Farewell GUS; activist, loyalist, mentor, choir master and war lord!

08 Jul 2018

As  multitudes  gathered  in Molepolole  yesterday to  bury   GUS,  the observation was inescapable  that  he was  many things  to many people and  a somewhat complex   personality  in the  political tapestry   of  this country. GUS died   with  his boots on  right  in the trenches  of his singular, lifelong passion  of politics.  Many  of my generation  and  those  preceding  us  who  got involved  in  politics  were  groomed  directly  by GUS   when  we arrived at  the University  of Botswana  of the early  nineties  at a time when it was a hotbed  of  opposition politics. In common with  institutions  of higher learning the world over,  anti establishment   views  flourished  at  our then  only  premier  hub  of  learning. Ahead of  enrolment  it  was  drilled into  us  who displayed interest  in national  politics that   the  moment  you  entered  the gates  any sentiment    partial  to the ruling BDP  was considered passe  and   best  kept to oneself.  In an era  of  leftist  politics before  the   fall of the  Berlin Wall, which  in its  wake swept away  romanticized  notions of  how  to achieve  the perfect  world,  a  safe space    for  a  greenhorn  pumped full of  bombastic  phrases was to  associate  with  the  opposition, which  then was Botswana National Front student  wing. They held sway  and in subtle ways  but which in  positive testimony   to the  somewhat  unusual politics of this country  never  crossed the  line into  outright intimidation and  violence as  was   the case  in other countries. 

To blend in and wear the badge of   intellectualism, BNF student movement  known as Mass was  the  place  to be seen.  It all made for a   nice little  totalitarian  student  environment which brooked no dissent  and  in fact  looked  on with   disdain  at those  who  held a  contrarian  view   in support of  BDP, represented by    the structure  GS  26. Certainly  by the time   some of us arrived,   BDP  had  its   band of  supporters  but  often one got  the sense they  operated more  as  an underground  movement, always  looking  over the shoulder. I was one of those determined to  put a stop to this and  affirm BDP  as a force in student politics. Governance on campus   was  dominated  by  opposition  and  they set the agenda  for  both  internal  and  external  campaigns, and one has   to admit  that  in  an era characterized by regional liberation politics,  they  did  acquit   themselves very well.  In a country  where  being  at  university,   and   in a situation where most families were eagerly  awaiting their  first  graduate,  students  were  held in awe and  notwithstanding  their pie in the sky ideologies,  were regarded with awe and when  they  took to the streets  of Gaborone to march  for one cause or the other,  the  nation  stood  still  and listened.

Therefore  to be   seen  outside  this forced  political consensus   was a  challenge to   many and   they  either remained  silent  or  out of conviction,   or even peer  pressure  took  up  with Mass,  relegating the BDP  student wing GS 26 into a fringe outfit. Because   GS 26  had to  exist  within  BDP  structures,   it was designated a cell  in  Village ward  of  the then  Gaborone South constituency  hence the hyphen.  The   area was a  fortress of  BNF  doyen Dr Kenneth Koma  but it is against this background that we got  to know GUS as the brave  BDP   man  who  contested against  the  opposition leader  in  the 1989  general elections and  of course received a drubbing. With his then trusted  henchman Sonny Moathodi  we  were schooled in BDP politics  by the duo  and by the time the 1994 elections  came around some in our  group  were considered  seasoned  enough  to  be assigned  roles in the campaign team including  acting as rally announcers and  polling agents  on election day. Again GUS  came  up a cropper  against Michael Dingake,  now  both  vying in the new Gaborone Central  constituency.  It must  be recalled  that  back then the  whole of Gaborone was  a BNF  stronghold and only the brave  and most loyal to BDP  went  willingly  into self sacrifice. GUS  stood  head and shoulders above all  as the  quintessential activist.

A  caution  first  culture that  persists   to this day made many BDP activists  choose the safety  of village   constituencies  and left the city, to borrow from Quett Masire,  to the  very brave, or foolish and invariably  it  ended in defeat. Had GUS  in those years  chosen the safety  first  principle  and  fled to  a village  constituency  we  might be talking of  a man  who  could  have  gone all  the way  to occupy  one of the top two  positions  of state. His  career  was  crippled  by  immense  love for the BDP  but the  less discerning  of his  party colleagues  would dismiss  him as  serial  loser  from the safety  of their  village constituencies  when  they  could never muster  the  guts  to  run in Gaborone. As GS 26  activists  we existed  within this  eco system  and were trained  by GUS and  his retainers. He  became  a mentor    to  our likes  who  without  his  patronage  possibly  could  not  have amounted to much. In fact  some of us whose political careers were  made  and finished  in Gaborone  possibly  were  contaminated  by  his bravery or foolishness of  not fleeing  to our own  home villages for assured and flourishing  careers. Back then, through practical example   from the likes of GUS we  subordinated our personal advancement  to   the interests of the party in the name of  sacrifice. 

Against this backdrop  GUS was  an integral  cog of  BDP politics  in  the city  and  in the process  built up an  elaborate infrastructure  when the infamous  factional wars broke  out  during that  period.  Himself seen as  an appendage of certain party lords,   his influence  extended beyond  the city  boundaries  and   every  two  years when  the factions, Mmusi/ Kwelagobe  known as Big 2 and the Merafhe/Magang  given the moniker Big 5  battled  for   control  of the  party at congress, GUS  was the kingpin who  could be counted  on  to marshal the  troops for his team. Factions would assume  different nomenclatures depending on the season of war.

Later they would become Kedikilwe/ Kwelagobe  and Merafhe/ Nkate only  to transform into A Team and Barataphathi  but  always  with  the same cast of  key belligerents. And always  in the shadows like a stealth  operator was GUS. He  was a figure of great admiration  in his faction.  On  the other hand  he evoked fear  and  enmity  from  the  rival faction  who  ascribed  every congress  setback  to the dark  arts  of GUS who it was whispered had  learnt  them from his  father, reputed to  have been  a crack  strategist  in Kweneng power tussles. Thus branded a war lord  he  became  a polarizing  figure  in the  party  and this  militated against  his  rise to  national leadership prominence. Next  to all  this,  GUS  conducted  a  superb  choir  called International. BDP once  had  a buzzing  culture  of  choral  groups  meant to  disseminate  the message of the  party  through song in addition to lampooning  the opposition.  With things evolving, the choral  groups  have  lost  prominence  and in this context the death  of GUS  means  the  most accomplished  trio  of  composers and arrangers of BDP   melodies  are gone.

Of  the trio Moses Ntwaagae is  somewhere in opposition  following  the  schism of 2010 and Gomolemo Motswaledi, easily the  most talented  is deceased, save to say  his  story  will  be fully told some day.  That said, as BDP  fortunes  improved in Gaborone , it  would seem GUS  just could not strike luck. In  my life as a politician  I have concluded  with   no fear of contradiction that  good  fortune or simple luck  plays  a role  in political advancement  and scholars  of this  discipline  have  tended  to  undervalue this aspect.  No matter  how talented or hardworking  a politician  one may  be,  if they do   not  enjoy  a stroke of luck,  wallow  in  immobility they will. In my time i have seen  chancers and adventurists  come along  and  without  much effort,  not to mention any iota of  talent or hard work, attain advancement  over those with  better attributes. GUS was  one  such  unlucky  politician  and  despite  being the  most  hardworking  and  committed of  activists  it  just never  worked out during  his  best  years because the a lucky  break which would have  complemented  his sacrifice  and energy  remained elusive.  By the time of the 1999  elections I was  head of secretariat  at Tsholetsa House,  a position  I attained  in no small  measure to the efforts of the DK/GUS  infrastructure.  This  time, ten years later   he  had decided  to  return to Gaborone South  which  he had lost to Dr Koma back in 1989.  Once again the opposition leader  prevailed. 

A week after the elections  I  was alerted   by  my  receptionist  that  a group  of  men  were asking to see  me.  I wanted to know if they were  party activists  so I could  get my bearings  right  because  in my job that would  enable  me to  know how to  deal  with  the issues presented, and if they  were factionalists I would respond  in accordance with the expected  script. On the phone  and cupping the receiver  she  whispered that  they were  unknown  to  her. I met the delegation  and  in their introductions  they informed me they were  from Gaborone South  constituency. They  were  community elders and  some within the group  owned up they  were BDP.  This was totally from  left field. I practically  knew  everyone  who  was worth knowing in the party, particularly in Gaborone and these  faces were  unfamiliar. Settled,   they got  down to business  and  asked me to arrange  for them a meeting  with President Festus Mogae.

Fair  enough such requests  were   a  routine part of my  work.  But  what  is it  they wanted to see the president  about because  I  had  to give  him the heads up in  processing  their  request. In almost  mournful tone they  confided that  they had come  on  own volition  because  they  were concerned that GUS  had suffered  enough in the  cause  of BDP.  In meeting President Mogae  they  wanted to plead with him  to  send  the  man on a diplomatic posting. I was somewhat taken aback  and   prodded them if  the subject of their mission had sent them. Response was in the negative  and I had no reason to  doubt because  among the group were  men of the cloth. We parted  and  days  later they were in the presence  of the  president, a meeting subsequent  to  which GUS  was duly  appointed  High Commissioner  to Namibia. In honesty the delegation was  correct. GUS  was punch drunk and battered after  all  his  heroic  exertions for BDP   over the years failed to  yield  fruit.   Apparently  the first  offer  given by President Mogae  was the prestigious  Washington  station but  GUS  argued  it was  too  far from home. Later those in the  know would claim  that GUS  wanted to be nearby  so as to keep an eye  on things  and re-launch his political  career. Indeed that  came to  pass  as his interest  in the new  Molepolole  North  constituency  became apparent.

Whilst  in Namibia  the GUS  legend  grew with every telling and it  was rumoured  that  he would drive  from Windhoek  in the dark, hold  nocturnal  meetings  with  his  campaigners  and be back in  office the following morning. The truth  is more prosaic. While outside the country,  his mentor  and political  brother  DK was  doing the heavy lifting  in the  absence of his  protégé.  Tour of duty  ended in the run  up to the primary elections of  2003 which GUS won,  and went  on to  take the  constituency,  marking  his first  electoral  victory  since  he begun his quest  in 1979 running  for a Gaborone  council ward against Maitshwarelo Dabutha, an election which was tied and had to be decided by a toss of the coin.  He was then  nominated to  parliament  as part of  a group of Young Turks that comprised the  inaugural  BDP National Youth Executive Committee formed 1977. Returning   in same capacity  of special nomination after  the 1984 polls,  his stay  in parliament  was  cut short by  the Tshiamo  ballot  box incident in which  after Peter Mmusi, the  vice president to President Masire had defeated Dr Koma  in  the race for Gaborone South, an unopened  ballot box was  discovered, leading  to a court petition and  election re-run  which  the opposition  leader    won riding on  propaganda  that the ruling party was  behind the shenanigans  of concealing the  ballot  box  in an effort to  shore up the  second  man in charge. With  the vice president  in limbo  the  only solution  was for one of the  specially  elected legislators  to   give way  so as to accommodate Mmusi.

Ever the loyal activist, GUS  volunteered to step aside as legislator and assistant minister. He was then  appointed a diplomat  in Europe  which some  considered a plum  post but not so with GUS  whose first  love  was  politics and his party. Victory in 2004  was an outcome of his return  to the village  where  political careers  are  longer than the suicide  missions  in  Gaborone, which nowadays nonetheless consume all and sundry across  party  lines. With GUS back in  the game, normal business  resumed in all  respects. 2009 saw GUS retaining his seat and   gradually he  gained the respect   long due to  him  as a senior activist  of long standing and experience.  In a  tribute  this week Dumelang Saleshando  who  arrived in parliament the same year noted how GUS  got  on well  with  colleagues  across  irrespective  of partisan affiliation in the chambers and outside. A very  accurate   description  of  the man because indeed  he was  an epitome of  manners and   decorum in terms of language  and behavior. Even during the  worst  of  factional wars   he was always courteous  and sought  never  to cause  offence. His style  was of cultured politics, far removed from rancor and acrimony in favour of strategy  and guile.

As an affable war lord with a wicked sense of humour  he  would  be gracious  to   those on the other  side of the factional  divide  in the process of plotting their downfall. The only time  GUS  vanished from action  was  in the chronology of  events that  birthed  the BMD and I never  found out why. Whether it was  heartbreak that  many  of his products were founders of the  new movement  and there  was nothing he could do to prevent  its inevitable  formation   now exists in the realm of speculation with his passing. But this  vocation  to which we have  committed our lives can also  visit cut the ties that bind relationships. The year 2015  was  one of  my worst  in politics when I found  myself  having to  contest  for the position of Secretary General against  GUS, whom I considered a  mentor and up to this day I am yet to figure out what came  between  us. That, though  is  another story  for another day  but GUS  to me remained  a person  generous of heart when it came to  imparting  his knowledge and skills. He  could spot  talent  and go out of his way  to nurture  those in whom he saw potential but of course only if they   did not go astray and  work against his interests. Those that chose a path different  were doomed to  perdition with GUS  faithfully  shepherding   them there. Despite  defeating  him in  Mmadinare  I  did not feel triumphant,  but  rather sad  as I  reflected  on  his role in my  life suffice to  say  in the  final analysis   the  encounter  left  both of us scarred .  In spite of this terrible episode  we continued  to work  together  and  I extended  to him  my deference  from  all those years  ago  when  I  joined GS 26 and  he nurtured me.

It  was in my new role  that  we  went about  our  functions with  him as  convener of  the Political Education and Elections Sub Committee(PEEC) reporting to  me, mentor  to  student. GUS  was always  a  workhorse  and  whilst  some of   us took  our  days  off  to pursue other  aspects of life away from BDP,  his was a disposition  anchored  around  the party. He  put in the  hours  in building  up  to  the  2018 primary elections  which  his sub committee  was  charged  with  running. In the months leading  up  to  his demise GUS  seemed to  be   making his  final  contribution  to the  life long labour of  his  love,  organizing the primaries alongside  campaigning  to be  returned to parliament in Molepolole North, having become a casualty of the  2014 UDC  tsunami.  His  was akin to a death foretold  because the  morning  of his  passing he  was  in  meetings  putting  final touches  to  what  was clearly an onerous  undertaking due to culminate  next month. That  is why I say  GUS  died   with  his BDP boots on.  No one could  prevent  the  hour  of his  passing  because its time  had come. But  wherever  he is  GUS  must be   now at peace  because  his final  innings   came in  service  of his beloved party.  Farewell GUS!