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Ntwa Ya Hitler - Not Again

When, on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, the Bechuanaland Protectorate automatically became part of the imperial conflict.

Although Batswana had no say in the matter, within days of the declaration most of the Gazetted Chiefs in the territory had forwarded letters pledging their loyalty and readiness to support the war effort.  The stance of the local Dikgosi stood in immediate contrast with the political divisions being played out across the border amongst the dominant white Afrikaners in the then minority ruled Union of South Africa.

Motivated in part by the fact that South Africa’s participation in the First World War--a quarter century earlier--had led to a civil war within his own community, the Union Prime Minister, J.M.B. Herzog, favoured a policy of neutrality.

Hertzog’s stance resulted in his replacement by Jan Smuts, who was thereafter able to secure a narrow majority in the all white Parliament for joining the British war effort. Afrikaner opinion, however, remained deeply divided with some anti-British extremists joining the Ossewabrandwag, a pro-German armed resistance movement.

Notwithstanding the Dikgosi’s expressions of imperial solidarity, they along with many of their subjects also harboured reservations about any active participation in the war.

As with blacks, as well as Afrikaners, elsewhere in the region, Batswana opinion was influenced by still raw emotions arising from the previous World War. 

Memories of the earlier conflict were buy Instagram likes brought into focus by the death in Ghanzi October 2, 1939 of the Protectorate’s most prominent political detainee, the Bakwena Kgosi Sebele II.

His body was returned to Molepolole, where tens of thousands, including many from outside Kweneng, attended his funeral. The extent of public outpouring came as something of a shock to the British officials who reported that his burial was the biggest event in the Protectorate they had ever witnessed.

The fact that Sebele had served as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in France during the conflict against the Kaiser was a reminder of the ambivalence many Batswana felt towards participation in another “white man’s war.”

 Lured to Mafikeng in June 1931 on the false pretence of attending a meeting to discuss water works, Sebele had been indefinitely detained without charge and confined to Ghanzi.

As a “British Protected Person” rather than colonial subject, he like all “Natives” in the territory was denied the basic right of habeas corpus in accordance with the Bechuanaland Protectorate Proclamation no. 15 of 1907, the notorious “Expulsion Law” whose colonial era victims also came to include, amongst many others; Sekgoma Letsholathebe, John Nswazwi, Gobuamang Mosielele and Tshekedi and Seretse Khama.  

Sebele had cited his war record in his ultimately futile challenges to

his detention. On July 10, 1917 he had been amongst a handful NCO’s from the 21,000 strong South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) who were selected to meet with King George V and Queen Mary, accompanied by Edward Prince of Wales and General Haig, in Abbeville France.

On that occasion the King had assured the men that: “You are also part of my great armies fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the Empire.”  

Sebele became the Kgosi of the Bakwena on the very day of his return from the Western Front, which happened to coincide with the death of his father Kealeboga Sechele II.  Thereafter, it was his stubborn rejection of his and his people’s subordinate position within their own homeland that led to his downfall.

A total of 800 Protectorate Batswana enlisted in the Fifth (High Commission Territories) Battalion of the SANLC, of whom at least 555 served in France during 1917-18.

About 1,500 also took part in the conquest and occupation of German South West Africa (Namibia), while perhaps a 1,000 had been deployed under South African command in East Africa. In this respect, negative feelings arising from the conflict went beyond the fate of Sebele.

Some three million blacks from the Diaspora as well as Africa had served in various military formations during the first World War.

While racial barriers had been a common experience amongst virtually all of these troops, only those under South African command had not been issued with firearms or otherwise recognised as combatants.

In France the SANLC had, in fact, been treated more like prison labourers than military volunteers. When not used as beasts of burden, its members were confined behind barbed wire.

In the words of one of their white commanders: “The camps occupied by our men and the prisoners of war are identical in every respect, except as regard to the locality those occupied by prisoners are more favourably situated.”

The SANLC, itself, was prematurely disbanded in 1918 as a result of South African Government concerns about growing unrest in its ranks. Up until 1986 successive Pretoria regimes ignored the veterans, denying them service medals and other forms of official recognition. In 1928 some embittered local veterans turned down a belated British offer of medals for the Batswana, Basotho and AmaSwati who had served in the Fifth Battalion.

Thus it was that amongst the Batswana in 1939 there was consensus that any active participation in a Second World War had to be different.

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