Lucas Mangope, the former president of Bophuthatswana

President Mangope Street in Galeshewe.
Photo credit: Danie van der Lith

LUCAS Mangope, the former president of the former “independent” country of Bophuthatswana fitted the description of an “Uncle Tom” like a glove.

In many ways, he was the ultimate sell-out. His rise to power was entirely at the behest of the National Party. Not only did he buy into the policies of the apartheid government as a blueprint for peace, prosperity and (to steal a line from his political masters) racial harmony, he lived it.

He saw “separate development” as the key to South Africa’s future. Thus, on August 7, when he was appointed head of the Bahurutshe Tribal Authority, the Cape Times reported that he had implored MC De Wet Nel, the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development to “lead us and we shall try to crawl.”

And crawl he certainly did – as head of the tribal authority, as Prime Minister of the self-governing territory of Bophuthatswana (all 19 pieces of it), and as President of the Republic of Bophuthatswana (when by then it had been consolidated into six pieces).

There’s an adage that implores people not to speak ill of the dead – and that is well and good. But it is a sad, given how many people died and how many lives were destroyed by South African patriots fighting the this system in Bophuthatswana and other homeland territories that some people who should have known better, tried to rewrite history during their tributes to Mangope at his funeral on Saturday.

Bart Dorrenstein, who worked in Mangope’s government, described him as a “giant of a man” and as “a leader who was there for his people, not for himself”. He created jobs, built schools, and created national parks. His legacy will live forever, he was an amazing man.” Northwest Premier Supra Mahumapelo called for those who felt aggrieved towards Mangope to forgive him because forgiveness and nation-building are important for nation-building.

And Popo Molefe, a former Premier of the province praised Mangope for laying out a solid foundation for economic growth in the former homeland.

All of these apologists seem to forget that Mangope’s economic policies were in line with the apartheid government’s plans of “separate” development. Everything he built – infrastructure and even his television station – came courtesy of the National Party. And he did not hesitate to uproot people in his own territory to, for instance, build tourist hotspots such as the Pilanesberg game reserve.

He was a willing collaborator in the plan by the South African state to strip every black person in the country of their national citizenship. Right from the start of his political career, he aligned himself with South Africa’s all-white government. He allowed himself to be turned into a key figure for the creation of Bophuthatswana, whereby all Tswana-speakers would be stripped of their South African citizenship and turned into Tswana citizens.

This cannot – and should not be forgotten. There is enough evidence to suggest that Mangope suffered from delusions of grandeur….

After Bophuthatswana attained “independence” from South Africa on December 6, 1977, Mangope immediately set about trying to gain international recognition for the new “state”.

Making it look different from South Africa was not difficult. A promise to establish a non-racial country initially sparked a lot of interest – and even excitement.

Some of the things Mangope promised – most notably a “Place for All” – was unheard of in South Africa. He tried to portray Bophuthatswana as a “liberal democracy”. In fact, it even had a Bill of Rights, with built-in protection for the rights of individuals. But it turned out to be sleight of hand. It was nothing more than propaganda.

What Mangope claimed in public was a far cry from what actually happened in practice. His chief market for what he was trying to sell was outside the country – the international arena. Inside the country, the majority of its 2.4 million population, now stripped of their South African citizenship, desperately needed jobs, which the new administration could not provide for them. This acute job shortage fanned a certain level of xenophobia – whereby jobs that were created had to be reserved for Tswana-speakers. It rendered the “Place for All” philosophy a lie.

For even though this message of non-racialism was trumpeted overseas, non-Twana people were denied work permits, citizenship and pensions.

But the height of Mangope’s hypocrisy could be seen in his political actions: firstly, his haven of freedom was a one-party state. And the Bill of Rights of the “country” he headed had a few interesting contradictions….

Chief among these was that Section (18.1) – the very last section – specified that other laws could override it. And they did. For instance, the Internal Security Act and the Security Clearance Act began to be used increasingly to suppress political opponents and organisations. If Mangope thought he’d win support from the masses for his many promises of non-racialism and equality, he was sadly mistaken.

Long identified as a sellout by the ANC, efforts to overthrow his administration were stepped up particularly in the 1980s. The combined actions of the United Democratic Front, the trade union federation, Cosatu and numerous student movements against homeland governments brought Mangope’s unpopularity increasingly into the spotlight.

And when this happened, he began to act no differently from his mentors in South Africa. In 1988, he was overthrown in a military coup led by Rocky Malabane-Metsing. But the coup lasted hardly a day. In less than 24 hours, the South African National Defence Force had reinstalled Mangope. But from then on, his hold on power continued to be tenuous.

In 1990, he declared a State of Emergency to enable him, he said, to deal more effectively with the “threat to Bophuthatswana’s independence. Among the threats he identified and took action against were non-Tswana activists and paramount chiefs within the country. Of course, he was not a paramount chief himself and owed his position entirely to having been placed there by the South African government.

Interestingly, Mangope’s crackdown in Boputhatswana coincided with political space opening up in South Africa. As a greater degree of tolerance began emerging in South Africa, intolerance began taking hold in Bophuthatswana. From about 1985, free political expression became a thing of the past in the country.

Mangope’s fall from power took just nine days – between March 3 and 12, 1994. The man who could see no wrong with the apartheid National Party, and who expected help from it whenever he asked, must have been bitterly disappointed. This time, his call went unanswered.

It began with looting of shops and organisations had interests, before degenerating into wide-scale looting. The coup also put to rest another fear – that right wing South Africans posed a major threat towards the march to political democracy in the country. A part time group of Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) drove into one of the pieces of Bophuthatswana in a contingent of old Mercedes Benzes and other vehicles determined to come to the aid of Mangope.

But there were no heroics from them. They were given the beating of their lives, with a member of the Bophuthatswana Defence Force shooting three of them dead in cold blood. By 10 March, Mangope had disappeared, and newspapers speculated that he had fled. There was looting and mayhem as thousands of people took to the streets, claiming to have toppled him.

Street battles raged between security forces and protesters in Mafikeng and Mmbatho, and many police deserted their posts to join the people waving ANC flags and dancing in the streets. After three days of unrest, newspapers estimated that between 45 and 70 people had been killed in clashes, and more than 300 injured.

But in the end, the country collapsed and the UK’s Independent newspaper said of its fall and the disposal of its president: “There was one country less in the world yesterday after Lucas Mangope was deposed as President of Bophuthatswana. Control of the homeland, a sovereign territory under the old apartheid rules, passed to the South African authorities.

True to form, Mangope continued trying to fight for Bophuthatswana’s independence, but like everything else he did, he was fighting a losing battle.


Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features.