A throwback to Sodoma, WENELA, Bechuanaland Peoples Party and a racist Francistown

For almost a month now, I’ve been mulling over this interview. For some reason (laziness!) I always shoved it aside at the last minute, to the utter annoyance of my colleague and Productions Manager, Oteng Thotologolo who was convinced the silver-haired elder would have an interesting story to share.

Not for the first time, Thotologolo was proved correct! I finally got my act together on Wednesday morning and was directed to 84-year-old Modisaotsile Mothibi’s house in Bluetown.

The old man was not home and I was redirected by his grandchild to Supa Ngwao Museum, where I’m told he spends much of his time.he elusive Mothibi was not at the museum either.

Luckily his grandchild had given me his mobile number. A teenage-like voice answered, eventually directing me to Eleven Apostle Healing Spirit Church in Somerset Extension where I later learnt Mothibi is the Bishop.

I find him with two of his church mates under a tree in front of a freshly painted temple.

Born in Mafungu (Marobela) in 1935, Mothibi schooled in Sebina and upon completion of his Standard Six he went to teach at Nswazi Primary School.

“I taught for some time in Nswazwi, but later quit to join the Bechuanaland Protectorate Police in 1959,” he said.

His police career however lasted just three years. “I quit and joined the Bechuanaland Peoples Party in 1962. I was lured to this party because of its pan Africanism politics. I didn’t believe in the colonial rule and BPP talked about the emancipation of black people,” explained Mothibi.

The old man’s political activism also proved to be short lived, coming to an end in 1965.

“I never stood for political office. I was however the BPP Branch Secretary in 1962 when Joshua Nkomo, leader and founder of Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) visited us in Francistown. It was after Motsamai Mpho was expelled from the party and Nkomo wanted to know why he was expelled. His last words to us was that without Mpho, BPP would never win anything,” recalled Mothibi.

History would prove Nkomo’s warning unerringly accurate.

“The infighting between Kgalemang Motsete, Phillip Matante and Mpho destroyed what was going to be a wonderful party,” Mothibi added somberly.

A respected elder in Francistown, Mothibi first set foot in the city in 1947.

He remembers the small city of gold as one of the most racist places in Botswana.

“Back then there were only two areas where you could find black people. It was in Monarch and Sodoma (Area W). White people lived on the other side of the railway line.” Despite the divided community and discrimination, Mothibi says not all the pale faces were hostile.

“I remember there was a generous white man at Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WENELA) who used to provide food, coffins and transport for all bereaved families in Sodoma. The many deaths in the area forced WENELA to construct a mortuary at Jubilee Clinic.”

In 1959, Mohibi witnessed the relocation of most Sodoma residents to the present day Kgaphamadi, a move they were told was necessary to pave way for developments.

“Remember at the time black people were only allowed to drink traditional brew, canned beer was a preserve for white people. There was a time they were not even allowed to brew their own beer!” he said.

Mothibi told The Voice that after the relocation to Kgaphamadi, Tati Company built a huge beer hall in Sodoma where they brewed traditional beer and sold to the locals.

“Coloured people were however exempted from this discrimination. The blacks and Indians were not allowed to own any businesses on the eastern side of the city, they were only limited to the western side of the railway line,” Mothibi said, with a little shake of the head.

He believes the impact of segregation in Francistown can be felt today.

‘Up to this day, people look down upon each other, where people are treated better or worse depending on who they are and what they do for a living.

“It is something that was engraved into us at a very young. For example, we had people who worked as sewage collectors (sanitation workers), because at the time there were no water system toilets nor pit latrines. White people used buckets and these workers had to empty these buckets every morning!” With a sardonic smile, Mothibi said because of the nature of the sanitation workers’ employment, they were shunned by both the white and black communities.

“They were not allowed to mix with other people. So they set up camp at what is today known as Somerset. People in Somerset were the only ones allowed to brew their own traditional beer, since they were not allowed inside the Tati Company Beer Hall.”

Mothibi is also proud he was amongst the individuals engaged to conduct the first population census in 1964, which was used to determine the delimitation process.

“We counted 500, 000 people and 31 constituencies were created for the country’s first ever General Elections on 1st March 1965. I voted in Sebina to bring the colonial rule to its end,” he added rather nonchalantly.

After ushering in the new government, Mothibi is really interested in talking about life in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

In 1997 he co-founded Mukani Action campaign’s Society of Writers, whose sole aim was to grow Ikalanga literature.

“We wanted to write Ikalanga books and this eventually helped us to translate the bible to Ikalanga, which I was tasked with reviewing,” he said.

It was in 2000 that they formed the Domboshaba of History to bring together the Ikalanga tribe.

Some of the books authored by Mothibi include ‘Mwali Tahawudze Bakalanga’ (1997), ‘Gumbo Mtjotjotjo’, ‘Kwaedza Moyolefu’ and ‘Meila e Bakalanga’.

Today the old man spends much of his time in church where he is also a marriage officer.

Is he interested in today’s politics?

The answer is a resounding no.

“My interest in politics was to end the colonial rule and I did that with my vote in 1965. I still vote but I’m not active,” he said, the familiar sardonic smile momentarily lighting up his dark features.

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