The Second World War was fought as a “total war” in which entire societies were mobilised to defeat the enemy.
This meant that women as well as men were mobilised, though in the case of Botswana not as soldiers. Elsewhere, over three million women, mostly Russians and Chinese, but also many Americans, British (such as the late Lady Khama) and others served in uniform, often in combat roles.
More significant, however, was the role that women on all sides played in keeping factories and farms producing at record high levels.
With 60% of the able-bodied men either in the army or working in South Africa, the wartime burden of Batswana women was especially heavy.
Notwithstanding the fact that Botswana had not known genuine food self-sufficiency since at least the 1890s, they were expected to sustain their families through domestic farming. As Miriam Pilane would recall many years later, many young wives experienced tough times:
“I was worried that I was going to have problems as I was still breastfeeding my first baby. My husband left in 1942 and came back in 1946.
We were suffering but anyway we were helped by two families, my family and my husband’s family. The problem was that even if they helped it wasn’t satisfactory as they ploughed their land first, and by the time they got to ours it was late.
“At time we hired some men to plough our fields. Some would just agree with you but never turn, until you gave up hope. No one helped us. The morafe took no effort to help the wives of soldiers…”
Mrs. Pilane further recalled the solidarity that then existed among the soldiers’ wives, as well the importance of receiving remittances on behalf of their husbands from the army:
“The wives of the soldiers stuck together because we met at the offices when we went to collect our money from our husbands, we were given £2.5s (two pounds, five shilling) a month to help ourselves.
Things were very cheap and if you failed to plough you could just buy maize or mealie meal with your money or hire someone to help…We helped each other when ploughing by calling other women and cooking a lot of food and even beer and after ploughing would eat and drink.”
While the monthly remittances, which came into the territory from men working in the mines and factories in South Africa as well as the military, were certainly welcome, their value was eroded by war time inflation. The situation became much harder in 1945-46 when severe drought broke out resulting increased hunger.
Notwithstanding their own daily struggle to survive, women were also expected to till communal plots- some 202 hectares in Molepolole alone- as part of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s “war-lands” production.
The war-land exercise had its roots in a scheme to boost agriculture, which was conceived as a local development initiative in early 1939, immediately prior to the war’s outbreak.
Unlike the original scheme, which was designed to promote communal food security, the British hoped in vain that the war lands, subsequently known as “Tribal Agricultural Production Lands” would create a grain surplus for export.
The granaries that still grace the central makgotla of many villages are monuments to this considerable if not overwhelmingly successful effort.
The scheme was perhaps most successful in Gammangwato, where it was embraced by Kgosi Tshekedi Khama, who is remembered to have distributed grain to areas and individuals in need.
In the process the war-lands, however, became another source of conflict between him and She John Madawu Nswazwi VIII, who refused to contribute to the central granary in Serowe.
Formally organised as the “African Women War Workers” (WWW), females were also often coerced to work in gifts and comforts production units for the troops, producing such things as socks, gloves, mufflers and morabaraba boards for the men. Altogether these groups produced over 30, 000 items during the war.
Levies were also imposed to finance WWW efforts, though the woman’s labour, often mobilised through female mephato was supposedly “voluntary”. Additional youth labour was enlisted through local Girl Guides and Wayfarers.
At Mochudi, Mmakgosi Seingwaeng succeeded in using her control over the female mephato to negotiate for the political rehabilitation of her son, Kgosi Molefi, who had been suspended from Bogosi before the war.
There were other impositions, including various fundraising campaigns. A £5 (pound) levy was thus imposed on households for the “Spitfire Fund”, which raised £10,400 towards the purchase of two of the fighter planes that were duly named the “Bechuanaland” and “Kalahari”.
Several thousand additional pounds were raised in other fundraising campaigns included “Navy Weeks” that notably involved the territory’s then small black elite together with members of the Asian and white community, a modest example of multi-racialism that at the time contrasted with the then stark racial divide in neighbouring jurisdictions.
The sudden need for the Protectorate Administration, which had come to depend on colonial grant money during the 1930s depression, to meet all of its expenses further resulted in an overall increase in levies and taxes, which persisted after the war.