The story of the Three Chiefs is known by all and standard fare among Batswana, right? In 1895, Khama III, Sebele I and Bathoen I travelled to Great Britain to ask Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Queen Victoria to separate the Bechuanaland Protectorate from Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company and Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe).
Not exactly, argues Professor Part Mgadla, a historian and the director of Confucius Institute. Last Thursday, at the first of a series of lectures on the country’s milestones since independence at the University of Botswana, Mgadla made his intentions clear: he intended to debunk “myths and misconceptions” surrounding the legendary trip undertaken by the three chiefs to London.
He said it was 10 years after Bechuanaland had been declared a protectorate by the British that the chiefs went to Britain.
He said theirs was also not to ask for protection, but to persuade the British not to let Cecil John Rhodes his company or the apartheid government in South Africa take over Botswana.
Prof Mgadla, who was a scholar in America, said it was fortunate diamonds were discovered after independence in 1966 because had they been found before, there would not have been the Botswana we know today.
“I don’t think we would have gotten our independence, had they known that we have diamonds. Diamonds revitalised the economy such that having been regarded as the poorest country in the world with only five kilometres of tarred road, Botswana is now a middle income country,” said Mgadla, punching the air with his fist at the end of his address and shouting “Viva Botswana Viva, Viva Bot50 Viva!
According to former Minister of Education and icon, Dr Gaositwe Chiepe the arrangement put in place after the establishment of the protectorate was highly inconvenient.
Bechuanaland was ruled by Britain as a protectorate whose capital was outside its frontiers – in a foreign country. The capital was in Mafikeng, South Africa where a piece of land, called the Imperial Reserve had been carved out and completely surrounded like an island.
“To say this arrangement was very inconvenient is an understatement of the highest order.
One needed a passport to go through Ramatlabama border post to get into Mafikeng, South Africa and suffered the indignity of being black in apartheid South Africa.
Both leaders and the general population lived deeply degrading lives prior to independence and even up to the time the diamonds were discovered.
Now frail, Chiepe walks with a firm, though slow step. Her voice was however startlingly clear as she summed up the dark period.
“All we used or needed was borrowed – not even bought or rented – whether it was money, movable or immovable property. At least human power was paid for,” she said.
Chiepe said in South Africa, where she was a student at Tigerkloof College, together with Sir Ketumile Masire and other forward-looking youth of their time, they tasted apartheid first hand.
This is because they had to go to school in that country where everything was demarcated black or white. For instance, there would be benches at the park, marked “for blacks” or “for whites”.
Chiepe and other luminaries lived in the Imperial Reserve which was fenced. Every time they took a risk to jump the fence, they were at risk of being arrested by the apartheid police.
“The Imperial Reserve was fenced, and once you got out of its gates you were in South Africa. If you were black you were arrested anytime you were found in town after nine o’clock in the evening. Benches and other amenities at the railway stations were marked clearly for whites only or for blacks only,” she said, contrasting the present comfort with the hardships they endured.
However, Botswana’s independence was drawing near. Chiepe recalled a particularly provocative article written by a newspaper on the dawn of Botswana’s independence.
The article was entitled “Independence to come Friday.” Chiepe quoted from it: “Bechuanaland – an impoverished, and hungry land without a hope of achieving economic stability makes its debut this week among a community of nations.
“The new blue, white and black flags are flying everywhere in Gaberones its incongruous capital city, but elsewhere in the vast trackless wasteland that would take the name of Botswana there is little to celebrate.
“More than 1/5 of the population is being literally kept alive by emergency feeding and the numbers are rapidly increasing.”
“It has 2,000 cars and trucks, and a national radio service that broadcasts for two hours a day.”
From those painful beginnings, the world is watching as Batswana gears up to celebrate 50 years of development into a modern, competitive and progressive democracy.