Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Vital pre-independence archival records (still) in London

The Botswana People’s Party (BPP) doesn’t have a copy of its 1965 general election manifesto but The National Archives (TNA) in the United Kingdom does. The party also doesn’t have a copy of its 1960 constitution but the Senate House Library at the University of London does. The latter also has Motsamai Mpho’s address to the BPP national conference on December 29, 1962. TNA has a copy of the resolutions passed at that conference.

As part of his study into how Botswana’s bill of rights was put together, Dr. James Kirby, an academic at La Trobe University in Australia, undertook research trips to both Botswana and the UK. The product of such toil is an explosive academic paper titled “Conditional on a Bill of Rights: Race and Human Rights in the Constitution of Botswana, 1960-66.” The paper’s bibliography shows that a fair amount of archival records from the Bechuanaland Protectorate era are (still) in the UK.

As a recent marathon court case shows, for as long as those records remain in the UK – or are not reproduced for or by the Botswana National Archives and Records Services (BNARS), it will be prohibitively expensive to access them. Beginning in 2015, the Law Society of Botswana fought tooth, nail and archival record to compel President Ian Khama to comply with the wishes of the Judicial Services Commission and appoint Omphemetse Motumise High Court judge. Part of this campaign entailed a trip to TNA in London to peruse minutes of the 1966 Independence Conference. 

Despite the serious challenges it faces, the Botswana press in its entirety is doing an impressive job of recording the nation’s history. Bechuanaland didn’t have the luxury of a fully developed local press and that gap was partly filled by the foreign (notably British and South African) press. Some of the material that Kirby quotes, which is not available at BNARS, is from British and South African newspapers. The 1962 boycott of Levitt’s Store in Francistown by BPP members was reported in the UK’s Sunday Express and a petition to the United Nations by white farmers for protection of their property rights was reported in South Africa’s Cape Times.

However, while it is important to secure the repatriation of archival records, it is also very clear that in independent Botswana, both institutions and individual citizens are not doing enough to preserve records that form part of the nation’s history. Among the prized assets of the Botswana National Museum is the British flag that ceremonially came down on September 29, 1966 at the National Stadium. On the other hand, the fate of the Botswana flag that immediately replaced it remains unknown.

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