Saturday, July 4, 2020

Bangwato are not a monolith of like-minded people

That the Botswana National Front was founded by a Mongwato and that an opposition candidate standing against Tshekedi Khama in the 2008 bye-election got at least 0.04 percent of the vote should be evidence that not all Bangwato are members of the Botswana Democratic Party. However, there are people who will never allow facts to get in the way of a good fantasy. 

With the emergence of a new party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, Bangwato once more find themselves the centre of controversial political focus. Received wisdom is that BPF (which some say stands for Bangwato Petroleum Fund because some of its leaders have been implicated in the looting of the National Petroleum Fund) is a Bangwato party. The person most responsible for inspiring such association is the party’s founder and spiritual leader, former president Ian Khama. In laying the groundwork for the formation of this party, Khama called a meeting in Serowe in his capacity as Bangwato “kgosikgolo”, an officially non-existent title that would have been expressed as “Paramount Chief” in nomenclature that is no longer used officially. The meeting was held at the village’s showground, which also hosted the second meeting where the formation of the party was announced. In order to give the appearance of a genuine tribal project, Khama also roped in the Bangwato Regent, Kgosi Sediegeng Kgamane.

First impressions are very important and with these optics, BPF was franchised into public consciousness as a “Bangwato party.” However, nothing could be farther from the truth because Bangwato are not a monolith of like-minded people. As a matter of fact, there are as many attitudes towards the BPF, Khama and national issues as there are Bangwato themselves.

There are Bangwato who see BPF for what it is ÔÇô an unpatriotic, vendetta-fuelled project that serves the interests of Khama only. There are Bangwato who put tribal interests before Khama’s personal interests. There are Bangwato who see Khama for what he is ÔÇô a cultural outsider who, despite his royal position, has done absolutely nothing to advance tribal interests in the period of time (40 years) that he has been their leader. At the Serowe meeting, one speaker said that he would follow Khama “wherever” he goes. There are Bangwato who would never utter those words because they don’t know where and how Khama’s progressively aggressive campaign to claw his way back to power will end. In private conversations, those Bangwato express grave concern about a particular worst-case scenario. There are Bangwato who have noted with as grave a concern that the good name of their tribe is being tarnished for a self-serving political misadventure and that long after BPF has metamorphosed into something else, their tribe would still be associated with misadventure that is reversing national-unity gains made over five decades. There are Bangwato (some members of the royal family) who disapprove of Kgosi Kgamane, a pitiable sight at both Serowe meetings, being used as a political prop in the BPF project.

There are Bangwato who don’t think that Khama has a right to be catered for outside what the Presidents Pension and Retirement Benefits Act stipulates in explicit terms. There are Bangwato who don’t support Khama’s grand plan to perpetuate his bloodline in the state presidency because that is not what republicanism is about. There are Bangwato who don’t want to see another Khama in the presidency because the two already in politics have proved themselves to be grossly incompetent. There are Bangwato who wish Khama that would assume the more traditional role of a kgosi ÔÇô business leadership ÔÇô in much the same way that his cousins across the border (Molotlegis) have and improve the economic lives of his subjects. There are Bangwato who, despite what sympathies they may have for Tibetan self-determination, will never offend China because they understand the power dynamics of a new world order. There are Bangwato who don’t tolerate tribalistic talk because they know that what President Festus Mogae said during at a past Independence Day speech (“We are like an omelette”) in order to douse the Pitso ya Batswana-Society for the Promotion of Ikalanga Language conflagration is true. This Bangwato know that Botswana’s peace and stability is a direct result of its level of tribal integration and recognise the need to bequeath the special gift of a sane nation to their descendants. They can’t affiliate with BPF because it is not aligned with national security interests.

To be clear, Khama has very loyal supporters who typically don’t need to understand what the issues of contention are, what the evidence is, whether national interest is served or not before they take a position. All they need to know is what Khama’s position is and they promptly validate it. They don’t feel the need to understand what the Presidents Pension and Retirement Benefits Act says with regard to Khama’s use of state aircraft; they just need to know what Khama’s feelings are on the issue. They don’t want a BPF roadmap; they just need to know where Khama is going so they can follow him. They know they no longer live in fear as they did between 2008 and 2018 but if Khama says that they are living in fear even when they can insult a state president at a live-streamed public meeting, then they are living in fear. They don’t know either the ideological agenda or policy platform of the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change but on Khama’s encouragement, have revealed plans to decamp to “Bokwe’s” party ÔÇô that being a mispronunciation of the surname (Boko) of the UDC’s leader, Duma Boko. This group of Bangwato would disapprove of any politician going on sabbatical leave but when Khama did so in 1999, raised no objection because he had accumulated more than 365 leave days on account of never having gone on leave since joining the civil service as a Paramilitary Mobile Unit officer. That is not a joke but an explanation that some Bangwato gave when Vice President Khama went on such leave to protest Mogae’s exercise of presidential prerogative to single-handedly appoint cabinet without consulting his new Vice President.

To the extent BPF is a Bangwato party, the latter are the Bangwato in question but not every Mongwato is in that category. It is mistaken to define the political character of a whole tribe on the basis of the habits of a sub-group within it. The other very important point to make is that people who put the interests of their tribal leader before tribal and national interest are found across the tribal board. Comparing these two groups on the basis of substance would be a futile exercise because in the context of electoral democracy (which is extremely dangerous mob rule that Ancient Greek philosophers expressed disquiet about) the issue comes down to which side has numerical strength. 

It is interesting to observe that Khama’s plan to weaponise Bangwato against national interest and leverage his royal position has blown up in his face in a very spectacular manner. Having been introduced to the public as a Bangwato party, BPF’s fate as a provincial party is sealed. Some of his supporters now want a Mongwato to lead the party precisely because with Regent Kgamane in attendance and at a venue in the Bangwato capital, the Bangwatokgosikgolo told a meeting he had called for Bangwato that he was forming a party. With such super-concentration of “tribal”, the people in question have legitimate expectation that the party’s leader should be a Mongwato. This strategic blunder also manifests in the continued use of the “Eseng mo go kgosikgolo” (not on my paramount chief) as a BPF battle cry. When you think of it, that battle cry would have made a better slogan than “Ke nako” which, while attractive for its shortness, is really meaningless. At street-level, the latter slogan is dismissed with “Time to do what that couldn’t be done between 2008 and 2018?” “Kgosikgolo”, which now enjoys pride of place on supporters’ T-shirts, reminds one of the BPF’s tribal character. Most importantly, in singling out an individual from a nation of 2.3 million, that slogan and particular word serve as stark reminders of what BPF is really about ÔÇô the Bangwato Kgosikgolo. To Bangwato who think nationally and not tribally, that represents regression and not progress.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.