Masisi: Can he transform the country without reforming the party?

23 Sep 2019

By Lawrence Ookeditse

The other day I bumped into an old friend of mine. And he asked me this question having read my thoughts on President Mokgweetsi Masisi and transformation. Fair question, or is it not? After all, that much venerated seminal figure of opposition politics in Botswana, Dr Kenneth Koma is oft noted to have remarked that “the Democratic Party has no reform potential”. This has become a relevant question as many Batswana keep asking whether a person who has been a part of the system can actually bring about change. ‘O ne a le bokgakala bo kahe?’ as some brave man asked. These are fair questions given that the party is the vanguard, the vessel through which the country will be delivered to the Promised Land anyway.

I find that transformation of the country before reform of the party or even concurrently is possible, desirable even. The party as it is takes a congress to reform. A reform agenda needs a leader to table it and it passes. Relatively easy work compared to transforming a nation.

Fortunately also, the BDP is a party that has been built on pragmatism. It is an organization whose principles and diversity mirror the diversity of our nation: You find within it the extremely wealthy alongside the extremely poor; the petty bourgeoisie, comprador bourgeoisie and the ultimate bourgeoisie co-exist. The party is a cosmic constellation of ‘isms’- you have within it capitalists, communists, socialists, feminists, atheists and the religious. And these are among the traits that have made it an enduring presence in the unforgiving industry of politics.

And this is a result of the party constitution. The BDP founders in their wisdom built a party for all times and epochs. The party’s struggle or raison d’etre (purpose/reason for existence) is captured as to wage a relentless struggle against poverty, hunger, disease, oppression, discrimination and such other vices while providing for equality, tolerance, unity, consultation and democracy in its principles. These are timeless and boundless principles.

What could happen is that a leader may choose to curtail them if they are minimalist in their outlook, or they could be expansive if they’re maximalist in their approach to leadership. A dictatorship or loss of direction of the party would not be a result of the guiding principles or foundations of the party but of the choices of a leader, aided and abated by the structures in place and the general membership. Hence, the party needs to reform practice over text of foundation especially.

This therefore, means President Masisi can for now focus on transforming the country. The vehicle for that transformation, the party, is ready. It was born ready. This is unlike parties that are to one extreme ideologically for instance. The Labour Party in Britain in 1996 had to reform first in order to usher in a ‘new country’- it had a stifling clause 4 that provided to ‘secure to the workers by hand and brain the full fruits of their labour through common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange…..’ This clause made the Labour Party a communist party. It prescribed nationalization and massive power to trade unions to veto a lot of decisions. Modernizers would struggle to transform the country given these.  As such they needed to reform the party in order to birth a new country.

This is a problem President Masisi and the BDP do not have. The important thing right now is to focus on transforming this country. The economy desperately needs to be transformed from one based on mineral revenue to one that hinges on knowledge and its pegs of technology/innovation, services and an outward orientation to the world. These we need dearly and urgently. We need a country whose constitution is at par with the dreams and aspirations of 21st century citizens. A country in which anyone, anywhere can apply their capabilities to become whatever they wish to become, with the state an eager enabler and not a huge stumbling block to go around or grease to reduce friction. We need a country in which one has prospects of success on basis of merit, on basis of one’s capability and not proximity to decision makers. When Masisi speaks of this you realize we need not have any excuses about the party not having changed. The party needs not change for the country to transform. If anything, the country’s transformation will have a domino effect on the BDP’s reform.

In all honesty, the BDP largely needs to reform not for the country but for its own survival. The nation, with a leader with a clear vision and who strives for inclusiveness will be alright. It is the party that ought to worry. I mention some of the reasons or motivations for reform without claiming either originality or that they are exhaustive.

The BDP desperately needs to find a way to become a party that holds its leaders accountable. And by leaders I mean across all strata. Given the nature of the party, its norms even, it is a party that easily would support a dictatorship. BDP members respect leadership. And at times over do it. When you are a leader of the party, the party gives you way too much leeway to act. If you are not a democrat in orientation and fiber, you’d institute tyranny with great ease.

The leader sets the agenda. The leader even when wrong does not get to be told they are wrong. Members actually at times see those with dissenting voices as a problem, and not as committed democrats who want to drive the party towards progress. In a way, the party needs to go back to the people. It needs to be less elitist. This is a key element for the party to correct.

It cannot be in the 21st century that party congresses are held, and constitutionally are the key decisions making bodies while in actually fact congress doesn’t represent a pluralism of ideas. It needs to be an avenue for vigorous debate and disagreements and then finding each other again. A pluralists gathering where a thousand thoughts emerge and get challenged.

Equally, as a ruling party, the BDP needs to step up and actually govern. Social Scientists may debate this and it’s alright. A good thing we did at inception was to have a country run by a meritorious civil service. This is well and good. However, the party needs to be able to do a better job at holding the executive accountable. Cabinet Ministers and their principals need to account more to the party.

For this to happen, the party needs to deliberately have it in its constitution in no uncertain terms that these account to the Secretary General who exercises by proxy powers of congress. And in that arrangement the party Secretary General need not really aspire for parliament and cabinet positions. As it is, there is little or no linkage of the party to governance beyond merely that the President of the party when it is in power is President of the country and that cabinet ordinarily is drawn from the party. 

But these do not need for the BDP to be reformed before transformation of the country. It was already built to be able to move and adapt. In fact, transforming the country will force the BDP to reform. When the constitution of the Republic changes for instance, the party constitution will have to also shift because it is heavily linked to that of the country anyway. And the constitutional reform process of the country will be driven by a BDP government.  In a way then, fix the country and the party will take care of itself. I do not even know if that’s a model for best practice, but in politics at times there are no formulas.

The country can transform first, and reforms in the party will come with or after. The leader has enough leeway to move and deliver on the electoral promise given that there is no clause that hinders that. It is the choices of leaders that will hinder transformation and not the party stance. On the 23rd of October 2019 then, consider giving President Masisi your vote to help transform this economy.

In many ways then, Dr. Kenneth Koma, if rightfully cited as the smith behind these words may have been right- ‘the Democratic Party has no reform potential’. Except one may add, it was built to be flexible enough to assume whatever position the leadership and generation of the epoch choose without breaking. It is pragmatic enough as an institution.