Masisi can lay claim to Seretse Khama’s legacy, the son can’t

08 May 2019

Whether he was a consummate democrat or not, Botswana’s founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, made a good first impression on people who constitute a significant voter block as well as on an equally significant number of their descendants.

Sir Seretse was a Bangwato kgosi (supreme traditional leader) and in the tribal territory staked out by his forbears, no opposition MP has been elected since independence in 1966. There is strong belief that the BDP is “Seretse party”, urban legend that if you are a Mongwato and don’t vote BDP, then Sir Seretse’s ghost will haunt you as punishment as well as recollection about Sir Seretse’s counsel about against straying to the opposition camp – “Seretse o re laile.” Sir Seretse bequeathed his popularity to his first-born son, Ian Khama, who added to such inheritance by becoming the Deputy Commander of the Botswana Defence Force at independence and four decades later, Botswana’s fourth president under a BDP ticket.

There are numerous historic elements to the upcoming 2019 general election, the most prominent being that by the time you read this, the son will most likely have publicly announced his resignation from his father’s “personal” party. There are equally numerous explanations for that action but the most convincing is that he is not looking for a political home but shopping around for an insurance policy that would erect a very tall barrier between him and the longest arm of the law.

If Khama does indeed disassociate himself from the BDP, he would be effectively pitting his popularity against that of his father as embodied in support for BDP. For people who don’t ever want to incur Sir Seretse’s wrath, the 2019 general election becomes an unprecedented popularity contest between father and son. By joining the opposition, the son wants BDP die-hards to do something they have not done their entire lives: choose between him and his father. It is unclear what the result will be but it took more than half a century to get BDP into the bloodstream of die-hard supporters and decanting it into another political party, whoever its leader is, will not be easy.

If the battle comes down to invoking Sir Seretse’s legacy to an objective audience, Gen. Khama will lose badly because in as far as that legacy goes, he has not been a dutiful son. While President Mokgweetsi Masisi can draw parallels between what he is doing and what Sir Seretse did, Gen. Khama cannot do that. Sir Seretse consulted widely before implementing policies and programmes and on becoming president last year, Masisi stressed the need for consultation – therisanyo in Setswana. Gen. Khama’s presidency was a one-man show and at one point, the man who had been his supervisor for 10 years, President Festus Mogae, accused him of being a dictator. If he wanted a problematic piece of legislation to sail through parliament, Khama would merely issue an order at the BDP Caucus with the expectation that MPs did as he wished. One MP says that once when he voiced his opposition to a bill, Khama glared at him. Sir Seretse put in a lot of work in laying the foundation that made Botswana Africa’s most politically stable country. Khama’s campaign to regain power has spawned a dark, regionalist/tribalistic element. Whereas Masisi has counselled against the country going down Rwanda’s path, Khama said at a dissident meeting held at the Lady Khama Community Hall in Serowe that, that is indeed where it is going.

Sir Seretse Khama’s right hand man was the only other Motswana to have been knighted – Sir Ketumile Masire, who served first as founding Vice President and as president when Sir Seretse died in 1980. Masire, who himself died in 2017, was known to be close to Masisi and to be very unhappy with what Gen. Khama was doing with a country that he built from scratch with his father. There can be no doubt that Masire died a very unhappy man – equally, there can be no doubt about what and who he was most unhappy about. In that regard, Masisi can lay claim to the legacy of the founding fathers.

What a BDP veteran, Daniel Kwelagobe, said at Masire’s funeral, places Gen. Khama farther and farther away from the legacy of the founding fathers. With Khama sitting in the front row of the platform party, Kwelagobe said that Botswana had veered off-course and needed to “retrace its footsteps to the crossroads” in order to re-orient its path forward. The statement – which was later meme-ised – was said in Setswana in front of current and former SADC heads of state who would doubtless have learnt through interpreters what it was that Masire’s minister had said that caused that had caused so much excitement in the crowd. In the style of highly skilled kgotlaspeakers who use idiomatic Setswana to express great displeasure, DK was actually tongue-lashing Gen. Khama for having wildly deviated from a course that had been set by his father and Masire in 1966. That Kwelagobe even had to do that shows that not only had he reached his tolerance level with Khama but he had also been locked out of the corridors of executive power. Kwelagobe actually did confirm the latter when Sunday Standard interviewed him in February this year. In calling for the establishment of a Veterans’ League, he revealed that during Masire’s presidency, party elders were consulted on a periodic basis by the leadership. In the same interview, he expressed satisfaction with Masisi and stated that Botswana was indeed going back to the proverbial crossroads. With those words, Kwelagobe was putting Masisi in a club that he had publicly declared in 2017 Gen. Khama doesn’t belong to.

If nothing else, the said father-son contest will reveal whether the latter is actually as popular as some people believe. A young Brigadier Khama in the BDF was a living legend whose mythical exploits of battlefield bravery seized the imagination of people who would now be in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Granted that was fiction but you would be amazed how it works on brain cells and inside a voting booth. The largest voter constituency (the youth) knows nothing about how a swashbuckling Khama who would first fly a jet fighter within a metre of the sun, then back down to Botswana and against the orders of his father, proceed north at the speed of light over the ocean between Botswana and Rhodesia, land the jet on Ian Smith’s official residence, tear through the mansion as white bodyguards wet themselves, grab Ian Smith by the scruff of the neck and stern-faced, wag his index finger at the Rhodesian prime minister: “If I ever see you in Botswana … you are a dead man.”