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Royal comrades

The villagers of Phokeng have fought bravely against Bophuthatswana “independence’ for many years. At the forefront of their struggle are Chief Lebone and Ma Semane Molotlegi…

FOR some people it never rains — it pours!

For Ma Semane and Chief Lebone Molotlegi, this is certainly true. Over the last thirteen years, the couple have been detained and harassed time and again by the Bophuthatswana government.

But even though they have suffered, their spirit has not been broken. They are as against Bophuthatswana’s “independence” as ever before. And for this, the Molotlegis have paid dearly.

Chief Molotlegi and Ma Semane are the royal rulers of the small village of Phokeng, near Rustenburg in the Western Transvaal. Learn and Teach spoke to Ma Semane in her home in the village. As we listened to her story, we could not help feeling that she is a woman of great courage.


On 27 August 1943, a royal child was born to Tshekedi and Ela Khama. There was much joy in Botswana when the people heard that the late Sir Seretse Khama’s uncle had a little daughter. Sir Seretse was president of Botswana until he died. The Khama’s called their daughter Semane.

The young Semane started her education in Botswana, then studied for a while in South Africa and finished matric in 1963 in Zimbabwe. In the meantime, she fell in love.

Lebone Molotlegi was the handsome Paramount Chief of the Bafokeng people of Phokeng. Semane and Lebone were married in the December holidays of 1963. Following the tradition of royal families, Ma Semane went to live with her husband’s people.


The Molotlegis soon started a family. They had two girls and four boys. During her very early days at Phokeng, Ma Semane saw how difficult the women’s lives were. Their husbands were far away working and the women had to bring up the children on their own.

As soon as the little Molotlegis were old enough to be left with “koko” (the grandmother), Ma Semane toured her village. She spoke to the women about their problems, their hopes and their dreams. Together, they decided to form an organisation so that they could help each other. So began the Bafokeng Women’s Club.

The women worked happily together for many years. Then on 6 December 1977, things turned sour. This was the day that Bophuthatswana became “independent”.


Even before “independence”, many Bophutatswanan people had formed parties to fight against it. In 1971, the National Seoposengwe Party (NSP) was formed to oppose Bophuthatswana Democratic Party (BDP), which was led by Chief Lucas Mangope. The NSP said that they would never accept “independence”. They said that Bophuthatswana was — and always would be — a part of South Africa.

The NSP’s leaders were harassed by the Bop police. They were often thrown in jail. Chief Molotlegi and Ma Semane had joined the NSP six years before. They too found themselves under the watchful eyes of the Bop police.

Phokeng did not become part of the “Republic of Bophuthatswana” until the next year, 1978. The Bafokeng people were angry and refused to belong to the homeland. The people resisted and the Molotlegis stood by them. The community soon saw the couple as the pillars of their struggle.

Mangope wanted to punish the Molotlegis for standing up to him. He often sent his police to the family home. They would wake up the household and say that they were “looking for terrorists”.

The women in the women’s club were also harassed in the same way.

White employers in the area also made the people suffer. They would not hire anyone who was opposed to “independence”. Many people lost their jobs.


Ma Semane realised that they had to do something to help the unemployed people. So the Women’s Club started a self-help dress-making project called Mahube Fashions.

Ma Semane remembers: “One hundred and fifty women applied for the job. It was terrible, but we only had room for thirty. We started training the women and sold our dresses to the community and to tourists. Soon, the women were able to take groceries home again. We were very proud.”

The Women’s Club had other big plans. They wanted to raise funds for a community centre. The centre would have an advice office and run adult education classes. In 1988, the Women’s Club thought their plans were about to come true. They had nearly enough money to start building the centre.


Then came an attempted coup. In 1986, Rocky Malebane-Metsing formed a party called the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). The PPP promised that if they won an election, they would get rid of corruption in the government.

But in 1988, the PPP decided to act in other ways. In the early hours of Wednesday, 10 February, Malebane-Metsing overthrew the homeland government in a coup. There was joy and dancing in the streets as the people looked forward to the end of Mangope’s rule.

But the celebrations did not last long. The South African Defence Force (SADF) moved in … and crushed the coup. Then they put Mangope back in power.

“The coup,” says Ma Semane, “gave Mangope the chance he was waiting for. He arrested those who supported the PPP or the NSP. And he banned the Women’s Club and detained 51 members, even though there was no proof that the women were involved in the coup. The women in the club were the only women who were arrested. My husband and myself were also arrested.”

Ma Semane and the 51 other women detainees were put in a small cell at the Rooigrond prison in Mafikeng. “The cell was so small that we were packed like sardines in a tin,” remembers Ma Semane. “My husband was in another cell. We were released after fourteen days without being charged with any crime.”


After his release, Chief Lebone got very sick and went into hospital. When he came out, he decided to leave Bophuthatswana. He thought that the police would detain him again. Chief Lebone crossed the border into Botswana where he is still living in exile.

But before he left, he asked his uncle, Cecil Tumahole, to take his place. Like Chief Lebone, Tumahole is a loved and respected member of the Phokeng people.

Mangope refused to recognise Tumahole. Instead, he appointed Lebone’s younger brother, George Molotlegi, in his place. “It is sad to see brother against brother,” says Ma Semane. “But George Molotlegi does not have the support of the community.”


Chief Lebone’s exile was a bitter blow for the people of Phokeng. But when Mangope banned the Mahube project, it hurt even more.

“Closing the project left many women jobless,” says Ma Semane. “What Mangope did was like a cruel mother taking the last piece of bread from a helpless hungry child. The Women’s Club decided that we could not just stand by and watch him take away our bread and butter.”

The women took the banning to the Supreme Court. They used the law and what the Bill of Rights says about freedom of speech and association. The court ruled in favour of the Women’s Club and the ban was thrown out. But soon after that, Mangope issued a new banning order. At the moment, the PPP, the Black Sash, the Transvaal Rural Action Committee, the Bafokeng Women’s Club and other organisations are banned.

“But our struggle continues,” says Ma Semane. “We are not afraid. And we are not scared to speak out and tell the world how they are suffering.”


In 1989, Ma Semane went overseas to tell people about what was happening in Bop. When she arrived back at Jan Smuts airport, she was stopped by the South African security police.

Ma Semane remembers: “It was on Wednesday, 29 November. Just as I was about to go through customs control at the airport, a man came up to me. He told me to follow him. I got such a fright. My heart started to beat loudly and my knees felt weak.

“He took me to a room where I found the Bop police. ‘Hello, Ma Molotlegi,’ they said. ‘Don’t you think that you were painting our country black when you spoke overseas?’ they asked. I told them everything I said was true and that I would say the same things again — at home or overseas.”

The police finished questioning Ma Semane two hours later. As she walked outside, she saw a beautiful sight. About 450 women from Phokeng were waiting to welcome her home!


Back in Phokeng, the harassment continues. “The police wake me up at all times of the night. They say that they are looking for Malebane-Metsing or ANC soldiers. They don’t even bring search warrants. Once when I asked them for a search warrant, they told me to go and fetch it myself.

“And Bophuthatswana says it has a Bill of Rights! How can they say there is a Bill of Rights if they just ignore people’s rights? For me, the Bill of Rights is just a dead paper and this is a ‘police state’.”

The government is also saying that Ma Semane is not a citizen of Bophuthatswana. “Of course, I am not a Bophuthatswana citizen!” says Ma Semane angrily. “I am a citizen of South Africa.”


Ma Semane wishes her husband was with her to help with the problems. “I miss him a lot,” she says. “Especially now because all our children are studying overseas. My husband’s absence has robbed me of a ‘comrade in the struggle’.

“But I am not altogether alone. I have the Phokeng community. And I can only thank them for their support and encouragement. Without them I wonder whether I would still be so strong,” she says.

The Phokeng Village Council, which is made up of all the headmen from Phokeng villages, and the Support Chief Molotlegi Campaign Committee, are fighting for the safe return of Chief Lebone and all other Bophuthatswana exiles. “I am hopeful that we will soon see our chief back home,” concludes Ma Semane.

We asked Ma Semane to give a message to her people and to Learn and Teach readers. “First of all I call on our people in Bophuthatswana and in Phokeng, in particular, to remain as strong as ever. Secondly, I would like to say to everybody: the struggle for our birthright should continue, wherever you are.”


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