Portrait of a self-made radical

05 Jun 2006

Gobe Matenge has straddled Botswana’s civil service, boardrooms, and political landscape for close to 60 years. MESH MOETI meets an octogenarian whose advice continues to be highly sought-after even in retirement

Due to failing eyesight, these days Gobe Matenge listens intently as documents are read to him. The sharp mind picks up even the minutest detail. I read out the opening paragraph of a chapter in Richard Werbner’s 2004 book, “Reasonable Radicals and Citizenship in Botswana: The Public Anthropology of Kalanga Elites”. The chapter is solely dedicated to Matenge’s life-story – from his humble roots in Makaleng, where he was born in 1926, to his rise from the lowest rug of the civil service to reach the pinnacle.
“Alone among Gaborone’s elite Kalanga elders, Gobe Matenge has no secondary schooling and no degree or qualification from higher education,” opens the chapter that Werbner has entitled, “The Making of a Reasonable Radical”.

Can he pick up any distortion here?

“None whatsoever,” Matenge replies.

It would come as somewhat of a surprise, especially to many of today’s young professionals, that a man who did not complete primary education rose to the high echelons of the civil service, retiring as Permanent Secretary in 1981. He is also counted among the most successful indigenous Batswana entrepreneurs, with shares in a number of blue chip companies.

Matenge has lost count of the number of times he has heard or read people describe him as a “self-made man”. The epithet is a badge of honour that he wears with pride. His limited education has never been a barrier to any prize he set his eyes on. Nor has it been a source of shame or low self-esteem.

“My attitude is that if you do better than me, it’s not because I didn’t go to school, but that you are a more brilliant person,” he says. “But I value education a great deal. It’s cardinal. It prepares you for big things, and broadens your horizon. But I won’t say I failed to contribute to my community due to lack of education.”

Typical Matenge. No time for self-pity. The mantra is: do the best you can with what you have. It was the tendency to see honour in work, no mater how menial the task, that ensured Matenge’s steady rise since he joined the Protectorate’s civil service as a messenger/interpreter in 1947.

He sees a radically different work ethic in today’s civil service from what was the norm during his days.

“There has not been much change in the system,” he says. “Where it has changed is in service delivery. In the past, if you were assigned a task, you were expected to perform and you took pride in performing well. It was only after we were competent and confident in our work that we would talk about a salary raise. Nowadays, you young people come into the service and demand a salary increase before you do the job. We emphasised work first, and reward later.”

Even then, the system must have had its own flaws – some of them quite unimaginable in today’s Botswana with a vocal independent media and a fledging opposition. Take an incident regarding a government vehicle, President Seretse Khama’s daughter, and Gobe Matenge. One afternoon Matenge was standing with one of Khama’s aides when a government car passed by. Guess who was behind the wheel? None other than Jacqueline, the president’s daughter. Matenge, then working in the department of immigration, voiced out his objection to what he saw as clear misuse of state property. In his rage, Matenge suggested that if the President wanted his daughter to drive, he ought to buy her a car.

In his office the following morning, he was summoned to appear before home affairs minister Amos Dambe, and his PS, Major Alan Donald. The episode, based on an earlier interview with Matenge, is captured in graphic detail by Werbner.

Dambe: “I have been asked by the President to tell you, you must mind your business, and not concern yourself with state business. He does not expect that you teach him how to run the affairs of this country. He says that he has heard that you have been critical about the use of state cars, because his daughter was seen driving a government vehicle.”
Donald: “It would be discourteous if you didn’t acknowledge in writing to the President that you received this complaint and that you apologise.”
Matenge: “Before I apologise, I want to know exactly what the President said. I don’t understand exactly what is worrying the President. You say I have been critical about the use of state cars. But meaning what? I don’t understand this.”
Dambe: “I am telling you what I was told, and I can’t expand.”
Matenge: “I can’t offer an apology without knowing the full facts.”

Seeing that they were not getting anywhere, Donald offered to prepare a polite letter to the President, tendering Matenge’s apology. The offer was rejected. Matenge had his own idea on how to settle the matter. If Khama were worried about him, then he would seek audience with the President, and present his side of the story. So he made an appointment to see Khama, and related his misgivings about the President’s daughter – who apparently did not even have a licence – driving a government vehicle.

“I was misled,” the President capitulated. “If that is what you said, I can’t find anything unusual about it. Of course, I must buy a car for my daughter. A government car, she has no business to drive it.”

More than anything, perhaps this best captures Matenge’s deeply held conviction that civil servants should not be “yes-men” of the political leadership. It is a conviction that comes out unambiguously in a speech he gave at a farewell reception marking his retirement from the public service. The underlying tones of the remarks made in February 1981, come through in today’s interview. He underscores the significance of a non-partisan civil service. In the same breath, he maintains that at every level public servants, especially those charged with advising the political leaders, must express their views openly and not seek to appease their superiors.

“You cannot be an efficient officer if you are a ‘yes-man’ only. Your boss must have the benefit of an open and honest view. It is unfortunate that many of today’s public servants are bootlickers, and this makes it difficult for them to advise government properly. If you are a public officer and you advise a minister properly, he may choose to disregard your advice; it’s up to him. But you would have done your job,” he says.

Where was this incisive thinking honed? Could it have been in those evenings in Mafikeng when he was part of an informal group that met regularly at each other’s homes to debate the future of the coming republic? The Discussion Group was very much both a product, and a reflection, of the heightened expectations that gripped young Batswana in the public service as independence drew near. The group’s composition mirrored the kind of society that Botswana would become. Defying the racist laws of the land, black and white friends drank together after work. The white members of the group – who included Quill Hermans, Hugh Murray-Hudson, George Winstanley and Alan Tilbury – would purchase the alcohol. Completing the “men only” outfit were Matenge himself, and Richard Makhwade.

“When our capital was in Mafikeng, we were influenced by what was going on in South Africa; the apartheid policies. As young Batswana within the public service, we realised that if we didn’t prepare ourselves for the eventual move to Botswana, we might carry some people who would behave in Gaborone as if they were in Mafikeng. Through the Discussion Group, we discussed issues of national importance. We also raised policy issues with the Resident Commissioner (Peter Fawcus). He was understanding, and encouraged us to discuss anything. As the Group’s Organising Secretary, I had so much latitude to discuss anything with anybody,” he says.

On some occasions, Fawcus would be invited to the group’s sessions, especially when a sensitive issue was up for discussion.

At independence, the group was somewhat weakened when some of its core members were forced to withdraw due to the sensitivity of the portfolios they held. Hermans, Murray-Hudson, Tilbury and Winstanley became permanent secretaries or heads of departments.

“After independence, the group ceased to be as aggressive as it was in Mafikeng because the situation had changed,” Matenge says.

Sometime in 1968, the group invited the education minister Ben Thema to its session.
“We didn’t want to talk behind his back, so we invited the minister…He was there and heard us being critical, so he must have reported to the President…Seretse did not take it the way that Fawcus did. He was misled, apparently, by the Special Branch…I suspect that he thought…we were a pressure group that was going to interfere with his administration,” Matenge is quoted in “Reasonable Radicals”.

The group had gone too far. Soon afterwards, Matenge received a letter from Khama’s private secretary David Finlay ordering the group to leave administration of the country to the President and his party since he did not need the assistance of a pressure group to execute his mandate. The letter further ordered the group to cease its operations.

Matenge relates the story of the Discussion Group’s major coup – perhaps only known to a few people. As independence dawned, the new republic would need its own symbols – the national anthem being one. A nationwide competition to compose a national anthem led to seven compositions being shortlisted. Somehow, the shortlist included an adapted version of an old Sotho hymn, “Morena boloka sechaba sa etsho”, and word filtered through that cabinet was inclined to pick it as Botswana’s national anthem. The Discussion Group felt the new state had to emerge with its own symbols, and therefore punted for Kgaleman Motsete’s composition – “Fatshe leno la rona”.

Matenge’s group then hatched a plot to convince government that ordinary citizens preferred Motsete’s song. They secured the recordings of all seven entries and dispatched “organizers” in Gaborone, Lobatse, Molepolole and Mafikeng. The task of an “organiser” was to gather a manageable group together and play them the seven songs, with Motsete’s composition being played last. Of course, the “organiser” would throw in a few good words for “song number seven”. If they liked it, then the “organiser” would pull out a letter that communicated its writer’s preference for “Fatshe leno la rona” as the national anthem. Each person would then copy the letter, sign it and hand it to the “organiser”. The department of broadcasting, which was the contact point, was swarmed by letters from ordinary citizens making their preference known – and government had to pick “Fatshe leno la rona” as the national anthem.

After retirement, Matenge went against the norm by openly associating the opposition – Botswana National Front, in this case. After the 1998 split, he became a founder member of Botswana Congress Party, where he is a revered elder. A lot of his friends and former colleagues had flocked to the ruling party.

His explanation is that to strengthen democracy, he had to associate with the weaker party.

“I decided that my contribution would be worthwhile if I supported the weaker party, in the interest of Botswana’s democracy. You can’t build a viable democracy if only one party has a monopoly of human capital and access to government facilities and advice,” he says.

To understand the quest to “strengthen democracy”, it’s helpful to understand how Matenge sees himself.

“I will not cease to be a radical…I am a radical, and I [will] continue to be a radical. I like to see justice…I would like to see progress in this country. I would like to see this country becoming a truly democratic country,” he told Werbner one evening.

In that context, then Matenge must have been attracted to follow the political road he chose by the worldview espoused by those in the opposition, especially with regard to cultural and language rights. He is a self-declared supporter of the marginalised minorities. He makes an impassioned case for the promotion of other indigenous languages, which have been muscled out by Setswana and English.

“In Botswana, there are many cultures and languages. In a democracy, they must be promoted equally. If other people’s languages are not taught in schools, then you are killing such languages,” he says.

In a past paper on the language question, he even suggested that the name Botswana holds tribalistic prejudice because it implies a country belonging to the Setswana-speaking people.

“The country requires to be renamed to give it a non-tribal name as in other countries in the region that are made up of many ethnic groups,” he said.

He dismisses the notion that the country needs one rallying language as a unifying medium, and points to South Africa where the country’s constitution recognises the multilingual nature of the population.

He is prepared to alter his views somewhat to have Setswana as the national language, if other languages are given recognition by being taught in schools.
Could it be this strong sense of cultural identity, especially among the Kalanga elite, that has led to suspicions of a secretive network which schemes to reserve plum jobs and lucrative business deals for “homeboys” – and “girls”, presumably?

He says the whisper campaign is the work of “lunatics”.

“No Kalanga ever sit down to plan who takes which job. There is no such forum. If it was there, I would know about it even if I did not belong to it because I would never join a group of that nature,” he insists. “It’s pure suspicion based on the fact that if you look around generally, there are more Kalanga in government than any other ethnic group. But they were put there because of their qualifications. Is there anybody who can say Julian Nganunu does not qualify to be Chief Justice? Can anybody say Phandu Skelemani did not qualify to be Attorney General? If people said, ‘there were a vacancy for which so-and-so qualified, but he was overlooked and the job was given to a Kalanga who did not hold the requisite qualifications’, then I would listen.”

Matenge is a man of many friends and acquaintances. But none stands out as his friendship with one man – President Festus Mogae. It is a companionship that has stood the test of the political divide. Matenge says he is asked about his relationship with the President all the time. It’s not surprising that this should be so. After all, Matenge is a respected elder statesman in a political party that has no kind word to say about Mogae’s administration.

“Festus and I are good friends, and our friendship is not going to be destroyed by anything,” Matenge explains. “Our friendship predates our involvement in politics. The fact that he became president is irrelevant. I regard him as my younger brother, and he regards me as his elder brother. We talk politics, and sometimes we talk party politics. He criticises BCP without inhibition, and I defend it. I also criticise BDP. Our friendship is not something that people can end. If it ends, it would be between Festus and I. We enjoy our friendship. I am free to criticise him as President. But I can also defend him if people criticise him unfairly. I’m sure he does the same if people unduly criticise me.”

With such a trusted friend, now who would you have invited to propose a toast at your 80th birthday on February 28?

Why, the President – of course. (FPN)