The fall of the curtain
by Mesh Moeti
The remnants of the original group sat at Table 15 for the final night like this. Even from afar, the deep footprints of time were visible on them. A bit slower in pace and somewhat chubby, they had come to welcome one of their own into their ranks – the band of retired officers. Most of them now grandfathers and back in their villages, you could hardly believe that they were once soldiers – and young.
Yet 35 years back, they did what many young men of different nations have done throughout history since the theatre of war became an extension of international diplomacy. They answered the call to arms, and thereby earned their place in history as the Botswana Defence Force’s first class of officer cadets. From the original group of 20, the men that took their place at Table 15 on the night of July 31 were two brigadiers (Albert Scheffers and Nelson Modiko), three colonels (William Matshwa, Lesego Motlhatlhedi, and Jagamang Seduke), and one lieutenant colonel (Fred Webb) – all retired. Another member of the original group, a retired brigadier who coincidentally is now a cabinet minister responsible for defence, Ndelu Seretse, being the host of the farewell dinner for the BDF’s fourth commander, sat at Table 1 with the guest of honour, Tebogo Masire, the last of the class of 1977 to retire from military service. Bowing out as a lieutenant general, Masire is the only one from that group to have managed to break the glass ceiling and rise beyond the rank of brigadier.
Masire, who enlisted in the new army after previously working as an air traffic controller, was part of the group of 10 that was designated to train as pilots, thereby laying the ground for what would be the BDF’s Air Arm, which he later commanded. Out of the 10, only four obtained their wings – being Masire himself, as well as Seduke, Scheffers and Ezekiel Rakgole, another retired brigadier.
Masire’s close friend and comrade, Scheffers, often reminisces how the quartet flew with the barest of navigational aids and often without a co-pilot. It was a journey that would take the man through cockpits of various aircraft, including the presidential jet. In fact, at the time of his retirement, he held the record for being the only presidential pilot to have flown all Botswana’s four presidents – Seretse Khama, Ketumile Masire, Festus Mogae, and Ian Khama. At his farewell dinner, he talked of the overwhelming sense of honour he felt when he flew President Seretse Khama’s body to Serowe on 24 July 1980 in a Skyvan for his funeral. Early in his career, he had flown the victims of the 1978 Leshoma Ambush out of Kasane.
Having been deputy commander since 1998, Masire rose to be Botswana’s most senior military officer in 2006, when he succeeded Lt. General Matshwenyego Fisher. It was the coming of age for the class of 1977 because finally one of their own had become the nation’s number one soldier.
Possibly the most profound transformation that has occurred in Botswana’s military was the enrolment of women officers, a development that occurred under Masire’s watch as commander. On the evening that we met at his official residence in his last week on the job, Masire was surprisingly candid about the skepticism of the political leadership who were not yet completely convinced that the time was right to end the BDF’s status as Botswana’s last exclusive men’s club.
“They had thought we would delay,” he said of the political leadership. “When the announcement came, I think they were taken aback. The response was, “Are you sure you are ready?” I am convinced that if I had tried to consult too much we would have reached a barricade.”
Even with this radical achievement that has permanently changed the complexion of Botswana’s military, he expressed regret that he did not oversee the enrolment of women in the lower ranks.
The candidness with which he spoke about the doubt of his bosses on the wisdom of opening the military to women, was the same one that set him on a rare collision course with some opposition politicians last year after he expressed concern that some politicians had tried to influence his charges to join the over two-months long public service strike.
That frankness was displayed again in his farewell address last Tuesday night when he spoke of the need for citizens and the government to change attitudes if Botswana is to be a competitive nation, calling for a rethinking of empowerment schemes and a revamp of business and work ethic across board – from small traders to the large corporations. It’s the debate that, if it ensues, the general would partake in freely now that he is unencumbered by the limitations of military discipline that requires those who serve in uniform to be circumspect in their public pronouncements.
When Masire symbolically handed the sword to Lt. General Gaolatlhe Galebotswe at a short ceremony on Tuesday morning to signal the change of command, a chapter closed – and a new page was opened. The fifth commander, who joined the army in 1983, represents a new generation that has now risen to assume leadership of Botswana’s military.