Botswana Recognises WWII Veterans

Khonani Ontebetse

Gaborone, Botswana - Dec 2007

  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab

At least 10,000 Botswana men served in the Second World War (WW II) and since then Batswana have remained committed to the preservation and promotion of peace. In 1941, faced with the need for more manpower for their war efforts, the British turned to various places in Africa, including Bechuanaland Protectorate (present day Botswana) and began to recruit personnel into the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (AAPC). The name of the corps was later changed to African Pioneer Corps.

The AAPC proved its worth by building roads and fortifications against potential Nazi invasion and in guarding camps. The more senior members were engaged by other sections of the British Army and some were subsequently attached to the United States Army. The men were engaged on a quasi voluntary basis as they were not paid.

They also served as heavy artillery gunners, specialist bridge-builders, camouflage smoke machine operators, drivers, mechanics and front-line supply store shifters.

In 1947, a few years after the end of the war there was one final flourish of the old wartime partnership between the British crown and the people of Bechuanaland. King George VI of Britain came visiting with his family to thank the people and especially the soldiers for their wartime service. Since then there has been virtually nothing to acknowledge the soldiers’ contribution. Almost 52 years after the end of the war, the Botswana Government has at last recognized the role played by the war veterans through the establishment of a pension fund.

The Minister of Local Government, Margaret Nasha revealed that government is working on policies to address the challenges facing elderly people, especially the WW IIveterans who played an important role in shaping the harmony and peace that prevails in Botswana. In addition to the old age and veterans pensions being issued, plans are also underway to set up homes for the veterans. The minister said “the lesson learned by Batswana during the Second World War is that since war is man-made, man can choose not to go to war.”

When asked why they went to war some of the veterans interviewed said ‘Hitlara’ (Hitler) or ‘Mageremane’ (Germans) were to blame. Some said they heard rumours about war before the recruitment drive started. In other villages, especially those on the outskirts of Gaborone, veterans said they only heard about the war when they were visited by tribal regiments and the British authorities who came to their villages in 1941.

One of the veterans, Gaorengwe Montsho (94) revealed that in the past they used to be sidelined by the government and that there were no welfare programmes that catered for their needs. He appreciates the Government’s pensions pegged at P191 and P300 respectively in recognition of the role rendered by veterans during the war. He added that they went to war on the instructions of their chiefs and to protect their land from Adolph Hitler’s invasion. “At first we did not know anything about the beginning or progress of the war and received very little news from our chiefs,” he says.

According to Tlagae Mosamo (91) from Kanye village, about 75 kilometers from the Capital, the pension and housing scheme was a positive and welcome development because during the war they were not paid. He says other public services such as health care should be set-up for them. “People from my area were recruited by regiments from other tribes like the Bakwena, which is one of the major tribes in Botswana. The recruitment was done through the chiefs”, he recalls.

“We were hired as cooks, to carry ammunition etc, it was an opportunity to see different things. We even saw the sheets that were said to have wrapped Jesus before he rose to heaven in Jerusalem. The sheets appeared as new as if he woke up from there yesterday”.

“In 1942 I became part of Britain’s reserve labour force, it had been depleted due to the demands of war against Hitler, however not all of my peers were willing to join, resistance was evident right across the territory”, he further recalls. “I remember an incident in which one man went to hide in a hut where a woman who had just given birth was resting with her newborn baby. The woman understood the situation and did not alert others about this strange incident”. According to Setswana culture and tradition, a man should not go near a hut where a newborn baby is present.

The war impacted on women in many different ways, for instance they were forced to perform tasks previously usually undertaken by men. Ninety-five year old Motsumi recalls “we were nearly struck by hunger because our men were not there to cultivate the fields; we went through a difficult time but we survived by learning to plough, plant and harvest. The fear their husbands or relatives would die or suffer injury so far away from home dominated their thoughts”.

“The abhorrent nature of war was the best lessen learnt from the whole experience. Since then our country has never shed blood, even the transition to independence was peaceful”, she said.