We left off in 1916 with Sebele a Kealeboga ending his quasi-exile in Gauteng by agreeing to lead members of his Mathubantwa mophato to Europe as part of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC).
He thus came to witness the miseries of mechanised warfare on the Western Front during the First World War, while coming into contact with military and civilians of various races, nationalities and social standing.
A total of 800 troops were ultimately recruited from the Bechuanaland Protectorate to serve in SANLC of whom at least 555 were deployed in France. The latter included 73 Bakwena under Corporal Sebele.
In addition, during the war at least 1,500 Protectorate Batswana served with South African forces in Namibia, while perhaps a 1,000 were deployed in East Africa. Bakalanga from the North-East were also enlisted at Plumtree into the Rhodesian Native Regiment, which fought in East Africa.
From the very beginning of the conflict, the European powers waged war with troops drawn from across their vast, demographically diverse, empires. While some half a million Africans as a result ended up serving in Europe and the Middle East, millions more were involved in military action on their own continent.
Up to three quarter of a million African combatants perished, about half of whom were from what is now the SADC region. Quite beyond the body count, it is now clear that the very nature and course of the war would have been different without the large scale participation of Africans, who were further joined by thousands of African American and Afro-Caribbean troops.
Yet, a half century later the popular image of the war in Europe, still rarely takes into account the heavy presence of Africans, along with Asians, on the Western Front, while the massive horror of the conflict in Africa itself continues to be dismissed as a mere sideshow.
As reflected in its name, the SANLC was conceived by the South African authorities as a labour support unit only. They further insisted that all black troops under their command would not be issued with firearms. This experience was quite different from that of Batswana who later served in the African Pioneer Corps during World War II, all of who were armed and many of whom performed frontline combat duties, as well as that of most other Africans in both World Wars.
From the beginning, the South African authorities feared the racial effect of introducing black Africans to European warfare and society; resulting in severe restrictions being placed on their deployment, including the confining of off duty troops to compounds whose design was the same as those constructed for enemy prisoners. From South African Prime Minister Louise Botha’s instructions on SANLC confinement:
“[The compound] should be surrounded by an unclimbable fence or wall, in which all openings are guarded. Enclosure fences were to be six feet high, with barbed wire running along the top to prevent natives from climbing over. Africans were not permitted outside the camps unless accompanied by an officer or a European N.C.O. ...and prohibited also from entering shops or business premises unless under European escort... natives are not allowed to enter nor be entertained in the house of Europeans...’’
The most infamous event involving the SANLC during the war was the 21st of February 1917 sinking of the troopship Mendi, after it was accidentally rammed by another British ship, the Darro, in the English Channel. Six hundred and seven out of the 805 black troops on board, including eight from Bechuanaland, along with nine of their white officers and NCOs and 30 crew members died in the icy waters. Fortunately, Sebele along with most of the 5th Battalion’s Batswana were then aboard the Durham Castle, the ship that immediately followed the Mendi from Cape Town.
Sebele’s ship docked in Liverpool England, before the final embarkation to France. There, to the reported consternation of their South African officers, they were received by local women who served them with tea and refreshments. As a Mosotho veteran Stimela Jingoes would later recall: “they were so friendly and we warmed to their concern for us...Although white women had served us tea in Cape Town, we knew they were doing it only because we were going to war, these girls were different!”
Shortly after their arrival in France the compound housing many of the Batswana and Basotho came under air attack. From Jingoes:
“Looking up we saw the British soldiers racing to the trenches, and our Captain ordered us to do the same. At that instant the sound of planes was heard, and five German aircraft came into view. Everyone froze. The planes started dropping bombs on us…Beside bombs they also dropped a message from ‘Mkiza’ (their ‘Kaiser’) which said – ‘I hate you Uncle Sam, because I do not know what caused you to come and enter this war.
I hate Belgium and will crush it, because I have already taken most of it. I hate France. I hate England the most, because it takes other countries into its empire. But in this war, I hate black people the most. I do not know what they want in this European War. Where I find them I will smash them.’”