31 August 2006

Botswana: Mogae Burns Heritage?

President Festus Mogae may have burned a wealth of cultural and historical heritage when he set alight more than 3,000 guns to mark the 122nd anniversary of the Botswana Police Service. Cultural activists have expressed fears that among the ammunition which went up in flames may have been a collection of antique guns and muskets from as far back as the late 1800s.

Every year the police torches illicit firearms got from armed robbers, court judgements, raids or voluntary submissions. "A majority of the guns we get from these collection exercises are old and largely obsolete. They could be very old guns indeed," explains Chris Mbulawa of the police service. He could not rule out the possibility that some of them could be useful historical artefacts.

Meanwhile, the Director of National Museum and Art Gallery, Soso Lebekwe-Mweendo, under whose jurisdiction monuments fall, explains that they do have a mechanism in place to access any valuable material from the police collections. "Every year we make sure that we check that collection to see if there is anything useful that we can find," she explains.

However, a reliable source who was at the gun-torching event this year said he saw some ammunition that definitely had historical significance. Some of the material were as old as the early 1900s. Lebekwe-Mweendo maintains that not every gun from a historical period is defined as worthy of preservation. "We only preserve and protect material from earlier than 1904 because we believe that we have enough access to materials from the later dates. It is possible that there were old guns there but I would doubt if there were any older than 1904 because the police are aware exactly which materials we need. They would never burn such guns," she says. Mbulawa says they do liase with the Museum people occasionally. "They come to us and tell us what they need. I am not aware this happened in this case," he says. Lebekwe-Mweendo concedes that it is possible that 'an oversight' may have occurred when her department did not work with the police this time around. However,she reiterated tha t they have various antique guns and muskets from as early as the first time they were introduced to Botswana because they have other avenues through which they collect such artefacts.

Meanwhile University of Botswana historian professor Neil Parsons says in order for heritage to be protected, there needs to be initiatives that are functional and effective in collecting and preserving valuable artefacts. He explains that it is through these artefacts that historical events could be explained to future generations. "For example, as far as Botswana is concerned, it is very necessary that we keep, for the future, good samples of the weapons which have so radically wiped out the wildlife and changed the country into a cattle ranch over the past century and a half," he says.

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