Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Botswana’s presidential autocracy modelled on kgotla system

In his politically active days, President Festus Mogae did a terrific job of hustling the falsehood that Botswana’s democracy was rooted in cultural protocols that find their most eloquent expression at the kgotla, the traditional meeting place which also serves as the customary court.

Either because of what Mogae said or otherwise, a Dutch company not only developed interest in the kgotla system but a business model from it as well. The result is that Kgotla Company in the Netherlands operates a business consultancy that has major organisations like De Beers, Netherlands Red Cross, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Ernst & Young Europe as well as the Dutch government on its roster of clients. The founder, Martijn de Liefde has written several books that he says were inspired by the kgotla system.

However, the myth of the kgotla as a seedbed of democracy is beginning to unravel and it would be interesting to see what the Umbrella for Democratic Change president, Duma Boko, says about this forum if he becomes president. Years ago while a law lecturer at the University of Botswana, Boko wrote in an academic journal that in criminal cases that are tried at the kgotla, accused people are generally deemed guilty until proven innocent.

The latest contrarian view is from another corner of academia. In an academic paper titled “Towards Understanding Botswana and South Africa’s Ambivalence to Liberal Democracy”, Nicola de Jager of the University of Stellenbosch and David Sebudubudu of the University of Botswana spotlight the kgotla system and draw a host of unflattering conclusions. In the pre-colonial era, important decisions were taken at the kgotla following a consultative meeting between the Kgosi (supreme tribal leader) and his subjects ÔÇô adult males to be precise.

“Tswana culture is not only authoritarian, but also emphasises deference and submissiveness to authority even at the kgotla ÔÇô which is a major forum for public discussions and for realising consensus,” says the paper which provides context for what the latter is: “… the chief allows people to talk but then announces the ‘consensus’.”

The paper uses a title (“Chief”) that is now frowned upon and has been taken out of official use. As part of the latter, what used to be called House of Chiefs has been renamed Ntlo ya Dikgosi which almost means the same thing except that increasingly nowadays, kgosi is deemed to have the same respect quotient as king. Not much has much changed since the country gained independence and became what is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The authors point out that while a liberal democracy requires strong checks and balances, those are “virtually absent in the case of Botswana.” Parliament is “feeble” and pressure for change comes not from the opposition but the ruling party.

“In addition, Botswana has a towering or domineering executive that dwarfs all the other institutions. In fact, the dominance of the executive (presidency) and indeed the weakness of parliament are embedded in the Botswana constitution,” write the authors adding that “the dominance of the executive has thwarted attempts to advance Botswana into a fully-fledged liberal democracy. The failure to do so has been ineffective institutions, with the executive left largely free to shape policies.”

Their diagnosis of the problem is that Botswana never transformed itself in any fundamental way at independence.

“Although the Botswana state is founded on modern and liberal ideas, the influence of traditional values which placed the emphasis on reverence and submissiveness to authority gave way to weak democratic institutions, with a strong presidency overshadowing all the other institutions, a feature that has become a hindrance to Botswana’s liberal democracy. Botswana has, since independence, maintained a composite of traditional and modern institutions. Traditional institutions do not sit comfortably with modern liberal ideals, which emphasise liberty and freedom,” de Jager and Sebudubudu write in a paper which has been published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies.

The paper notes that the tradition of respecting the opinion of the elders continues in modern Botswana, that decision-making is made in the context of traditional institutions, particularly the kgotla and that by emphasising illiberal institutions such as chieftaincy, and values such as patriarchy, deference and submissiveness to authority in decision-making, Tswana culture remains authoritarian.

For what the silver lining is worth, the authors note that the authoritarian nature of Tswana culture (as well as its abhorrence of violence) “does lead to  stability by placing emphasis on moderation and being accommodative to divergent views (elements that are in line with a liberal democratic/political culture)” Even then, the negativity still refuses to fade away because the authors point out that this order has also “obstructed much-needed change in education, in diversifying the economy and in addressing various human rights situations (regarding the San, for example), among other considerations.”

Elsewhere, interest groups would put up spirited resistance in order to compel an order such as this to bend to the will of the people. The authors argue that in the particular case of Botswana, such groups are weak and that such weakness has to do with the fact that “Batswana still have strong connections to their tribe and village, even many who now reside in the city. In other words, tribal identity politics remains fairly strong.”


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