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The Bantu Soviet

Publishing Date : 06 May, 2015

Jeff Ramsay

"I found among the more intelligent men as unexpected interest in the course of English political history, in the passage of power from crown to aristocracy, from aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat; and they were frankly speculating about the possibility of tribal development following comparable lines." - British journalist Leonard Barns, reporting on his 1931 tour of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

Last week we noted the existence by the 1920s of local interest in the Basotho Commoners Association or ‘Lekhotla la Bafo’ (LLB), which agitated for popular self-government on the basis of what they insisted should be the restoration of indigenous democracy through dikgotla and a Basotho National Pitso. In this respect LLB ideas are known to have been communicated by Basotho serving in the Bechuanaland Protectorate Police, as well as through contacts in Gauteng.

Beginning in 1928 the LLB forged a lasting alliance with the South African Communist Party, which among other things opened the door for its members to become regular contributors in party periodicals such as Usembenzi and Inkululeko. The LLB international profile was further raised by its association with various Comintern sponsored international front organisations, beginning with its October 1929 affiliation with the League against Imperialism and League for the Defence of the Negro Race and Africa Bureau of International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the latter two being then headed by George Padmore.

Between the World Wars the LLB Secretary-General, Maphutseng Lefela, took the lead in affirming through the communist press that the Sotho-Tswana Kgotla, along with similar indigenous institutions in the region, should be understood as the ‘Bantu Soviet’. In this context, traditional leaders who operated within what were conceived to be indigenous democratic norms, i.e. “morena ke morena ka batho”, would continue to have a political role.

Alternatively, a prominent Motswana Communist at the time, L. Leepile (who apparently originated from Kanye) called in the same publications for the ultimate overthrow of bogosi through the formation of a worker and peasants “Republic of Botsoana”, which could eventually take its place aside similar polities in what he envisaged would become a post-revolutionary Soviet Union of South African Republics.

While some copies of Communist periodicals were smuggled into the Bechuanaland Protectorate, as well as mining compounds in Gauteng, before the Second World War, specific interest LLB’s radical neo-traditional ideology among at least a handful of Bakwena can rather be traced to the presence of Basotho policemen posted at Molepolole.

Beginning in 1926, the LLB also took the initiative in what were ultimately unsuccessful efforts to forge a wider Lekhotla or League of Protectorates that would provide a common platform for Batswana and Swazi as well as Basotho to resist incorporation into the Union of South Africa, while also seeking the repeal of the Foreign Jurisdictions Act, which was the legal basis for Britain’s claim of sovereign jurisdiction of the three territories.

LLB efforts to promote the League of Protectorates and other joint initiatives inside the Bechuanaland Protectorate were principally directed towards winning over the support of the Bangwato regent Tshekedi Khama. Basotho authorities in this context intercepted and copied a 12th April 1930 letter addressed to Tshekedi by H.M.D. Tsoene on behalf of LLB pleading that the regent:

“...join hands with us in the matter of collecting the necessary funds to enable us to send our representatives to England to voice and represent the interests, wishes and desires of our respective protectorates and to establish a permanent office of the representative of our respective protectorates in England.”

In his letter Tsoene accurately observed that Tshekedi’s father Khama III had agreed to accept British Protection during the 1885 visit of General Sir Charles Warren “as a step against German encroachments upon your country” and with “the assurance that “England would protect Bechuanaland for Bechuana people to enjoy the blessings of peace under their hereditary chiefs”; further adding:

“It was never made a condition by Sir Charles Warren to Chief Khama that England would afterwards dispose of Bechuanaland and hand it other European Government in South Africa, whose cruelty is unparalleled and even worse than that of the Germans on account of whom Sir Charles Warren asked Chief Khama to throw his country into British protection.

“Again in 1895, Mr. Chamberlain wrote letters to Chiefs Khama, Bathoeng and Sebele after their visit to England to assure them that Bechuanaland would always remain the property of Bechuana people...the contents of these letters are in the Blue Books in England. But it would be our folly to let our countries slip out of our control while England has given us sound pledges for protection and it is up with us to stand up and organise our people against incorporation of our respective countries into the Union Government...

“We can only come to this position through hard work on our part being done by us to protect our rights and countries. For this reason we earnestly beg you to make a united front movement together with us against the imminent danger of incorporation of our respective protectorates into the Union Government.”



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