hotel). It was so unfortunate that some of these recruits would die in the Lesoma ambush even before drawing their first salaries.

Then in February there was the Lesoma disaster and throughout the year the nation was being persuaded to make contributions for those soldiers affected in the incident. The Government of Botswana was still too broke to be able to carry the financial burden of the disaster alone. Public response on this appeal was humbling in every sense of the word. According to the Daily News (Friday 7th April, 1978), Nkange residents collectively contributed the sum of P44 and this was handed over to Vice President Masire. Earlier that week, government had received a donation of P 61.54 from a Government Printing Trade Union Committee.

In the same month, Abel Muzorewa visited Botswana’s capital Gaborone and that caused political consternations in the country.  The University of Botswana students demonstrated on the day. When Muzorewa arrived at the airport which was adjacent to the only university campus, there were about 800 protesters waiting to jeer him off.  Their contention was that he was a sell-out and had contributed in the killing of the fifteen BDF soldiers in the previous weeks.

In those days university students had a high political consciousness as opposed today’s Facebookers at UB. Once the unwelcome visitor alighted from his private plane, the students started pelting him with the eggs they had saved from their breakfast at the university cafeteria. Muzorewa was whisked away by the police. He was destined for Office of the President but ended up at Cumberland in Lobatse where he had lunch with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Archibald Mogwe.

However, the students proceeded to Office of the President where they read out their petition to Honourable Daniel Kwelagobe. One of their contentions was that BDF should be better equipped to deal with Rhodesian crises. For the students, it was serious humiliation for BDF to be asked to escort Muzorewa when their colleagues had just been killed by a regime that the visiting “dignitary” supported wholeheartedly.

While the students were at it, their future vice chancellor was equally throwing tantrums at the UN Security Council meeting held in New York. Dr Thomas Tlou who was Ambassador and Special Representative of Botswana to the United Nations was making his contribution to the debate after Rhodesian forces attacked Zambia.

Another prominent security issue that happened in 1978 was the arrest of Rene Beyleveld, a South African soldier who was caught inside a Rhodesian Railway Mail train destined for Bulawayo. The twenty-one year old was discovered in the train by members of the public in Francistown.

The town of Francistown was most under threat because of its proximity to the Rhodesian border and it was easier for the enemy forces to launch attacks on that town. The Beyleveld incident occurred at the time when the town of Francistown was still recovering from what was known as Mophane Club bombing and therefore members of the public were still very vigilant.

Beeyleveld was arrested by citizens while on the Rhodesia Railways train dressed in the South African Defence Force battle fatigues. The fellow was tried at the Lobatse High Court and the case was a high profile one. One of the state witnesses in this case was Amon Nyathi, a former agent for the Rhodesian Selous Scouts. Nyathi had been involved in the kidnaping of Botswana citizens along the Ramokgwebana border.

Amazingly, Beyleveld was acquitted of all the charges he was facing. It was a matter of charging someone in a wrong jurisdiction. According to the defence attorneys, their client was not trespassing on Botswana territory because the railway line was still within the judicial jurisdiction of Rhodesia, the owners and proprietors of Rhodesian Railways. This case however became instrumental in pressuring Rhodesia to relinquish the rail line to Botswana.

In 1978 there was so much traffic between Botswana and Rhodesia, unofficially of course. By midyear Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU visited refugee camps in Botswana where Zimbabweans resided. The Rhodesian government was looking for every opportunity to kill him. Earlier in the year, Selous Scouts had flattened Nkomo’s house in a bombing raid in Lusaka.

In the meantime BDF which was just a year old was making inroads in the field. Sometimes in May of that year a BDF patrol accosted a patrol of black Rhodesian soldiers who had crossed into Botswana. One was killed and another was injured in the exchange of fire.

I had dedicated the month of April to raising issues of the history of BDF operations so that the youngsters within our military organization can come to appreciate where we have come from as a country. Indeed BDF has real humble beginnings.

My source of information has been the Daily News archives and I have enjoyed going through those single page publications looking for articles that revived my memory about the past. I was still at school when BDF was formed, but I have known every bit about the organization’s operations on the Daily News because I have always been an avid read from a young age.


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