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Post-office, the late President Sir Ketumile Masire experienced an unusual kind of hero-to-zero descent in the continental pecking order when he attended the official launch of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Ironically, he was actually doing something very heroic and no, he didn’t moan and groan about that experience to the South African Broadcasting Corporation television on his way back home.
The very last meeting of the Organisation of the African Union and birth of the African Union happened in Lusaka and at a time that Masire was facilitating peace talks between Democratic Republic of Congo warlords. Where he would ordinarily travel through Johannesburg, he flew straight from Kinshasa to Lusaka to meet some sitting heads of state attending the summit.
“In all the excitement, the meeting organisers had omitted to find a slot for a former head of state on a separate mission,” writes Philip Winter in “A Sacred Cause”, a book about the inter-Congolese dialogue that Masire facilitated between 2000 and 2003, with the author serving as his Chief of Staff. “I joined him at this point and we found ourselves corralled in a comfortable ante-room in Mulungushi Hall, as a procession of heads of state passed. It was a little undignified, I thought, for one who had once been of their number, to have to attract their attention from the waiting room, but it worked.”
In the stated undignified fashion, Masire was able to attract the attention of and hold brief discussions with Presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Denis-Christel Sassou Nguessou of Congo Brazzaville, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Joaqim Chissano of Mozambique.
Masire bore it all with great fortitude and it is interesting to reflect on what could have happened had this former Botswana president been somebody else. Masire – as his successor, Festus Mogae, adjusted to the shifting of the spotlight to their successors with absolutely no drama. That necessarily has to happen because there is only one spotlight. It is highly unlikely that the unusually status-conscious Ian Khama, who came after Mogae, would have attracted the attention of presidents the same way Masire was forced to. Khama literally finds it hard to accept that the spotlight is not shining on him and has complained about state-owned not covering his events. The sort of snub that Masire suffered would likely have motivated him to complain to SABC TV (something he has been a lot lately) on his way back home.
While post-presidential office life disorients many more politicians, they at least adjust to their changed circumstances. A song called “Hail to the Chief” is typically played when a United States president enters a room and George W. Bush says that after leaving office, it took him a while to get used to not having the song play when he entered a room.