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“Republic of Botsoana”

“I found amongst the more intelligent men as unexpected interest in the course of English political history, in the passage of power from crown to aristocracy, from aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat; and they were frankly speculating about the possibility of tribal development following comparable lines.” - British journalist Leonard Barns, reporting on his 1931 tour of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

We previously noted that in March 1919, at the inaugural congress of Comintern in Moscow, a report on “Communism in South Africa” had described Bechuanaland as a breeding ground for cheap black labour, which primarily worked in the mines and farms of South Africa.

The report further noted that local government in the Protectorate and other “native territory” in the region was “exercised by chiefs, petty chiefs, and headmen, always of course under the supervision of the police patrol.”  On the basis of the above, from the 1920s South African communists attempted to actively recruit Batswana migrant labourers, as well as those from the other rural reserves, into their party’s ranks.

There were also organised efforts to propagandise within the Protectorate through the underground distribution of the party’s newspapers Umsebenzi/South African Worker and, later, Inkululeko. Both periodicals regularly carried articles in Setswana and Sesotho as well as English and other regional languages.

In 1928, the Party reached a strategic milestone with the adoption of its programme for “an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic, with full and equal rights for all races; black, coloured and white” in which it explicitly recognized that: “South Africa is a black country, the majority of its population is black and so is the majority of the workers and peasants.... The black peasantry constitutes the basic moving force of the revolution in alliance with and under the leadership of the working class.”

The most prominent local recruit to Communism before the second world was a now almost forgotten individual who more often appears in print as L.L. Leepile, otherwise known as Lee Thelesho Leepile Leepile. Apparently from Kanye, from the 1920s Comrade L.L. Leepile wrote extensively about events in Botswana, as well as the region in the pages of Umsebenzi/South African Worker, in both Setswana and English.

In a ground-breaking July 1926 feature, “What the Ratshosas’ Murder Trial did not reveal”, Leepile described Gammangwato as being headed by a “ruling oligarchy” that “lives in idleness whilst the mass of people remain in dreadful poverty.” Even before Simon Ratshosa’s revelations, he also wrote of “the slavery of the Masarwa”, while further noting that “several tribes”, notably the Abirwa (Babirwa), struggled incessantly for freedom, but were always ruthlessly suppressed.”

By the 1930s, however, Leepile began to see the possibility of Dikgosi

playing a progressive role in the struggle against imperialism and racial capitalism. It was largely through Leepile’s advocacy that the Communist Party came out strongly against the 1931 banishment of the Bakwena Kgosi Sebele II, and subsequently the temporary 1933 suspension of the Bangwato Kgosi Tshekedi Khama (for the supposed flogging of Phineas McIntosh).

By the 1930’s Leepile had taken up residence in Cape Town, where he emerged as a leading member of the independent ANC in the name of which he devoted much of his time to organising of labourers in the Western Cape region. He also continued to serve in the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Having played a leading role in convincing the party to oppose the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s incorporation into South Africa; he further won support for his call for an independent Republic of “Botsoana”.  Writing in 1934, Leepile noted that, as a People’s Republic, “Botsoana will take control of the railway, abolish debts to white traders, and establish elected tribal councils, while working with progressive Dikgosi. The following year Leepile joined another Central Committee member, Lazar Back in setting forth a wider vision of a future Soviet Federation or Union of Southern African republics. 

At the end of the 1930’s, however, Leepile seemingly disappears from the scene; his ultimate fate currently unknown to this author.  Another early conduit of Marxist inspired ideas was via local interest in the Basotho Commoners Association or ‘Lekhotla la Bafo’ (LLB), which agitated for popular self-government on the basis of what they insisted should be the restoration of indigenous democracy through dikgotla and a Basotho National Pitso. In this respect, LLB ideas are known to have been communicated by Basotho serving in the Bechuanaland Protectorate Police, as well as through contacts in Gauteng.

Beginning in 1928, the LLB forged a lasting alliance with the South African Communist Party, which amongst other things, opened the door for its members to also become regular contributors in party periodicals, Usembenzi and Inkululeko.

The LLB international profile was further raised by its association with various Comintern sponsored international front organisations, beginning with its October 1929 affiliation with the League against Imperialism and League for the Defence of the Negro Race and the Africa Bureau of International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the latter two being then headed by George Padmore.

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