Phillip Matante’s immense contribution goes unnoticed

Edward Bule - BG correspondent
Monday, 23 May 2016
Phillip Matante’s immense contribution goes unnoticed

Botswana, formerly the Bechuanaland Protectorate gained her independence from the British in 1966 mainly as the result of incessant agitation by Phillip Matante.

He had in 1962 and 1963 addressed the United Nations committee on decolonisation demanding immediate independence for this country. One of the features of colonialism especially in Africa was rampant and violent racism. For Matante, independence meant more than a mere change of guard. He wanted a complete overhaul of the colonial superstructure in favour of one that promotes social, political and economic justice.

Even before the Bechuanaland Protectorate became the Republic of Botswana, Matante, who had witnessed and experienced racism in South Africa first hand, had running battles with the colonial administration over racial regulations and practices in the Bechuanaland. Racism was practised both by administration officials as well as the business community. For instance, out of the total number of 35 members constituting the Legislative Council (LEGCO), only 12 of them were Africans.

Professor Zibani Maundeni of the University of Botswana notes in Botswana Politics and Society that, “The Botswana Peoples’ Party (BPP) demanded an end to racism and no reserved status for whites in the post-colonial order, it opposed separate communal representation which it labelled racism; it opposed the awarding of business licences based in favour of whites, it opposed the recruitment of white South Africans into the civil service, it opposed racially determined salaries or unequal pay for work within the civil service and it opposed the long standing incorporation of Bechuanaland into South Africa as a Bantustan.”

Most employees in the civil service came from South Africa and this, the Matante-led BPP found repugnant. “For instance, by 1957, there were 302 European officials employed by the British civil service in Bechuanaland and of this group, almost two thirds or 196 were citizens of South Africa,” writes Professor Maundeni.

Matante led mass demonstrations especially in Francistown, Lobatse and Palapye against racist practices not only before but even after independence. According to Benedict Bayani in his research essay submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Bachelor of Education (B. Ed) in 1992, “In May 1962, he got hold of a letter written by a certain Mrs Smith of Farm No. 46 at Tshesebe whose contents in part read, “...most natives steal and have lice and suffer from venereal diseases, owing to their immorality and they are mostly heathen and uncivilised.”

Levit, a Francistown businessman said, “Natives are thieves and criminals,” after the Blacks picketed his stores during a demonstration as they held banners and posters advising the public not to buy from any of his stores. The BPP leader, says Bayani, challenged racial discrimination in public places, notably in trains, hotels and as practised by the Dutch Reformed Church. To highlight the racial bigotry of the Whites, he often quoted Daniel Malan, former Prime Minister of South Africa who once said, “If there is a place for a black man in Heaven, then it must be in the kitchen.”

So reviled by the racists was he that he would demand that they must leave the country. The BPP leader whose full names were Phillip Parcel Gaonwe Matante was already affectionately called PG. His calls for the white racists to ‘pack and go’ earned him the alias “Pack and Go” which became another PG. Matante’s militancy against racism forced the LEGCO to set-up a select committee to review all racially discriminatory laws and regulations in the territory. Due to Matante’s incessant agitation, the constitutional talks were held in 1963 (some five years earlier than had been planned).

In 1965, PG led his party into the elections winning only three out of the 31 seats available. As Member of Parliament (MP) for Francistown and Leader of the Opposition (LOO), Matante continued to expose the neo-colonial tendencies of the departing British as well as fight white racism in independent Botswana. His demands for a localisation policy resulted in foreigners being employed in the civil service only on a contract basis. Among other reasons, the BPP lost the 1965 general elections because it was, as a matter of policy, at variance with both traditional authority and racial condescension in equal measure. Meanwhile, the people, who respected dikgosi as their true leaders, were not comfortable with the BPP which they found rather confrontational and a threat to their privileged status. They identified better with Seretse Khama, himself a kgosi.

Interestingly, albeit to a limited extent, the Tribal Land Bill which took the powers of dikgosi, alienated dikgosi from the ruling party. The dikgosi were later also infuriated by the Chieftainship Act which empowered the President to dethrone any kgosi he deemed incompetent. Kgosi Bathoen Gaseitsewe of the Bangwaketse joined the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) while Kgosi Linchwe sympathised with the BPP in Mochudi. The BDP lost the two constituencies.

Just like dikgosi, the business community, consisting mainly of Whites and Asians were jittery about BPP policies which advocated good working conditions for employees, just wages as well as localisation of the civil service. The apartheid South African government, led by Hendrick Verwoerd, congratulated Seretse Khama of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) for winning the elections at the expense of the BPP which Verwoerd considered too radical. Even Khama’s ban on Seretse entering South Africa was lifted! In parliament, Matante addressed bread and butter issues.

According Bayani, in 1965, during the second meeting of Parliament, he passed a vote of no confidence in the BDP government whose legitimacy he challenged on the claims that the elections had been rigged. Matante also accused the BDP of having used bribery and intimidation at the elections. Relentless ‘PG’ would later move a motion demanding that the Kalanga language be used in the school curriculum. He accused the BDP of “a gross violation of fundamental human rights” by denying Kalangas the learning of their language.
So infuriated by Bakalanga politicians in the BDP such as Mundongo Maswikiti and Amos Dambe for refusing to support his motion was Matante that he called them sellouts. Ironically, the two were members of the Kalanga Student Association and the Kalanga Cultural Association in the early 1950s. The two associations stood for the promotion and preservation of Kalanga language. 

Bayani records that, “On matters pertaining to the state security, he advocated for a revolutionary defence policy to build a strong army from the able-bodied young Batswana with the aim of defending the country from external aggression. He was viewed as a dreamer then.” Before long, however, Matante was vindicated when the Rhodesian Army staged several incursions into Botswana ostensibly in hot pursuit of freedom fighters.

The several border incidents that ensued no doubt highlighted our vulnerability as a country. “PG led a mass demonstration in Francistown to the District Commissioner’s (DC’s) offices demanding that tougher security measures be taken to protect the people in the North East and Francistown,” says Bayani. In the midst of this, Matante pointed an accusing finger at white government officials at the Office of the President, including his namesake, Phillip Steinkamp, as security threats.

He insisted that they were agents of the Rhodesian Army who leaked information about the country’s security situation to the Rhodesian army. In 1969, Matante, whose party stood for free and compulsory education with an emphasis on a curriculum that combined academic work and vocational training, passed a motion in Parliament against the increase of school fees from 10 shillings to ten pounds per annum. His argument was that, the increase would make it hard for many children to go to school because their parents were, in the main, poor.

Matante also disapproved automatic promotion at school preferring instead, for a child to repeat a class until they register a pass for them to proceed to the next level. He lamented the introduction of English medium schools preferring, instead, a unitary education system. According to Matante, with English medium schools, “The country would become a victim of class distinction.” He argued that English medium schools “...were visible eggs of class consciousness.” The products, he said, would be “British assimilados.” Matante is credited with the introduction of the Botswana currency and Pula and Thebe in 1976 away from the Rand and Cents. “His criticisms of the government policies were perceptive and reflected the national concern. He was a man of vision. Most of the concerns he raised are a reality today like the creation of social classes due to the education system, linguistic question, problems of drop-outs and the army,” observes Bayani.

Matante also advocated for moral discipline. By several motions, he called on government to do something about loose morals before the collapse of the social fabric. Bayani says Matante blamed the whites, low wages and unemployment, among other things. It is on record that by the time Matante died on October 25th 1979, some five days after the general elections that year, he had, since 1965, passed motions on segregation, both medical and educational issues, unemployment, the legitimacy of government, wages, security and localisation, among other matters. They were almost all thrown out.

According to Bayani, “The BDP realised it would be suicidal to adopt PG Matante’s motions. Rather, a number of them were presented in an amended form by the BDP parliamentarians and were accepted. Despite the non-acceptance of his motions, his contributions to the well-being of Botswana were remarkable.”

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