Thursday, August 6, 2020

The End of World War II

In any military campaign, demobilization is the most exciting of all phases. Finally the war was declared over as Hitler and Germany were defeated after refusing an unconditional surrender. The ships were beginning to steam to the different parts of the world and South Africa was of course one of the major destinations. The troops were looking forward to being sent home after being abroad for four years.

One of the things that the soldiers were happy to receive at the end of the war were medals. Several of these men were adorned with the Africa Star and the War Medal of the British Army. They were all given these medals. The good thing for these young lads was that they were all coming home with their uniforms. The most important and valuable item in the uniform was the trench coat to be named as mlhangoma and was also given an unprintable name by the locals once they had arrived here. These coats lasted for over thirty years and a lot of children that were born after the war grew up to adopt them from their fathers and uncles.

Talking about children, as soon as these men arrived home, some women had to account for some new children found in the homes. The men that did everything to avoid going to war remained home and became a serious problem. So many children were conceived out of relationships with them. Some soldiers came home and accepted what had happened. For others, they instituted divorce proceedings at the Kgotla. The chiefs were too busy with cases that had to do with infidelity during the war.

Meanwhile, there were others who were stuck abroad still hoping to come home. It is surprising that when the British were recruiting for war, transportation for troops was a priority. Once the war was over, their own citizens were given priority to go home and their units were disbanded after their debriefing. Some Bechuanaland troops were stuck up in Egypt until a ship was made available to bring them to a South African port in 1946.

One of the things that kept the morale of these troops going while stuck up near the Suez Canal was football. According to oral wartime stories, several teams were created and they would play football all day. Coming from a long war and finding nothing to do for almost a whole year was taxing to these men. One of the things they were always anticipating was the arrival of the mail van. This was the only means of communication with home. In one of the paintings that was created to depict Bechuanaland soldiers on the day the mail van arrived is interesting beyond measure. There was literally a stampede around the mail bags.

The arrival of mail was an event in itself. Remember that a lot of these folks were illiterate as education was not a requirement for conscription. The eventful part of the arrival of mail was the fact that a majority of the men did not know how to read and write. Letter reading was a side business for those who were literate. Even the semi-literate were taking their chance on the open ended business.

During this one year spent away from home after the war, the brilliance of the teachers in the group came to the surface. They began to put their peers through some schooling. This became so effective to a point where most of them could write their names by the time they were repatriated. During the duration of the war, the Royal Mailing system in Bechuanaland and elsewhere in the colonies was very busy. Those in the war theatre were missing their loved ones at home and those back home were far more encouraged to write the letters because the reply would usually come with some few Sterling Pounds attached to each letter.

Once the repatriation process was complete, there were the good and the bad out of the war. One of the positive things on the return of the soldiers was for the fact that the economy of the country significantly improved. During the war, the British government was accruing some savings for the soldiers and it was time for them to cash on them. Besides that, the soldiers had brought with them items that were usually difficult to find in this semi desert country that was still lagging in development.

The troops could bring with them just anything. Aboard the ship was roofing sheets, mouldboard ploughs, oversized pots and an array of other materials. This reminds me of my personal experience with BDF when we were training with Mozambique officers. When it was their turn to go home they were transported using the BDF Hercules C-130 and that became their blank cheque to load anything from groceries to building materials. They would even in some cases save up the milk from their rations to take home.

One of the things that marked the arrival of the soldiers from the Second World War was the eruption of the syphilis epidemic in the colony. It got so bad that the colonial government had to order in more medical staff into the country. The British War Office had done a terrible mistake by not making a drawdown plan for the African units after the war.

And what happened to most of these soldiers once the dust had settled? Most of them went back to the mines in the Witwatersrand to earn a living. For others, they were rather a bit old for such recruitment and they remained in the country as farmers. For those who were taken from their professions such as teachers and tribal administration clerks were soon absorbed back into their streams.

But as Tshekedi Khama had expected Britain to totally scrap off the idea of making Bechuanaland a part of the Union of South Africa after the war, indeed the subject was almost none existent even in the corridors of power in Westminster Abby. Did the war save us from being made subjects of the white minority?


Read this week's paper

Sunday Standard August 2 – 8

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of August 2 - 8, 2020.