Mmegi Online :: Rough landing for pioneering fighter pilot
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Friday 21 September 2018, 06:00 am.
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Rough landing for pioneering fighter pilot

He survived bruising battles, dodging bullets as Botswana fought to ward off the Rhodesian army’s invasion, particularly in villages along the Zimbabwe border. He flew two of Botswana’s presidents and once evacuated immediate past president, Ian Khama in a career spanning 26 years. But now, as battle-weary, retired colonel, Jagamang Seduke prepares for what should be a deserved golden sunset, he faces yet another draining battle, writes MQONDISI DUBE
By Mqondisi Dube Fri 07 Sep 2018, 11:58 am (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Rough landing for pioneering fighter pilot








A Botswana Defence Force (BDF) aircraft flew low and mistakenly touched down at a landing strip in Nswazwi, a village in Zimbabwe, near the Botswana border. This was pre-independence Zimbabwe, during a period of hostilities when some parts of Botswana, particularly along the border, were under siege from the Rhodesian forces. The plane could have been blown into pieces or the pilot captured as a prisoner of war.  A group of Rhodesian police officers began advancing on the plane, having noticed it was not one of theirs. In the twinkling of an eye, the plane was airborne and both the pilot and the aircraft were safe.

Colonel Jagamang Seduke, one of Botswana’s first four fighter pilots, was in the cockpit, and was to survive several other attacks as he diligently navigated the skies during a volatile period, just before Zimbabwe’s independence in the late 1970s.

After an illustrious career span, life has taken a turn for the worse instead of offering Seduke and his other former colleagues a piece of mind. The pioneering fighter pilot is part of a group of military veterans who have taken government to court to address discrepancies in their pensions. A career spent defending the country’s borders, is ending on a sour note and instead of a pat on the back Seduke and others feel they are receiving a slap in the face.

 

Times were not always this dispiriting.

In the years before 1977, Botswana was caught in the cross fire as the Rhodesian army constantly crossed into villages along the border, in pursuit of Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters, who sought refugee in the neighbouring country. Innocent civilians lost their lives, and the Botswana government could not fold its arms any more. Gaborone issued a rallying cry, urging all young men to take up arms and defend the country, which was under attack from the Rhodesian forces.

The message was transmitted through public radio, and it landed on Seduke’s ears. He did not hesitate and immediately quit his job at Weights and Measures (the forerunner for Botswana Bureau of Standards). The aim was keep out Rhodesian forces as the fight for Zimbabwe’s liberation escalated around 1978.

“I did not have a family. I was single and I was eager to go and defend our country. As young boys we want to see the exchange of fire live. We were eager to go to the front. We were fearless,” Seduke said during a sit down interview at his lodge in Mogoditshane this week.

He said in 1977, 10 officer cadets enrolled to train as pilots and only four made the grade. He and three others, who included former BDF commander, Tebogo Masire, were deployed in Francistown to support the ground forces’ operations in the north. The ground forces were deployed from Kazungula through to the North East, Matsiloje and the Bobirwa areas.

“I had no doubt about joining the army. I had the courage, and wanted to see the results. I wanted to see Rhodesian soldiers dead. We had casualties and I wanted to see their casualties as well. We briefed our families that as soldiers, we might or might not come back. We used to sleep with guns and our flying suits, ready for war,” he said. “The Rhodesian forces thought we were harbouring what they called terrorists, who were the (Zimbabwe) freedom fighters. We had to defend the country,” Seduke said.

He recalls some of the life and death encounters. Seduke said in one of the incidents, the Botswana ground forces were ambushed near Maitengwe, and he had to come in during the exchange of gunfire.

“The Rhodesians crossed back and left their equipment and I picked it up. We wanted to display the equipment in the Daily News to show that indeed the Rhodesians were raiding our country,” Seduke said.

On another occasion, there was another shoot-out in Gobojango, where they lost

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one of their soldiers, and he had to transport the deceased to the Selebi-Phikwe Hospital.

This would be the first of several times he had to carry deceased colleagues. At one stage, he came under ‘friendly fire’ when his own troops fired at him in Selebi-Phikwe while he was transporting a deceased colleague.

“It was around 1980. I was carrying a body and I radioed all the stations that I would be landing in Selebi-Phikwe. Unfortunately, the message did not disseminate.

As I landed I saw bullets flying all over, and I realised it was blue on blue (bullets from my own troops). Luckily they missed, but the aircraft was bullet riddled,” he recalls.

Seduke flew the two late former presidents, Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Keitumele Masire, during his early days as a pilot. “It was a pleasant experience,” he remembers.

“But they did not say much (during flights). Khama sat quietly at the back, he did not talk much. I was happy to fly the president.”  He also evacuated former president, Ian Khama, who was BDF’s deputy commander, when he had fallen sick in Nata.  After the threat from Zimbabwe dissipated with that country’s independence, a new danger emerged from the east, where South Africa’s apartheid regime would hunt down freedom fighters over the border into Botswana.

Seduke was tasked with developing a strategy to counter the apartheid regime’s attacks.

“I was redeployed from Francistown to Gaborone, to come and put up a strategy to counter the South Africans. I formed the air defence unit, which was responsible for the air space security, and it is still there. It focussed on thwarting any air intrusion.

I was the defence commander of that unit, and I rose to colonel,” he said, of the unit which was formed after 1980.

As he thinks back on his time in the army, Seduke notes that today’s soldiers and fighter pilots have the benefit of more advanced equipment compared to his time.

  “They are fine, I think they have the capacity to support ground forces. Don’t ask me about the Gripen. The decision to buy them was taken after I had left. “But my threat analysis would not allow me to buy the Gripen. You analyse what your counterparts have, and you counter that. And they are expensive, I would not buy the Gripen,” he says.

As he sits in his office on Tuesday afternoon, the former fighter pilot smiles occasionally as he remembers his chequered career.

Having survived numerous brushes with death, he should be sitting back and savouring his golden years as a military retiree. Instead, the ongoing court case keeps him awake at night.

“We have gone through tough times. When people defend their country, at times they do not earn anything. But when you are denied what you are supposed to earn, it is a sorry state.

“We have been denied our money for 30 years and we have decided to go to court.” Seduke says the veterans are hoping the new President’s administration will be different and would listen to their plea.

The former president, he says, did not come through for the retired soldiers. “My relationship with the former president is strained, as some of my colleagues were re-called to serve in different capacities in the army, but I was overlooked. “He overlooked me and I am very happy that he has left (office).

“I don’t know what the problem was. He disliked me. 

“I once evacuated him, and I was proud at the time. I landed at Nata strip in the dark and took off in the dark, risking my life.   “If you have done something good for a man of his rank, and later in life he overlooks you, sometimes I think about these things.” The retired fighter pilot, born in Serowe, but raised in Nata, is married to Rosemary and the couple has four children.

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