Masisi’s Serowe kgotla meeting was a sad day for Botswana

06 Jan 2019

Some in the Botswana Democratic Party felt that so soon in his new position and with his relationship with his predecessor, Ian Khama, having acquired industrial-grade toxicity, President Mokgweetsi Masisi should not have addressed a kgotla meeting in Serowe on October 10.

Naturally, all that and other factors would have been considered and the decision that he should venture into the lion’s den finally taken. Serowe is a lion’s den on account being the capital of the tribal territory that Khama inherited from his royal forefathers. The meeting occurred at a time that Masisi and Khama have fallen out in an extremely bad way – “hurling a live snake at each other” is the Setswana that a now famous speaker, Wame Rapitsenyane, would use to describe this relationship during the question-and-answer session.

Missing at the high table was Khama who, against what the law states in explicit terms, has one foot in the kgotla and another not quite in Tsholetsa House (the BDP HQ in Gaborone) but somewhere along the road that passes in front of it. In Setswana that Khama never steeped himself in, blaming “growing up in boarding schools” for it, the extent of freedom of speech in the kgotla is distilled in the saying mafoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe – all kgotla words are beautiful. By boycotting Masisi’s meeting, Khama showed in deed that he doesn’t believe that all kgotla words are beautiful.

Even with the routineness of the main speech, the palpable tension foretold dramatic clashes that would soon unfold. If nothing else, the clashes revealed that Batswana have a lot to do in terms of democratic co-existence. While he was the main target of ire, President Masisi was not the only one. A speaker from the floor attacked a “dictatorial” Bangwato Regent, Kgosi Sediegeng Kgamane, for imposing a headman on residents of a certain village in the Central District. Though measured, Masisi’s response was stern, stressing in part, the need to respect traditional leaders. From the floor, a male voice excoriated the questioner for his choice of dress with “le gone a apere skipara”, which means “and he is wearing a skipper shirt.” A skipper shirt was actually more appropriate for this hot day than a suit the voice expected the man to have worn to the kgotla.

The Serowe meeting created a social media superstar – Rapitsenyane – who asked Masisi about a whispering campaign to restore normalcy to Botswana, about how far away he was when the country was being ruined and whether it was true that he and Khama didn’t see eye to eye. It was when the made the latter point that Rapitsenyane used the serpentine Setswana saying, go betsana ka noga e utlwa. He got the loudest cheer of the day and the implication of this was not lost on anyone, least of all the president. Interestingly, Rapitsenyane became a superstar not because of the substance of what he said but because Masisi mishandled his question, attacking him personally. Going back decades, intelligence is gathered (in real-time) on speakers who rile VIPs at kgotla meetings. Minutes after Rapitsenyane spoke, Masisi had this intelligence on a piece of paper and wasted no time in sharing it with the audience out of context. He revealed that Rapitsenyane was an Agriculture teacher at Lotsane Senior Secondary School in nearby Palapye and unless he had taken a day off, was supposed to be in classroom teaching students. A former teacher himself, Masisi suggested he was a better teacher than Rapitsenyane. It turned out later that Rapitsenyane had indeed taken a day off to attend the meeting. Many people were not happy with the president’s response at all because it revealed a side of him they didn’t know existed. They also felt that he had victimised Rapitsenyane, who immediately shot to the top of the charts.

Interestingly, while the Lotsane teacher continues to enjoy fame that has run longer than the usual 15 minutes, he is actually not any kind of hero. If he is, then he is sort that President Nelson Mandela would reportedly rail against during heated meetings of the African National Congress central committee meetings – “a peacetime hero.” Rapitsenyane’s Facebook page identifies him as a trade unionist and human rights activist who didn’t rise to the occasion at the height of Khama’s autocracy. When Khama addressed kgotla meetings in Serowe at a time that he was gutting the Public Service Act of worker protections, Rapitsenyane never once took a day off to confront him. Never once did he use the kgotla to confront Khama over his autocracy - which reversed gains that have long defined Botswana as a nation. Supposing he had had the guts that he found after April 1 this year and challenged Khama, Rapitsenyane would (like former minister Lesego Motsumi) have been banished to some far flung school as punishment and his job security would have been permanently imperilled.

The most important point to make though is that while he resides in the public consciousness as an individual, Rapitsenyane is actually a symbol. He symbolises a Khama supporter who puts the former president’s interests before his own and the nation’s interests and in whose eyes Khama can never do wrong. It is likely that after his performance, Rapitsenyane is now in Khama’s inner circle. That would guarantee that when it comes to reviving one of the least fulsome monarchies in Botswana, Rapitsenyane (as those who think like him) will be least useful because he has no history of being assertive with those who are making that monarchy dysfunctional so. As a symbol, Rapitsenyane exposed one of the major shortcomings of Khama’s supporters: they can’t engage substantively with issues around their idol’s post-office conduct and actually avoid them.

There are people who have a problem with automatic presidential succession, not least because in a supposedly democratic dispensation, this provision gives a lot of power to an unelected president to choose his successor. However, that is the law and on such basis, Masisi’s legitimacy as president cannot be questioned by anyone. As a matter of fact, the naysaying doesn’t need to be dignified by asserting such legitimacy. That is the context in which it was unnecessary for the young emcee at the Serowe kgotla to refer to Masisi as “Tautona wa rona rotlhe mo Botswana.” The fact of the matter is that those who either doubt or reject this elemental fact, don’t need reminding or convincing but “Fire!” church deliverance. Thus the MC’s pronouncement did the opposite of what it aimed to achieve. If we disqualify Masisi to be occupy the republic’s presidential office in favour of any one royal, we are by extension disqualifying ourselves from holding the same office. There was also a minor cultural sin from the MC’s podium when someone exclaimed wow! about something. One can either frown on this or just accept that going back to early 20th century, the Serowe kgotla has always been the most western in the country. On being installed as kgosi in 1923, Sekgoma Khama, General Khama’s grandfather, wore not traditional attire but British military attire. If it happens that in the future, a kgosi who speaks absolutely no Setswana is installed at this kgotla, that would be natural progression from what started in 1923. Besides, as other Batswana, more and more Bangwato speak English as a first language.

While Masisi is touted as his own man and one determined to break with the legacy of Khama, he seems content to continue a disagreeable public-giving practice that the latter institutionalised. After the meeting, some elderly people were lined up to receive blanket donations from the president. There are so many things that one can donate (like umbrellas or bottled water on a hot summer day) but like Khama, Masisi’s philanthropy is built around blankets.

Contrary to what most think, the star of the Serowe meeting was not Rapitsenyane but Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development. A highly accomplished public speaker, Venson-Moitoi uses folksy, idiomatic Setswana and with Ponatshego Kedikilwe having retired from parliament, she easily stands out as the one MP most competent in the languages that parliament uses officially – English and Setswana. As she does in parliament, she was able to deliver the sternest rebuke to those who abused their freedom of speech using the cleanest idiomatic Setswana.

In less than three minutes, Venson-Moitoi also managed to kill off the nascent “Tleke Moshupa” meme – whoever Meme is and whatever her claim to fame is. There is a type of heavy make-up, false-rape-scamming, jukebox-and-snooker bar habitue given to telegraphing her sexual availability with occasional pyrotechnic bouts of “we-are-over-here” laughter for the sole benefit of potential payday one-night-stands within earshot. The laughter would typically terminate with verbalization of “Tleke!” Likelier than not, the “Tleke Serowe” woman would have more than a few backstreet abortions under her faux-leather figure belt.  With a Moshupa man having successfully tricked presidential chieftaincy from of the Bangwato royal family, the unwitting streets turned “Tleke Serowe” into “Tleke Moshupa” in celebration of that feat. Venson-Moitoi asked the new Moshupa-Manyana MP, Karabo Gare, to tell his constituents that they really didn’t want to associate their village with that word and that men typically “sidestep” the “Tleke” type of woman. Thanks to Venson-Moitoi’s education, you no longer hear “Tleke Moshupa!” coming from anybody’s lips.

It would be naïve to assume that she was not yet part of what is now called New Jerusalem – a BDP faction that she is the face of – at that time. However, it is to her credit that despite such posture, she found the most mature words to navigate a very tense meeting.