Saturday, September 25, 2021

A former ambassador to Botswana, new Zim VP is a bareknuckle fighter

Should Botswana get into another spat with Zimbabwe, chances are that the latter’s Second Vice President, Phelekezela Mphoko, will immediately fly straight to Gaborone and burst into the target Government Enclave office within minutes of landing at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. The reason: rather than have to cowardly remonstrate with the offending party by telephone, Mphoko showed a penchant for face-to-face confrontation when he was Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Botswana.

Afternoon of January 13, 2004. A black Mercedes Benz car bearing a diplomatic corps number plate and flying the Zimbabwean flag pulls up at the Mahalapye kgotla and from the back seat unfolds the towering figure of Mphoko. Days earlier, the Midweek Sun had carried a story about a headman at the kgotla “distributing Christmas presents” of 66 strokes among 22 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants.

Mphoko had come to ask the headman in question why he felt the need to make such statement. The more common diplomatic route would have been to write a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to seek clarity. The ministry would then have contacted that of Local Government, which in turn would have contacted the Mahalapye tribal administration officials. Government being a slow-grinding machine, that would have taken days. The Zimbabwean envoy obviously thought that such route would be tortuous when he could just make a two-hour chauffeur drive to Mahalapye and confront the alleged culprit. As it turned out, the trip was not at all necessary.

In the 2003 festive season, the headman, Kgosi Tshipe Tshipe, had tried 22 Zimbabweans for illegally crossing into Botswana and sentenced each one of them to three strokes of the cane on the bare buttocks. Not once did Tshipe say that he was “distributing Christmas presents” ÔÇô that was entirely the story writer’s tongue-in-cheek construction and, in the robust if imprecise description of the Botswana Daily News, the writer had “cooked” the story. That was the explanation that Tshipe, the immediate past vice chairperson of Ntlo ya Dikgosi, gave Mphoko who drove back to Gaborone and somehow neglected to contact the Midweek Sun editor. The Botswana Daily News quoted Mahalapye tribal authorities as saying that “though the ambassador was aware that corporal punishment was lawful in Botswana, he was not amused by what was said during the caning.” It later turned out that the Zimbabwean Embassy’s perception of the flogging had been formally relayed to headquarters in Harare.

A Botswana Foreign Affairs spokesperson would say that their Zimbabwean counterparts had got in touch to ask the same question that Mphoko went to Mahalapye to ask. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened that afternoon if Tshipe had actually said those words and owned up to it. Around this time, Zimbabwe was going through a very difficult period. The government was seizing land owned by white commercial farmers and redistributing it among black Zimbabweans. On the ground, this battle was being waged by war veterans and “war veterans.” Some in the latter group were pubescent boys whose only fighting experience was playing war video games on machines at entertainment centres in central Harare – or fighting over the machines themselves.

When the country’s economy began to really collapse, the country came under controversial media focus including that of local newspapers. In one instance a reporter in the Botswana Guardian/Midweek Sun stable was working on an unflattering Zimbabwe story and making no real headway because Mphoko, a real liberation war veteran who routinely gave reporters a torrid time, was not cooperating. The matter reached the desk of the assignment editor, Dikarabo Ramadubu, who called Mphoko himself to try to establish common ground but to no avail. Bitter words as well as threats of physical violence were exchanged but ultimately the matter was resolved peacefully and the two would become good friends.

“He has two sides to him. He is a true leader but can also be extremely difficult to deal with,” say Ramadubu who offers the Setswana word, “bogwane” as perhaps the most suitable to describe Mphoko’s Mr. Hyde side. (Full disclosure: as a former Botswana Guardian/Midweek Sun staffer, the writer has worked with Ramadubu) In another incident, Mphoko was alleged to have assaulted Hlonipani Chengeta, a Sunday Tribune reporter who had written a story about Botswana conniving with the United States and Britain to topple Mugabe.

Chengeta, who claimed that Mphoko grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pinned him against the wall, reported the matter to the police and the Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. The latter would issue a statement condemning the attack. As a diplomat, Mphoko had diplomatic immunity and then Commissioner of Police and future Botswana High Commissioner to Namibia, Norman Moleboge, was quoted as saying that the police were coordinating with Foreign Affairs on how to handle the matter. This incident actually happened six months before Mphoko went to Mahalapye to confront Kgosi Tshipe.

As Zimbabwe’s situation got progressively worse, thousands of its people and hundreds of its cattle poured into Botswana. Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease along the Botswana-Zimbabwe border became common and in 2003, the government started erecting a 2.4-metre-high electric to keep Zimbabwean cattle out. Naturally, the fence was going to keep illegal immigrants from there out as well and in an interview, Mphoko likened the fence to that which separates Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He said that by putting up the fence, Botswana was “trying to create a Gaza Strip.” Trivia: Mphoko holds the record of being Zimbabwe’s first ambassador to Botswana.

The highest-ranking official of a Commonwealth country in another Commonwealth country is known as High Commissioner while the same role in a country that does not belong to the Commonwealth is performed by an Ambassador. Therefore, when Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003 – having been suspended the previous year – Mphoko’s official designation changed from High Commissioner to Ambassador. From Botswana, Mphoko was posted to Russia and the Botswana Daily News published a picture of him presenting his letter of credence to President Vladimir Putin soon after the fact. His star shone brighter when in 2010 he became Mugabe’s man in South Africa.

Given South Africa’s political and economic importance to Zimbabwe, ambassadorial post in Pretoria is one of the most senior in Zimbabwe’s diplomatic service. South Africa is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner, the African Development Bank has just recommended that out of the basket of currencies it currently uses, Zimbabwe should replace the entire basket with the South African rand and President Jacob Zuma is the Southern African Development Community’s official mediator in Zimbabwe. The post of Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to South Africa fell vacant at a time that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union ÔÇô Patriotic Front (ZANUÔÇôPF) was in a government of national unity with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The latter desperately wanted one of its own to fill the post so as to influence Zuma’s policy towards Zimbabwe. Mphoko emerged the winner from the rat race and became much closer to Mugabe. Last Wednesday, he became Zimbabwe’s second vice president after Mugabe sacked Joyce Mujuru whom, amongst a litany of charges, has been accused of conniving with some people to bewitch the Zimbabwean president. The really entertaining part of this tale is of Mugabe himself telling a ZANU-PF audience last week:

“They went with the likes of (Ray) Kaukonde to get advice from witch-doctors where they were told to bring nyungururwi mbiri (two water insects) with different colours which they would name Mugabe and Mujuru.” The insects were supposed to be put in a clay pot full of water and would be made “to fight against each other and if the one given my name loses the fight, then it would mean that she ascends to power.” Somewhere on a confiscated farm in Zimbabwe, a preening nyungururwinamed after the country’s leader must be doing the animal kingdom’s equivalent of popping champagne and signing autographs in the midst of a full-body rubdown at an exclusive beauty parlour.

And, amid the din of multiple cash registers and a succession of loud-voiced female cashiers calling out to store supervisors to enter a password in their registers, Mphoko and the man whose stance towards Zimbabwe he was virulently opposed to a decade ago are now singing the same song: “Value for your money.” If the Zimbabwean system is anything like Botswana’s, Vice President Mphoko will have to relinquish his position as chairman of Choppies Zimbabwe. Should that happen, he would have ended his business relationship with the chairman of Choppies Botswana who is none other than former president Festus Mogae. Small world.

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