“Earning his father’s respect, Sebele II crossed the oceans and went to war. There he behaved like other soldiers with humbleness and respect for others. He fought earnestly, while concealing his short temper; living in comradeship with his mates.
“Exposed to war Sebele observed and learnt. He saw men dying, heard commanders shouting orders and saw men fall asleep in trenches full of water. He witnessed filth and the gruesome sight of people living squeezed in small spaces for a long time. He saw men screaming for their mothers when bullets ripped them apart. All these things he saw and heard because they stayed in his mind to haunt him.” Translated from manuscript by M.O.M. Seboni
We left off in January 1918 when, with the First World War still moving toward its endgame along the Western Front, the South African Government decided to abruptly disband the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC). Those who had not yet left for France were demobilised, while those who had been deployed in the war zone were progressively recalled at the end of twelve month’s service.
Having been among the first to enlist Corporal Sebele II a Kealeboga and his 73 Mathubantwa comrades from Kweneng were among the first to return home, reaching Mahikeng by train on the first week of February. While Sebele reportedly wondered about how he would be received upon his arrival, his mood changed upon receiving a message sent by the tribal secretary, Richard Sidzumo, that his father was seriously ill.
By the time Sebele arrived at Molepolole, having been escorted by his uncles on the road from Gaberones station, Kgosi Sechele II was already on his deathbed. There is no evidence of any last words between the two. Local tradition does assert that Sebele thus assumed the burden of bogosi on the very day of his return, which coincided with his father’s death.
The timing of the SANLC 5th Battalion’s return was fortunate for its members in at least one respect; they arrived ahead of the outbreak of the great 1918 influenza pandemic. Although its originally reported epicentre was the Western Front, this information was suppressed by military censors at the time. As a result the first public reports of its existence surfaced in neutral Spain, resulting in its popular but misleading designation as the “Spanish Flu.”
From the battlefield of Europe the great influenza spread across the globe, initially spearheaded by returning troops, resulting in millions being sent to an early grave. Estimates put the death toll on the African continent at 2-5% of the entire population.
South Africa and the surrounding Protectorates was especially hard hit with about a half million perishing and over three million affected out of a total population then numbering some seven million. By contrast the death toll in the USA was between 500 and 650 thousand out of a total population of 102 million.
The known arrival of the pandemic in South Africa coincided with the return of the last SANLC troops aboard two ships, the Jaroslav and the Veronej, which arrived in Cape Town in mid-September 1918.
The troops were quarantined upon arrival but mostly released within a few days. Shortly thereafter, they along with those that attended them began to be struck down. From the returning troops, both black and white, the disease spread rapidly in the urban areas, especially the mining compounds from whence it spread to Botswana and elsewhere across the region.
While most of the Bakwena who had served in the SANLC were still alive in 1923, the influenza is known to have killed many others especially among those who were then working in the mines.
Sebele was formally crowned on February 12, 1918. By then his six years away in Gauteng and the battlefields of France had made him a sceptic of “white civilisation”. Back in Molepolole, he freely voiced his doubts to those who came in contact with him, blacks and whites alike. As kgosi it would be his stubborn rejection of his and his people’s subordinate position within their own homeland that ultimately led to his downfall.
On the very day of his installation the then Resident Commissioner, James MacGregor, in a wire to the High Commissioner noted Sebele II negative attitude and chequered past including veteran status, further observing that he might need a regent. He also recommended that, for the time being, formal recognition of the new Chief by the Colonial office in London should be withheld.
As fate would have it British never did sanction the Kgosi installation. Neither did the Bakwena accept the legitimacy of his later disposition. During the colonial era a myth was fostered that the 1931 political detention without trial of Kgosi Sebele II was brought about at the request of his tribe (morafe) due to his alleged misrule and personal shortcomings.
In fact, the Kgosi was detained at Ghanzi, but never legally deposed, by British administrators against the well documented will of the overwhelming majority of Bakwena. Sebele’s reign was, however, plagued by an internal opposition. When he returned from the war to take up bogosi, he inherited his father’s critics as well as the throne.