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Sebele: “Why South Africa Fails”

One hundred and thirteen years ago, on May 23, 1908, the Bakwena Kgosi Sebele I became the first traditional leader in Botswana formally express to the British Government expressing his subject’s objection to becoming part of a future Union of South Africa.

The possibility of the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s inclusion in such a Union had emerged after July 1907 with the publication of a memorandum by the British High Commissioner responsible for Southern Africa, Lord Selborne, to the Colonial Secretary of State, Lord Crewe, whose subject had been "to review the general situation in south Africa in such a manner as may enable the people of this country to appreciate the difficulties of administration under the present system, and consider whether (and if so by what means) it is advisable to establish a central national government embracing all the British Colonies and Protectorates."

Selborne's call was fully taken up in May 1908 when representatives at an Inter-colonial Railway and Customs Conference [of British southern Africa] called for the convening of a National Convention made up of delegates appointed by the parliaments of the four self-governing white settler colonies [Cape Colony, Natal, Orange River Sovereignty and Transvaal] in order to draft a for a "Closer Union or Federation of South Africa."

It was in direct and urgent response to the above that Kgosi Sebele I forwarded his landmark petition to Lord Selborne affirming:

"That in the event of the coming Federation or Unification becoming a reality, we should like to see our rights reserved and protected under the Imperial Government.

"That in the event of the coming of Federation or Unification is going to rob us of all our present rights or interests in so far as our land is concerned, we are not going to federate.

"I am the inheritance left by the late Queen Victoria the Good, under his majesty the King Edward VII. I do not want any government except Imperial Government.

"Will the coming Federation be an Imperial Government? We are not going to federate unless assured by His Excellency the high Commissioner that our interests will be safeguarded"

In forwarding his petition Sebele was influenced by his Secretary Peter M.J. Sidzumo. The son of "a well-known Mfengu preacher" who had settled in Mafikeng, Peter Sidzumo is one of the great unsung heroes of Botswana for the leading role he subsequently played in mobilizing and coordinating Batswana opinion against the South African threat.

In the same month Selborne had also received a letter from Sebele’s the Basotho Khosi Letsie II, which asked: "Are we of Basutoland thought of in this unification?" Following these separate but closely timed initiatives Letsie and Sebele, with the able assistance of their respective

secretaries, Phillip Modise and Sidzumo, worked together to mobilise others in the region against the Union. In a May 30, 1908 letter to Letsie, Sebele thus expressed his eagerness to maintain close contact and further enquired about the workings of the Basotho National Council, wondering if such a body might also be of service to Batswana.

Through Sidzumo's pen Sebele also associated himself with the then rising current of black protest politics within South Africa, which was finding its voice through a vibrant African controlled press, regional "Native" Congresses and political associations, as well as such forums as the Inter-State Native College Scheme that founded Fort Hare University. In a published address to the latter body's July 1908 Convention, entitled "Why South Africa Fails" Sebele noted:

"But then who is really to blame that ‘the Kafirs has thus commenced to read from the wrong end of the book' [specifically referring to the title of a then recent newspaper article]. It is a very common fallacy frequently hinted at by white witnesses that a good deal of the blame for the existing unsatisfactory state of affairs rests on the shoulders of the missionaries. Surely not the missionaries so much as the colonists who became unduly alarmed at the prospect of natives becoming skilled workmen and competing with local white workmen.

“Is it not the fault of the white population entirely that the opening of a technical institution for the natives has been delayed till a few months ago in that colony [Natal]? What advances have the colonists made generally in regard to the Native Problem? Is it really true that a French Committee has drafted a bill under the instructions of the Minister of Education for the establishment of an African University at Algiers? Have the French undoubtedly not shown great courage in dealing with this phase of the Education Problem? Is it not a rather startling fact that the Great French Native dependency is represented in the Parliament of Paris by aboriginal and elected deputies!!! Why should South Africa prove so marked an exception?..."

The appeals of Letsie and Sebele did not go unnoticed. During a June 1908 discussion between Herbert Sloley, Basutoland's Resident Commissioner, and Lord Selborne, the former is recorded to have said that: "In the event of the Basuto becoming seriously dissatisfied and restless, the effect of this would probably be far reaching among the South African tribes."

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