Botswana: When the Feud Goes to Botswana's Heritage Sites

It is more than a battle but a festering war with, as yet, many a skirmish. However, cultural heritage property managers were not concerned until a fortnight ago when the skirmishes suddenly reeled into the realm of heritage sites. Our wishful storm in the tea cup has previously reached many fronts from the use of flying machines to wildlife management, the plastic debate as well as the etiquette and politics of not keeping time.

Over Christmas the storm caused a windfall for children and the needy as social media displayed possible contestations in benevolence. The storm rumbled into Cabinet reshuffles, senior government disappointments and appointments as well as some parastatal re-alignments.

This week the tempest spilled beyond our shores and into the Indian Ocean as former President Ian Khama tenaciously pursued a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Then it rumbled back into the Atlantic as a near-diplomatic row when Namibian President and SADC chair, President Geingob denied implications made by Khama that their February conversation was about possible mediation. The South African City Press called it bickering while the local media refer to it as a feud. A now famous school teacher from Palapye who questioned the sincerity in the reformations of President Masisi - granted the latter's initial affinity with his nemesis, General Khama, described it in local parlance as 'go betsana ka noga e utlwa' (literally, whipping each other with a live snake!). After initial denial and caution, President Masisi confessed in the hallowed space of Parliament, the facade of which is a protected National Monument, that the presidential transition had not been smooth.

So then, two weeks ago the sitting President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the former President Khama commemorated the Fallen Heroes at two heritage sites in Gaborone. Journalists across different media houses attributed the different homages to the ongoing reported feud between the two. The controversy arose especially after Khama, himself a former soldier and commander of the army, expressed disappointment at what he described as snubbing by his successor.

The official commemoration, crowned with military drills and trumpeting was held at the Three Dikgosi Monument in the CBD and had all the serenity and protocols in the dignitaries attending as President Masisi laid the wreath. It is here; at the Three Dikgosi Monument that Botswana celebrates the triune of Sebele I, Bathoen I and Khama III whose 1895 visit trumped support for anti-incorporation of Bechuanaland into either Rhodesia or South Africa. Phase 1 of the Three Dikgosi bronze statues is as such the nation's Heroes Acre and a fitting space to celebrate the fallen Heroes.

In retaliation, or at insistent desire to express homage, Khama chose a different spot, the Extension 14 Cemeteries to lay his commemorative wreath. In contrast with the Three Dikgosi Monument, the Extension 14 Cemetery is one of the filthiest of our Gaborone burial sites. It is often littered and has derelict ablutions. Moreover, safe for the Gaborone City Council (GCC) crosses, a greater majority of the 2000 or so burials are unlabeled as, it seems, the living have moved on forgetting their dead. However, Gaborone Extension 14 site occupies the most authentic and highly sacred of any of our war memorial spaces. It is not yet declared a National Monument and is overdue for declaration. It hosts not only the remains of the 15 victims of the 1978 Smith regime's Lesoma Massacre but also the burials and repatriated burial spots of the 1985 and 1988 Apartheid South Africa's Bombings in Gaborone. As the main Gaborone burial site until two decades ago, Extension 14 cemetery is its self a symbolic chronicle of Botswana history including the tomb of former diplomat DR. Z.K. Mathews and liberation icon Fish Keitseng, among others.

Botswana Heritage managers can no longer play dump when heritage sites feature in internal strives of any magnitude. This is because there is already evidence that heritage sites are no longer exempt from properties that deserve intelligence and security monitoring. This became evident during the 2011 'mother of all strikes' when persons suspected to be civil servants vented their frustrations by burning down the 'Mophane wa ga Seretse' tree located between Sebina and Tutume. The tree was a local memorial marker where Seretse Khama, the founding President, is known to have habitually taken rests during his visits to the area. This classical venting on and destroying a heritage site coincidentally happened during General Khama's reign as President. Khama was viewed in the most negative of regards by the industrial action leadership who felt slighted by him and later declared support for the opposition during the 2014 general elections.

Heritage managers have to investigate and classify the magnitude of the threat to the sites under question. For instance, on a scale of 1-7, with seven as the highest risk, an analysis would probably show that the Three Dikgosi Monument and the Extension 14 Cemetery are at the 1.5 lowest risk bracket. A detailed report would have to illustrate that the recent use of the two heritage sites by the two leaders does not constitute a direct threat to the heritage sites themselves. The risk would be seen to have potential to grow only if there would be escalating heritage-based rivaling over time creating the beginning of a claim to, and association of rivals with, specific heritage sites especially where such use would trickle to their followers. The risk assessment would also identify the party most likely to cause damage, otherwise called the attention seeking or tantrum source. Fortunately in the case at hand, former President Khama does not have the monopoly of claim to the Extension 14 Cemetery and neither does he have a clearly defined militant group or crazy followers that could pose a threat to the rival site of three chiefs. The risk also retains the low bracket range because Khama is personally conflicted to cherish the Three Dikgosi as his great grandfather is venerated here. This is more like the situation of the Rhodesian Civil War where guerillas up the mountain hideouts posed a risk to the stone walled heritage sites there. However, because they knew it was their own heritage, they treaded carefully and even sought for spiritual powers from the same.

Heritage sites the world over present a possibility for contestation from either claims, interpretation or representation. A couple of years ago memorial statues of people perceived to be apartheid and colonial icons became objects for venting anger during the 'fees must fall' outrage in South Africa. The duty of the general public together with heritage managers, curators and especially guides would be to gather intelligence to caution security personnel where heritage sites may be at risk. It is, perhaps, high time heritage managers get orientation on intelligence gathering, mediation processes as well as proactive influence of political leadership and engagement of potential rivals.

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