To a critic, reading David Magang’s autobiography is a thrill. The book is a critical, insightful and fascinating account of the goings-on, rivalries, and enmities in government and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) narrated by a long-time insider and former key player.
In some respects the book reminds one of Chika Onyeani’s scathing book, The Capitalist Nigger. In his book Magang is speaking from the heart and calls a spade a spade. This book should also provide caution and inspiration to those with political and entrepreneurial ambitions. Despite its obvious flaws, the book is an important contribution to the political history of Botswana. The most glaring flaws are Magang’s excessive liking for verbosity and repetition of themes that have already been elaborated. The book is also liberally sprinkled with words that force the reader to frequently consult the dictionary.
After agonizing through page 9 to page 90, one starts the real Magang story of childhood in a traditional setting of his native village of Molepolole. He also provides an interesting account of his primary education, which was interrupted by a stint at the cattle-post.
Work and experience in Mafikeng (in the racially segregated South Africa) influenced him to return to school, ultimately obtaining a degree in law at the University of London. He writes that his experience in Mafikeng was that the Anglo-Saxons (English) were less racist and paid better than the brutally racist Afrikaners. In fact, by going back to school, Magang had intended to learn enough English and go back to Mafikeng to work for the English speaking families. By contrast over the years I have heard many Batswana claim that while the English were less racist than the Afrikaners the latter paid better than the English.
Magang writes about his extensive travels overseas, family, relations, friends, mentors and heroes, challenges as a government employee, setting up Botswana’s first private legal practice by an indigenous lawyer, joining the ruling BDP, factionalism and intolerance in the party, establishing businesses and alleged sabotage by his perceived enemies in government, work as a member of parliament, Assistant Minister and ultimately a senior cabinet minister.
Magang’s book is also interesting in the sense that he does not just provide a straightforward narration of his life but attempts to engage historians in a debate on some of the greatest personalities in the history of Botswana.
He provides a lengthy account of his nineteenth century tribal chief, Sechele I, claiming that he is Botswana’s greatest leader of all time. Magang complains that despite Sechele’s heroic defence of the territory against seizure by the Transvaal Boers he has not been recognized and honoured in the post-colony. He rather harshly rubbishes the view that the Bangwato chief, Khama III or ‘Khama the Great’, was a great leader. Perhaps Magang is the only member of the ruling BDP who has the audacity to publicly refer to President Ian Khama Seretse Khama’s great grandfather as a sell-out and a collaborator with the exploitative and oppressive imperial forces. Ironically, later Magang refers to Khama III and General Charles Warren (colonizer of Botswana) as ‘the two great men’ (p.348); he does not use the inverted commas though.
Throughout the book Magang refers to Ian Khama by his ‘tribal name’, Kgosi Khama IV instead of his more common ‘political name’, Seretse Khama Ian Khama. Magang does not explain this approach. One can only surmise that Magang is implying that the Bangwato chieftaincy and the presidency of the BDP led Botswana are inseparable. In fact on several occasions he states that the Bangwato are the most influential tribe in the country.
There is an element of insensitivity to other people’s cultural practices. For instance, Magang writes that ‘women in Pakistan and Afghanistan were virtually prisoners in their own country; they wore long, ebony burkas, which covered them from head to toe, leaving only two small openings to see through. As a result I never saw a woman’s face in Afghanistan. I imagine the conundrum of proposing love or marriage to a woman one had never seen’ (p.229). The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan may not take kindly to their culture being described as making them ‘virtually prisoners in their own country’. The irony of Magang’s observation is that by maintaining their culture, the Pakistanis and Afghanistanis have largely been able to uphold their traditional moral standards and keep encroachment by Western decadence at bay. By contrast Magang’s people, Batswana, have discarded many aspects of their traditional moral standards by adopting Western culture and its accompanying decadence, a development Magang himself strongly decries.
For instance, he writes that while in England he ‘found some certain aspects of British culture too liberal to stomach. For example, children were rarely answerable to their parents; they became virtually free spirits upon attaining puberty. To correct an erring child by way of corporal punishment was unthinkable; society frowned upon such a measure, which was dubbed child abuse…. A teenager would introduce her boyfriend to her parents without taking offence. Once, a girlfriend of mine did just that, wholly against my will, and it was the end of our relationship. I came from a culture where such behavior would never be countenanced’ (p.211).
Perhaps regarding corporal punishment and children’s rights in Botswana, Magang should have stated that a few years ago in his native Molepolole an acting chief once effectively dealt with child gangs through traditional regiment system and corporal punishment, but a cabinet minister confronted him arguing that the acting chief was violating the country’s constitution and children’s rights. Regarding girls introducing boyfriends to their parents in England and in modern Botswana Magang writes: ‘Of course, it would have been a different story today, with the corruption that has come with the globalization culture and its values so obsessively embraced by most Batswana’ (p.211).
I dwell more on this cultural aspect because early in the book Magang emphatically states that ‘we have been rebels, our own sell-outs and saboteurs of august cultural mores ÔÇôa crime, in my own book, which rhymes with treason’ (p.93). Perhaps Magang should have pointed out that some results of this has been loose morals, teenage pregnancy, ‘passion killings’, not to mention the spread and devastation of HIV/AIDS.
Magang provides an interesting and balanced assessment of Botswana’s first three presidents, Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae. He also provides a good dose of advice to the country’s fourth and current president, Ian Khama.
Of particular interest is Magang’s advice that Khama should allow free speech to flourish in the country and accept all forms of criticism from both citizens and foreigners. He has very strong views regarding some self-defeating government’s citizen economic empowerment programmes, inappropriate priorities in the education system, and lack of mineral/diamond beneficiation. Perhaps here Magang should have acknowledged that such views have also been expressed or pioneered by the country’s opposition parties, private press editorials, independent observers and reports of many government commissioned studies.
Magang again breaks ranks with his party regarding the view that while minerals have brought misery to many sub-Saharan African countries, in Botswana diamonds brought development and prosperity. He argues that in Botswana diamond wealth has led to a rich government and a culture of chronic dependence on the state by the poverty stricken populace, which form a significant part of the country’s population. In another break with the BDP, Magang argues that while the party has created an aura of its invincibility by marginalizing the opposition, the tables could turn resulting in the BDP sinking into obscurity as has happened with the once mighty UNIP in Zambia.
Magang writes that he honoured some of his heroes and mentors by naming some streets after them in his up-market Phakalane estate. However, he does not inform us whether he has honoured his legendary chief, Sechele I by naming any landmark in Phakalane after him.
Although a great deal of research has gone into Magang’s book, its bibliography is rather too lean and disappointing. The book being such a critical work should have included numerous critical titles on Botswana’s socio-political and economic development. Again there are a number of sources quoted or referred to in the book but not included in the bibliography. Among these are Anthony Dachs, Charles Rey’s diaries, Dr Kenneth Koma’s Pamphlet No.1, and Sir Ketumile Masire’s memoirs, Very Brave or Very Foolish. Key historical sources such as Anthony Sillery’s book Sechele: The Story of an African Chief, Neil Parsons’ King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen, Dr Alfred Merriweather’s Desert Doctor Remembers should also have been consulted and cited. Magang should also have engaged publications by his political contemporaries in the opposition such as Paul Rantao’s Makatolole No1, Motsamai Mpho’s autobiography, Michael Dingake’s The Politics of Confusion and Fish Keitseng’s Comrade Fish.
Criticism notwithstanding, David Magang should be commended for his effort which we hope will provoke his perceived and alleged enemies into writing their memoirs as a way of providing their side of the story.
*Dr Christian John Makgala is History Lecturer at the University of Botswana