Botswana mourns its anti-apartheid hero
Gaborone – A sombre mood descended across most parts of Botswana this past week, following the death of the country’s anti-apartheid hero and political veteran, Motsamai Mpho.
A former treason trialist and veteran of resistance politics, Mpho died at the age of 91 at Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone on November 28.
In 1956, Mpho was among the first group of 67 treason trial detainees discharged together with Chief Albert Lithuli, according to available records.
Prior to his death, the South African government recently awarded him the Order of Companion of OR Tambo, an accolade bestowed on those who had contributed to the fight against apartheid.
Reports indicate that Mpho’s health deteriorated on October 17 when he was rushed to Maun Primary Hospital. Four days later, he was transferred to Princess Marina Hospital where he underwent an appendix operation.
A statement issued by the government describes the late Motsamai Mpho as a good man who has left behind great legacy.
He was a generous, principled and dedicated servant of the society, as reflected in his selfless commitment to community service as well as his seven decades principled political activism.
“An opponent of all forms of oppression, Motsamai Mpho will be remembered not only as a founding figure of Botswana’s modern democracy but also for his contributions to regional liberation, as a leading member of the ANC during the 1950s,” reads the statement.
A restless spirit, in his ninth decade Motsamai Mpho was as politically engaged as the young man who, back in the 1940s, made it against the odds to Tiger Kloof, while standing up for the dignity of his home community, the Wayeyi in Botswana.
Mpho was the founder of the Botswana People’s Party (BPP), which emerged in 1961 as the country’s first mass-based political movement. He was also a key participant in 1963 Constitutional Conference at Lobatse, where the foundations of Botswana’s Republic were negotiated on the basis of one person one vote self-rule.
Born in Maun, after graduation from Tiger Kloof in 1948, he worked as a church sponsored welfare officer at Crown Mine on the West Rand. There he also became active in the ANC during the defiance campaign, emerging in 1953 as the leader of the movement’s Roodeport branch.
In 1956, his activism resulted in him becoming one of the four sons of Botswana among the 155 charged in the famous treason trial.
Commenting on Mpho’s death, the opposition Botswana Congress Party’s Publicity Secretary, Taolo Lucas, said; “the entire BCP, which Mpho joined when his party, Botswana Alliance Movement joined it as a group member, was deeply saddened by the loss”.
“He was a true veteran of Botswana politics. His contribution to politics was so immense and I just hope that the people of this country appreciate that. He was an inspiration to many of us. He was always willing to share his experiences which were very motivating to many of our cadres.”
He further added that at the advanced age of 91, Mpho would be the first to attend political meetings and always willing to give advice about what was best for the organisation.
“He didn’t live for himself but other people. He wanted other people to live well, the down trodden. He always wanted to see a society where all lived well. He simplified notions of human rights and social justice. He was the first to point to incidence of social justice. He was a rare breed,” said Lucas.
Mpho founded the very first political party in the country, the then Bechuanaland People’s Party before the 1966 Independence. He later left it due to internal strife to form another party, Botswana Independence Party (BIP).
Mpho is also credited with coining the word “Botswana” as he was the first to use it to name a political party and one of the founding fathers of the nation, according to historian, Dr Jeff Ramsay.
Described as a courageous politician, Mpho once attempted to liberate former South African President Thabo Mbeki and a college Fish Keitseng from the oppressive apartheid government when they travelled from Rhodesia to South Africa via Botswana in 1962.
“Motsamai organised people in Palapye to stop the train and liberated Mbeki and Fish. This goes to show courage and how much he was willing to fight against oppressing,” Dr Ramsay is quoted as saying.
According to political commentator and former Robben Island detainee, Michael Dingake, Mpho joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952 during the defiance campaign against unjust apartheid laws.
Dingake says among the laws targeted were the notorious pass laws with their corollary of imposition of permanent curfews on bearers, making it an offence to be in the CBDs of towns after 23:00; segregated train coaches for blacks and whites; separate public transportation; separate public amenities for whites and blacks and other apartheid laws, which volunteers deliberately broke to court arrest and imprisonment.
“Mpho was the livewire of the campaign in the East Rand and was in and out of police stations and prisons while the campaign lasted.
“The defiance campaign was officially called off by the ANC when the apartheid state, frightened out of its wits, introduced draconian legislation to curb the rising momentum of the struggle,” he says.
Dingake recalls that the campaign was called off in 1953. By the time it was called off, the ANC had grown exponentially and was flexing its muscles fearlessly; Mpho was part of the unstoppable momentum generated by the campaign, playing his full part in Randfontein.
“When the apartheid government introduced the Bantu education system, the ANC responded with a boycott campaign with Mpho throwing his weight behind the campaign as usual. When the ANC conjured up a more inspirational programme of precisely what the demands of the discriminated blacks were, a programme that culminated in the Freedom Charter document, Motsamai was in the mix,” says Dingake.
Like Mpho, Dingake recalls, many Batswana worked and lived in the Union of SA, the only source of employment then; many Batswana working in the Union of South Africa did not fathom the grand strategy envisaged by the apartheid state and often upbraided Mpho and other Batswana who joined the ANC.