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Sandy Grant: An Appreciation Of A Life

Sandy Grant
SEROWE: Of Scottish ancestry, Sandy Ludovic Hamlyn Grant was born on May 8, 1937, in South London, the last-born son of a publican, with an older brother and sister.

He moved between several English towns as he grew up. He went to secondary school in Devon, where he was a fine cricketer. After doing his UK national service, he studied history at Cambridge, where he developed a lifetime interest in buildings and the built environment.

After two years of travel and work, his call came. Sandy was recruited in 1963 to establish a Refugee/Community Centre in Mochudi, to help those fleeing from apartheid in South Africa. Kgosi Linchwe II had promised to be a sponsor. As soon as the 26-year-old Sandy arrived, the village sparked his love affair with Batswana and their culture that lasted for almost 60 years.

The Community Centre in Mochudi soon grew to include aid for refugees, education and recreation for local youth, and several kinds of skills training. Everyone recognised Sandy as its driving force; his quick and close friendship with the young Linchwe worked to his advantage. (There are parallels with Seretse Khama and Patrick van Rensburg in Serowe, a partnership that flowered at the same time).

Sandy was a gregarious man who loved nothing more than a group of friends and a drink, usually accompanied by a good argument. On my first trip to Mochudi, I met Sandy in a bar, debating with Linchwe and his hangers-on. Because it was rare in the old Bechuanaland for an expatriate to socialise with locals in this way, Sandy stood out.

Later, after Linchwe was appointed ambassador to the US and UN, I again witnessed the sparring between Linchwe and Sandy. Amilcar Cabral, one of Africa’s great revolutionaries, had just been killed by a Portuguese bomb. The Portuguese had put out disinformation that Cabral died in a dispute with fellow rebels. Speaking to the group, Linchwe said, “It seems he was killed by his own people.” Sandy turned on him with real feeling. “If you’re going to be a decent ambassador, you’d better learn not to believe such lies.” Linchwe remained silent, knowing that he had been caught out.

Development Organiser, Botswana Christian Council

Though based in Mochudi, Sandy quickly played a role in obtaining famine relief for the country in the terrible drought years 1962–1966. He made contact with external agencies, explained the crisis, and formed a bridge between them and the Bechuanaland administration. In the final year of the drought, most families here were receiving food aid to stay alive, just as the country was preparing for Boipuso. (Note how quickly we have forgotten!)

In 1968 Sandy’s effectiveness led to his accepting the position of Development Organiser for the Botswana Christian Council. Based in a small house behind Gaborone’s central police station, he identified numerous village projects that just needed a little helping hand. Over the next six years, Sandy contacted more than 70 such projects and helped them to obtain funding. (See for the deep details).

How did he do it? Sandy travelled this country from end to end, always with camera in hand and dry wit to deal with one and all. He became friends with headteachers, dikgosana, council secretaries, and above all, the young expatriate volunteers who filled many teaching and technical posts. Although he was usually warmly welcomed, he was not everyone’s cup of tea. Old-style colonials and conservative Batswana disliked his manner of sharp questioning, a trait that was both strength and weakness. The Dutch Reformed minister notably called him 'the devil'. By 1974 the Botswana Christian Council had had enough, and his contract was not renewed.

Meanwhile, his Gaborone house had become a social hub. For many years a bachelor, Sandy welcomed everyone from across the social spectrum. The young cabinet minister Daniel Kwelagobe often dropped by for lunch, and he and Sandy would argue about government policy. One day Pat van Rensburg and Daniel dropped in at the same time, and a furious row broke out among the three eager debaters. It was Pat who cooled things off by leading the group out into the garden and talking about Botswana’s indigenous plants. It was a useful lesson on creating a diversion.

One of Sandy’s colleagues at the time, Jim Flood, wrote: “The lunch table in his house, often covered in fish and chip wrappers, was a central watering hole in Gaborone. On one occasion Sandy suddenly appeared in a kilt. Presumably, he had Scots ancestry and the kilt was in the Grant tartan. It was amazing how many people he knew.”

A Momentous Policy Debate

In 1969 Sandy became embroiled in a new argument, the proposal for an elite private school in Gaborone to be called Maru-a-Pula. David Slater, the school’s historian, has written, “Grant’s objection to MaP came from his distaste for the idea of an exclusive school, in one of the world’s ten poorest countries, that would cater for the privileged few who could afford the fees.”

For the next several years Sandy used his position to block Christian funds from going to Maru-a-Pula. This outraged the principal Deane Yates and the chairman of the local committee, Archie Mogwe, but Sandy was fully supported by students at the new university and by other progressives. In the furious war of words, Mogwe terminated the residence permits of several volunteers – including this author! – but Sandy was not touched.

At that time the self-help schools of Swaneng Hill and Shashe River offered a well-known educational alternative. Many believed this model had the potential to bring secondary education to all. Sandy wrote several powerful articles comparing the two approaches, and he continued to do so for years afterwards.

Sandy was a natural supporter of Pat and Liz van Rensburg’s Swaneng projects and remained so throughout. Early on he helped raise money and helped publicise Swaneng’s successes overseas. Like Pat, he had strong anti-elitist views. In their later years, Sandy called Pat 'old fruit' and Pat called Sandy 'old fossil', maintaining the friendship in their peculiarly English way.

The Bagnall Letters

If he was friends with the van Rensburg family, he was even closer to Swaneng’s vice-principal, Sheila Bagnall. For six years they travelled and socialised together without admitting their obvious relationship. After Sheila’s death in 1998, Sandy obtained her letters and published them after two years of meticulous editing. Many of us wondered if he had removed any intimate details. We found out in 2009 when Sheila’s other lover consulted the original letters in the UB library. No, he reported, the letters contained no sex-drenched details. It seemed a pity.

Sheila’s letters naturally contained many references to Sandy. On their first weekend together, in April 1967, they drove from Mochudi to Artesia looking for a good time. (This is true!) What they got were heavy late rains that turned everything to mud. Sheila wrote wryly that it had been an adventure.

Sheila also wrote about his job with the Christian Council: “He always thinks entirely in terms of African welfare and will fight any battle on that front. Of all the white people I know in Botswana, he is the one who is most concerned with the plight of individuals. He has shown me lots of things — the odd little school with a progressive teacher, the way a dam has been allowed to get into disrepair, and so on. But in some ways he is his own worst enemy, constantly decrying what he does and terribly aware of what he is not able to do.”

This was also the most socially active time in Sandy’s life. He was a fixture at both European and Batswana parties; his own parties were always mixed. Here is Sheila again: “We fled to the President Hotel, where we had an uproarious party with Chief Linchwe, his wife, Ishmael Matlhaku, and assorted Batswana. I have never known Sandy so gay before. He did wild ballet dances around the President Lounge, fantastic imitations of British colonels inspecting the troops, and generally went mad.”

At work and play, human welfare was always on his mind. Here’s Sheila in late 1969: “We went to the tiny village of Mogoditshane. [!] This is where Sandy had rallied the people to raise money to buy piping and then dig three miles of a trench. Water Affairs took over and now, 18 months later, the village still has no water. [The next day] Sandy went to Water Affairs and dragged the top brass out to Mogoditshane. They promised immediate action.”

A Museum, a Family, and an Election

In 1975, after the Christian Council job, Sandy did a course in Edinburgh on conserving old buildings, receiving an MSc. He also had a chance to spend time with family in London, where his father still kept a pub. Leloba Molema remembers that time: “Sandy was not much older than me. He eased my way into London when I was a needful, thoroughly culture-shocked student from Ditlharapeng ... I met his father, a publican, tall like Sandy, with flowing white hair. Yes, I drank ale in Sandy's Dad's pub and Falstaff fell a bit into place for me.”

Upon his return to Botswana, he moved back to Mochudi and researched and recorded Bakgatla history and culture. He was initiated into the Mathulwa mophato. He nurtured a long-distance correspondence with the legendary Isaac Schapera, the scholar who put Tswana traditional law into written form. With help from senior men like Kgosi Linchwe and Amos Kgamanyane Pilane, he restored the abandoned National School in Mochudi as a Bakgatla community museum, the renowned Phuthadikobo Museum. It was the first of its kind in Botswana. Upon its opening in 1978, it was acclaimed as a triumph of architecture and the visual arts, but it was also a tribute to Sandy’s heroic efforts.

Sandy went on to learn the morafe’s history in detail, especially through long discussions with Kgamanyane. Sandy was interested in everything from bogwera and bojale to the arrival of the ZCC. He helped to start a historical association, a forerunner of the Botswana Society. Over the years he contributed many articles and short reports to Botswana Notes and Records, the Society’s academic publication. In this sphere, he was always helpful, enthusiastic, and generous. He became personal friends with the professional historians of the region, linking them in a broad network of shared interests. Consulting them for this article, many of them said, “I emailed him only last week ...” His correspondence was prodigious.

At the Museum, Sandy surprised his friends when he recruited a long-term partner, Elinah Masitara, and married her in 1989. He legally adopted her son Zipho. Their son together, Alex Setso, was born in 1991. In 1995 the family moved to Oodi and into a permanent home. In 1998 Elinah became the museum’s director, allowing Sandy to take on other projects.

One of his colleagues in development work was Batsweleng M Batsweleng, the chief Community Development officer in the Kgatleng. “We used to work hand-in-hand to assist community organisations,” he says. “Sandy helped with funding applications to the Council. His estimates were always exact. We knew

we could trust him.” Batsweleng also directed council money to the Museum, one of its few sources of local funding at that time.

National Recognition and a Newspaper Column

In 1982 Sandy applied for and received Botswana citizenship. When independent newspapers started up in the early 1980s in Gaborone, Sandy championed them. He was a good friend to pioneer Brian Egner of The Examiner and van Rensburg of Mmegi. He himself was soon to become one of Botswana’s best-known weekly columnists.

In 1984 Sandy registered himself as an independent candidate for MP in a Mochudi constituency. He chose the kgabo as his campaign symbol. Festus Mogae, director of the Electoral Commission, disallowed it, saying it was an abuse of a traditional totem. Sandy accepted the decision and chose the leitlho (eye) instead. Although he lost the election badly, he continued to use the leitlho ever after.

That was not Sandy’s last connection to the Independent Electoral Commission. He served on it in the early 2000s, doing an honourable job. I remember receiving an urgent message from Sandy while in Canada: Please bring back a copy of the famous Canadian TV series, Democracy. He wanted to show it to the whole Commission. Its opening scene shows Batswana in kgotla, as an example of pure face-to-face democracy.

When the schoolgirl, Segametsi Mogomotsi, was ritually murdered in Mochudi in 1994, Sandy knew personally all of the popular suspects: settled refugees, business owners, royals. Some were threatened by an outraged mob. Sandy wrote several times about the events of these days, but he never revealed his own suspicions. (Likewise, the authorities never published the police investigations. Who were the guilty VIPs?)

A high point in Sandy’s public recognition came in 2003 when Festus Mogae awarded him the Presidential Order of Honour. There was a very little ceremony. “There were just the two of us in the room [Sandy and Nicky Oppenheimer, a co-owner of DeBeers] with Festus and a few officers,” Sandy recounted. “Festus called us forward to take the certificates from him, and we shook his hand. That was it.” In retrospect, after it was revealed how much money Oppenheimer had stolen from Botswana – and had plans to steal more – this ceremony seems ironic.

Sandy and Elinah published a book of photographs together in 1995, Decorated Homes in Botswana, a loving portrait of the art of traditional designs executed in smeared mud. At this time Sandy was also writing a weekly column for the Midweek Sun, called 'Etcetera', making this was a particularly fruitful period of his life. Later the column moved to Mmegi where it was called 'Etcetera II', and it pulled no punches. You could count on Sandy for a fierce denunciation of the injustices of the day, of which there were plenty.

When several hundred youths mobbed the Tlokweng Land Board, hungry for land, Sandy was one of the first to point to the growing crisis over the unfair and unequal distribution of land. (We may note that since then, youth have remained frustrated whereas Jamal has only increased his holdings in Tlokweng). His was also the strongest voice when the Gaborone dam dried up. “We simply cannot go on as before,” he wrote, arguing for drastic new water policies to cut consumption. Closest to the bone, he denounced the growing problems of corruption and inequality in column after column.

Rough Times and Reconciliation

For this and other reasons, voices of dissatisfaction with Sandy and Elinah arose in both Mochudi and Gaborone concerning Phuthadikobo. Sandy, it was felt, had become high-handed. After Linchwe died in 2007, he received rough treatment from the newly installed Kgosi. The young Kgafela II told Sandy bluntly, “Now you can give my museum back to me” – an insult that was not taken lightly. His and Elinah’s position became untenable, and they were forced to resign amongst bitterness on all sides.

A couple of years later Sandy was still so bitter and relentlessly critical that this author had to break off the conversation with him. He complained that Linchwe had once given him a fine plot in the middle of Mochudi; the Land Board refused to recognise it. Sandy’s bad patch lasted for several years, during which time Elinah feared their marriage might break apart.

But he gradually returned to his equilibrium and began the final phase of his work, putting his life’s efforts into perspective via a series of books, the first in 2012, the last one still at the printer’s when he died. These books included two short popular histories of Botswana, a book of photographs, and a longer personal memoir, Botswana: Choice and Opportunity: A Memoir 1963-2018. It is this last volume that best gives the flavour of the man.

Warm as he was, Sandy often had little intuition into the feelings and motives of others, leading to misunderstandings. He did not like to be the first one to apologise. Words like crusty, prickly, stubborn, were regularly applied to him – especially by his expatriate friends. His enemies were more likely to call him arrogant.

Sandy’s university manners confused Europeans, especially his fellow Brits. It was a trick that he learned as a middle-class boy at Cambridge. When dealing with authority, Sandy knew how to straighten his back, lift an eyebrow, tweak his accent, and use body language to show his right to command. It helped him get results with the bureaucracy. How good was his imitation of a gentleman? Following his death, one of his oldest friends wrote to me from England, “Sandy was solidly upper-middle-class British and I very much doubt his father ran a pub!”

In the 2000s the Gaborone elite often chattered about a powerful politician and his personal assistant. Sandy was embarrassingly slow to catch on until someone told him point-blank what was going on. I saw him shortly thereafter. He exclaimed over and over, in the joy of sudden revelation, “So ----- is the wife! So ----- is the wife!” We had a good laugh.

In his short pieces and emails, Sandy often used exaggeration. At the height of our HIV/AIDS crisis, with dozens of funerals every weekend, I asked Sandy how his sons Zipho and Setso felt about the future. “They know they’re going to die!” he almost shouted. He didn’t often let such feelings show. A few months later, of course, ARVs appeared, and Batswana became less anxious.

This author sometimes worried about Sandy’s journalistic methods. He took shortcuts to meet deadlines and substituted assumptions and questions for research. But as one friend wrote, “He had a feel for the story.” When you read a Grant column, you knew what the point was. As another friend said, “Sandy was ... pugnacious and a contrarian, someone who delighted in shooting down careless or half-baked ideas. You could get away with nothing with him.”

The Mellow Years in Oodi

After the move to Oodi, Sandy saw somewhat less of his Tswana friends and somewhat more of his expat friends. He became a guru to newly arriving volunteers, aid workers, and other professionals. When the expats left Botswana, they often kept in touch with Sandy. When they returned for a nostalgic visit, they often headed straight to Oodi and his welcoming door.

The head of the Canadian volunteer agency, Helmut Kuhn, writes: “Sandy was among the first persons I contacted when I arrived in Botswana in 1971. The way I developed CUSBOT in those first few years owed a lot to Sandy's guidance. He helped us get started on the right foot and to fall in love with the country and its ways.”

His and Elinah’s hospitality was famous. Whole families of overseas visitors sometimes stayed with them, and the Grant family coped. It took a toll on their finances, but Sandy tried to appear unconcerned. When he had enough money he never mentioned it; it only came up when he was short.

Sandy distrusted new technologies. He agreed to have a television for the news and the cricket. His first attempt at digitising his slides and negatives went very badly because he didn’t know what 'high resolution' meant. Famously, he refused to own a cell phone right to the end of his life. It was a constant problem for family, friends, and editors when they needed to find him in Gaborone. We may be thankful that he made a successful transition to email.

Sandy had definite cultural preferences, both high and low. He enjoyed hanging out with Tswana royalty as well as commoners. He continued to love cricket but took no interest in football. He loved good food but couldn’t cook. His music of choice was classical music from the west. His clothes scarcely mattered. The visual arts of all kinds excited him, and he photographed them exhaustively. In 2014 he discovered that Baronet Ludovic Grant had travelled from Scotland to America, where he married a full-blooded Cherokee. Sandy loved the idea that he had Cherokee cousins.

Like his own father, Sandy wanted Setso to have the best education. This included private schools in Gaborone and Mahikeng. But when it came time for A-levels, Sandy enrolled him in Maru-a-Pula. What irony! Had Sandy changed? He told me that the school had changed, that its Maitisong program had made it more relevant, and that he still had some reservations.


Sandy was famous for thrashing government departments in his weekly columns, but his favourite whipping boy was the National Museum. He felt it let the country down. When it held its 50th anniversary, Sandy wrote a particularly acid attack to mark the occasion, and his column rather spoiled the party. In 2020, however, the Museum announced plans for a major overhaul. Sandy’s criticisms had been taken to heart.

Sandy’s final major article appeared in January this year, a review of the biography of Patrick van Rensburg. All of his major themes were there: Botswana’s poor, government malfeasance, skills training and local production, corruption, inequality. His concluding words about Pat could apply to himself: “It is possible that, with time, he will be forgotten. It is also possible, however, that in future the country’s unemployable youth will come to see him as an inspiration ... For the greedy, the acquisitive and unnecessarily rich, he will always be a reproach.”

Sandy Grant died on Friday, May 14, just after his 84th birthday, from complications of surgery. He is survived by his wife Elinah, sons Zipho and Alexander Setso, and grandchild Leano. The flood of tributes from all over the world has been unprecedented in recent times. David Slater summed it up well: “An amazing man who leaves an amazing legacy. If you have not heard of Sandy Grant, remember that name and what he did for Botswana.” Robala ka kagiso.

In addition to the persons named in the article, the author wishes to give his warm thanks to Vernon Gibberd, Pierre Landell-Mills, Wame Molefhe, Neil Parsons, and Jeff Ramsay for information about Sandy’s life and accomplishments.

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