Rebuilding Botswana after dictatorship: A call for national renewal through a reconstruction of the civil service

11 Feb 2019

The civil service is the heartbeat of any government. It is the nerve centre of state operations and as such it is central to the success or failure of a country’s development efforts. Botswana’s success story from one of the poorest countries in the world in 1966 to a prosperous and stable nation is entwined to a competent civil service that was autonomous in policy making and as well as protected from politicians.

To a greater extent, yesteryear civil servants subscribed to the cardinal values of professionalism, in the process becoming very honest and highly respected by society including politicians. This approach established and cemented a mutually beneficial relationship which by and large insulated civil servants as professionals from the raucous politics, resulting in the creation of a civil service that was professional, competent, confident, honest, disciplined, politically neutral and highly effective.

As a result, and unlike in many parts of Africa where development goals are determined by politicians, there existed some kind of role reversal occasioned by the reality that at the time and even today, many politicians have limited technical skills compared to civil servants who are experts in varying fields. It is noted that politicians generally become leaders on the strength of support they get from irrational voters rather than on merit.

A few years ago, study by the University of Botswana Democracy Research Project revealed that a majority of political representatives especially councillors were still predominantly semi-illiterate. The reality is that many politicians lack the necessary expertise needed in policy making. Fortunately, yesteryear Botswana politicians acknowledged the painful truth and as such appreciated their limited role in the policy making process.

Using the Chinese Communist Party’s principle of ‘the Red and the Expert’, Botswana’s yesteryear politicians thus confined themselves to politics and left technical experts to do their work freely and according to the best of their knowledge. This has ensured that civil servants considered themselves as servants of the state and its citizens.

In effect, civil servants committed themselves to careful planning to ensure that national resources were used in accordance with national priorities. It also ensured that the government and citizens had full confidence in the abilities of civil servants. This was until Dr Khama assumed the reigns as the Head of State and government and immediately commenced the public abuse of civil servants, consistently threatening to dismiss public officers from the service. His Cabinet Ministers followed suit and started publicly harassing and blaming civil servants for everything that has gone wrong mainly because of political interference.

In one instance, former Education Minister Honourable Venson-Moitoi threatened to dismiss all teachers who allegedly resolved to ensure poor examination results until their welfare was improved stating in the vernacular, ‘yo ketla mo fitlhelang a re ene o lekanya tiro le madi otla ya ga mmaagwe’.

Essentially, the President’s threats on civil servants set the tone for systematic harassment and politicization of the civil service. It began an order characterized by the most withering and public attack on civil servants in the entire life of the republic. It birthed an acidic and antagonistic relationship between civil servants and politicians thereby ushering an order wherein civil servants had to find ways other than passion, diligence and hard work to secure their jobs and enhance their chances for career progression.

Civil servants’ response to this venal, bigoted and impulsive political leadership was to develop a sycophantic behaviour that permitted them to ingratiate with feckless politicians who are generally dishonest and spectacularly shameless. This marked the death of a professional civil service as political expediency replaced merit. Appointments and promotions used bizarre criteria wherein friends and family members of the political leadership occupied key state positions. Other key positions were dished out to those who served in the national army.

Competence and merit were relegated and the overriding factor became an individual’s ability to venerate Dr Khama and his coterie of bigoted lackeys or those who publicly displayed allegiance to the political leadership rather than to the government. The practice has compromised the capacity of the civil service to discharge its responsibility to the nation and implementation of government policies and programs was severely compromised.

In essence this is what has been happening in the last decade. Many government employees have been selected not on account of their competencies and expertise but rather mainly because they were useful to the political leadership. Employees with requisite qualifications and experience but were not willing to jump and bend or comply with senseless, politically motivated directives were publicly vilified, abused and ultimately shipped out in the most humiliating style.

Professionals found themselves having to champion glaringly unsound programs that even animals with the most undeveloped brains couldn’t identify with. Career civil servants were cowered into submission and those who dared to resist were shamed while others were exiled to positions far outside of their expertise.

As a result, many competent and experienced career civil servants have quit the public service while those who remain hardly put any efforts in their work because the only thing that matters is being a backscratcher, loud or loyal doormat. Actually civil servants have simply schooled themselves into the habit of bootlicking and have become devoted disciples of corrupt tyrants and serial thieves. They have developed a hard skin to live with humiliation, persecution and public abuse if only to get a lousy salary.

In whole, professionals have been marginalized, characterized as lazy, lacklustre and schooled idiots and the result has poor service delivery and an economy on its knees. Thus, the economic malaise that has lately become a way of life for our people is to a large extent a result of marginalization and politicization of the civil service.

The corrupt, abusive and incompetent presidency of Dr Khama has left us a dysfunctional, politicized and sycophantic civil service which has led to a sharp decline in the quality of life for the majority of citizens. Ironically, this predicament serves to show how much Botswana misses her professional civil servants. The decline in the quality of life, a phenomenon that occurred at the height of the alienation of professionals demonstrates how important professional and apolitical civil servants are to the success of this country. It goes to show what we stand to reap as long as we operate with drugged civil servants who worshipped clowns and charismatic airheads.

In effect, there is a dire need to re-orient the public service and wean it from a culture of bootlicking and playing dumb. The current dire circumstances we find ourselves in call for a professional civil service founded on the values of exceptional ability, neutrality, diligence, merit and a commitment to serve the state and its citizens rather an individual.

As a nation we must reform our doped, contaminated and politicized civil service so that we can get back our stellar planners and enable them to recapture their technical proficiency uncorrupted by political fads. There is a dire need to reform the public service and rekindle public trust and respect they dearly need to succeed. We must be proud that at least Botswana has a reservoir of talented, committed and honest experts who can able and willing to make this country prosperous again if only we can detoxify their plastered brains. We must demonstrate to our people and the world that indeed we are past the era of excessive presidentialism where civil servants knowingly shelved their brains and acted like smart zombies.

Various studies have linked a professional and more discretionary civil service to sound service delivery and positive development outcomes. Botswana relates well with this perspective and is therefore a good case study for the rest of Africa. Essentially, doped and disoriented civil servants who behave like captured witches are found to induce public service delivery failure.

We have experimented with dehumanized, automated, perverted and demoralized civil servants and our economy has virtually collapsed. Our only way out of this morass is to push for of national renewal by first and foremost making the necessary investment to redeem, recalibrate and restore a professional civil service.