Lobatse – A Town of Oddities and Contrasts
By Sandy Grant
The one thing about Lobatse which is absolutely certain is that there is no other town in the country which is anything like it. But that isn’t too surprising because there are three Lobatses and which of these three a visitor first sees depends on the direction from which they have come. To enter Lobatse from Gaborone and the north, for instance, is to enjoy European or white Lobatse. To enter Lobatse from the south, from Mafikeng or Kanye is to experience Asian Lobatse whereas the visitor coming from the east, from South Africa and the Jubilee border gate is to see African Lobatse.
Racial division was a common characteristic of old colonial towns with the railway line usually providing a convenient boundary between the whites on one side and the black or brown people on the other. Lobatse was a little more complicated in being divided not only amongst three main racial groups but in possessing sub groups, such as the abattoir and the railway employees, who lived in their own housing localities. Independence in 1966 may have swept away institutionalised and structured racialism but the old centre of Lobatse was shaped by those factors and the town can only be understood today in those terms.
Let’s start with white Lobatse which, prior to Independence possessed most of the standard ingredients of a fully fledged colonial town. Today this part of the town still begins with the eucalyptus plantation which puts down an immediate marker, trees, greenery and space and comes to an end at the railway station. The area was attractive, and remains so today. It had a tarred, tree lined road which was constructed for the 1947 visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses. The trees apparently came later being planted by G.A. Germond, the British Divisional Commissioner South for the opening of the High Court in 1956. It had generous road margins, and attractive colonial housing.
It possessed two hotels, the Lobatse Hotel in the main street now partly demolished which dated from pre-2nd world war days, and Sid Milner’s famous Cumberland Hotel which he established in Lobatse believing that this was to be the new national capital. It had its own hospital and surprisingly its own mental hospital. It had its own well appointed whites only secondary school, its own airstrip, golf club, cricket ground, granaries – for the freehold farmers outside town – High Court and attached jail, its own Anglican Church, its own block of Commonwealth Development Corporation Offices and its own abattoir. It also had its own railway station and stores, one being Sir Russell England’s wholesale store near the station which sold gas bottles and insurance cover. Many of the other stores were owned by white South Africans who, disturbed by the prospect of Independence and majority black rule, put their businesses up for sale. The Indian community snapped them up and by doing so made the first major inroads into what had been previously an entirely white settlement.
Today the old white Lobatse is well worth studying. Many of the old bits and pieces are still very much in place but there have been many significant changes. The old whites only school died at Independence and is now a major senior secondary school. Much of Lobatse’s architectural heritage in this area has been demolished or left to rot. Germond’s large, attractive pro-consular residence, complete with swimming pool, has been abandoned but is still recoverable. The large one story office block of the Commonwealth Development Association is also abandoned and left high and dry and many of the old colonial houses, including one occupied by Seretse and Ruth, have been demolished. It is a mystery why the government, which promotes tourism as a maximum priority, should allow such important elements of its history and heritage to be lost. But heritage aside, old buildings can be restored and re-utilised and in places where there is a shortage of office accommodation and housing it is surprising that the government should prefer to let its older properties disintegrate rather than sell them off and bring in much needed new revenue.
The modest, old High Court, where the Legislative Assembly helped to usher in Independence, was superseded in 1994 by a modern architectural colossus. Unusually the older building was not demolished to make way for the new.
Of the hotels, the old Lobatse hotel, where British army officers were billeted in World War II is a gonner. It is of great importance that the Lobatse Council and the various planners who will be involved recognise the strong, very individual characteristic of Lobatse’s main street – curiously named Khama 1 St. because absolutely no one knows who this man might have been – and ensure that this is maintained and strengthened. The Cumberland is still mercifully un-modernised which is just as well because it occupies a special, central place in this country’s modern history. Almost everyone who was anyone must have stayed there and all the others who didn’t, would have eaten there – it being a routine of the later 1960s to drive down the awful dirt road from Gaborone, to enjoy the Cumberland’s famed cooking and then return and drive all the way back.
Gone too, inevitably, is the old airstrip and cricket ground being replaced by the huge Lobatse Clay Works and Lobatse Tile Company. Russell England’s granaries – were there eight of them? – have also gone. When major physical features have been demolished it is often difficult to remember where they once stood. Were those old granaries in the way of the new giant Geological Department block or of some other needed development – so that they had to go? Disregarding the usual compulsive arguments, it has to be a mistake to demolish major physical features which contribute to the personality of a town and give it difference. Everything is re-usable. If those eight or so granaries had been painted in eight different colours, as an attempt to bring them into public consciousness, their importance might have been better understood. And new plans drawn up for them.
Dr Sbrana’s old mental hospital has been replaced by a new mental hospital of a size which is quite stunning. A colleague, when recently viewing it, suggested flippantly that the projected figures which had determined the size of the new facility indicated that half of the entire population would be patients and the other half would be looking after them! If the scale of this gigantic new mental hospital is anything to go by, the future is indeed bleak.
And then there is the abattoir. Without personal involvement or connection with the place, it is difficult to grasp how enormously important it is to Lobatse. It is only recently that I found that it possessed an entire, almost invisible housing estate. For a visitor, BMC is an entrance gate, a well watered green lawn, oleanders in flower and nothing more. Looked at from the air its size in relation to that of the rest of Lobatse would probably make everything immediately clear. But that is the point about Lobatse. It hides so much of itself behind every available corner.
If the imprint of European Lobatse is still plainly visible in the green, spacious area stretching more or less from the plantation to the railway station, Indian Lobatse immediately makes itself known, as one enters from the south, with its mosque and school. The school, originally known as the Indian School was opened in 1961 and matched the Europeans-only school on the other side of town. For many years, Crescent School has enjoyed a reputation as one of the best of the country’s private schools. Pressing onwards into the old centre of town is to note that many of the shops are Indian owned and run, the obvious exceptions being the inevitable South African chain stores.
Entering Lobatse from the east, from the Pioneer Border Gate, is to sample African Lobatse and what is undoubtedly the town’s most remarkable feature, Peleng. To make this suggestion may seem strange because there will be many who believe that the principal features of the town are the High Court, the Mosque or Geological Department, the Lobatse Brick and Tile Company or even the Cumberland Hotel. They would be wrong. Absolutely nothing in Lobatse, or indeed in the entire country, compares with Peleng. As a self-help low cost housing area climbing way up into the side of a giant hill, it is unique. This country is a mass of paradoxes and Peleng presents one of the greatest. In a country of enormous spaces and few people, the physical characteristics of Lobatse meant that if the area to the west of the railway line was reserved for the Europeans, and the flatter areas to the east were taken up by their freehold farms, the only area left for everybody else was up the side of the hill. So that is where they went.
The point must be made that with the terminology of the time, Peleng was an African, as opposed to a Tswana, location. Its name indicated that, unlike the old Tswana tribal capitals, it was a cosmopolitan area which provided a home for people from just about everywhere. A visit to Peleng today will give an immediate idea of the sort of nightmare the place must have posed for British security. Once in, how could they find what they sought and how then were they to get out? So better not to go in! Can it be a surprise therefore that this country’s modern politics began in African Lobatse and that Mandela, Machel and Tambo should have stayed in Peleng, with people such as Fish Keitseng. Or that the country’s first bookshop should have been started there, this being an initiative of the then London Missionary Society of Livingstone and Moffat. The old shop, now gone, was the progenitor of today’s Botswana Book Centre in Gaborone.
But even in Peleng there are more paradoxes. Fairly grim houses are located next door to ones of respectability and comfort; great poverty and some degree of wealth exist side by side. Yet, a huge effort has been made by the municipal authorities to uplift the whole of Peleng, both the better off and those who struggle on the margins of life. Many of the steep hillside roads are tarred, incredibly there is street lighting which apparently works, and there is a systematised scheme of rubbish collection from each house. There is an enormous amount to be learnt from this place about just about everything.
Lobatse’s curious, uncomfortable history, has left it with deep divisions and many scars. The old tribal capitals which were situated away from the railway line were, to a degree insulated from the kinds of racism which were the norm in the new, settler towns such as Lobatse and Francistown, and inevitably along the railway line. Perhaps the nature of racism in the south was somewhat tempered by the fact that Lobatse had a larger British administrative presence than Francistown. That said, Africans and Indians were not allowed to enter the old Lobatse Hotel, and when visiting the Athlone Hospital were required to go around at the back. Even at the ‘liberal’ Cumberland Hotel, before Independence, non-whites, African and Indian, were admitted but were requested to seat themselves at remote tables and make themselves as far as possible, both inaudible and invisible. And even in death, there was division with historically, separate graveyards or reserved burial areas, for whites, for Africans, for Indian Muslims and for coloureds.
At the railway station, there were white and non-white entrances for those wanting to buy tickets and at nine o’clock every evening the police station on the African side of town blew a siren to advise non-whites that they should return quickly to their correct part of town. But there must have been exceptions because the existence of at least one area of low cost housing in white Lobatse suggests that, for obvious reasons, domestic servants were allowed to stay.
Lobatse is a town of oddities and contrasts. At one end it has the abandoned offices of the old Commonwealth Development Corporation and at the other, a virtually abandoned luxury Golf Club. It was chosen as the home for the country’s major abattoir probably because it had a reasonably secure source of water but it also hosted the country’s only mental hospital. Unlike both Gaborone and Francistown, it has had an elected ‘Indian’ (Motswana) Mayor. It has as one of its ‘sons’ a figure of legendary proportions, Sir Russell England, now wholly forgotten, who played a major role in ushering the country towards Independence. It was in Lobatse that Seretse and Ruth were accommodated by the British Administration in a house which has recently been demolished. It also has the grave of a not much loved British District Commissioner whose burial in 1958 was loyally attended by the local community – the non-whites being held back at a discreet distance by a fence – whilst those in the nearby jail shouted insults throughout the entire proceedings. It was in Lobatse too, in the then High Court, that the Tshekedi-Bathoen case against the British Government was heard ‘with a 1,000 men from the Bamangwato and other tribes camped in a field nearby’. In 1947 Lobatse was again in the news with the visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth which was fortunately described by R.A.R. Bent. Quote. ‘At Lobatsi a great clearing had been made in the bush, near the depot where the Bechuanaland troops had trained. From the early hours the whole of the Southern Protectorate was gathering there and all from the North that had managed to cram themselves onto the seven special trains which had come down the day before. They gathered by ox-waggon, lorry, horse and foot and train, twenty-five thousand people, the biggest assembly that had ever come together, in Bechuanaland.’
In 1949 Lobatse again provided the setting for yet another of the country’s great historical sagas – the Harrigan enquiry into the marriage of Seretse and Ruth. Lobatse today says that it wants a museum. Indeed it should have one because it has a heritage which is remarkable and different, if sometimes painful. Were the government to make available Germond’s abandoned home behind the High Court there would be every chance of Lobatse having a fascinating museum of which it could be very proud.
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