Friday, December 13, 2019

‘There has always been a Masisi in parliament since 1965’

At first blush, one supposes that it would be easy to find common ground on common English words like “unfair”, “executive” and “domination.” However, even with a semantic GPS, that task proves extremely difficult.

The spokesman of the Botswana Patriotic Front, Justice Motlhabani, says that a story headlined “First Time since 1875 that the Khamas are not Part of National Executive Leadership” that we published last month was “unfair” on the Khamas.

“It is merely continuation of focus on the Khamas, of attacking one family,” says Motlhabani, who studied journalism at the University of Botswana. “The elections are over and people expect to be reading about bread and butter issues.”

He expands that argument by stating that the article omitted to mention that there is another family that has actually dominated Botswana’s politics since 1965 – President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s. The writer adjudges “domination” to be an overstatement but Motlhabani is right in the other respect: going back to 1965 to date, there has been a Masisi in the Botswana parliament. The patriarch, Edison Masisi, was the first Moshupa MP and served in President Sir Seretse Khama’s cabinet. When he retired in 1999, his son, Tshelang Masisi, came in as Francistown West MP and served until his death in 2013. By that time, his brother, Mokgweetsi Masisi, had already joined him in 2009 as Moshupa MP. And so, between 2009 and 2013, there were two Masisis in parliament. After the 2014 elections, Mokgweetsi Masisi was elevated to the vice presidency, automatically becoming Leader of the House and four years later, automatically became president when General Ian Khama stepped down. Even as president, Masisi is still an MP because that is what the constitution says. Motlhabani is right: going back to 1965 to date, there has been a Masisi in the Botswana parliament.

His broader point is that if anyone is to talk about political domination of the Khamas, they should also point that there is another family (the Masisis) that have been as dominant in Botswana’s politics. However, past this historical trivia, the issue gets sticky because in a real sense, political domination means political power. The Khamas have a lot of political power, which is why the ruling Botswana Democratic Party recruited Gen Khama from the army in the first place. Motlhabani accepts the point that the Khamas did indeed have more political power than the Masisis.

There is also an asymmetric aspect of how the two families practise politics. The point put to Motlhabani is that the Masisis toiled to end up in parliament and in that regard, are a political family, not political dynasty. While he became MP in the same year that his father quit, Tshelang Masisi didn’t inherit the Moshupa seat but chose to run for political office 500 kilometres away, thus eschewing advantage that would perceptibly have come from running in his home village. A sociable person, Tshelang Masisi had a deep connection with everyday people and was politically self-made. Mokgweetsi Masisi didn’t too well the first time he ran for the Moshupa seat, losing in the BDP primaries and toiling for the next five years until finally making it in 2009. Conversely, the Khamas have been handed everything on a silver platter: Colin Blackbeard had to give up his seat for Gen Khama who in turn, bequeathed it to his younger brother, Tshekedi Khama.

In both acknowledging and explaining the latter, Motlhabani says that the Khamas are a powerful family that he would compare to the Kennedys in the United States.

“That brings in a different dimension,” he adds. “Masisi has run and lost but there is no way that the Khamas can lose because of their royal pedigree.”

About royalty: Gen Khama is the Paramount Chief of the Bangwato and has leveraged this position to aid his political programme.

Another sticky point relates to how the Masisis rose to prominence and is backgrounded against the equivalence that Motlhabani makes between the two families. If a charge of self-perpetuation can be made against the Masisis, there would have to be mention of the fact that it was actually the Khamas who elevated them: Seretse Khama with Edison Masisi and Gen Khama with Mokgweetsi Masisi. In defence of Gen Khama, Motlhabani says that he had limited options because he couldn’t appoint a minister from the north as his Vice President.

Motlhabani’s other complaint is that the headline and premise of the article advanced a false construct and in that regard, takes issue with the use of “executive.” The article had stated that going back to Khama III, a Khama has always been part of the national executive leadership. We listed the Khamas in the following order: Khama III, Sekgoma II, Tshekedi Khama, Seretse Khama and Gen Khama. Motlhabani is keen to stress that when Seretse Khama died in 1980, Gen Khama was still in the army, where was Deputy Commander and later Commander, and would only become Vice President in 1998.

“He wasn’t part of the executive in those years,” he says.

Indeed Khama was not part of the executive during that period and nowhere does our story say he was. Parsing the language is absolutely necessary at this point. Being “part of the national executive leadership” and being in “the executive” are two different things. While it includes, the executive, the national executive leadership is much broader and among many more high-ranking officials, includes both the “CEO and Deputy CEO” of the army as it were. When this subtlety is explained, Motlhabani counters by stating that “ordinary people” didn’t not understand it that way and points to Facebook commentary as evidence of that.

“They would have understood that difference had the article been clearer,” he says. 

Indeed there are comments that bear out what Motlhabani says but it would seem unfair to absolve the commenters of the responsibility to read with understanding before they offer their opinion and instead blame Sunday Standard. The BPF spokesman had stated that ordinary people understood “executive” in the context of its use in the constitution. Still, the constitution refers to “the executive” and the school syllabus introduces this term at Standard 5. 

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