Thursday, December 5, 2019

The amazing resurrection of Kabo Morwaeng!

Run up to the 1994  general election stood out for frenetic  campaigning   never before seen  in  the country’s  electoral   history as  the two main  contenders  Botswana Democratic Party  and  Botswana National Front  headed down the home stretch. Back then there were no private radio stations. Four   private newspapers, namely Mmegi, Guardian, Midweek Sun and the Botswana Gazette came out weekly, in black and white. The only colour publication, Newslink Africa which I contributed to as a student stringer had come to a sorry end. Local television was a distant fantasy and certainly no one contemplated social media. In terms of media consumption it was a different world far removed    from    what we take for granted today.

Going into the election  BDP was weighed down by  the baggage  of the NDB debacle as well as reports, respectively  of  the Christie  and Kgabo Commissions all seared  into the public consciousness  by  a  feisty little  private press and Radio Mall at full blast. Against this backdrop and riding on  a wave of outrage mainly  in the urban areas, BNF with Dr Kenneth Koma  at the helm criss- crossed  the country  unveiling the manifesto and national candidates.  Attracting  multitudes  on its various   stops, the  cavalcade winged  its way    for the  finale  in Gaborone,  which would include  a midweek  rally  at  the University of Botswana,  an incubator   for  opposition student activism.  Dr Koma  and entourage  arrived   for the rally  which  drew a huge   gathering  of students  and townsfolk  alike, leaving no doubt  that  the main opposition  was a serious contender. Back then the university was not  the pluralistic  institution it  would later become where   formations of  every  hue and  ideology  co-exist in a climate of  tolerance  and  friendly  rivalry.  Although not violently enforced, the unspoken code was that politically inclined students who didn’t want to invite unflattering attention were better off in the mainstream BNF student formation known as MASS. 

So, supporters of the ruling party went about business at their fraternity known as GS 26 in somewhat clandestine fashion, a tacit recognition that unlike their government ruling outside the campus perimeter   fence, here  the power pendulum swung differently. Four  electoral constituencies were up  for grabs in the city, with the university  falling under Gaborone Central, thereby  pitting BDP hopeful GUS Matlhabaphiri, an ex diplomat  against  the decorated  Robben Islander, Mike Dingake. Our small group  volunteered  for  campaign duties  including   drumming up  support  within  the  student community,  an  exercise  we did  without  the benefit  of  a voters’  roll meaning we  wasted precious time canvassing nonvoters. At the rally we listened to our party being pummeled by household names like Paul Rantao and Maitshwarelo Dabutha, spewing rhetoric generously marinated with taunts and theatrics. Afterwards GS 26 leadership convened to plan a counter response to salvage   a desperate situation.  We resolved  to  organize  our own  rally  at the same  venue  in two days’    time because we could  not  be seen retreating  as more students were  coming  out   of the  political closet   on our side.

That decided, we had a problem.  We needed a big name to address the rally.  Whereas BNF had rolled out   its heavy artillery, our heavy hitters were not available at short notice.  Besides our candidate we needed someone who could   wade into hostile student terrain with   some swagger. One of the rising stars was an activist by the name of Kabo Morwaeng who generated some buzz on the stump and enjoyed poster boy status in the party.  I was liaison person between  GS 26   and Tsholetsa House  where Morwaeng had previously  worked  as a political  officer. On this basis we were fairly acquainted   and he had at times driven up to my residence to pick me for off campus activities. And so it happened that Morwaeng arrived on campus for battle. In the words of our rivals we were reactionary interlopers of sorts, and so MASS hecklers came out  in force  to defend their hallowed space. But in Morwaeng we had made an inspired choice. Pacing  around  the square, hemmed in by hecklers  he laid into them  with relish,  dispatching our  message  but  always  at the  ready  with   sarcastic  putdowns to anyone who got too cocky. Showcasing   fine oratorical  skills  he   sowed  carnage through  the  heckling  brigade.   At the end, having delivered a masterful class in freedom square combat tactics  he  invited the now punch drunk hecklers  to  attend  parliament and   bear witness  when, in his own words  he would be taking oath on 25 October  1994  as  the youngest  legislator  at age 27, representing Mogoditshane  constituency.

So certain  was he  and his fan club that  he was bringing  the constituency. The political gods had other ideas though. From  that  fateful  election  it  has taken  Morwaeng  25  years  to  make it to parliament. Now freshly resurrected from  the graveyard of politics  to  which  was consigned for  a quarter century in cruel repudiation  of his   talents,  the fact  that through dogged determination  and  sheer force of  will  he has finally made it  will go down as one of the most remarkable  political feats ever witnessed.  But let’s   put perspective to  his 25 years  wandering  in the  wilderness. A  child  born  that election month in 1994 has crawled, attended  crèche, primary and  secondary school;  graduated from varsity, gotten a job, raised family and voted twice in 2014 and  2019  between  Morwaeng’s  first  attempt  and  his victory last  month.  A   product  of the   DK Kwelagobe assembly line, on completing  his studies at National University  of Lesotho,  he was employed  at party headquarters  where he  worked  for a bit under his  mentor  who  was then Secretary General. Having served his apprenticeship he emerged with flying colours so much so that when elections approached he was deemed ready to run for parliament. Morwaeng’s emergence on the national scene coincided with a shift in BDP fortunes as the party transformed from what someone once described as a party of farmers, teachers and rural peasants.

In came   the young turks   from professional backgrounds, educated and confident to proclaim themselves as examples of its empowerment policies which could take the child of a peasant from the village to a university degree. From this lot would emerge leaders, reformists, dissidents, war lords and plotters par excellence. The election held on 15 October 1994 yielded 13 constituencies to BNF in the expanded parliament of 40 seats, the party’s best performance ever with BDP retaining power  with 27 seats. In fact something not often mentioned in textbooks is that soon after final results came in, BNF demanded a government of national unity. On our side casualties were many including the poster boy himself losing Mogoditshane constituency by a margin of 246 votes. His ambitions were dashed and the hecklers invited to   witness the triumphant arrival in parliament were having the last laugh. In addition to the corruption scandals, BDP woes had been compounded by   all out hostilities for control of party and government between the Daniel Kwelagobe and Mompati Merafhe led factions, alternatively known as Big 5 and Big 2.  With the dust barely settled, recriminations ensued because electoral   underperformance demands accountability. For BDP an unintended consequence of the outcome was the impetus it gave to the conversation around   reforms to the country’s political and governance architecture. It was the young turks, most prominently the likes of Jacob Nkate, Sidney Pilane, and Morwaeng   emerging from the polls with mixed fortunes who amplified calls for reforms which would among others  birth automatic succession and term limits. Proposals for amendments to the party constitution drafted by a working group were consistent with what Morwaeng, who   had remained national youth information officer after leaving secretariat for a better paying job had been championing for some time. This most notably when as resource person at a GS 26 seminar, he used his slot to advocate for the  party president  to be elected by  membership.

As things stood for as long as the party was in power the state president stayed remained president of the party without further elections. By all accounts this amounted to life presidency. Newspapers reported that  some  young turks were further agitating for the president  to consider  retirement  so  the party  could have  a fighting chance  of  winning  the coming elections against a  menacing  BNF. But before the reform debate took centre stage, and some two weeks before the general election,   a tragedy occurred  which would give Morwaeng a  shot at  redemption. What happened was that former vice president Peter Mmusi who regained his position of party chairman at the 1993 Kanye  congress after  a spell under suspension  with Kwelagobe, died  after a long illness. This meant postponement of his Thamaga constituency poll to accept  fresh nominations. A sliver  of  opportunity    had opened  up for Morwaeng’s   deferred  dream to enter parliament.  Instead,   leadership tapped   a serving senior civil servant called   Gladys Kokorwe to quit her  job and   contest the primary. Morwaeng was  ordered not  to contest but defiantly went ahead  and submitted his  candidacy, proceeding to romp to victory meaning he would  be the BDP  flag  bearer  in a different constituency barely a month after losing Mogoditshane.  That, however,  was  not to be because  leadership proceeded  to exercise   its power of veto by  annulling  the  result  and  selecting Kokorwe as  candidate in the name of gender  empowerment.

The turn of events upset Morwaeng who saw it as political injustice. He also felt betrayed that the Kwelagobe faction with its formidable machinery had not protected his interests despite all the work he had put in as a dependable foot soldier. After all he had acquitted himself at the tumultuous Kanye congress when he lobbied for the suspensions of Mmusi and Kwelagobe to be lifted so they could contest  the  positions of Chairman and Secretary General, which they went onto to win.  It was in this charged climate that Kokorwe kick started her political career on which she called time 25 years later when she retired as speaker of the national assembly. The Thamaga experience   left Morwaeng feeling alienated from the party but he moped around only to announce in September 1995 his resignation from BDP, ostensibly to attend to private affairs and concentrate on his job. He vanished from politics only to resurface months later in BNF colours.  An indefatigable organizer, it was not in his character   to take a  backroom  role  in the hustle and bustle of political life. Soon he was  knee  deep  in the trenches, waging war   on the  side  of  those  who felt Dr Koma had reached  his sell by date and lacked  the wherewithal  to  lead BNF  to state power in 1999. The situation reached its nadir with the implosion of the party at the  infamous 1998 Palapye congress .

There is contradicting information on the role  Morwaeng played  in the formation of  Botswana Congress Party. Some reports said  he had his eye  on the position  of  founding chairman  but  other accounts dispute this. For a  second time, Morwaeng  took leave of the political scene. Word was that  he  was busy  with business including a gig as  promoter of  gospel music concerts.  No matter the  vicissitudes   it visits  on them, politicians of heart and conviction always  come back to the game. A  few years down the line the prodigal son was back home. His return  came ahead of  the delimitation exercise  which  carved a  new  Molepolole North constituency. Those in the know said in Kwelagobe’s design, the division of Molepolole  constituency  would leave him ensconced   in his  fiefdom  of Molepolole South  with the other portion gifted to Matlhabaphiri, his loyal enforcer as soon as he was done with diplomatic duties in Namibia. True  to form,  Morwaeng expressed interest  in the 2003 primary election only  to be informed  that as a recent returnee, the rules prohibited  him from contesting. For  BDP watchers   the  relationship between the  Kwelagobe/Matlhabaphiri  symbiosis  and  Morwaeng  has always  been complex. Punctuated by on and off  fall outs  followed  by reconciliations  before the cycle repeats itself, it  was always left to the trio  to navigate its twists and turns.  The rule book thrown at him, Kabo Morwaeng  must have wondered  just what he to do to become  a legislator.  With each passing election, circumstances  contrived to  sideline him from realizing his dream whilst chancers  of less ability sauntered  into parliament and cabinet unimpeded. As they say necessity is the mother of invention, and in no time he was in the ranks of the lobby  group  that  supported  vice president Ian Khama’s  bid for party chairman when BDP went  to Gantsi  for its 2003 congress.

Ever the man with a knack for conjuring the right  optics, newspapers ran  pictures   of a  tearful   Morwaeng celebrating   Khama’s win in smug knowledge it would smoothen  his passage  to the  ballot. This of course happened immediately on return from Gantsi  when the same rules  that had locked him out were given a different interpretation. But  once again  things did not work  out when Matlhabaphiri  won the primary  to pave way for his own entry  to  parliament  in 2004 for the first time  as a non-nominated  legislator.  Now wiser,  and a mellow  family man   Morwaeng took  it in the chin. Little did he know  he  was  destined  to play  a major role  at the  2009  Kanye congress  whose outcome led to the first BDP split some months later  when  together with  other aggrieved individuals  they  walked out to form BMD. What distinguishes politicians like Morwaeng is that  they are indispensable  in internal  party  machinations  owing to  their knowledge of  the lay  of the land  acquired  over  a lifetime.  Veterans  of his ilk are valued as  strategists   who can be called upon  to lend their considerable  skills to  a certain  cause  or the other. Often their involvement,  to  borrow  a phrase  currently  in  vogue in America, is  on a quid pro quo basis. When  they  go  to  war  it  is no longer  on the basis  of sentimental loyalty to  some individual but  because  they  expect their efforts to  pay off with a political dividend of some kind. Although holding the key  position  of  organizing secretary in BMD,  things didn’t  quite  work out  with  the project  and  for  a second time, Morwaeng  retraced  his steps  to BDP. Deployed  to  working committees  he  went  about his  work  with  minimal  fuss, making sure   he kept a safe   a safe distance from  any unprofitable war mongering. During this time he  also embraced religious faith  with regular pilgrimages to Prophet Shepherd  Bushiri, about whom  he would   wax  wonderment  to  anyone caring to listen.

Just as he had done in 2009 Morwaeng sat out the 2013 primary election. Unsurprisingly and once again back  in  the bosom of Kwelagobe  he  relocated  to Molepolole  South  to  assist  the  old war horse in the 2014  poll. Playing   the long  game  Morwaeng  surmised that   biding  his time  would put him in pole position  to   replace  the  larger than  life  legend  upon retirement.  But fate threw up  a different  script when Kwelagobe unexpectedly  lost  a seat in his grip since 1969. Fast forward  to the 2017  primary elections  and Morwaeng  lined up for  the primary election ticket  which  he  finally  won. I have known Morwaeng  for ages, but his approach to  this year’ s  general election and the primary election preceding,   evoked thoughts in me of  a man  who  was  giving his last throw of the   dice in a game  which  over the years  had been unkind.  A human being can only take in so much  disappointment. From distance I tracked his campaign which, next to  achieving a political objective  was also a spiritual  journey. It   left little to the imagination that if  he didn’t  triumph this time round he  would  shuffle way with a heavy heart into the sunset, bearing scars of his political battles. Another rejection would have amounted to a lifelong passion remaining unfulfilled and unrequited. But as they say fortune favours the  brave,  and one may add     those  who   don’t  give up.  In this  country’s  most toxic  election to date,  that has  produced  upsets  and surprises galore,  the amazing resurrection of Kabo Morwaeng,  25 years  after  his first  shot  at parliament   is the  standout feel  good  story  of interesting political times  we live in.  

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