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Sometime in 2008 as the Americans were preparing for their presidential elections, a working class stranger boldly confronted the then little known candidate Barack Obama and accused the Senator of socialism – a kind of political blasphemy in America’s realm of politics.
“My name is Joe the Plumber. I am about to buy a small plumbing company. And your tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
Joe the Plumber accused Obama of planning to redistribute wealth instead of making more wealth.
Totally caught off guard by the temerity of his questioner, the suave and intellectually savvy Obama resorted to a long rambling political speak.
“I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody…”
It was a terrible mistake that this larger than life orator lived to regret.
Even though he went on to win the White House, that answer turned out to be Obama’s worst faux pas - the greatest mistake of the entire campaign as it complicated a contest that he could otherwise have won with ease.
As campaign life grew miserable for Obama, overnight Joe the plumber was catapulted from total obscurity into global stardom.
Republicans seized on Obama’s answer to Joe as proof of why the Democrat was the wrong man for the White House.
Thereafter the American hard right literally paraded Joe The plumbed in every one of their campaign rallies, touting him as the man who had exposed candidate Obama for what he really is.
More importantly they cast Joe the Plumber as a quintessentially every day American, who like everybody else was correctly outraged by Obama’s redistributive economic model.
The scene and difficulties created for Obama by Joe the Plumber in 2008 crossed my mind this past Thursday as I attended a Kgotla meeting addressed by President Mokgweetsi Masisi in Serowe.
A man who had only introduced himself as G.W Rapitsenyane, had asked Masisi what seemed like no more than two entirely innocuous questions.
“There is this talk that you are fixing the country after your predecessor Ian Khama destroyed it. Please tell us how far you were when Khama destroyed the country” – Rapitsenyane had asked.
“There is also talk that you and Khama are up against each other’s throat. This looks like it’s true, please tell us more why that might be so…?
The response from President Masisi was pretty surreal. It shocked the nation.
And more crucially exposed not only his weaknesses but also his dark side.
In answering Rapitsenyane, the president went ballistic, falling on him like a ton of bricks.
I was seated at the back end of the fully packed meeting. But it was clear from the tone of his voice as he started answering Rapitsenyane that the president was hunkering to get back at Rapitsenyane, whom he clearly cast as his tormentor.
Masisi’s voice started low, reaching its crescendo when he deliberately mis-pronounced Rapitsenyane’s name which was I thought was rude and arrogant.
“Let me tell you, this gentleman is a teacher at Lotsane [Senior School]. He teaches Agriculture. I don’t know who is with students when he is here. Let me also tell you I was a teacher and my students passed,” the president said as he also said out Rapitsenyane’s full names which no doubt he would have gathered from either his intelligence officers or some other public officers around him.
By this time the first citizen had lost all his composure. He was clearly pissed off.
My editor later referred to Rapitsenyane as “Raps the schoolteacher.”
There is a possibility that “Raps the schoolteacher” was planted by some other surreptitious interests. But that is not an issue.
Botswana is a republic and teachers should be allowed to speak at Kgotla meetings without fear of reprisals, not even from a president.
Masisi should know that as president he should use his powers generously and also sparingly - at the same time.
This means that even in anger, or when provoked, he should be discreet and circumspect.
In Botswana a president is a very powerful office. And there is no need for the show of force by him as proof of that.
Earlier on when the meeting started it was Masisi who had implored people attending to speak out freely.
Yet later on he when people asked him pointed questions that he felt uncomfortable about he turned around to say a Kgotla is not an appropriate platform for such. Talk of double standards!
After Khama we cannot as a country afford to build another monster.
It is a shameful paradox to say in one sentence as Masisi did that Botswana is a republic, before adding that that tussles between two leaders, in this instance him and Khama cannot be discussed in a Kgotla platform because the two belligerents are elders.
Other than the Kgotla, what other respectable platform do public servants like “Raps the schoolteacher” have to engage the Head of State on serious matters as that of the instability that Masisi and Khama misdemeanors are wrecking on the nation.
More appalling is to liken being a president to being stripped naked, as Masisi did simply because everybody wants to hold you accountable.
Nobody is forced to become a president.
If by being asked to account Masisi thinks he is being stripped naked, then he can happily quit.
He will find out quite soon that there is no shortage of people willing to strip naked if that is what it takes for one to become president.
As a republican what Masisi should be worried about is not Raps the Schoolteacher, but the response of the crowd to what questions the schoolteacher was asking.
Given the wild excitement that his questions elicited, it was clear that the schoolteacher’s concerns resonated with a majority of them.
The guy had come to the Kgotla and indeed asked his questions as a Ngwato tribesman – not as a schoolteacher.
It was Masisi, who driven by anger and possible malice, chose to respond to him as a schoolteacher.
This is exactly the kind of attitude we had grown used to under Khama. And wrongly thought we had seen the last of.
How then is Masisi different from Khama, one might ask.
At least based on the optics from the Kgotla, we should be worried.
In answering Raps the schoolteacher, Masisi said during his days a teacher, his students passed, effectively implying the opposite at Lotsane where the schoolteacher works.
I have since checked and found out that last year Lotsane Senior School came out sixth in the national pass rankings – not a bad feat in an education system that has been so badly collapsed by a government of which Masisi, a former education minister himself, has for a long time been a senior member.
What Masisi did was wrong and should be called out.
He made Rapitsenyane a scapegoat of politicking.
Instead of pushing for the sacking of Raps the schoolteacher as others have suggested, Masisi should pay him a courtesy call, chew the cud with him at his class and may be do one or two lessons with him as a co-teacher at Lotsane Senior School.
Like Joe the Plumber who exposed Obama, Raps the schoolteacher also exposed Masisi.
Before his confrontation with Obama, Joe the Plumber was an unknown quantity.
So too was Raps the teacher before he had the temerity to set the Serowe Kgotla alight with his questions to Masisi.
Today Joe the plumber is a famous icon, that too is the case with Raps the schoolteacher.
The two men have something in common that is more important. They have introduced to the real world, the elites like Obama and Masisi who are forever detached from a life.
Of course like Obama, it is possible that Masisi might survive this. But now people know him better.