Khama too culturally western to be ‘tribalistic’

20 May 2019

As the battle for executive power between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and former President General Ian Khama escalates, the latter’s campaign has been cast in tribal terms. As the son of Founding President and abdicated Bangwato tribal leader, Sir Seretse Khama, Gen. Khama was installed as Paramount Chief in 1979 at a ceremony that the young Masisi says he attended. Ever since, two Regents, first Mokgacha Mokgadi, then Sediegeng Kgamane, have acted in his own stead. Where some Bangwato had expected Khama to assume royal duties when he stepped down as president last year, his interest lies elsewhere – politics.

Khama has never hesitated to leverage his royal position to bolster his political standing. Out of real fear that his political star is waning, he addressed a political rally at the Serowe showground last week that had been deceptively advertised as a consultative tribal meeting. In his capacity as Bangwato “kgosikgolo” (an officially non-existent title), Khama invited “Bangwato” to a meeting where the only item on the agenda was political, not tribal. Following that meeting and now more than ever, some have pinned an impossible label on Khama - “tribalist.” Others see him as a tribal (Mongwato) supremacist who is hellbent on tribalising a public good – the state presidency. The problem with casting Khama’s antics in tribal terms is that from an objective, evidence-based perspective, he has never been part of Ngwato culture. More western than African, Khama is merely using tribal identity no differently from the way British colonialists used it – as a wedge to divide and conquer black Africans.

When the British played African tribes off against each other, they were never called “tribalists” but combatants from the feuding tribes were given such label. It would have been absurd to call the British tribalists because they were not personally invested in any tribal agenda and didn’t participate in the tribal life of African communities. Supposing it exists at all, there is abundant evidence that the bi-racial Khama is not personally invested in any tribal agenda of the Bangwato. Evidence is as abundant that he doesn’t participate in the tribal life of the tribe that he is kgosi (supreme traditional leader) of.

Khama has also set deeply problematic records that undermine Bangwato culture. He is the first Bangwato kgosi in the tribe’s history whose principal conversational language is not Setswana and who doesn’t speak proper (never mind idiomatic) Setswana. He neither knows what “masenyane” is nor that the native Sengwato word for wedding/marriage is not “lenyalo”. As president, he never went to United Nations and African Union summits because, according to him, he wanted to stay home and interact with ordinary people at the kgotla. In the process of doing this, Khama lowered the quality of Setswana used at the kgotla. Typically, speakers at a kgotla meeting use highly idiomatic Setswana – which in part enables them to criticise even thekgosi without being offensive. For as long as Khama was in the presidency as well as to date, people with such linguistic ability are forced to use very basic Setswana that he can understand. Differently put, Khama’s socio-linguistic age doesn’t co-relate with his chronological age in as far as the traditional use of Setswana is concerned.

Khama is also the first Bangwato kgosi to delegate his responsibilities to someone else for as long as he has – 40 years. He is clearly more interested in politics than in the bogosi (traditional leadership) of Bangwato, more concerned about Botswana being “leaderless” (as his dismissal of Masisi shows) for just one year than about a vacancy that has existed in the bogosi of his own tribe for four decades. He is the first Bangwato kgosi whose principal residence is hundreds of kilometres away from his royal seat of power. A deep-pocketed man, Khama doesn’t even have a house in Serowe but stays at the family house which wouldn’t afford him the comfort of his Gaborone residences.

The 65-year old Khama has never aligned himself with any black cause, has most definitely never given a black-power salute and as president, pursued a foreign policy that put western interests before those of the African collective, whom Bangwato are part of as Botswana citizens.

In a past when a kgosi had to be a business leader, Khama would long have been deposed because he has not provided any business leadership that has enabled Bangwato to thrive economically. A kgosimade and shared wealth with his tribe. On the other hand, Khama has built a vast business empire that Bangwato are not minimally connected to and don’t benefit from. He has not partnered with Bangwato businessmen up in the Okavango Delta where he has lucrative holdings in luxury safari tourism but with Europeans and Americans. Granted, other dikgosi have done about the same thing but as a wealthy man and a former president, Khama is in a unique position to have transformed the fortunes of Bangwato. During his presidency, Khama’s kitchen cabinet, which was almost entirely white and mostly European, didn’t feature a single Mongwato. In terms of sharing anything with Bangwato, a tree shade is the only possibility.

Khama’s only connection with a section of the tribe is through blanket-and-flat-dumplings philanthropy which he uses to bolster his popularity. Such philanthropy doesn’t serve tribal agenda like cultural revival – which he can’t do because he knows nothing about Sengwato culture.All this means that Khama is the first kgosi in Bangwato history who doesn’t have the ability to transmit Sengwato culture.

It is unclear how many but a good many Bangwato are in denial about Khama’s real connection with their culture - as his physical connection with Serowe. Over the past couple of years, he has been visiting the village to give elaborate performances of theatrical philanthropy. These performances are designed to bolster his popularity and lately have been ratcheted up for the sake of political survival. Khama has never invited Bangwato to a meeting at the Serowe showground to talk about HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime, gender-based violence, unemployment and related social problems.

As a coping mechanism, denial has benefits but it is not in the long-term interests of the tribe to pretend that everything is perfect when they know it is not. People attending the meeting that he addressed applauded when Khama claimed to want to defend democracy when, as president, he did everything in his power to kill it.

Sections of the tribe that want to join his campaign are committing a huge strategic blunder because they don’t know whose interests it is really serving. If Botswana catches fire, they will forever be associated with arson started by someone who was never part of them.