Batswana soldiers used firearms during WWII, says veteran

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It is not everyday that one gets to meet a World War II veteran so when the Mmegi team, chance upon Modisa Thebe of Tshosa Ward in Kumakwane, there is some excitement.

The 90-year-old has little patience with people who beat about the bush. "Bo rra bua se le batlang go se bua," he says to us tapping his feet impatiently when we appear dumbstruck after exchanging a few pleasantries with him.

As if sensing that we are from a newspaper, the veteran begins boasting about his gallantry in WWII, claiming to have been a very brave soldier.

The former war-dog says that he was born in 1920 to Konege and Maibi Thebe of Tshosa ward in Kumakwane and that his parents were Bakwena, originally from Molepolole.

Like many people of his time, Thebe worked in neighboring South Africa, in Van Rijn Staat, Benoni at Mine Reef No.5 Shaft where he says he dug the belly of the earth in search of minerals.

It was while working at the mines that 'the Queen appealed to us to help her out after Germany's Hitler attacked her and her people " (Please note that as a matter of fact, the war happened during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II's father, King George VI)

The old warrior says that the Bakwena Kgosi Kgari Sechele and other Batswana dikgosi heeded Great Britain's appeal for help more-so in that they too had to protect their land. The war veteran was among those who gathered at the Molelopole main kgotla in 1941 to answer the kgosi's call.  The Mokwena left for Lobatsi (as Lobatse was then called) in a truck where they joined soldiers from other Batswana merafe like the Bangwato, Bakgatla, Bangwaketse and so on and all those who were conscripted around that time belonged to the second Company.

In Lobatse, they boarded a Durban-bound train and according to the old man, it was a long and tiring journey. They made stops at certain South African towns such as Braamfontein and Pietermaritzburg to have a rest.The old man says that in Durban, they found Jan Smuts' Boers waiting for them and that contrary to what they were expecting, the Boers were more welcoming and they treated them as brothers.

Thebe says they boarded a ship in Durban but avoided war zones in the Indian Ocean as they headed for Zanzibar before proceeding to the Red Sea.

"Kana lona la re Etene o kwa legodimong, rona re mmone ka matlho a rona Etene," the old man says claiming there is actually a place called Eden in the Middle East, which he saw with his own eyes.He says they passed another biblical place called Mount Sinai and that they also saw Jacob's Well during their military campaign.

According to Thebe, the Africans disembarked at the Suez Canal to go to Egypt to receive military training before getting into the battlefield. The Mokwena revealed that after receiving the necessary training, a Mokwena witchdoctor was called in to use charms to protect the Bakwena soldiers from the enemy fire. "Ngaka e, ene e dira marumo a mmaba gore a hetoge mothaba. Ke gone ke boneng gore boloi bo a bereka tsatsi leo," the old man says. Thebe asserts that the charms worked well for the Bakwena and that there were not many Bakwena casualties during the war.

The warrior says that in their campaign in countries such as Lebanon and Syria, all the enemy fire could not reach them.

The Mokwena says that he gets irritated when people suggest that the Africans mainly did ancillary services during the war. He claims that they carried firearms during the war though he doesn't remember the name of the particular gun he carried. He begrudgingly admits that he brought many enemies down during the war though he does not want to divulge the number. "Life is sacred and no one should take pride in mentioning the number of  people that he has killed," he says with a serious face. At some point, Thebe and his company boarded a warship in Alexandria and it took them to places such as Sicily and Malta where they continued to confront the Axis in the battlefield. The old man says that he knows what it means when one is said to 'walk through the valley of the shadow of death' as they were once captured by the Germans whom he says were merciless when dealing with their enemies. Luckily for the man and his company, the allied forces rescued them.

Thebe says that towards the end of the war when it was becoming apparent that the Germans were losing, he once came upon some German soldiers holed up in a trench. According to the old man, the Germans were shivering like leaves fearing that he would either shoot them dead or he would alert his friends about their presence.

He says he advised the Germans, to stay hidden until the Allied troops had passed and the Germans who had not been expecting him to be merciful, profusely thanked him and they blessed him saying that he would survive the war a prediction that would later prove true. Asked what language they were using, the old man says that he used a 'war lingo' to communicate with the Germans.

According to Thebe, there are many unsung heroes among the Sotho-Tswana during WWII, including a junior Pedi royal that he only remembers as the son of Motsatsi (Mujaji) who fought bravely during the war.  He also asserts that Kgosi Kgari Sechele of the Bakwena and Kgosi Molefi Pilane of the Bakgatla also proved to be great soldiers during the war. He says the Bakgatla kgosi in particular greatly motivated the Batswana troops during the war, which helped a lot.    

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