Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Botswana’s centuries-old political dynasty could be coming to an end

Depending on what the incoming president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, does on April 1, a family that has dominated national politics for more than a century may or not be on its last leg.

In the Bechuanaland Protectorate of the late 18th century, Bangwato kgosi, Khama III, was a hugely influential political figure. One of the first traditional leaders to convert to Christianity, Khama would acquire the sobriquet “Khama the Great.” Unfortunately, Khama’s greatness would come to be associated with his conversion to an alien religion and abandonment of one (ancestor worship) that had culturally defined him and his people for millennia. Away from his new faith, Khama was a shrewd business leader who decreed that all people travelling through his territory should pass through Shoshong, which was then the Bangwato capital. As a result of this and other ventures, Shoshong became one of the biggest commercial centres in Southern Africa. During the 1885 visit to London with two other Batswana dikgosi, Khama was courted by the British business community and would hold a meeting with the London chamber of commerce. He formed a company called Khama & Co. that outcompeted European-owned companies and precisely for that reason, was shut down by colonial authorities to nepotistically protect the business interests of their racial kind. Having deftly adapted to the new business environment, Khama held a personal account with the Standard Bank branch in Mafikeng.

The son he bequeathed the bogosi to (Sekgoma II) neither ruled nor lived long enough and the historical record is silent on his achievements. His half-brother, Tshekedi, acted as regent for Sekgoma’s son, Seretse, who was a minor at the time of his father’s death. While he had objectionable personality traits, Tshekedi was also a highly competent leader who lived way ahead of his time. Tshekedi could use his searing wit to harness business and other opportunities and had an extremely high aptitude for what is called predictive analytics nowadays.

Seretse would go not into bogosi but politics, becoming Botswana’s first president. A popular figure, Seretse died in 1980 at a time that his first-born son, Brigadier Ian Khama, was the Deputy Commander of the Botswana Defence Force. When he retired from the army in 1998, Lieutenant General Khama joined politics, becoming vice president. This Khama retires from the presidency on April 1 and it will be up to Masisi to forward a name for his choice of veep to the rubber-stamp parliament. One name that has been mentioned is that of President Khama’s younger brother, Tshekedi, who is currently the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism.

If Masisi decides to pick somebody else, for the first time in the political history of a geopolitical entity that transformed from Bechuanaland Protectorate to Botswana, a Khama will not be part of the top tier of national executive leadership. There may not have been a Khama at the Office of the President between 1980 and 1998 but as BDF commander and given the African context, General Khama was a very powerful figure. Tshekedi’s appointment would defeat the most scared ideals of republicanism but would also be a pragmatic nod to the reality that having dominated Botswana’s politics for as long as they have, the Khamas are a powerful family that can’t be easily sidelined. Ironically, the family’s entanglement in party politics of a republic has also served to erode the brand. As vice president, Tshekedi will continue the Khama legacy but also further damage a political brand that is fast losing its 19th and 20th century appeal. 

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The Telegraph December 2

Digital edition of The Telegraph, December 2, 2020.