To some within a certain time horizon and with special interest in local electoral politics, the apprehension over the introduction of electronic voting machines will come across as non-nostalgic throwback to a time when the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was supposed to be rigging elections with the help of fermented urine.
Then elections were conducted by way of a colour-coded disc system. The BDP’s disc was red while the Botswana National Front, which at this time was led by Dr. Kenneth Koma, used a rectangular, plain black disc. After successive losses, the BNF was naturally short on good cheer and there was desperate need to boost troop morale. Koma – who had an award-winning novelist’s genius for constructing beguiling plot outlines, started hustling a theory that these victories were a direct result of the BDP using an ancient method of urine engineering. It was then that the BNF made a historic triage decision to have its own disc redesigned in order to make it impossible for the ruling party to cheat.
The full extent of Koma’s theory was that BDP operatives used a certain chemical which, when applied on black discs inside a ballot box, caused them to turn red ÔÇô in that way criminally increasing the ruling party’s vote tally. The recollection of Lemogang Ntime, Koma’s long-time ally, is that this gem of intelligence had been passed on to the BNF by a certain ‘South African expert’, a Mosotho whom Koma had met while a student in Cape Town.
“We had no scientific proof that really happened but the expert suggested there was a strong possibility that was the case. We had reason to believe it could be so because when the discs were counted, some of them were a suspiciously curious mixture of black and red. It was never explained to us how that happened. It was then that we demanded that the BNF ballot disc should have a hole in the middle,” says Ntime.
To other party members the mysterious chemical was identified as ammonia. Koma, an iconic voice-of-a-generation politician who died in 2007, said that ammonia used to change the colour of ballot discs was extracted from huge quantities of urine. Well before election day, the story goes, a whole platoon of dedicated urinators would heavy-breathe through a days-long, Olympics-scale piss-athon, filling up a collection of recycled containers with a never-ending stream of hot urine. The ammonia extracted from that urine would somehow be secreted into ballot boxes to literally work its magic.
In one respect, Koma was right. In the Middle Ages, Egyptian artisans used ammonia – in the form of sludge from fermented urine – to make dye.
Ntime says that the BDP government (under Sir Ketumile Masire) resisted the suggestion but ultimately caved in. However, drilling a hole in the disc did not improve the BNF’s fortunes and when the disc system was replaced by paper-balloting in 1999, the BDP was still running rings round the entire opposition. At this point, the black disc with the hole had fatefully become a treasured party symbol.
Even as the BNF seeks to become part of an opposition collective and even with as many holes as there are in the theory that led to the creation of this symbol, one too many old-school comrades just cannot fathom the thought of any rebranding exercise that wipes it out of existence. As a matter of fact, proposals for changing the symbol have not only provoked violence reaction but have also led to the total collapse of opposition unity talks in which the BNF was a major participant.