The British Empire Library

Under Two Flags in Africa: Recollections of a British Administrator in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and Botswana in 1954 to 1972

by George Winstanley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Colin Baker (Nyasaland/Malawi, 1954 -1971)
The closing years of colonialism and the very early years of independence in African countries were a period of fast and major change. For those British administrators who witnessed and facilitated that change it was an exhilarating period in which the old order disappeared and the new emerged. Those who saw and participated in both orders are relatively few. George Winstanley was one of them, and in his Under Two Flags he shares with us his experiences in Bechuanaland/Botswana between 1954 and 1972.

It will not surprise former colonial service officers that of Winstanley's ten chapters only three deal with his work at headquarters, even though the greatest political changes took place during that period, while the remainder are devoted to his years in the districts. It was the field, 'the real Africa', that attracted so many and that, decades later, still holds the fondest of memories and provides recollections of greatest fulfilment.

The author kept no diaries and this, paradoxically, when coupled with his good memory - especially for matters that have moved or amused him - is an advantage. So many memoirs, particularly autobiographies, suffer from too close a reliance on diaries and letters retained by parents, and they consequently have a mechanical, straight]acket, overly-chronological, too detailed flavour to them. Not so Winstanley's book which has a relaxed flow to it as he skilfully develops his narrative in what in many parts is a series of succinct and perceptive anecdotes, the one following on easily from the other. These bring forth in the reader a range of emotions, from vast amusement to moving sadness. One feels as if one is present, sharing the experience with him.

It is clear that the young Winstanley was immediately enthralled - he frequently uses the word 'fascinated' - from the very outset of his time in the country by what he saw and the people he met. and he instantly fell in love with both the country and its people: a fondness that has stayed with him and is undiminished today. He sees the country through the eyes of an observant - and fascinated - geographer, and the people through the eyes of one who, while keeping his feet securely on the ground and does not easily have the wool pulled over his eyes, is prepared to see the better side of human nature and to view shortcomings with understanding and charity. Serving in a large but thinly populated country - when compared to more densely populated countries such as Malawi - gave him the time and the space to enjoy and try to understand all that he saw and all whom he met.

Winstanley was stationed in six centres - Francistown, Mahalapye, Tshabong, Maun, Mochudi and Lobatse - before transferring to the Secretariat, which he did with sadness and wondering why the powers that be could not just leave him alone and send someone else there in his stead. In Mafikeng he was appointed Clerk to the Executive and Legislative Councils, created, now astonishingly, as late as 1961. A little later he was made secretary of the committee planning the move of the capital from Mafikeng to Gaborone. Later still he had the task of organising the country's first elections, as indeed he did the second, including devising a voting system suitable for a largely illiterate population; selecting and training registration officers, presiding officers and polling officers; and acquiring and distributing all the paraphernalia of elections. When the new Government was formed, with Sir Seretse Khama as Prime Minister, Winstanley was appointed Clerk to the Cabinet. It was, as he says, 'great working with Seretse' and he gives us interesting insights to him and other leading politicians. A few months after independence in 1966 he was appointed Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1972 Winstanley felt that it was time to move on and he left the country, with many regrets but feeling that he had played a part in its move from poverty and dependence to relative prosperity and the dignity of independence.

Under Two Flags, as the author points out in his foreword, is not a history, nor is it an autobiography, but in reading it one learns a good deal about Bechuanaland/Botswana history and one learns a good deal about the development of the author's career there. Some of the incidents and work described so well by Winstanley - and one or two of the anecdotes - will ring bells with officers who served elsewhere in Africa and will revive happy, and maybe just occasionally worrying, memories of their own experiences. They will not only learn about Bechuanaland/Botswana in the 1950s and 1960s but they will enjoy mentally reliving their own careers. The book will remind many former district officers of events in their own lives, and even those who have never visited Bechuanaland/Botswana and who deeply love the other countries in Africa in which they have served will find themselves saying 'I wish I had been there too'.

Under Two Flags recalls a bygone age in Botswana, with its wild game, its untouched scenery, its people with their traditional way of life, and its numerous eccentric characters. Yet one suspects that off the beaten tracks - of which there are still relatively few - the wild animals, the fascinating scenery, the people and their traditions, and the absorbing characters are still to be found. No wonder Winstanley misses them.

British Empire Book
George Winstanley
Blackwater Books


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