Pioneering civil servant and founding BCP member dies

29 Apr 2018

The fact that this man had a work ethic, mindset and skillset with which he had distinguished himself in a colonial First World work environment should not have raised eyebrows when, in 1977, President Seretse Khama appointed him Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Home Affairs. However, in a Third World set-up where entries on an academic certificate are considered more important than the bearer’s actual competence, that still raises eyebrows.

“To many people, it is still a wonder that a person who did not even go to junior secondary school could make it to the top echelons of the civil service,” writes Dr. Key Dingake in “Unearthing The Hidden Treasure: The Untold Story of Gobe Matenge.”

Historians, Matenge’s own family and the nation at large owe Dingake a huge debt of gratitude for telling what, at least until 2011, was an untold story of a hidden treasure. Sadly, that treasure has dropped completely out of sight.

“It is with deep sorrow that we announce the death of our father, Mr. Gobe Matenge, who passed away on 26th April 2018,” reads a press statement authored by his granddaughter, Tapiwa Masie, on behalf of the family.

Happily though, Dingake’s book has immortalised a man who rose from messenger in the Bechuanaland Protectorate to PS in the Republic of Botswana. Matenge would doubtless have wanted to start his working life many levels above a messenger but his journey down Academia Street ended abruptly just when he was getting into his stride. Matenge’s family could not afford his school fees and he had to drop out of Kgale Primary School when he was in Standard 5. That’s the sad part. The happy part is that Kgale was also where he met Daisy, who was herself a student a hop and a skip away at St. Joseph’s College. A lightning bolt of love struck him and a few short years later the couple married.

In the author’s note, Dingake reveals that he wanted “exciting details” about how this union was formed but they never came forth.  Musically, Matenge was an ABBA man but where his private life is concerned, Dingake found him to be super-discreet in a manner that recalls Al Green putting in vocal work alongside Ann Nesby: “I’m an old-school brother/Don’t want my business in the streets.” All Matenge would tell Dingake was that he met Daisy in Kgale and Serowe. Still curious, Dingake sought some people in Extension 5, Gaborone hoping to learn some exciting details about Matenge’s love life. The exciting details still wouldn’t come out.

Kgale was also where Matenge met and buddied up with people whom he would come to count as bosom friends in adult life. Some of them were interviewed for the book whose idea was conceived in April 2009. After Matenge - or ‘GW’ as Dingake refers to him in the book - gave the go-ahead, there began a laborious process that, in two instances, took the writer to Matenge village in the North East District to dig up and examine his subject’s roots. The village itself would not be where it is now had Matenge and his clan not resisted an attempt by Sub-chief Katholo Ramokate to forcibly relocate residents in the manner the government did with the Bushmen in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve. Then area District Commissioner and future Botswana’s first Permanent Secretary to the President, Phillip Steenkamp, later overruled Ramokate.

The Matenge people originated in West Central Africa, passed through Zambia and entered Botswana through the north east. On the journey into the interior, someone in the travelling party died near a tree called “mpanda” in iKalanga. Over time, the place where this death occurred acquired the name “Mpanda-wa-Matenge” which has been corrupted to present-day “Pandamatenga.” 

Matenge’s father died when he was only five years and he was brought up by his mother and relatives. Dingake’s book gives a warm and generous account of MmaGobe, a woman with so quixotic a heart of gold that looking back, her first-born son observed: “She behaved like a charity organisation. She was so kind it amazed me. Whenever there was a visitor, we children knew that the visitor had to be served food first.” From his mother, Matenge inherited an obsession with cleanliness that he became a little too doctrinaire about with those he interacted with. Robert, his younger brother, recalled how, as a young boy, Matenge would spend long periods of time in the river - the communal bathtub in those days - bathing, preening, scrubbing and rescrubbing himself clean. As an adult, he developed and sternly enforced a “no eating” rule in his car. Matenge’s second-born daughter, Bandu, said that every morning after getting up, her father combed his hair and ensured that “his bedding is in good shape, even if he is going back to sleep.”

The book suggests that Matenge would also have inherited from his mother, a suite of social protocols as far-ranging as the proper way to walk. When Bandu said that “My grandmother used to say you must walk like a teacher”, Dingake wondered whether this might explain the way Matenge walked: “Even now at his advanced age, he walks in a deliberate and dignified manner. His paces are measured and almost consciously regulated. There is a tinge of Victorian royalty in his walk.”

His mother’s teaching firmly entrenched in his mind, Matenge teacher-walked his way from the drudgery of a clerical job at a Francistown gold mine to the highest administrative post in the Ministry of Home Affairs. However, the path was as circuitous as it was torturous. When he was laid off at the mine, Matenge joined the District Commissioner’s office in Francistown where he worked as a messenger/interpreter. The job could be very tough on ill-fated days. In an almost literal sense, Matenge once found himself in a cleft stick when he showed up at the house of Dr. Austin Morgan, a white medical doctor working in the district, to deliver a telegram. Mrs. Morgan would not take the telegram straight from the hands of a black man. Instead, she ordered him to get a stick, cleave one end into two, wedge the telegram in the cleft, then - holding the other end, reach over to her with the other to deliver the telegram “in such way that she could receive it without our hands touching!”

Having acquired the useful skill of typing, Matenge was later transferred to the Bechuanaland Protectorate government secretariat in Mafikeng where he worked as a General Clerical Officer. On account of his prodigious work habits, he was soon promoted to Executive Officer in the Law Office of the Secretariat. When Botswana became independent in 1966, the Law Office became the present-day Attorney General Chambers. At the time, Matenge supervised and accommodated in his house, David Magang, who would hold various ministerial posts in an independent Botswana and founded the Phakalane stockbroker belt. Matenge’s own star continued to shine bright as he earned promotion after promotion until Khama made him PS.

Dingake characterises Matenge as “fearless” and one incident that vividly illustrates that characteristic assigns cameo roles to President Khama and his daughter, Jacqueline - who was First Daughter at the time. When Matenge spotted Jacqueline driving a government vehicle, he considered that to be “rather odd and improper” because she was not a government employee. Much to the displeasure of the Minister of Home Affairs, Amos Dambe, and his PS, Alan Donald, Matenge loudly verbalised his disapproval. The following day, he appeared before Dambe and Donald to account for his “unbecoming utterances.” Dambe told Matenge that Khama was “not amused by his meddlesome conduct” and suggested that he should write a letter apologising for “poking his into matters of state.” He refused and instead sought audience with Khama. When the meeting happened, Matenge restated grounds of his objection to Jacqueline driving a government vehicle when she was not a civil servant. Khama conceded his point and took no punitive action against him.

For a man who had borne the brunt of white racism, Matenge was both magnanimous and eager enough to build bridges between blacks and whites in the new Botswana. To the extent it relates to Matenge’s own contribution, the title of a paper that was authored by Dr. Peter Wass is misleading. At a time that the government secretariat relocating from Mafikeng to what was essentially segregated Gaborone, a white administrative officer called Quill Hermans (who would become the first Governor of the Bank of Botswana) adjudged that community relations in the new capital would benefit from having a social facility that welcomed all races.

“Hence the Notwane Club was born, and through the efforts of Quill Hermans and Gobe Matenge in encouraging people to commit themselves to support the venture even before there were any facilities, achievement of its key objective was assured,” Wass writes in “From Bechuanaland to Botswana: The Contribution of British Colonial Officers to the Development and Decolonisation of an Independent African State.”

Wass’ own contribution was to link Notwane to sport by securing an ideal site for the clubhouse and tennis courts adjacent to the national stadium.

“Today it would be easy to overlook the full value of the Notwane Club¹s contribution to social development in the capital.  But had it not been created in 1964-65 when considerable numbers of staff were being transferred to the new government headquarters, mainly from Mafeking but also from other stations in the Protectorate, then we could have seen quite a different social scenario developing,” writes Wass, who was Social Welfare Officer for the whole of the Protectorate in the early 1960s.

Although he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Matenge came to have a lot of silver in adult life, settling in Extension 5, a prominent enclave of elite capitalist overachievers with one of the highest geographic concentrations of wealth in the entire country. He didn’t hide the fact that he had shareholding in “many companies” from Dingake. Via what was whispered to the latter, it also emerged that somewhere in his house was a wine bar with a selection of fine wines.

Upon retiring from the civil service in 1981 (getting a measly P34 000 lump sum as pension payout), Matenge started looking for other sources of income to provide for his family. He amassed shares in a number of companies, such as Barclays Bank and Sefalana, and had a stint as an Administration Manager at a construction company called Wade Adams. What he loved most about the private sector, he said, was its speed, efficiency and lack of bureaucratic entanglements.

Politically, Matenge was an opposition man. When Daniel Kwele (founding Botswana National Front president) resigned from the Botswana Democratic Party to form his own party - the Botswana Progressive Union - the latter party sought a marquee name in North East to fill Kwele’s shoes. Matenge’s name topped the list but the BDP soon learnt that he was aligned to the BNF. The party settled for Chapson Butale who later held a number of ministerial posts. With an active midwife role, Matenge was in the delivery room in 1998 when the BNF went into ritualistic pre-election labour. The offspring was named the Botswana Congress Party and to his dying day, Matenge was a staunch member.