OP-ED: In Honor of the Swaneng Girls of 1976

By Donald Molosi

In 1976, when Botswana had no national university but desired one, four schoolgirls of Swaneng Hill School in Serowe died in a car accident on their way to Lady Khama Centre where they had volunteered to help out in a fundraising activity for the Botswana campus of the University of Botswana and Swaziland. Their names and ages were Sarah Ogaketse Mathware (16), Magdaline Phirinyane (15), Elizabeth Masake (16) and Maitumelo Thari (14). On the first page of my second book called Dear Upright African (2019), I dedicate the book to their honor and memory.

June 16, which fell this week, is officially commemorated by the African Union, and many more communities and people around the world as the Day of the African Child. The inspiration behind this day is the Soweto Uprisings of June 16, 1976 when Black South African students took to the streets to protest a colonized curriculum that excluded real African history and insisted on Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. In reaction to the student protests, the South African apartheid police opened fire on the students as iconized in Sam Nzima’s heart-rending world-famous photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubu – a student – carrying a dying fellow student Hector Pietersen with Hector’s sister running next to them, screaming.

I suggest here that as we commemorate Day of the African Child this year we also reflect on the Swaneng girls and their fellow Batswana contemporaries, towards historicizing Botswana’s own moving stories of the transformative contributions of its youth towards a better education system.

Decades ago the late Former Cabinet Minister Kebatamang Morake advocated for the Swaneng Girls to be honored with a plaque at the University of Botswana but this has not been done to this day. In fact, I would argue that most Batswana alive today do not know the story of the Swaneng girls and what their untimely death has to do with the University of Botswana. My request to fellow Batswana and our leadership this year as we commemorate Day of the African Child is for us to reflect on whether we are a nation that excludes the contributions of youth. I would like us to reflect on the merits of engaging with our history almost exclusively through the actions of adults, at the exclusion of the contributions of youth and whether that is sending the right message to children and future generations.

The story of how the University of Botswana itself came to be is a monumental one: in 1976 families throughout the new Republic of Botswana donated grains, chickens and cattle in a crowd-sourcing effort called Motho Le Motho Kgomo. With those resources our elders built a university that they themselves would never enjoy, a university of great international repute whose past students include current President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi. But, what if when we taught the nation how in our elders gave all they had towards the building the UB we also spoke about – and actively documented – how Botswana youth of 1976 also played a vital role? Would that inclusivity not be the national concept of Botho correctly implemented? Would that look at history devoid of youth-shaming not be more accurate? It is my hope that our documentation of our history does not violate the Motswana child particularly by erasing the Motswana child from Botswana history.

This week, as Botswana commemorates Day of the African Child (at the taxpayer’s expense), let us dare to engage with our own stories of youth leadership. As a citizen dedicated to education reform, I take interest in youth leaders who, like the Soweto and Swaneng youth of 1976, worked towards a better education system for the African child.

Batswana like myself who are concerned about our education system must continue to work with all tools at our disposal towards the ideal of a liberated curriculum in a liberated Botswana classroom. For as long as the Botswana classroom is a place where we force chronically colonized unemployment-causing curricula down the throats of unsuspecting youth, then such work will also be urgent. This June, as we reflect on the Day of the African Child, it is worth evaluating whether the Botswana classroom has done right by the past efforts of our ancestors, young and old.

To love your country, fellow Motswana, is to reflect on whether the University of Botswana’s colonially resolute lack of a degree programme in any of our indigenous languages is honoring the Swaneng girls who died while raising funds for the building of the UB itself. This June, may we finally say the names of the Swaneng Girls of 1976.