Monday, September 28, 2020

An officer and a gentleman!

In a parade of framed pictures on the walls of Minister Ndelu Seretse’s huge and opulent office, Botswana Presidents ÔÇô past and present – are competing for attention.

In one corner, President Lt. Gen Ian Khama is sandwiched between founding president, Sir Seretse Khama and Ndelu Seretse, all done in oil on canvas. At the other corner former presidents, Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae are huddled together inside a single frame.

Enjoying the pride of place, however, is a smiling Prophet TB Joshua. The leader of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, who is credited with miracle healings and prophesies, is looking over Seretse’s high decked chair and working table.

Running the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security can be a nerve wrecking experience, and Seretse needs all the divine help he can get.
“Sometimes you run into situations that call for greater authority. When it is tough I pray to God. As a politician, I want to treat all people equally, but it is not always easy,” says Seretse.
He would not be drawn into discussing incidents which were so tough that he had to go down on his knees and pray to God.

“I don’t pray as a result of incidents, I pray all the time,” he says. Good for him, otherwise he would spend half of his day time life down on his knees.
As the minister responsible for the unpopular Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) and the Botswana Police Service, he is the meat in between the sandwich. When crime rates go up, it is his neck on the line. When security officers shoot criminals, their blood trails end up on his hands.

If there is any one incident that is testing Seretse’s inner strength, it is the public indignation over the spate of extra-judicial executions; in particular the killing of John Kalafatis by security officers earlier this year.

Seretse explains that, national security threats do not always come from outside the country, “crime and corruption can also be a threat to national security. DIS has done a great deal in trying to assist”.

The minister also has to fend off human rights organizations that are campaigning against capital punishment in Botswana. For a politician with strong religious leanings, capital punishment must be presenting difficulties for Seretse.

“Capital punishment? Ooh capital punishment!” That is the minister’s first reaction when the subject is broached. He then goes on to explain that “God has created or made man to create institutions. If you transgress laws of these institutions you have to be punished. It is biblical.”

He is, however, quick to point out that “death is not from God, it is from elsewhere. But Batswana, however, want capital punishment.”

Seretse must have known that politics come with a package. The Seretse name has always loomed large in Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and national politics. In addition to his late father, Lenyeletse Seretse, who was once Vice President of Botswana, his uncle Sir Seretse Khama was the first president of Botswana and his cousin is the current president of the country.

It’s fair to say without the name, he would not be where he is. Family ties, however, have not always been helpful.
The Barata-Phathi faction of the BDP links his name to President Khama’s succession plan. They claim that Khama wants to keep the country’s presidency in the family.

“To be honest, he has never told me that, and surely he has not behaved in a way that suggested to me that he wants me to be his Vice President. Our relationship has been overtaken by professionalism,” he says with a clearly controlled fit of indignation.
We are sitting in Minister Seretse’s office, over bottled water, coffee and fruit juice.

His Permanent Secretary, Augustine “Ten Ten” Makgonatsotlhe, pops his head through the door, and the minister greets him casually with a heita!

(Slang for hi). The minister is clearly most at ease and at his best in small groups where he is witty, and for a man often projected as abrasive, is surprisingly warm, charitable and kind-hearted.

Seretse grew up in a very Christian family, were there was a strong instinct for giving, especially to the needy. He soaked up the family example. That is his persona. It’s like he inhaled it as a way of life.

His name was recently announced on Emmanuel Television alongside a donation of US$ 2000 for destitute families cared for by the Synagogue Church of All Nations. He has built houses for homeless families from his pocket and helped set up the Ipelegeng Development Trust.

“Giving is my nature. But I do not like bo mpha 20 Pula (give me 20 Pula). When I give, I want to make a difference in people’s lives,” he says.

Seretse relates an incident when a former senior colleague in the army dropped in unannounced at his office. The retired military officer wanted to go to Francistown but did not have bus fare. He had come to ask Seretse for P100 bus fare.

“I was very angry because I expected better from him.”

As it turns out, Seretse expected better from the retired soldier because of the man’s military background. “In the military we are a family and there are certain things we expect of each other,” he says.

He says he was more disappointed that the ex-colleague was not living up to the military code of advance planning.
This would probably come as a surprise to most people who still remember the young man who wanted to enroll for a Bachelor of Law degree, and later turned up his nose at university education when he was registered to study Public Relations instead.

Not even his father’s persuasion to enroll for a degree in Public Administration, an in-thing at the time was enough to win the young man over.
“I was a bit of a rebel.” In 1977 he joined the BDF as 2nd Lieutenant and retired 21 years later as a Brigadier. He was 41. Some time during his military service, he went on study leave to pursue a degree in law, his lifelong first love.

Armed with a law degree, probably the first such individual in the Botswana Defence Force, he went back to form the army’s Directorate of Legal Services which was later merged with Personnel Services.

But upon retirement did he face any transformational challenges?
The Minister is quick to acknowledge the differences between the military and civilian life.

“The military changes a person in terms of discipline and a more controlled regiment. Of course, when you come back from the military one is inevitably surprised at how a bit disorderly the situation is. After spending years under military discipline you find that the environment outside is very lax.”

Seretse, however, maintains coming from the army to a democratic environment was not a problem because the military by its nature is a very democratic institution. In fact, he dismisses as a “myth” perceptions that the military inculcates any dictatorial tendencies.

“People think the military is undemocratic. That is not true. Before you give orders there has to be a thorough process of consultation. Because of the nature of the military, every decision has to go through such consultation and analysis.”

He is adamant that in Botswana, the public should be proud that there are former soldiers who have made it to the top structures of public life. Both the current President and Vice President are retired army Generals.

“We should be proud in Botswana. The military as an institution is known to safeguard democracy. These are the people who know the values of democracy.”

At the end of the interview, we followed Seretse from his office to the parliament building and the short trip reveals a happy-go-lucky and amiable side of him which only a few knew existed. He stopped after every few steps to trade jokes and banter with pedestrians:

“Monna ke lona le dirang gore gotwe we are lazy” (its guys like you who give Batswana a bad name, no wonder foreigners say we are lazy) he says to a young man in blue overalls who is lounging on his back while his colleagues were struggling with underground cables. The young man shot back with a joke, cracking up the minister into a gale of laughter.

As he approached the parliament building, he was stopped by another young man who said he wished to talk to him. The minister quickly explained that he was hurrying off to parliament, leaving the young man, also a former soldier and apparently a homeboy, with a promise to see him later in Serowe.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.