Friday, July 10, 2020

Don’t underestimate intensity of public anger seething underneath

President Mokgweetsi Masisi should do everything to maintain a non-partisan public trust.He won the General Elections last year on the basis of a belief that he was competently poised to relieve Batswana from destitution through creation of jobs and also fight the other lethally portent demon of corruption. On these twin promises he prevailed against all clear evidence that his party alone could not have successfully carried him through.

Botswana used to be a one-party state – by all intents and purposes.We are now fast descending into a no-party epoch.This spells grave danger for Botswana’s democracy because it means people are no longer loyal to party songs, party slogans and party colours.The Botswana Democratic Party should be the most worried.Almost all the political parties are right now going through their weakest moment.BDP decline was started and expedited by Ian Khama.Khama had no faith in politics or in politicians.He went out of his way to despise, destroy and even obliterate both.He only needed the BDP as a vehicle to get himself to the State House. Nothing more, nothing less.

He set the party adrift and against itself when it needed to stick together.Talent, especially among the youth was systematically overlooked and even targeted for destruction.So far Masisi has done nothing to either stem or stop the decline of the party.The BDP is going down the slope. Since winning power, he has been busy strengthening the executive against the BDP, the primary vehicle with which he won state power. Maybe it is because he has studied the 2019 General Elections and came to a correct conclusion that he won elections, not because of the BDP, but in spite of it.The secretariat has been left alone, probably to die.

The Secretary General and his deputy are too busy. Masisi largely won on the back of a BDP and UDC coalition – with the two opposing sides displaying a rare but pious nationalistic solidarity against a motley crew of South African billionaires who had wanted to turn Botswana into their puppet backyard.For this unprecedented experiment, Batswana rightly expect and demand rewards. Or the experiment will never happen again.Just as things were about to take off, the pandemic hit our shores.The country’s economy is onto a reckoning. Batswana have made enormous sacrifices as a result of covid-19.

They are emerging from the economic lockdown asking themselves various questions, chief of which is clarity on the competence of their government. An assurance is crucial if people are to move ahead with confidence.And at the moment trust is in short supply. They are not demanding or clamouring for any promises. Too many of those have already been made.All they want is those promises to be kept and more crucially delivered. Batswana have with time grown prickly – even alarmist one might say.But there is one thing against which they have remained consistent – they want the same rules to apply to everybody, including the leader and those surrounding him.Official corruption is mobilizing public anger against government, the ruling elites and especially the BDP in a manner hitherto unseen.

Under these circumstances the natural beneficiary would be the opposition.But that is happening, or at least it does not seem inevitable.Umbrella for Democratic Change made the biggest mistake by staking its very survival and ultimate destiny on the mast of Duma Boko’s political career.Now with so much uncertainty over Boko’s career, the UDC is groping in the dark, unable to even get a grip with key national political events post-2019. The party does not even know where it belongs. The contracting parties that make the collection are half in, half out.Thus, to use a psychological term, the UDC is schizophrenic – neither fish nor fowl.The UDC leadership has to be resolved – once and for all.

Batswana are a generally patient and non-violent people.They should under no circumstances be mistaken or misunderstood for stupidity.Often when they see things that would ordinarily draw out their anger and ire, they choose to look the other way.They are forever bidding the right moment to pounce.Thus, every incoming leader is given a chance to prove themselves.Masisi has now used a significant part of that grace period.His victory was predicated on the hope and possibilities he preached.He said he abhorred corruption in all its shades – and Batswana took him at his word.He has promised to fight corruption in all its manifestations – and Batswana believed him line, hook and sinker.He has also promised to run a government addicted to the rule of law. The jury is still out.In that campaign he successfully caricatured Boko as weak, economically illiterate and untrustworthy.Yet a few months later there are growing murmurs that he is not doing anything with growing signs of corruption from within government.For many a voter it feels like a buyer’s remorse.

The other side of covid-19 will prove a hard test for the president and his government. To achieve what he promised, Masisi needs to make clear policy and personal choices. Batswana need leaders that they and those closest to them live by the rules.Of course by the look of things, this is easier said than done.Once again public frustration and disgust with the political elite looks like a default position.A mix of impatience and discontent with the elite has been brewing for some time now.By the end of Ian Khama’s ten-year tenure that mix had started to morph into discernible fatigue. Masisi started by creating some hope that the disconnect between ruling elite and the voter would be bridged.The best time for any politician to take on big, controversial and polarizing ideas is immediately after victory at the polls.That is a time when they are still fresh and buoyant with momentum on their side and their political capital at its highest. Immediate post-election euphoria usually brings with it high expectations.

It is a time when the public are looking not for promises but big life-changing announcements.It is the time when the voter has nothing but trust in the choice made at the booth.And it is also a time when the voter tends to let his guard down.For Masisi this critical time has largely been taken up by covid-19.It is not clear yet if post-covid-19 another opportunity would exist for him to seize the momentum.One of the fabled “Ds” that Khama came up with was “Delivery.”In the end hubris and intransigence blurred his imagination to figure out how to make it happen.This country has never needed “Delivery” more than now.

In the meantime corruption is filling Batswana with despair. Against it they feel helpless and also frustrated. No polls have been conducted yet, but a significant number of people feels that a lot of corruption happened during the lockdown because as restrictions were lifted it suddenly came to light that large procurement had been going on and that as in the previous regime it favoured those with connections. Batswana generally hate unfairness. And to many, corruption casts itself as the most lethal kind of unfairness. Masisi has his job clearly cut out for him. Or history will judge him harshly.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.