A friend said at the Moonland shopping complex where John Kalafatis was murdered: “I have heard about all the admirable things that Mandela has done, but if I have to celebrate a president’s life, I will celebrate Seretse Khama”.
The statement was admirably patriotic. The message, one guesses, was that Seretse did as much for his people in his time, as did Mandela in his.
Mandela helped to reconcile a nation at war with itself on account of the ownership of resources by a small minority whereas the large majority survived on the fringes of absolute poverty. The Bechuana were not quite at war with each other, but nationhood could only be achieved if the various peoples who lived on the land understood that it was theirs together and that what it held under it and on it belonged to all regardless of race, ethnicity or regional origins.
Mandela suffered personal humiliation and deprivation of basic human rights such as the right to freedom of movement and the right to choose a government of his liking, all of which was made common to the black citizenry by the apartheid system of institutionalised racism. Seretse chose to ignore the pain and suffering that was bound to come with his marriage to a white British woman in a territory that was dominated by racist minority regimes in Rhodesia, South Africa and South West Africa. The unique experiences of both leaders pointed their followers to a future society of racial equality.
Mandela and Seretse, both kings where their people lived, forfeited that privilege for service to the larger nation, Mandela retiring into continued moral leadership of the country whilst Seretse did not live to practice or experience that. Both men, even if they benefitted from the euphoria of national celebration of a new found freedom, seemed to enjoy a kind of universal adulation for the sacrifices they had made for the liberation of their peoples.
On the occasion of Sir Seretse Khama and President’s Day in Botswana and International Mandela Day in the month of July, it is worth asking more questions about the worth of Botswana’s celebration of Seretse Khama and the United Nations tribute to Nelson Mandela.
The reality is that the population of South Africa is 25 times the size of Botswana at two million. South Africa’s economy is rated with Egypt and Nigeria at the top of the economies of the continent. These nations, with a relatively more developed agricultural and industrial base, attracted the attention of the western imperialist powers in Europe and America even under conditions of military dictatorship and racist rule.
For these reasons, and several others perhaps even more significant, the campaign by the liberation movements for freedom in South Africa was far more visible than Bechuanaland’s claim to independence. Over 30 years, the South African campaign reached the United Nations through Miriam Makeba. It reached the organisation of African Unity and its Liberation Committee and the leading spokesperson of the socialist world at the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the social democratic movements of Europe and Scandinavia. There was a receptive market for the political arguments of the South African liberation movement in North America where there was a long a history of racism from the age of slavery to modern day de-institutionalised racism.
Perhaps it was this paucity of international attention that earned Bechuanaland smoother access to the hearts of the colonial government, earning the negotiators for independence the accolade of ‘artful diplomats’.
Botswana was listed by the United Nations among the ten poorest in the world at independence. The country was reeling under a devastating drought calculated to have taken an estimated half of the national cattle herd. The country’s budget of less than a million rand was subsidised by the British, most development being financed by soft loans from the western countries. It was important for the Western countries to have a listening post in the tumultuous region of southern Africa where the regional liberation movement threatened to introduce communism. Even as Botswana Peoples Party leader was a rabid opponent of communism, his connections with Kwame Nkrumah, himself a friend of the communist movement in the Soviet Union, was a risk. Seretse was a good asset who was worth the investment in small financial aid and a few volunteers.
The African continent now experiences a dearth of leadership of the calibre of Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Ben Bella, Abdel Nasser, Sekou Toure, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral and the early Robert Mugabe. King Moshoeshoe might belong on the list. And so, southern Africa turns to its memory for memorable icons. Botswana picks up Seretse Khama and South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
The ‘struggle’ credentials of these leaders are not in question. What might be put to question is what is popularly referred to as their’ legacy’, or the manipulation of it by their successors.
There is a case to be made, as Winnie Mandela recently alluded, that when the politicians want support for one project or the other ÔÇô good or bad – they invoke the name of Mandela.
So it seems to be with Seretse. When the Botswana Democratic Party sensed defeat at the 1999 general election, they appealed to the name of Khama to save the ship.
Mandela almost got entangled in the controversy of the infamous ‘arms deal’ but left a clean man leaving the hot potato in the hands of the main actors in Presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, some of whose political and business friends ended up in the slammer.
Their presidencies have been consumed in the mutual animosity that resulted in Mbeki dismissing Zuma, who soon walked into a rape case which was in some quarters, including those of the youth league, viewed as a trap to undermine Zuma’s campaign for leadership of the country and the ANC.
The battle went to the courts and to the national congress, famously known as ‘Polokwane’, where Zuma toppled Mbeki.
As things stand, South Africa averages one president for every six years, and all news suggests that Zuma’s presidency will submit to that average.
Mandela took voluntary retirement after one term and set the standard for the southern African presidents who wanted a design of the constitution that would allow them eternal life at the presidency. Nyerere did not have to be persuaded. He left as a statesman at his own time on his own honourable terms. Botswana’s Ketumile Masire was edged out of State House after 18 years, doing as well as Mugabe in keeping the treasured seat of the president. The Namibians refused to yield to machinations by Sam Nujoma to fiddle with the constitution so that he might stay another term, or another lifetime.
Mandela’s retirement, and that of Nyerere, also helped to highlight Robert Mugabe’s 19 year stay at the Office of the President. He will complete 32 years in 2012. He has declared that he will leave when he has decided.
Mandela did more than to leave in good time. He said, when he did not have to, that he was disappointed at the outcome of the 1994 national election that gave the ANC a large enough majority in parliament to pass laws, including reforms to the constitution, without support from the opposition.
These were strange celebratory words for an African president. Mandela, without any personal experience in governance, understood the danger of unchallenged dominance in parliament. It was not for the man to reverse the figures, but he felt duty bound to dampen unbridled celebration
among his followers who saw the ultimate advantage in ANC rule without opposition resistance.
Having said so, Mandela appointed a cabinet and heads of civil service departments that included competent members of the opposition. He proceeded to establish school feeding schemes. He could not have anticipated that the young ‘revolutionaries’ who would take over after Walther Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and the many others, would view the longer term plans for ‘black economic empowerment’ as an avenue for their own personal enrichment and the building of a vicious system of corruption whose only ethic was ‘kgonamela koo, ke tla kgonamela kwano’, or more kindly, ‘Scratch my back, I will scratch yours’.
It is worth making the observation that two of South Africa’s heads of police have spent most of their terms evading legal action against them for corruption. One is in prison and the other has been fired. (Curiously, General Bheki Cele appeared at a meeting of the ANC in Mpumalanga). Are these not the people who must be the leading examples of the moral rectitude of any nation, especially a new one which holds a handsome reputation for crime of all varieties?
It can be credibly argued, that Mandela was faced with the monumental task of attempting to reconcile irreconcilable groupings of ‘white racists’ and aggrieved blacks who were vying for revenge.
He trusted that the younger generation of ‘comrades’ would uphold the spirit of the Freedom Charter and safeguard the principles of good governance whilst he negotiated this difficult peace between the blacks and the whites. Not only did he have to win that battle, but he had to assure the established corporate world that their investment in the economy would not dissipate under a racial civil war. The same applied to the white farmers.
Mandela took little time in cleaning up his personal life, getting the courts to permanently settle his business with Winnie Mandela. There would always have been cultural arguments about his marriage to Machel’s former wife, but even that event was handled with decency befitting of the man’s public stature. He now has a woman whom he can trust to uphold the ideals for which he stood.
Seretse’s challenge was not in reconciling a nation, but with building one. Recent published history attributes Seretse’s ascendency to power as a concession to British colonialism, something that was anathema in public discussion in previous years.
The holders of this position would argue that what was once perceived as adept diplomacy was in reality capitulation to western imperialism. That may be true. It is equally true that it is the man on the job who would have had to perform the task of nation building. The man on the job was Seretse. And even if his aspirations were false, he cannot be judged by the failure of his adversaries, mainly the BPP, to take leadership at independence.
Seretse had neither an institutional framework, much less the people to make it work, at independence. He was beholden to the British and Americans to establish a working judicial system, a proper police force, an attorney general’s office, local government administration, financial administration and almost every other aspect of governance that was crucial to the establishment of a proper republic.
You might say, whereas Mandela upheld a sense of public morality in his retirement, Seretse had to do it by establishing a personal omnipresence in every aspect of the development of the country. There are stories about ministers committing suicide because he asked about perceived acts of corruption.
There will be unyielding questions about the manner of his acquisition of personal wealth of almost immeasurable dimensions, especially in land and the properties on it. What did the BDP learn about the posting of family in the army, police, cabinet and the party from Seretse?
What did Seretse teach his people about the need for change of power in a democracy; about a limited term of office as president, minister or even as permanent secretary in a ministry?
It can be said with some certainty that much of the reported public corruption that takes place in the civil service and the private sector came after Seretse had left, save for his own.
Seretse left Daniel Kwelagobe and Kebatlamang Morake who have, with the possible exception of Kwelagobe’s ‘alleged’ mischief that was reported in the Kgabo Report, shied away from the abrasive corruption that is now taken for granted in the government service and the private sector.
Seretse died a family man and seemed to hold family values highly.
Indisputably, Mandela was presiding over a much bigger and more sophisticated system of economy, politics and social organisation. The task of lifting a most underdeveloped country into the community of developing countries could have been just as difficult a job.
Undeniably though, the world pays much greater attention to the extremity of racial and economic oppression under which black folk suffered in South Africa, and the inordinate amount of energy that Mandela was compelled to invest in the freedom project, especially without the empathy of the European and American leaders of the time personified in Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and their Republican and Conservative Party successors.
South Africa and Botswana though, have to guard against trivialisation of the personalities and deeds of their national heroes in order to cover up for the easily observable failures in the delivery of a functioning democracy that delivers education food, water and shelter for the deeply disenfranchised majority of the countries’ citizens. (wordworks)