Two African scholars, one at the University of Botswana, have poured cold water on Botswana’s much vaunted status as a “shining example” of democracy.
The argument that Professors Asafa Jalata of the University of Tennessee and Monageng Mogalakwe of UB make begins with comparing the constitutional make-up of pre-colonial and colonial society. In the latter, the kgosi (supreme traditional ruler) was the nerve centre of traditional Tswana life.
“He had extensive executive and judicial powers and was also the religious and spiritual leader and purported intermediary between the people and the ancestors,” write Asafa and Mogalakwe in “Cultural Capital, Colonial Legacy and the Deficits of Democracy” which is a chapter in a book itself titled “Cultural Capital and Prospects for Democracy in Botswana and Ethiopia.”
The kgosi’s seat of power was and still is the kgotla, which is both an indigenous parliament and customary court where judicial cases were heard. However, “for many centuries, women were not allowed to attend the kgotla and did not have the rights of public speech.” Additionally, “the voices of the poor and subordinated ethnonational groups were not adequately listened to at the kgotla. All these factors expose non-democratic aspects of the kgotla system.”
“The current top-down and one-party dominant system in Botswana has embodied much of the pre-colonial culture and leadership … and as such, there is continuity between the precolonial, colonial and the post-colonial,” the book says.
Of the colonial phase, Jalata and Mogalakwe assert that Bechuanaland Protectorate was ruled by a series of proclamations until self-government was established in 1965. Through such proclamations, Bechuanaland was governed by the British High Commissioner to South Africa who had powers to enact legislation by proclamation, a hut tax of 10 shillings annually on every home with an adult males or male was introduced, Dikgosi Sekgoma Letsholathebe of Batawana and Kgosi Sebele II of Bakwena were deposed, Roman Dutch law of the Cape Colony was imposed, the borrowing limit of Africans was restricted to 35 pounds sterling a year, and the judicial powers of the kgotla system were removed.
At independence in 1966, the constitution of the new republic of Botswana “was anchored on the Bechuanaland constitutions of 1961 and 1964.” The latter meant that there were no substantive adjustments to the republican constitution. The evidence the authors cite is Article 14 of the 1961 colonial constitution which gave “Her Majesty” power to disallow laws passed by the legislature and the High Commissioner power to withhold his assent to any bill.
“The current Botswana constitution puts the president above the law or as law unto himself, [in the same way that] the precolonial kgosi and the colonial resident commissioners were above the law or as law unto themselves. In the precolonial era, the kgosi was the administrative and judicial manager of the morafe and would, only after consultation with his uncles, make a binding pronouncement at the kgotla.” In today’s Botswana, the constitution gives almost all powers to the president “and there is no separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary.”
Much like the colonial administration, the Botswana constitution “also empowered the president to neutralise dikgosi (kings) by stripping off their political power and by enabling Seretse Khama to become the king of the powerless kings.” In doing so through a constitutional arrangement, Khama, who was Botswana’s founding president, created an ineffectual House of Chiefs, prevented dikgosi from getting involved in politics and turned them into de facto public officers and unwitting legitimisers of the ruling party. On the political front, he neutralised radical nationalists in the Pan Africanist Bechuanaland People’s Party.
“Of course Tswana culture, which has been patriarchal, hierarchical and conservative, accepted such political arrangements without a serious challenge,” the book contends.
Khama was part of a local elite, whom the authors say had been “both ideologically and politically trained” by the departing British. Khama was a perfect fit: he had schooled in both South Africa and Britain and had been exposed to the British legal system and British politics. Quoting the work of Dr. Patrick Molutsi, the authors say that “the British colonial government sent him to the United States when he was sick to keep him alive and transfer power to him.” It was under these circumstances that Khama “became a modern day presidential monarch who ruled Botswana as a whole, rather than a morafe, the only difference being that the president functions at the national level, while dikgosi functioned at regional levels.” The authors further contend that Khama’s “greatest social and cultural capital was his marriage to a white woman which, to the Tswana and other Africans, was perceived as marrying into a superior race, even though Ruth Khama’s class position could not have been higher than that of a clerical assistant or typist.”
With very little having been done to deepen democracy, some elements of the previous political culture and ideology are still observable in today’s Botswana.
“Like the councillors of the kgosi, most of the parliamentarians that have been dominating the legislative branch for almost five decades could not separate their position from the Office of the President. The parliament has been dominated by the [Botswana Democratic Party], which has been controlled by the presidents and the executive committee of the party. As a result, it has been incapable of making laws independently without green lights from the presidents as the advisors of the kgosi could not make laws, except advise the king. The presidents and their cabinets have been controlling the political economy of Botswana, particularly diamonds and land, as the kings controlled the political economies of their kingdoms, mainly cattle, land and grain production.”
The authors assert that today’s parliament functions no differently from yesteryear’s kgotla, with the president assuming a role that a kgosi would have assumed in the past.
“As did the dikgosi and their institutions, the presidents and their party have effectively used their cultural capital to dominate the society without any checks and balances, which are hallmarks of democracy.”
The authors make a distinction between “truly substantive democracy” and mere “formal democracy.” They describe Botswana’s democracy to be merely formal (or procedural) because the BDP dominates and controls everything while the role of citizens is limited to voting once every five years.
“In a substantive democracy, as opposed to a procedural democracy, the representatives of the people are feely and fairly elected to offices through equally competitive parties of their choices in promoting and protecting their economic, political and social interests. In other words, in substantive democracy, the citizens and not the political elites, determine the political affairs of the country,” they state.