Saturday, May 18, 2024

A homage to Mompati Merafhe

On the 31st of July 2012, His Honour the vice President t. General Mompati Merafhe stepped down from both the office of Vice President and Member of Parliament for Mahalapye West. Given that the first Vice-President of this Republic (Sir Ketumile Masire) ascended to the office as President in the most tragic and unhappy of circumstances in 1980, and that his immediate successor demised whilst holding office barely three years into his term, and that the third Vice-President resigned from such office in the aftermath of a controversy (and died some two or so years later), whilst the fourth and fifth Vice-Presidents both ascended to the office of President, the retirement from office as Vice-President by VP Merafhe is in fact the first in our history as an independent nation.

We are all aware that VP Merafhe joined the Botswana Police Force (to which he gave some 17 years of service), and during which he rose from the lowly rank of Constable to that of Deputy Commissioner. There cannot be any doubt that, during such period, VP Merafhe not only observed, but participated and was instrumental in the transformation of a Police Force from a gendarmerie dedicated to the maintenance of order on behalf of a colonial authority, to a Police Force which, following the attainment of national independence in 1966, had to be re-oriented and re-programmed to an institution to serve the aspirations of Batswana, and to support a newly established national government. To my mind, VP Merafhe’s demonstrated and proven capacity and institution-building credentials have their roots in these formative years of the Botswana Police Force.

We are all aware of VP Merafhe’s appointment in 1977 to the position of inaugural Commander of the then newly-established Botswana Defence Force (BDF), which was being established entirely from the ground and for which there was no local precedent or template, and which constituted a major organizational challenge, especially when it is recalled that this newly established BDF was immediately called and pressed into service as a result of military incursions by Rhodesian forces, which were mounting in both their frequency and seriousness. Many persons have achieved success in the management of hitherto existing institutions; but His Honour’s appointment to the position of Commander of what was hitherto a non-existent institution, together with its subsequent orderly and organic growth is further proof of his capacity for institution-building and planning. And that this institution did not crumble after he left it, but went on to grow and flourish, is further testimony to the attentiveness and skill with which its foundations were laid. VP Merafhe’s experience and insights in these regards can be of invaluable assistance to regional and global military leadership institutions, including our very own nascent Defence Command & Staff College.

There are many Batswana today (particularly our youth) who may have viewed the VP strutting about (and with all the privileges and trappings that are associated with the office of Vice-President); but who have no idea or recall of the origins of this illustrious record of service. But we know that it was not easy; and that, for the most part, it has not been a walk in the park. As we reflect on both the peaks and lows of Merafhe’s years in public service, many of us ask ourselves questions concerning; (1) what he felt, or must have felt, as the Commander of a detachment that was decimated by Rhodesian forces at Lesoma in the 1970’s (2) what were his thoughts in 1985 and 1986, during the successive military raids by the South African Defence Force on this country, and the resultant losses of human lives?

(3) what were his thoughts at that near-critical moment in 1987 when our Presidential jet (OK1), for which he had overall responsibility, was shot-down whilst over-flying Angola with a President on board? These are, but just a few examples, of the ardors and challenges which he encountered as the Commander of the BDF. I earnestly believe that his insights, experiences and lessons learned from these, and numerous other, exposures cannot remain hoarded as personal recollections or private reminiscences, but are of inestimable instructive value to military institutions, as well as the public, both in Botswana and elsewhere.

In 1994 following his initial appointment as Minister for Presidential Affairs & Public Administration (1989-1994), His Honour was appointed to the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs & International Co-operation. In his book titled “Very Brave or Very Foolish”, former President Sir Ketumile Masire states that His Honour was most reluctant to accept this appointment, and that he kicked and rallied hard against it.

Whatever the position, it is in this particular position that His Honour (at least in the public eye) was able to unleash his complete potentials. For many years, particularly in Africa (unlike Europe and elsewhere), the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs tended to distance the incumbent from the public because it was not readily understood how that office could positively impact on the quality of the daily lives of silent and most deprived majorities in any nation, and as such many Foreign Ministers,though distinguished, tended to be remote; and, with few exceptions, most of them did not ascend to higher offices of national governance or survive the political gallows called general elections.

It was during this period of His Honour’s tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs, that what had hitherto been a seemingly reluctant, shy and even self-effacing Republic of Botswana (in international affairs) developed a distinctive face and footprint in both regional and global affairs. It was during this era that Botswana cultivated the greatest expansion of its relations with foreign nations, culminating in a remarkable growth of its diplomatic representation the world over, and during which many foreign nations courted diplomatic relations with Botswana. Crucially, it is also during this period that Botswana really stepped out of the shadows, and began to assume positions on the global stage, such as His Honour’s successive election to the position of Chairman of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), to which no one else – but VP Merafhe ÔÇô has been elected more than once.

We also recall, during this chapter of VP Merafhe’s tenure, this Republic’s proximity to the fire-side of the resolution of various sub-regional,regional and international crises and strife – be it upheavals in Lesotho,the suspensions of both Zimbabwe and Nigeria from the Commonwealth, the unlawful overthrows of governments in Fiji and elsewhere, the establishment of the African Union (AU), to mention just a few; and the intimate details of all of which are uniquely in the knowledge and bosom of the individual who has now stepped down from high office. All these matters, and numerous others to which I have not alluded, must undoubtedly be viewed as the essential ingredients for what must surely emerge as one of the most insightful, powerful and far-reaching autobiographies from this country, and this part of the world.

I do believe that many Batswana will support my entreaty to the retiring VP to exert himself in the direction of writing a book; if not a life story, but an account of his years in public service, particularly in relation to his previous offices of BDF Commander and Minister of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. In as much, as he is retiring, it is our hope – his health permitting – that VP Merafhe will be able to identify and recognize the new vistas of opportunity and purpose which his retirement represents, and will not view his retirement as merely a curtain closure on
what has been an interesting life of public service.

It is important – even on as conciliatory and joyous an occasion such as the retirement of the VP – not to mislead one another by pretending that VP Merafhe and ourselves were always the best of friends, or that we always enjoyed the most cordial or harmonious of relations. His Honour, who has been Leader of the House from 2004 to date, was at the forefront of most, if not all, our struggles against the ruling party and its Government in Parliament; and there were times (some of us considered) when he went out of his way to offer gratuitous offence, or to be unnecessarily combative or vengeful. Indeed, there are a few of us (myself included) in the opposition ranks who until recently still carried the scars and bitter memories from the injuries caused by his ascerbic tongue and/or caustic remarks during the cut and thrust of parliamentary debates. But that said, ours is a parliamentary model based on adversariality and tension between the parties on either side of the House and in which we all give (or at least try to) as good as we get. I just happen to believe that His Honour enjoyed the conflicts and rivalries just a dessert-spoon too much! There was nothing personal about the exchanges we had. We represent political parties that differ in terms of values and ideological orientation.

But that said, retirement provides a balm for any disturbed or injured feelings as between the retiree and those who remain. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to assure VP Merafhe, and the rest of the nation, that all accounts in terms of injured feelings and lingering resentments as between ourselves and His Honour are settled; and, for our part, there are no residues of rancour. Indeed, it is our hope that the converse is equally true, and that His Honour will depart with happier and perhaps more endearing memories of us. His Honour also leaves us with a rich legacy of highly quotable, and often repeated, phrases among them; “suspicion is the poison of love”, “you cannot boil the whole ocean”, “you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence”, to mention just a few, and which we will always recall among his numerous spirited interventions in Parliament. So, in recognition of the truth and validity of his favourite phrase, being that you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence, Parliament was unable to dedicate time for his tribute and valediction as he has been hospitalized.

On behalf of the BCP, I wish him as full as possible a recovery in terms of
his health, as well as happiness and a well deserved rest.

*Dumelang Saleshando is Leader of Opposition in parliament and President of the Botswana Congress Party.

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