Gobe Matenge's social engineering through Botswana's 10th Independence anniversary celebrations in 1976

Gobe Matenge
Gobe Matenge

Utilising archival records this paper argues that the coordinator of the Tenth Anniversary Independence Celebrations Unit (TACU), Gobe Matenge, tried to use the process to transform what was considered deplorable social and professional attitudes of Batswana into positive and desirable behaviour to be appreciated by international visitors to Botswana in 1976.

Some of the embarrassing behavioural attitudes Batswana were accused of included fighting over food in public places, disrespecting the national anthem, and being discourteous in providing service particularly telephone operators. Matenge’s social engineering was also meant to be a long term change in attitudes of the citizenry. After the country celebrated its 30th anniversary of Independence in 1996, a presidential task force was set up to devise  a long term vision for the country.

The result was a document known as ‘Vision 2016’ which envisaged Botswana to be a prosperous country by 2016 when the country celebrates its 50th anniversary of Independence which was attained in 1966. Vision 2016 also raises similar concerns of Batswana not being patriotic and lacking pride in national symbols amongst other issues. Ironically, while in 1976 undesirable attitudes of the country’s overwhelmingly rural populace was blamed on lack of contact with the ‘outside world’ or foreign cultures, by the turn of the new millennium globalisation or ‘too much’ international influence was now blamed for people’s negative attitudes. 

Independence celebrations are commemorated in numerous former colonial nation-states to mark socio-economic, cultural, political and technological advances and milestones. These celebrations are critical aspects of nation-building or construction of nationhood. Independence entails a nation-state being a sovereign entity and having self-determination. ‘Independence day is a commemorative holiday that contributes towards the shaping of the collective memory of political creation’, writes Rebecca Kook (2005:153).

Self-determination refers to a country’s ability or desire to shape its own future without being dictated to by a colonial power or an overbearing major power. A good example is the celebration of July4 as the Independence Day by the United States of America as a result of its war of Independence against the British colonial rule in the 18th century. Whereas Independence days are celebrated annually, in most cases when a country reaches a decade or century as an independent state, the celebrations are more elaborate and amplified.

Therefore, during milestone Independence celebrations, a country seeks to portray a positive and impressive image of its development over the decades. In particular, the 10th anniversary celebrations in Botswana in 1976 were driven by the determination for the country to project an impressive image to the distinguished international visitors who included African heads of State, amongst others. The previous Independence celebrations were said to have been poorly organised and unimpressive. Therefore, no effort was spared in ensuring that the landmark 1976 celebrations left an impressive and permanent mark. In mid-1975 Gobe Matenge, who was under secretary at the Ministry of Works and Communications and had joined the civil service before Independence in 1947, was tasked with coordinating the TACU. As we demonstrate below, in addition to planning the everyday activities for the celebrations, Matenge made it abundantly clear that he was not only interested in celebrating the country’s tangible infrastructural developments but also sought to re-engineer, for the long-term, what was seen as appalling social and unprofessional behaviour of Batswana. To Matenge, proper and desirable attitudes on the part of the citizenry had to be an integral part of Botswana’s national philosophy constituted by the four principles of democracy, self-reliance, development and unity collectively known as Kagisanyo (peaceful co-existence).

The Coordination and Challenges of the Tenth Anniversary Independence Celebrations

In July 1975, the Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP), Phil Steenkamp declared the formation of TACU headed by Matenge. TACU’s mandate was to coordinate all programmes for Botswana’s ninenth and 10th independence celebrations.

By this time, the preparations for the nineth anniversary on  September 30, 1975 were almost complete and the major focus of TACU was the 10th anniversary celebrations in 1976. TACU was tasked with deciding on the general policies to be adopted, define the content of and design a programme for the 1976 celebrations. The main committee included a senior officer from each of the ministries responsible for, or had a direct interest in any Independence celebration activity. Various sub-committees were formed to deal with many different activities. District celebration committees were formed throughout the country and this was widely announced through the government-owned Radio Botswana and Botswana Daily News.

Chairpersons of these committees included officials co-opted from the local authorities and non-governmental organisations that existed in the country. In some instances, people who had been involved with the organisation of Botswana’s first Independence celebrations in 1966 were co-opted.

The significance of making the 10th anniversary celebrations a special occasion was regularly emphasised by Matenge to senior government officials in the capital –Gaborone –and the districts.

The first meeting of TACU was planned for October 1, 1975 but only 25 people out of 52, who had been invited, showed up. The poor attendance greatly annoyed Matenge who complained that a large number of invitees had not attended the meeting despite invitations sent to district and town councils as well as various organisations in advance.

To add insult to injury, it was reported that those who had not attended did not even send apologies. As a result of poor attendance, the inaugural meeting had to be postponed, which was also an embarrassment to Matenge.

Furthermore, despite repeated reminders, it was also taking rather too long for government to release officials for secondment to TACU which was housed at the Office of the President. So bad was the situation that Matenge complained to Steenkamp that ‘I am now placed in a very unsatisfactory position in that I had promised all District Committees and voluntary organisations that the Unit will support them in their activities and that I would introduce the members of the Unit to all members of the Committee at the general meeting on the 1st of October 1975; this I was unable to do.

I have had to call a meeting to be held on 10th October and I can only hope that the staff will be in post by then’. He also informed Steenkamp that ‘there is another problem area in that no Personal Secretary has been appointed and I have been using, on a temporary basis, a secretary from the Ministry of Works and Communications which is wholly unsatisfactory as I have no direct authority over her’. Matenge also lamented that inexplicable delays in appointments to TACU were causing embarrassment.

These challenges did not deter the determined Matenge to forge ahead with other preparations. For instance, a meeting was held on October 6, 1975 to discuss the poster and symbols for the 10th anniversary celebrations. It was agreed that once the designs for the posters and symbols were completed and approved, the Department of Posts and Telecommunications be approached to include them in special stamps commemorating the tenth anniversary celebrations. TACU officials appreciated the fact that postal stamps are important for depicting a country’s history and culture.

During TACU meeting of October 10,  1975, committee members were shown a film documentary on Zambia’s 10th anniversary celebrations which had been held in 1974. It was also agreed that the film be shown to the members of the district sub-committees throughout the country in order to enable them to gain ideas on what they were required to think of.

Power outages, which would become a serious concern in Botswana as the country prepared to celebrate 50 years of Independence, were also common during the preparation for the 10th anniversary celebrations in Gaborone owing to unstable electricity supply.

Matenge complained to the general manager of Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) that ‘this has resulted in extra expense, not only to the private householders, but also at places where functions had been arranged’.

The scale of activities for the 10th anniversary celebrations was quite huge for Botswana which had very limited infrustratural facilities in the mid-1970s. It should also be noted that this was before the diamond revenue that radically transformed the economy of the country since the 1980s. According to Matenge, this meant that necessary infrastructure such as improvements to the national stadium, showground, Gaborone Airport, and roads within Gaborone had to be effected immediately. He estimated the whole project to cost R4,483,375.00. However, later government approved a significantly reduced amount of just R1.1 million.

Pressure was also applied by the projection that even though festivities were to be held in the outlying villages about 10,000 people from these centres were expected to throng Gaborone which had a population of 32,000. With this scenario likely, Matenge advised the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to ensure that traders in Gaborone were prepared by stocking essential commodities for the whole period beginning from 27 September to 3 October 1976 to cater for visitors in Gaborone.

The task of coordinating the celebrations was a challenging one for Matenge and others involved. As the coordinator, he proposed to travel on a benchmarking tour of Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania which had celebrated their 10 years of Independence a few years before. In early 1976, he went on a benchmarking tour with Christopher Dambe –a senior commercial officer in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. However, Matenge says that during the tour of these countries, they realised that what they were already doing in Botswana was not too different from what they observed outside the country.

Issues of security challenges were also discussed because it was noted that an occasion such as the 10th anniversary celebrations where several heads of state, senior ministers, liberation movement leaders, and other high profile international guests were present was ideal for terrorist attacks. The security matter was taken over by the police and the Office of the President.

As more officials were seconded to TACU, it needed more office space and it could no longer be accommodated at the Office of the President. It was then relocated to a ministerial house in Gaborone’s Extension 5 suburb. In early 1976, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Archie Mogwe attended one of TACU meetings and encouraged the members on their work.

He further ‘stated that we have reason to rejoice for in a world characterised by turmoil, dissentions and bloodshed we remain a united nation. After all we had not had to fight for our freedom’. However, Mogwe also warned that in the past Independence celebration displays at the national stadium tended to be haphazard, and demanded that no effort be spared in making the 10th anniversary celebrations a different and successful exercise.

At a meeting held at the State House in the presence of President Sir Seretse Khama, it was stated that the national philosophy be explicitly displayed in all performances whether cultural or not. Traditional dancers were to be drawn from all over the country, and representing the best groups amongst the Bakalanga, Bamalete, Bakwena, San (Basarwa), Bakgalagadi and other ethnic groups. The dancers were also to be provided with suitable uniforms.

About two days before  September 30, 1976, torrential rains were experienced in Gaborone and other parts of the country which to Batswana symbolised blessings. According to the Daily News reporter, Samuel Moribame, the torrential rains added to the public excitement and sentiment attached to the 10th anniversary celebrations. However, Moribame also wrote that the people were disappointed by reports that Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Samora Machel of Mozambique would not come as had been planned owing to unforeseen circumstances back in their countries.

Other international guests who were present included Zimbabwean liberation struggle leaders, Joshua Nkomo and Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Heads of state who did attend were Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Dauda Jawara of the Gambia and Mobutu sese Seko of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

An embarrassing development had taken place when Mobuto’s aircraft, which was too big for the small Gaborone airport, sunk in the airstrip and had to be hauled out by means of South African help –the last thing Botswana wanted to see happening! Later, some roads or streets in Gaborone were named Kaunda, Mobutu and Jawara in honour of their participation in the celebrations.

 Concerns over Embarrassing Attitudes of Batswana and the Need for Change

It was stated that the majority of Batswana’s predominantly rural background and lack of contact with the ‘outside world’ or foreign cultures contributed to the rather worrying attitudes spelt out in this section. Matenge was conscious of the need for proper behaviour that would reflect positively on the country in the eyes of the observant international visitors. He was particularly concerned about appropriate response of Batswana to the singing of the national anthem.

In numerous other communications Matenge stressed that the presence of international visitors in Botswana meant that the image of the country was at stake. Writing to the permanent secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Education he requested him to issue a directive to all schools and educational institutions in Botswana. The import of the directive was that professors, lecturers, teachers, students and pupils were requested to practise and perfect the singing of the national anthem. He further noted that ‘It has been observed in the past that the singing of the Anthem was in the main slipshod. Added to this school children and many adults appeared not to have a clue of the meaning of the Anthem. It was [not] accorded the respect and reverence it demands of us. During the singing of the Anthem some people engage in conversations or walk away. Our children, future leaders of Botswana, be taught now to respect and revere the Botswana National Anthem’. Copies of the anthem were given to schools, churches and non-governmental organisations.

Another embarrassing attitude that worried the TACU officials was a demand by traditional dance troupes from the rural areas that they be paid. For instance, at a meeting of the Cultural sub-committee a representative from the Botswana Cultural Society reported ‘that in her recent tour of the country, the troupes she talked to told her that they were no longer prepared to come and perform free of charge. They would only come to Gaborone, provided they were going to be paid for their services’. However, ‘the meeting was opposed to this attitude, and suggested that the troupes should be made to feel proud that they were being asked to take part in an active endeavour to preserve their own cultural heritage, and should be persuaded to come and participate in the competitive events to be held in Gaborone on Independence, as they had done the previous year’.

During one TACU meeting in which Minister Mogwe was present, he stated that the Botswana culture and not foreign culture should be on display during the celebrations. As far as he was concerned it was inappropriate that on such occasions the country’s bands should be playing foreign music of the likes of Hallelujah Chorus or Beethoven at a state party. He advised that quintessential traditional Botswana music should be made available to the police band to practice and play.

Matenge took the task of instilling pride in Batswana further by declaring that ‘Community Development Officers are expected to ensure that cultural activities presented by various clubs, committees, [and] voluntary organisations are given the prominence second to none, during the coming celebrations. The 18th century concept whereby Botswana culture was relegated to the background as being primitive, pagan, unchristian, should be thrown overboard’. Matenge also stressed that the dancers and other performers must be well-groomed and avoid being overzealous in an embarrassing way. In a communication between Matenge and Ephraim Setshwaelo, chief information officer, on accreditation of foreign journalists who intended applying to cover the 10th anniversary celebrations, Setshwaelo expressed rather worrying developments about the attitude of Batswana telephone operators.

Whereas Setshwaelo seemed to distance himself from the attitude of the telephone operators, Lebang Mpotokwane at the Office of the President was quite scathing about it and seemed to speak from experience.

‘The question of an efficient telephone system is a very important one –but, unfortunately, also a worrying one. Anyone who has ever had occasion to make a call through any exchange in Botswana knows exactly how exasperating this can be. Our telephone operators are not known for courtesy, and this is most unfortunate, especially when they become discourteous to visitors to this country’.

He further stated that ‘The Department of Posts and Telecommunications cannot, of course, be expected to change the attitude of their telephone operators within one year. But it is to be hoped that they will at least try to achieve some improvement by September next year. We shall probably have amongst us next year more foreign dignitaries and journalists than we ever had in our entire history. And it is precisely because of this that we cannot afford, at that time, the sort of behaviour that we have come to associate with our telephone operators. I hope that the importance of maintaining a good image during next year’s celebrations will be impressed upon them’.

Another embarrassing attitude that was beginning to take root in Botswana involved some football players who did not regard playing for the national football team, then called Botswana or National XI, as national duty or service by refusing to play. ‘It was felt that those who are selected should be gazetted as National players and, if they refused to play, action should be taken.

The Chairman [Matenge] stated that, in fact, players in the National XI would benefit more than anybody. They would be paid during their training and, of course, they would improve their standard of performance’. Indiscipline was also said to be rife amongst national team players. For instance, Setshwaelo lamented  ‘that whereas we do not want to have a Spartan type of attitude to footballers, yet in the case of defaulters, system measures should be taken. It was explained that a law was passed with regulations and rules built into it for the purpose of disciplining players who could cause embarrassment on the occasion such as this’.

He also cited an example of a case in Swaziland where a Botswana player declared that he could not play because he had not been well fed or had not eaten his favourite diet! Regarding diet, there was concern that Batswana had developed a deplorable habit of fighting and pushing each other about on the occasion of ox roasting! It was advised that they should be encouraged to take their time in getting their share and enjoy it without engaging in rather unsavoury conduct. Perhaps, it should be noted that eating meat was a rare treat because meat was hardly ever enough among Batswana despite being renowned cattle keepers.

This may explain the rather embarrassing attitude mentioned above. Again this development may have influenced the member of parliament for Shoshong, Goareng Mosinyi, who during Matenge’s address to the All-Party Caucus in December 1975 suggested that hunting licences be issued to the celebrations committees throughout the country during the period of the celebrations to kill wild animals in order to obtain enough meat for the people. Despite the challenges outlined above the communities across the country, President Seretse Khama and his Cabinet were highly impressed by TACU’s performance under the leadership of Matenge. The president bestowed on him the Presidential Order of Meritorious Service for the sterling work. In 1977, Seretse Khama promoted Matenge to the position of permanent secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs. Matenge retired from the civil service in 1981 and the groundwork he laid was used as a template by the Twentieth Anniversary of Independence Coordinating Committee (TAICU) for the 1986, and subsequent committees for 1996, 2006 and 2016 celebrations.

*This is a published article by Professors  John Christian Makgala and Maitseo Bolaane in Botswana Notes and Records journal Volume 48 (2016) which was a special issue on BOT50. It is a shortened version of the said article in the Botswana Notes and Records

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