A National Myth Busted:The True Story Behind Botswana's "Independence Day" Celebrations

Today, Batswana will be celebrating the country's 54 years of independence from British colonial rule. September 30th, popularly known as "Boipuso", is a much-heralded day in Botswana's calendar, perhaps only eclipsed by Christmas Day in terms of most anticipated holidays.

The day is marked by a wide range of patriotic displays by all facets of the country's populace, acting as a unifying ideology in the country. The day is a representation of how the abandoning of ethnic and localized entities for a more uniform and unified concept of "Batswana" through inter-ethnic collaboration and consensus has done wonders for the country's democratic standing, so goes the narrative.

Despite the popularity of the day, the true story of how September 30th got to be considered as Botswana's "Independence Day" is less known. The history of the day is extensive, stretching to almost 70 years before the country ceased being a British Protectorate and became a republic in 1966.

To fully expound on the history and meaning of the day September 30th in Botswana, it is best to separately look at SIX key time periods which helped perpetuate the myth of the day as Botswana's independence day.

PART 1(1885): THE SUPPOSED REQUEST FOR BRITISH PROTECTION

The popular and widely accepted narrative in the country as noted in history books and school curriculums is that in 1885, Batswana, through their chiefs(Dikgosi), asked the British to take over its territories to protect them from the aggressions of the Boers of the then Transvaal Republic. This is simply untrue.

1885 was the year of the infamous "Scramble for Africa" when European powers, at the Berlin Conference, decided to invade, occupy and divide the African continent among themselves. Germany had already laid claim to neighboring Namibia in 1884 and when British intelligence pointed out that the Germans intended to expand and take over lands east of Namibia, they decided to take action. This action comprised of declaring a protectorate over the section of the Kalahari desert south of the 22nd parallel up to Shoshong to serve as a buffer against German ambitions.


Map of Southern Africa in 1885, showing the newly setup
Bechanaland Protectorate

On 27 January 1885 in Berlin, the British declared their new Protectorate and in the process, sent over 5000 troops to the territory to make the declaration a reality. The troops were led by one General Charles Warren while John Mackenzie, an illustrious London Missionary Society preacher who now has a private school named after him in Francistown, was also sent out with Warren and his men, his role being to lead negotiations with Tswana chiefs who were unknowingly now under the rule of the British Crown.

Warren and Mackenzie wanted the occupation of the new British Protectorate to be as smooth as possible with minimal to no use of military force i.e. "submission without bloodshed" as they put it. To achieve this, the myth that the British were there to offer Batswana protection against Transvaal Republic aggressions was started. Warren, using some of his men who were moonlighting as newspaper respondents in South Africa, started the propaganda that the British came to Bechuanaland at the request of Tswana chiefs.

The truth is that there had been no aggression between the Transvaal Republic and Tswana chiefs since the Boer-Tswana War at Dimawe  in 1852-3. The war had resulted in a permanent border being set between the two and cordial relations established between the Transvaal Boers and their Tswana neighbors north of the Molopo River. When Tswana chiefs got word of the new Protectorate and reasons for having it, they were also surprised by this supposed need for "protection".

By May of 1885, three months after the declaration of the Protectorate at the Berlin Conference, Warren and Mackenzie had successfully managed to sway and cajole three Batswana chiefs, being Khama III of Bangwato, Bathoen I of Bangwaketse, and Sechele I of the Bakwena into signing treaties with the British Crown. Because the British wanted to confine themselves only in preventing the Protectorate from being occupied by the Germans, no exact laws or binding agreements were made regarding the administration of the Protectorate. 

On September 30th 1885, having made the chiefs sign treaties, the British officially split the Batswana into two, the ones south of the Molopo River being put under the control of the Cape Colony while the Bechuanaland Protectorate comprised of the lands of the Bangwato, Bakwena, Bangwaketse and other chiefdoms up north. 

PART 2(1895): THE SUPPOSED APPROVAL OF THE PROTECTION REQUEST BY QUEEN VICTORIA

Popular folklore states that the three Dikgosi being Khama III,Bathoen I, and Sechele I went to England to protest against the transfer of the Protectorate administration into the hands of the British South Africa(BSAC) owned by Cecil Rhodes, there which they got the protection order from Queen Victoria herself. Again, this is simply untrue.

After the initial annexation of Batswana land into a British Protectorate in 1885 by the Gladstone government, administrations after it did not have much use or care for the Protectorate, describing it as "a make-shift intended to fill the gap between barbarism and direct annexation of the British Empire" by the Germans. A minimal administration was set up until the BSAC, having got their Charter from the British Crown in 1890, insisted on being given the Protectorate as per the terms of the Charter.

Rhodes had his own plans for the Protectorate which included using it as a staging ground for the conquest of a more valuable Zimbabwe as well as building his ambitious Cape-to-Cairo railway line. Rhodes, together with the corrupted Resident Commissioner Sidney Shippard, planned to alienate the natives by reserving 90% of land to white settlers and leaving only tiny reserves for the latter. Tswana chiefs tried hard to stifle the Rhodes threat by, among other things, giving concessions to other British capitalists competing with Rhodes. Seeing the futility of their efforts and the impending rule by the BSAC and Rhodes, the chiefs had but one more option left, appealing to public opinion in the United Kingdom.

Traveling to England at the invite of the London Missionary Society, the three Dikgosi put their efforts behind convincing the British public to pressure their representatives to block the transfer of the Protectorate to Rhodes. The mission turned out to be largely successful for several reasons, including the fact that Khama III had banned alcohol and declared his territory a Christian state, bolstering support of the Christian populace. The fact that Khama had also assisted Rhodes in the conquest of Matebeleland also earned him support from the pro-imperialist British public who viewed him as an ally in the quest for British Empire expansion.

So successful was the Dikgosi's sojourn to England that the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, agreed to make concessions to the chiefs regarding the integrity of their territories, averting massive land loss to the British South Africa Company. The Dikgosi then went to Windsor Castle for an audience with Queen Victoria. The official purpose of their visit was cited as "...to express their feelings of loyalty and the desire to remain under her Majesty's rule", to which the Queen made a "gracious reply".

Two important factors are important to note about the Dikgosi's trip to England. Firstly, their main mandate was to sway the UK public opinion and not necessarily to meet the Queen. Secondly, finding themselves in the audience of the Queen, they decided to perpetuate the myth that they had in 1885 asked for "protection" from the British Crown, a move which was necessary to convince the Crown to not hand over the Protectorate to the BSAC.

Following their rather brief and insignificant meeting as was customary when the Queen met representatives of colonies, the parties exchanged gifts which included leopard skins for the Queen and bibles, a portrait of herself, and Indian shawls for the chiefs and their wives back home. No promise of protection was made to the chiefs, contrary to the widely held belief, and the Dikgosi when clear about this in their addresses to the people after the visit to England.

The probable reason why it is thought that the Queen had given protection is probably that two weeks after the Dikgosi's return from England, an incident happened in the Transvaal Republic that saved the country from the grasp of Rhodes and the BSAC. Rhodes had attempted a coup in the Transvaal Republic by way of the Jameson Raid, a mission that utterly failed and lost him favor and influence with the British government which halted their planned move to hand over the Bechuanaland Protectorate to him.

PART 3(from 1902):THE MYTH AS PROTECTION AGAINST THE UNIFICATION THREAT

Following the loss of the Boer Republics in the Second Boer War, Bechuanaland faced another threat—unification into the new South African Union. The victors in the war, the British, wanted to amalgamate both the defeated Boer Republics being the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, Natal, Basotholand(Lesotho), Swaziland, Cape Colony, and Bechuanaland. Batswana chiefs were against this unification for several reasons.

Firstly, the British had during the war treated their African allies terribly, going to the extent of denying them the right to vote after the war. The British had also introduced racial segregation and gave the defeated Boers their land back, allowing them to deny blacks land ownership from 1913. Batswana chiefs did not want to be a part of all this, hence their opposition to the Protectorate being part of the South African Union.

In an effort to oppose the passing of the South Africa Act of 1910 which aimed to make the unification a reality, Batswana Dikgosi got involved in the Coloured and Native Peoples' Delegation coalition which sent numerous delegates to England in 1909 to try to sway the British public opinion against it. Most of the delegates were not successful except for one Joseph Gerrans.

Gerrans had been sent by Bathoen I to represent him as the Dikgosi did not travel to England themselves this time around, unlike in 1895. Gerrans wrote a long letter in The Times, outlining how the incorporation of Bechuanaland into the Union would be a betrayal by the British of the "protection" from foreign powers they had offered Bechuanaland in 1885. To further drive the story, Gerrans included in the letter how the Queen had given the Dikgosi rings to signify the Crown's never-ending bond with the Protectorate. This story was totally made up because, in 1895, the Queen had given Dikgosi bibles, portraits, shawls, and definitely no rings.

The move worked and as a result of Gerrans' efforts, ordinary British citizens lobbied their MPs to oppose any move to incorporate Bechuanaland into the Union, leading to the matter being put off. Hence the myth saved Bechuanaland from becoming a part of the South African Union, saving the country from the evils which came from that Union like apartheid.

PART 4(1930s): THE THREAT OF INCORPORATION LINGERS ON

Until the waning of colonialism in the 1960s, Bechuanaland lived under constant threat of incorporation into the South Africa Union even after the victory against it by way of Gerrans' letters in 1910. The Union kept on insisting on the annexation of Bechuanaland into South Africa, coming close to achieving this on several occasions. But using the myth to get the British Crown to not consider giving up the Protectorate, Batswana we able to repeatedly escape annexation.

The closest the Union came in achieving annexation was in the 1930s when post the Great Depression, the British Crown did not have enough funds to sustain the Protectorate. The Union, enjoying the riches from the gold rush of the 1930s, offered to take the responsibilities of the Protectorate from the Crown. Tshekedi Khama, the youngest son of Khama III, knowing of the myth and its impact, relayed it to the visiting Prince George in 1934, asking him to keep the Protectorate under British "protection" as per the "promise" by Queen Victoria to his father and the other two Dikgosi in 1895. The myth again succeeded in keeping unification at bay until the Second World War came around which completely halted the issue for several years.

Post the war, the Nationalist Party of South Africa continued the pursuit of unification, backed by the white settler farmers in the Protectorate. Again, the myth proved to be a useful tool in keeping Bechuanaland a separate entity. During a visit by the royal family to the Protectorate in 1947, Bathoen II, grandson of Bathoen who had gone to England in 1895, made an address in full Royal Guard regalia which he stated had been given to his grandfather by Queen Victoria in 1885. The truth is that the regalia had been bought by Khama III from a theatrical company during the 1895 trip. Nevertheless, the royal family, oblivious to the fallacy, saw this as evidence of the tight bond between the Crown and the Protectorate, ensuring the failure of the unification agenda.

PART 5(1950s and 1960s):THE MYTH POST THE INCORPORATION THREAT

From the 1950s onwards, decolonization took center stage in the British African colonies which lead to the death of the incorporation threat. The myth, however, did not die but instead assumed a new role. The British, needing to keep friendly relations with their former subjects and cajole them into becoming part of the Commonwealth, perpetuated the myth to remind Batswana of how friendly they had been to them during their times of need for "protection" in the late 1800s.

Nationalists in the country also used the myth to garner support for the idea of a unified Botswana. They used the myth to show how consensus between ethnic groups of the soon to be a republic could literally save the country, citing the "protection" request fallacy as an example. It became clear that perpetuation of the myth served the interests of both the soon-to-be-former colonizers and the natives so it got ingrained into the national consciousness.

PART 6(1966 to today): INDEPENDENCE DAY CELEBRATIONS CONTINUE THE MYTH

In 1957, as a bid to further decolonize the Protectotare, Bathoen II and war veteran Molwa Sekgoma insisted on the replacement of holidays like Whit Day with those which will celebrate native heroes. Continuing the myth, he suggested that the three Dikgosi who had gone to England in 1895 to seek "protection" should be celebrated instead.

The Protectorate administration agreed and the Resident Commissioner sanctioned a new holiday called "Bechuanaland Protectorate Day" or "B.P. Day" as it was popularly known then. Instead of the day being celebrated on 27th January to commemorate the day in 1885 when the Protectorate was declared over Bechuanaland, the holiday was to be celebrated on the 30th of September, in commemoration of the day in 1885 when the British government split Batswana north and south of Molopo River into two separate colonies. To provide context, Batswana commemorating September 30th is like the Germans commemorating the day their country got split into West and East Germany after World War II.

Even post-independence, every year, September 30th continued being commemorated in the new republic, now referred to as "Independence Day". So in essence, when Batswana commemorate "Boipuso" day every year on September 30th, they are as a matter of fact commemorating the day in 1885 when they were forever separated from their relatives south of the Molopo  River by British imperialists and not the day they attained independence.

PS: A considerable amount of credit for this article goes to Jeff Ramsay and Barry Morton for their work on the paper titled "The Invention and Perpetuation of Botswana's National Mythology, 1885-1966"

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