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War And Rememberance

Over the past few months we have been indulging in an extended examination of the seminal event in Botswana’s ultimate emergence as a nation state, the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53.

As we have seen, the key local figure in that pan-African struggle was the Bakwena Kgosi eKgolo Sechele I, whose death occurred a 125 years ago this month, on the 25th of September 1892. By twist of fate the week of his passing coincided with the birth of a great grandson, the future Sebele II.

To those who knew him at least, the legacy of Sechele’s leadership against the Boers at the time of his demise was clear. As reflected in the Rev. Rodger Price’s obituary:

“It was also about this time that the Transvaal Boers began to bring themselves into hostile contact with the native tribes on their borders.

Sechele was attacked by them, but not conquered. Indeed he retaliated upon the Boers so successfully, the fainthearted native chiefs living on the Boer border came with their tribes and placed themselves under Sechele. He now encouraged English traders to come into the country, and he, and the tribes under him, possessed themselves of guns and ammunition and horses, and became formidable opponents of Boer aggression”

The enduring truth of the above is politically reflected in Botswana’s eastern boundary with South Africa, which remains virtually the same as the post-1853 jurisdictional demarcation between the allied kingdoms of Kweneng, Gangwaketse and Gammangwato vis-a-vis the old Transvaal Boer Republic. The Barolong and Batlhaping further to the south were, however, less fortunate in the face of subsequent British as well as Boer aggression.

In more modern times, it was this same boundary line that allowed tens of thousands of refugees and freedom fighters to find sanctuary and frontline support in our country.

 In this sense, there is a genuine link between what began at Dimawe and largely ended at Cuito Cuanavale.

In the popular imperialist literature and emerging white settler history of the late 19th century, however, the Batswana-Boer War was already being reduced to a footnote that more often focused on the pillaging of Livingstone’s Kolobeng mission rather than the actual course of the war.

In seeking to play up the victimisation of the Batswana to his home audience, while covering up his own covert role in facilitating Sechele’s arms procurement, Livingstone’s public accounts contributed to the popular distortion that the 1852 invasion of Botswana was a one-off raid rather than the opening engagements of a protracted and by no means one-sided conflict.

The subsequent mutation of the image of young Livingstone, from the militant critic of racial imperialism that he actually was in life, into the posthumous icon of colonial rule that survives to

this day in popular culture, helped to further expunge the war from this region’s published narrative.

 A truer version of Livingstone, if not his most famous convert, survived in the early settler colonial and subsequent Afrikaner nationalist historiography. The former was pioneered in the late 19th century writings of George McCall Theal, whose shadow even now obscures much of our wider understanding of the foundations of modern Southern African society.

In this context, Theal’s accurate description of Livingstone as a headstrong believer in racial equality was not at the time meant as a compliment. He, along with others that followed his lead, notably including Isaac Schapera who was otherwise responsible for first publishing compelling counter-evidence in the prose of Livingstone’s private correspondence, down-played the missionary’s role in the arms trade.

Theal’s 1887 history of the Boers, as well as subsequent versions of his multi-volume history of South Africa, does at least grudgingly acknowledge the inconclusive nature of both the battle at Dimawe and the ultimate outcome of the hostilities. In this, he relied almost exclusively on the then-published Boer accounts, being openly dismissive of “idle tales derived from native sources and suppositions which have their birth in [anti-Boer] prejudice.”

Theal’s earliest accounts do, however, validate local folk memory that most, if not all of the Batswana captured during the war found their way home. In this respect, he notes that some 200-300 women and children were taken prisoner to both induce their relatives to ransom them and try to influence Sechele into offering more favourable terms for the cessation of hostilities.

Theal goes on to note that while very few were ransomed “nearly all after a short captivity escaped or were permitted to return,” although a “few children remained apprenticed to various persons.”

By the mid-20th century, memory of the war largely lived on in the oral folklore, notably including praise poems of local Batswana and to some extent, also amongst the Afrikaner communities of the western Transvaal.

For those curiously fixated on perpetuating the colonial era myth of Batswana kings actively seeking Mmamosadinyana’s protection ,the triumph of Sechele and the other Batswana patriots in 1852-53 remains forgotten as an inconvenient truth.

Ironically, by the 1970s classroom acknowledgement, the battle of Dimawe was virtually confined to Bophuthatswana textbooks.

Fifty plus years after our country’s rebirth as a sovereign republic, our own schools should do a lot better in teaching about this historical milestone, which marks the end of the so-called Great Trek as well as the beginning of modern Botswana. 



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