The birthplace of modern Botswana

Lobatse's development has stalled in recent years
Lobatse's development has stalled in recent years

Amidst the substantial preparations towards Botswana’s Golden Jubilee, cities, towns and villages are aggressively preparing for the celebrations and each tell their own story about the road since 1966. The story about one of the country’s oldest towns and central node of its history remains untold. Mmegi Correspondent, TUMELO MOUWANE reports

Popularly known as  Bandleng, Lobatse is credited with giving birth to an economy, which would later prosper, from dust and hunger, to being called the “Jewel of Africa”.

After giving birth, the mother was left in the lurch to wallow in poverty and self-pity.

Long before the diamond mines were discovered and propelled the economy into double digit growth, Lobatse was the heartbeat of the country. Its importance was felt as both a border town and centre of trade powering the limited economic activity in the country.

Near Independence, Lobatse was considered to be the location of the capital of Botswana at a time when the administration of the Bechuanaland Protectorate was located in Mafikeng.

Lobatse was one of the first areas to “taste” a railway line, administrative structures and the country’s first abattoir, the latter leading to the Botswana Meat Commission establishing its headquarters there, even today.

Today, Botswana is well known for high quality and quantity diamonds, market-leading export grade beef, stunning flora and fauna as well as peace, stability and good governance. Unlike several other African states, Botswana has avoided pre and post-independence wars, civil strife and the resource curse that has paralysed other promising economies on the continent.

The Botswana of half a century ago had no tarred road apart from a historic five-kilometre line which linked Lobatse town centre with the then brand new High Court headquarters. The headquarters have since moved to Gaborone.

The government’s heart used to beat in Lobatse in 1966, after most headquarters relocated from Mafikeng and Lobatse.

Lobatse’s township – the country’s first - known as Peleng - is a rich reservoir of history, despite its rough reputation for gangs.

When the southern African region groaned under the yoke of colonial and apartheid oppression, the people of Lobatse put their lives on the line to advocate and agitate for democratic rule and equal rights for their fellow Southern Africans.

The late Fish Keitseng established a safe house in Lobatse, which was used by several liberation war heroes. Keitseng was born in Gangwaketse (Kanye) in 1919 and later worked in the South African mines.

In 1948, he joined the ANC and his political activism saw him imprisoned and later deported back home to Bechuanaland in 1959.

Keitseng settled in Lobatse where he provided refuge to prominent ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, who were on the run from murderous apartheid authorities.

Peleng also boasts the Samora Machel safe house, where the Kgaboesele family hosted Mozambique’s late first president.

Machel lived as a family member prior to Mozambique’s independence. The importance of this history is not lost in Mozambique, whose government has announced plans to build a museum in Peleng to recognise Kgaboesele’s efforts in helping to liberate Mozambique.

Despite all its contributions to the Botswana and southern Africa of today, Lobatse carries the tag of a ghost town, abandoned by modernity and left as a historic relic.

The growth of Gaborone and other urban centres has seen a flight of industry from Lobatse, while some of the businesses that have remained behind have collapsed due to a number of factors.

The relocation of the High Court headquarters to Gaborone was a particularly sore point for many in Bandleng.

Lobatse legislator and assistant investment, trade and industry minister, Sadique Kebonang is not impressed.

“In terms of developments, one cannot say one is pleased,” he says.

“It seems like the town has been neglected. I don’t know why that is the case.

“It is unfortunate, but we hope developments will come this side in the future. We have many projects in the pipe line including Milk Afric and the Lobatse leather park.”

In terms of preparations towards the Golden Jubilee celebrations, there is little to show that Lobatse is ready to party.

The town that gave birth to modern Botswana has only two BOT50 signs pinned in the town centre and by the council building. It appears there is nothing really to inspire the residents to celebrate.

With only a month left before the main event, the proud blue, black and white are still rare around town or on the residents.

Kabelo Tlou represents the concerns of Bandleng’s residents.

“When you turn on your television at home, you hear about many villages and their history.

They display great preparedness for the day. Lobatse was the powerhouse of this country but it looks like they have forgotten all that in preparations towards the 50th celebrations. They are busy talking about where we are from but they have forgotten about this town,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether residents of Lobatse will enjoy the country’s biggest party in 50 years.

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