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There are those who would strongly disagree but the Information and Publicity Secretary of the Botswana Patriotic Front, Justice Motlhabani, feels confident in asserting that today’s Botswana is “reaping the rewards” of “sound economic management” that former president, Ian Khama exercised.
“General Khama took over the reins at the advent of the 2008 financial recession, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929,” says Motlhabani. “Despite this unfortunate occurrence, he steered the economy and country meticulously, even when he could have opted for political expediency.”
The context of this comment is as follows: in his maiden press release as BPF spokesman – which was titled “Botswana Patriotic Front: The Compelling Story” – Motlhabani had described the party as “a peasant revolutionary front” in the mold of Chinese and Cuban revolutions.
“Most of its supporters are ordinary rural villagers domiciled in far flung rural Botswana. Against the advice of his comrades, Super SKI, just like Mao Zedong, initiated the Chinese revolution by mobilizing farmers and workers in rural China,” said the statement, conflating Khama’s football nickname and the acronym formed by three quarters of the regnal name – Seretse Khama Ian Khama – that he took when he became Bangwato kgosi in 1979.
In response, Motlhabani says that in much the same way that Chinese peasants were the backbone of Mao’s revolution, it is ordinary people in rural areas who are showing “massive support” for the new party.
“As far as Khama is concerned, his policies such as constituency tournaments and Miss Remote Area Development Programme were meant to give rural youth and talent an opportunity to showcase their skills as well as compete with everyone else across the country,” says Motlhabani by way of illuminating on this comparison.
Sunday Standard had also sought to understand ways in which Khama transformed Botswana society parallel to Mao’s own feat with Chinese society. The response: “In his 10-year tenure, Khama took an active interest in creating equal opportunity for the forgotten Batswana. He travelled widely in rural Botswana, taking opportunities to the poor. His government was instrumental in the introduction of an affirmative action policy for the downtrodden, efficient delivery of social grants for orphans and vulnerable children, Miss RADP for the girl child in far-flung settlements, arts, sports constituency competitions, tourism, Khawa Sand Dune Challenge, Makgadikgadi Epic among many pioneering initiatives which the current administration still takes great pride in.”
Khama’s central role in the BPF is reflected in the construction of the party’s press statement which either mentions him by name or refers to him seven times. On the other hand, party leader, Reverend Biggie Butale, is mentioned only once. The question that Sunday Standard put to Motlhabani with regard to this point was whether this wouldn’t reinforce the impression that Khama is the actual power behind the throne. Indeed there is a very strong perception in some quarters that the BPF is organised around Khama’s personal interests and that it is but a tool (hammer) he is using to knock down the Botswana Democratic Party.
Motlhabani’s response is that Khama’s outsized stature necessarily has to result in him dominating the current national conversation.
“This is over and above the fact that he is a former president, army commander and kgosikgolo who is part of the many people that were dissatisfied with internal democracy and other issues in the ruling party and decided to form the BPF,” says Motlhabani. “He is our most prominent member. I would assume the same would have happened had he not done the same and stayed in the BDP.”
The other issue that Sunday Standard and Motlhabani tinker over is that the substance of a statement that Khama is “popular and revered by many, particularly amongst the rural folk for his altruistic nature.” In practical terms, that refers to his philanthropy and the point we put to the BPF spokesperson is that far from being altruistic, this enterprise is an exercise in power because it gives the philanthropist a lot of public influence and at the end of the day doesn’t improve the material circumstances of the supposed beneficiaries. As a matter of fact, one of Khama’s subjects (Botswana National Front founder, Dr. Kenneth Koma) has made that point in the past using a different set of words.
The first part of the response is metaphysical, with Motlhabani stressing the subjective nature of interpretation to subtly dismiss the pointSunday Standard makes. Substantively, he notes that “of all former heads of state and politicians, [Khama is] doing the most and people are benefitting” – an assertion that the President of the BDP’s Women’s Wing, Dorcas Makgatho would hotly contest. Addressing a press conference last week, Makgato said that Khama’s economic empowerment was racialised, with whites getting “prime land” in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta while blacks got blankets, soup and radio sets. She said a couple of other unflattering things that nobody would ever have imagined her making during the years that she was Khama’s minister.
Makgatho’s verbal attack prompted Motlhabani to dismiss her as being “on an insulting spree” in his press statement. Insulting spree or not, Makgato could well have been auditioning a new line of attack that the BDP could be planning to use on the bi-racial Khama. It is unclear whether Khama is ready for this conversation from people he worked very closely with for decades.
Whatever views people like Makgato may express, Motlhabani says that members of the public so well appreciate Khama’s philanthropy that when he went on a national farewell in 2017/18, they returned the favour by also lavishing him with farewell presents.
Motlhabani auditions his own word to describe the BPF activists – “martyrs”, which he also renders in Setswana.
“Their acts are courageous, risking persecution and exclusion at the hands of a hegemonic BDP. Ke ba tswa setlhabelo.”
There is a view, expressed both privately and publicly, that part of BPF’s campaign is to return Botswana to what it was under Khama. Some people still have vivid memories of the old Directorate of Intelligence Services – and beer guzzlers still remember having to contend with mini-skirted operating hours for places that sell alcohol. On such basis, it is reasonable to ask Motlhabani what BPF would change back to what it was when President Mokgweetsi Masisi took over the reins of power. He offers an artful answer that doesn’t provide the list Sunday Standard had hoped for: “We are not looking back, we are pressed for time and left with about 70 days to the general election. We must look ahead.”
In the next breath, the question is reincarnated by highlighting two issues that Khama has been vocal about but which BPF has yet to make any public pronouncements on: the lifting of the hunting ban as well as extension of trading hours for establishments that sell alcohol.
Motlhabani’s response is that the party has yet to consult with its “diverse membership” on these issues in order to fashion an informed position on both.
“We are not populist, we care for Batswana and love our country,” he says. “Our members will guide us.”