It is quite remarkable how little debate there has been over historical issues in the last 50 years. But at last, one professional historian, Professor Part Mgadla has opened up a degree of debate with his controversial recent paper, ‘A Very Grave and Expensive Error? The Choice of a New Site for the Capital of Botswana 1958-65’. My thanks to the author for giving me the opportunity of reading this paper.
Having previously written about the new capital and because it is such an interesting and important topic, I have indulged myself by spreading my comment over two issues. Hopefully geographers and physical planners with better knowledge will join in the debate. Thus, in no order of priority, let’s start.
1. I had hoped that Professor Mgadla would explain how the British Administration’s Investigating Committee came up with such a strange listing of possible sites for the new capital which included Manyane, Bokaa, the Tuli Block and Dibete! Seemingly he too was unable to find a satisfactory explanation.
2. The process of deciding where the new capital should be located needs to be set in the context of the very tight timetable set for the attainment of Independence, not in terms of the R4 million promised by the UK Government.
3. Concern about an adequate supply of water was related to the identification of a suitable dam site, not to the relative size of different rivers at Gaborone, Mahalapye, Palapye and Francistown. In the context of the debate and eventual decision, it needs to be noted that it was only because of the new mine at Phikwe and its need for water that the Shashe Dam was constructed so much later. It has taken even longer to construct dams on the other major rivers in the north.
4. The claims that Francistown could be a serious contender was mooted only by the three white members of Legislative Council, Messrs Haskins, Mynardt and van Gass.. The other members would have quickly disregarded this claim knowing only too well that Francistown was owned and therefore controlled by the Tati Company.
Racism there was so deeply entrenched that Vice President Masire had to warn its residents in 1971 that they were putting at stake the country’s reputation as a stable non-racial democracy.
5. Those mooting for Francistown argued ingenuously that it was the main commercial and industrial centre of the BP. It was also accessible to many parts of the country, that it had an international airport, road and rail networks, could expand, had a good water supply and ‘several humble buildings’.
6. In contrast, Mgadla himself provided a rather strange list of Gaborone’s assets at the time, being, ‘a few humble infrastructural
7. The point was made that, like Francistown, Gaborone was also accessible to different parts of the country and to Johannesburg.
It was also in proximity to six tribes (I know of five - the Tlokwa, Kgatla, Kwena, Ngwaketse and Lete) being key decision-making centres. This particular consideration had nothing to do with concerns about population.
The suggestion that Legislative Council members equated the number of tribal groups to population size seems highly unlikely.
All members would have been well aware that there were more people living in the north than the south, but this was never taken to be one of the factors which should determine the eventual decision.
Had the decision been based on population, the new capital would have had proximity to a single decision making centre – Serowe.
8. Concerns expressed at the time that it was ‘difficult to expand in any direction without infringing upon ethnic rights’ and that it ‘cannot expand because bordered by the tribes’ were arguments reiterated by Professor Mgadla.
They are difficult to understand given the way that Gaborone has, bit by bit, expanded during the last 30 or so years. Possibly those making this particular argument assumed that the new capital would forever be constrained within the 2.852 hectares of the Crown Reserve. In reality, this Reserve was bordered by just the one tribal reserve, Tlokweng. To the north, west and south, it was enclosed by freehold farms.
It seems to have been assumed by those who argued this point that Bonnington, Broadhurst A, Broadhurst B, Glen Valley and Content and chunks of other farms could never be purchased by the government. If so, they have been proved totally wrong,.