Thursday, April 15, 2021

Critical review of Dr Christian Makgala’s article on Kenneth Koma and the BDP: Who used whom?

I find the article interesting and informative, but I have serious reservations about its general methodological-theoretical tenor and the factual basis of some of its conclusions.

If I appear to be too critical at times, this is not meant to cast aspersions on Dr. Makgala’s intellectual ability and scholarship, but to assist in focusing on and clarifying issues which will help advance our understanding of the BNF and the role of its former leader, Kenneth Koma.

Firstly, it seems to me that Dr. Makgala’s analysis is marred by overgeneralization and lack of historical specificity and analytical correctness in the way that it deals with Koma’s role in the BNF. It is certainly true that political leaders and the organizations they lead do not operate in a vacuum and are affected and influenced by the processes at work within the broader socio economic terrain.

In the specific case of progressive organizations, the corrupting influence of power and money and the accumulation of wealth (the basic values of capitalist society) are an ever present threat to their political ideological health and vitality.

But the influence which these broader socio-economic and political processes exert on individual political leaders is mediated through the party for basically two reasons.

The party has an autonomous life and dynamics of its own which impact on the thinking, habits and general outlook of its members.

This party tradition cultivated the Party’s conscious effort of orienting its members through political education, enforcement of its rules and procedure.

Through these methods, the Party not only inculcates its political culture (party outlook and internal organizational norms) but also exerts moral pressure on its members. The implication is that while an understanding of the broader socio-economic and political trends is important in analyzing the specific role of prominent leaders, their specific traits and tendencies cannot be directly derived from these broad socio-economic processes. The broad socio-economic and political analysis must be linked to a concrete appraisal of the BNF in its historical specificity.

Precisely because Koma has been shaped by the BNF to a greater extent than he has shaped the movement.

Within the framework of this review, one can only pose questions and point out the direction in which the investigation has to proceed to unravel this question in all its complexity.

Every stage in the Party’s history entails specific methods and habits of doing things to which party members have to adapt. Over time, these methods crystallize into powerful traditions to which party members are deeply attached.

That is why the transition from one stage (of the party’s historical evolution) invariably engenders some sort of crisis with some party activists tenaciously clinging to the past and resisting even positive change under the pretext of defending the party’s traditions and principles (on this point refer to Lenin ÔÇô The April Theses, Trotsky ÔÇô Through what stage is the German Revolution passing? Trotsky ÔÇô The New Course).

The BNF was initiated by a small group of socialist intellectuals and progressive nationalists. For the first fifteen years of its existence, the BNF existed as a small organization dominated by a relatively homogeneous ideological nucleus of socialist activists. Because of its numerical size and relative ideological homogeneity, it was characterized by extremely informal organizational methods absence of clearly defined constitutional rules and procedures or flexible and inconsistent application of those that existed.

This situation fostered a climate in which personal relations among comrades mattered more than organizational rules, and where prominent leaders had a much more predominant influence in the running of the organization.

Individual comrades, such as KK, became wedded to this organizational culture and it became extremely difficult for them to adjust when the party had to transcend this informal, preparatory stage of party building as an inevitable consequence of its growth. Accustomed to the life of a small circle of friends in which they enjoyed immense political authority they had a fear of losing their authority and having their individuality swallowed upon in the new environment.

Secondly, the BNF’s failure to develop a solid organizational and administrative structure and sustain a programme of political education which would have enabled it to train a politically sophisticated cadre facilitated the development of KK’s cultism. In the absence of inner party debate and anyone who could match KK, in terms of political understanding, he was elevated to an unchallenged ideological guru of the movement. In these circumstances, his word came to be regarded as gospel and his pronouncements treated as Party Policy. His negative tendencies could not be timeously criticized and checked.

The leading cadres of progressive organizations, such as BNF, constantly thrive to make sense of what they are doing and to give conscious direction and purpose to their political practice. In this regard, internal party documents and the evidence of major participants in BNF politics are of crucial importance (despite their inadequacies and biases) in giving an insight into the thinking of leaders, such as KK, as well as the character of internal dynamics of the BNF. What strikes me in Dr. Makgala’s article is a complete disregard of critical sources (except Pamphlet No.1).

The analysis of the BNF along the lines indicated above would give a more concrete and relevant background to Koma’s political career. With specific reference to Koma’s personal political development, four stages are clearly discernible; the periods from 1965 -1977, 1977 ÔÇô 1984, 1984 ÔÇô 1997, 1998 ÔÇô 2003. In the first period Koma’s ideological fortitude, selflessness and unflinching dedication to the cause of the poor and downtrodden inspired all progressive forces in this country. His resilience and refusal to succumb to BDP pressure (ranging from persecution in the form of 24 hour police surveillance, interception of mail, and ideological excommunication to concerted efforts to co-opt him into the ruling establishment by offers of lucrative positions) earned him the respect and admiration of both the party and non party masses. His tireless efforts in exposing the neo-colonial character of the BDP through the written word and through educating young BNF cadres constituted an invaluable contribution to the BNF’s struggle. Relying on his enormous authority within the BNF he could easily have fought for and secured the party leadership. But he showed reluctance to assume this mantle, and preferred to influence things from behind. These are not tendencies of a conservative tribal chauvinist.

The second stage was soon after he had assumed the party presidency. Although he committed serious mistakes, such as the dispersal of the Botswana Youth Federation (the then defacto youth section of the BNF) in 1979 ÔÇô 1980, he still, basically, adhered to a correct and principled political line.

The period from 1984 coincided with his entry into parliament. That is when he came up with clearly revisionist perspectives such as the acceptability and necessity of entering into a coalition with BDP (which he had earlier correctly characterized as essentially pro-imperialist and neo-colonialist).
He started becoming increasingly inclined to have more confidence in newly recruited ex-BDP activists and adopting patently anti-democratic methods, such as stage-managing central committee elections such as occurred at the Mahalapye congress of 1985, where he stood up to read a list of his preferred candidates and asked the congress to endorse such a list without even a fa├ºade of elections. Koma’s right wing deviation during this period also coincided with the development of other negative traits which had the potential of further undermining his commitment to the cause of the poor. He started developing a penchant for wealth accumulation.

Ultimately, a series of political errors and blunders on his part crystallized into a clear trend of political degeneration.

These tendencies were exacerbated by the weaknesses of the BNF indicated above. Had the BNF undertaken measures to rectify these weaknesses, Koma’s deviation would have been detected and criticized and probably checked earlier or would, at any rate, have not had the adverse impact it ultimately had on the organization. I leave out the question of the BNF crisis of 1997 -1998 which led to the formation of the BCP (refer to O. Moupo’s ‘The crisis in BNF’ of May 1998) because it would take me too far off the mark. It suffices to mention for the present purpose that the split was mainly attributable to the intransigence and opportunism of the then Central Committee than it was to Koma’s weak political leadership; of course Koma’s weakness were then used (in an extremely opportunist manner) by elements who coalesced into the BCP to conceal their hidden agenda. This is by no means to suggest that Koma was innocent, but his errors could have been handled in a more tactically correct manner by a more principled leadership. If these various stages of Koma’s evolution as a political leader are concretely analysed, then it becomes much easier to understand his political decline.
The weakest part of Dr. Makgala’s paper is where he links Koma’s degenerate tendencies to his ethnic origin. This is not only problematic methodologically but also empirically questionable and logically flawed.

In the first place, one cannot explain variable phenomena in terms of a constant factor. This is the same problem which enlightenment thinkers came up against when they attempted to explain History (obviously characterised by ceaseless changes). In terms of human nature, which was allegedly given the unchanging factor, Koma has always been a Mongwato and yet he was a trenchant critic of Seretse Khama’s (a prominent Mongwato Chief) leadership and refused to be co-opted by him to the ruling establishment.

Obviously, this means that his latter abandonment of his principled position can be explained by other factors which operated at the broader social level as well as within the BNF. In this respect, Koma’s changing class situation (resulting from accumulation of wealth and his political and ideological degeneration) are much more valid explanatory factors. In my view, the analysis of Tshekedi Khama and his father’s political career are irrelevant and do not advance our understanding of BNF and Koma’s role in it. Finally, statements such as ‘BNF’s activists resort to violence and threaten other people’s property’ and that ‘those who supported Moupo consciously or unconsciously sought to perpetuate Ngwato domination’ are also empirically untenable.

It cannot be denied that some individual BNF members may be having tribalistic tendencies, but there is no evidence to suggest that these have crystallized into a definite trend which influences the party’s major decisions, such as the choice of candidates or leadership elections. The implication that there is any domination by the Ngwato or any other ethnic group within the BNF allegedly perpetuated by the election of the Moupo leadership is, therefore, not a correct representation of BNF politics.

Dr. Makgala is correct in linking Koma’s degeneration to the global trend of socialism, but even this needs further elaboration to demonstrate how and why this global trend impacted on the BNF. The basic political orientation and programme of the BNF was inspired by socialist ideals which found their practical expression and realization in the existence of the socialist bloc. The crisis and collapse of this bloc had a decisive impact on most socialist and progressive movements internationally. The widespread ideological disorientation engendered by this collapse led to the major ideological and political shifts within these movements. In some organizations, these shifts were clearly articulated through open debates and re-examination of previously held positions. In others it took a subtle form of revision of programmes and retreat to right wing social democratic reformist positions without a clear theorization of such changes. Parallel to the ideological and political transformation of organizations was the world wide retreat of intellectuals in which erstwhile socialist and Marxist thinkers and activists abandoned their previously held views and uncritically adopted neo-liberal ideology.

But Comrade Koma did not succumb to this blatant capitulation to bourgeoisie ideology. Although BNF’s adoption of the Social Democratic Programme was not completely unrelated to these global developments, it did not constitute a definitive right wing shift on the part of that party. I would rather characterize it as a tactical adjustment necessitated by the new balance of forces on a global scale.

*Otsweletse Moupo is BNF President and Leader of Opposition in Parliament


Read this week's paper