The day 25 years ago when apartheid SA made Botswana pay with the blood of her sons and daughters
By Mpho Maine*
It was exactly 25 years ago, that the South African commandos bulldozed their way into peace-loving Botswana and bludgeoned to death the so-called terrorists, who had sought refuge in this country. The date was June 14 1985.
Some years later, they held the Botswana Sir Seretse Khama BDF barracks to ransom as they landed in the morning hovering over the skies and commandeering all Botswana soldiers to remain in the camp while they opened fire.
On that fateful day in 1985, apartheid South Africa rained fire on Gaborone, massacred 12 South African refugees, amongst them a six-year old, whilst they slept. Among those who died was Bra George Phahle, who ran a transport business between Gaborone and Lobatse. His wife, Lindi Phahle, whom I played tennis with, was a social worker who had served in the rural village of Serowe, before moving to Gaborone, also died that morning. Her brother in-law, Sibusiso Phahle escaped with his life because he had hid under a bed when the commandos landed in the wee hours of the morning.
Susan Mokoena (nee Kalane) was a victim by association. Her husband, Kenny Mokoena was a Pan African Congress activist. They left Botswana a month after June 14 and relocated to Washington DC. In her words; “Ka na we were victims of that massacre. Re tlogile mo Gabs (we left) exactly one month after June 14. Re sa robale (we couldn’t sleep). Re ne re shacka (shacking up) all over Gabs and then on weekends I would drive the silver grey beetle to Lobatse (her parents’ home). I lost so much weight in that one month. Kana bana ba ga Tim and Stella ba ne ba robetse le rona coz o ne a itse gore (Tim & Stella’s children slept at our place because he knew that) something will happen.”
She recalls; “This is when I tasted gore struggle se raya eng (what the struggle meant). It only sunk when I arrived in Washington on the 15th July gore ke lone le (that I am a) refugee. There was no going back.”
June 14 is a significant date in the history of both Botswana and South Africa. It was on that date in 1985, that the Boers first attacked Botswana in pursuit of asylum seekers. The dastardly act was wrath and fury that the apartheid regime unleashed following a student uprising in South Africa in resistance to the passing of the Bantu Education Act.
The student uprising of June 16, 1976 led to the Tsietsi Mashinini and others to flee to Botswana.
Botswana, heavily economically reliant on South Africa, opened her arms to the fleeing youngsters on one condition – they would not use her as a base to attack South Africa. On the other hand, she could neither defend herself, nor stop the Boers from illegally crossing into her territory and target the refugees, kill and maim them with impunity.
Botswana lost sons and daughters when the commandos bombed several private homes where Batswana had accommodated refugees.
Rhoda Sekgororaone, recalls that on June 14, commandos attacked and killed together with the Phahles, Michael Hanlyn who was a computer guru. Motsei Rapelana, now a senior member of the Botswana Congress Party, was quoted in Mmegi of Tuesday 14 June 2005 saying “Batswana were totally traumatized.”
The bombings affected families and Botswana long after they stopped.
Snuki Zikalala, former head of news and current affairs of the SABC was deported from Botswana after he had completed his training in Bulgaria and came to visit his wife and children, Pinkie Mmathabo Catherine Zikalala (nee) Oliphant, my immediate elder sister, now a gynecologist at the South African National Defence Force military hospital in Pretoria.
Snuki, a guerilla fighter of the Mkhonto we Sizwe military wing of the ANC had been exiled in Gaborone while waiting to proceed to Bulgaria. The Botswana CID found arms and ammunition dug and hidden in a hole at my home, the home to Clement and Kate Oliphant with us the four children living there. Zikalala escaped arrest because a private attorney intervened and sought the assistance of a then high ranking CID officer.
It is befitting therefore that as we remember all those who perished at the brutality of the South African commandos, we give thanks for their lives. Their deaths were not in vain. How they must be smiling from above when they see the rainbow nation host a first ever World Cup to grace the African soil, skies and the people of the world! Indeed Aluta Continua! The struggle that saw Mandela sit on Robben Island for 27 years was all worth it. Seeing him and Archbishop Tutu being the luminaries at the opening ceremony was exhilarating, joyful and nostalgic.
*Mpho Maine, currently working for Botswana Parliament, is a former journalist, who worked for many years for Radio Botswana. In the early 1990s she left government media and worked briefly for Mmegi before heading for greener pastures in South Africa just after the first democratic elections, in 1994. There she worked for SABC, Transnet and Telcom. She returned home in 2004.