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A little less than ten years ago – and long before he became a senior member of cabinet, two SUNDAY STANDARD journalists SPENCER MOGAPI & OLIVER MODISE were dispatched to go and interview Mokgweetsi Masisi. This past week Masisi became President of Botswana. We reproduce the interview below
It was a defining moment in the history of Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Party factions were using youth league leaders as pawns in their proxy battles. The air was thick with rumours of a split and the troubled party needed a cool head and a steady pair of hands to broker peace.
When Mokgweetsi Masisi was assigned the task, most BDP insiders asked: Mokgweetsi who? What made Masisi tick was elusive to most political watchers. His tracks in the BDP become faint beyond the 2003 BDP primary elections and disappear completely after 2000.
Nothing he did before he was elected Moshupa Member of Parliament in 2009 caused anyone to remember anything important about him. He never held any position in the party structures and was never elected to civil society positions. He was almost invisible.
The BDP peace negotiations were not your usual let’s sit around the table and clear the air kind of meeting, recalls Masisi who co-facilitated the talks with the Minister Environment, Wildlife and Tourism Kitso Mokaila.
The stakes were so high that before negotiations could resume, all cell phones were confiscated to stop youth leaders who were behind the closed door from communicating with their faction handlers outside the negotiation room. Although the tactics have since provided fodder for both the sceptics and the disgruntled, Masisi is adamant that there had to be what he refers to as “the rules of engagement.”
In the end, a compromise was reached.
The trained teacher, who describes his political career as “a dramatic calling”, admits that he never imagined himself as a junior minister in the ministry of Presidential Affairs. His lucky break came wrapped in an ugly package around 2000 while working for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He was posted to conflict ridden Afghanistan as an education attaché.
The 48-year-old husband and father of one had just gotten married and did not want to be separated from his family. He decided it was time to quit and try his hand in politics. Masisi was probably banking on his strong political pedigree.
Born into a family steeped in BDP traditions, he only became a card carrying member of the party about the same time he half-heartedly challenged and lost to the incumbent Maitlhoko Mooka in the BDP 2003 primary elections.
The son of Edison Setlhomo Masisi, a Minister of State in the 1960s who went on to become Speaker of the National Assembly and brother to Francistown MP, Tshelang, the youngest of the Masisi’s ever to enter parliament says he was under no illusion at the time that he could unseat Mooka. The contest, he says was a learning curve. Five years later he turned a corner and beat Mooka to represent BDP in the 2009 general elections.
For a man who only a few months ago was an unemployed teacher whose dreams went no further than being a Member of Parliament, Masisi has not done badly.
In less than two weeks he went from being unemployed to a member of parliament and an assistant minister in the ministry of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration. Indications are that his star is still rising and being appointed to broker peace in the party was one of the kudos he picked on his way up. Things are looking up for the BDP rising star.
At the suggestion that he is a rising star, Masisi immediately swings from robust to modest: “I have only wanted to be a Member of Parliament for Moshupa, anything else is a bonus.
It is not in my nature to be searching for opportunities. I went into the polls just to represent this very beautiful constituency called Moshupa,” he says.
Although he comes across as modest, perhaps modest to a fault, there is no mistaking that behind that soft facade there is a robust intellectual fighting to come out. With the BDP going through a debilitating brain drain, Masisi’s political compass can only point upwards.
Even rivals in the newly formed Botswana Movement for Democracy reluctantly admit that the dynamics inside the ruling party have somewhat panned in his favour.
We are sitting in the South Wing at the Office of the President from where Masisi works under the supervision of Vice President Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe. He is filling us in on the BDP youth league peace talks. He explains that the party leadership did not handpick preferred candidates into the youth committee. Although there are murmurs of a horse trading, which ushered in a new cadre of youth wing leaders, Masisi insists that:
“Nothing was pushed down anybody’s throat. What we wanted was a youth compromise, not the one involving the outsiders.” Aware of the extent to which his mediation role at the youth league is likely to catapult his future political career, Masisi is at pains to explain that the party leadership had not handpicked its preferred candidates for the youth committee. “The deal is only sustainable to the extent to which we want it to be.”
A new comer to BDP frontline politics, who insists his mandate remains a respect for the political institutions that have spawned his career, Masisi was perhaps always cut out to attract and catch President Khama’s eye. While his colleagues in the party were fighting pitched factional battles, Masisi had picked a safe spot far from the madding crowd.
“For me self-respect, respect for the institutions and the party is very important.”
The man has become an important player inside the Khama administration, tasked with overseeing the lofty ambitions of poverty eradication, a policy pronouncement that has since become a centrepiece of the administration.
While he readily admits that poverty eradication is a tall order, especially in the face of a dwindling resource base, he also waxes lyrical that it is, however, possible if only we can do “more with less”.
Perhaps as an illustration of the high premium Botswana attaches to this new policy shift there are ongoing efforts to not only redefine poverty but also put it into a totally new context as to come up with new benchmarks of just who is a destitute.
Masisi has said before that the country cannot continue with the universally accepted definition of poverty.
Attempts are currently ongoing to bring stakeholders, such as politicians and the civil society, to define poverty in the Botswana context.
With women the world over shouldering generally the burden of poverty, it remains to be seen how he will bring the rural women on board and empower them economically after many promising government programmes turned out to be nothing more than paper tigers.
Interestingly, while his older brother Tshelang Masisi is a known sympathizer of the Barata-Phathi and has a strong association with the BMD’s splinter party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), the younger Masisi says as far as he is concerned nothing has changed between him and his brother. He, however, acknowledges that his brother has been in the BDP longer than him.
“Nothing has changed, we relate the way we have been relating,” he says, before underscoring that despite their differences there are instances where they always agree.
He says his father would never have liked to see his party split.
“If all efforts come to nought we have to accept the reality and move on.”
Masisi states that the party’s recent split was disastrous not because people were leaving in droves but because it was rapturous.
“At a personal level, I am not losing sleep that people are leaving but am alive and alert to it,” he states.
He reckons the party needs to minimize differences and be given time to heal. He says the situation will require a mutual spirit of reciprocity before casting doubts on the ethical propriety of those who decided to break away from the BDP to form Botswana Movement for Democracy.
“They will come back,” he says as a matter of fact.
Further probed on whether he would have resigned from the ruling party were it not for the cabinet post he holds, Masisi says that he would never have resigned.
“I would not have left. Even if President Khama dropped me tomorrow I will remain a BDP member.”
He makes no effort to hide his disdain for his erstwhile colleagues who broke away to form the BMD, especially those who defected with parliamentary seats without giving voters an opportunity for a by-election.
In his view, such people do not have the moral high ground to talk about because they stole BDP seats.
To him a true test of character comes from within and as such if BMD leaders were committed to the principle of integrity “as they like to talk about” they would have first resigned their parliamentary seats.
To him, by failing to resign their posts and yet continue to posture that they are standing for a principle is nothing but “demagoguery.”