Thursday, May 23, 2024

eNCA journalist corners Khama in extraordinary interview

‘What do you need weapons for?’ Mabuse asked

For as long as he has given interviews to South African media, Khama has always had to do little more than parry softball questions from fawning journalists. That changed last Wednesday night when he came face to face with a journalist who is a senior executive producer for “a weekly, half-hour investigative current affairs show featuring thought-provoking journalism.” Khama (or his media handlers) had only to watch one or two episodes of ENCA’s Checkpoint to clue himself up on what kind of interview Nkepile Mabuse would do with him. Either he did that and concluded that he could handle whatever questions she threw at him or thought that the Checkpoint interview would be similar to those that he has done in the past with South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalist Sophie Mokoena

Interestingly, this was not Khama’s first journalistic encounter with Mabuse. It is probably the first encounter that may have made Khama think that this would be yet another friendly encounter with journalism.

The first encounter was in 2010 when Khama, who became Botswana president in April 2008, was featured on CNN’s African Voices programme. Having determined that Khama was no threat to western interests, western news channels (from BBC to Sky News to CNN to New York Times) generally gave Khama excellent press. Besides, African Voices didn’t dwell on controversy. At the time of the interview, Mabuse had just joined CNN two years earlier.

According to the CNN website, African Voices “highlights the continent’s most dazzling trendsetters who impact the lives of others while influencing areas such as music, film, sports, and technology.” Mabuse came to Botswana to “follow a man who finds it difficult to stand still.” The result was a not really fawning but laudatory three-part documentary titled “African Voices: Botswana, Jewel of Africa.”

The first part of the series, which had been uploaded to YouTube, opens with Khama and a huge entourage that includes senior army and police officers, walking towards a waiting aeroplane. The CNN crew is tagging along and Mabuse’s voice-over says that the party was supposed to leave at 8 a.m. and at 730 a.m., Khama was already champing at the bit. There is a shot of Khama in the cockpit and it is revealed that he is co-pilot on this flight. The destination is the Gcwihaba Caves, which Khama’s administration wanted to turn into an international caving enterprise. At the Caves, Khama abseils down a narrow hole into the Caves and Mabuse remarks that while this is a daunting task, “the president made it look easy.” For her part, she made the entire interview very easy for Khama.

Some 12 years later, circumstances have changed completely. Mabuse, who is based in Johannesburg, has left CNN for eNCA and is part of a team that does hard-hitting journalism through Checkpoint. Khama is out of office, having stepped down in 2018 and having been replaced by his third vice president, Mokgweetsi Masisi. Khama also happens to be living in exile in South Africa. He fled there in late 2021 after clashes with the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security, the more-dagger-than-cloak spy outfit that was established on the very day (April 1, 2008) that he became president.

Prior to the interview airing, Khama and his party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, felt very confident enough that the interview would portray him in good light and helped advertise it. That wasn’t to be: Mabuse pressed Khama on issues that he clearly didn’t want to talk about. One episode stands out and has gone viral in the form of a short video clip. In the clip, she tackles him on the weapons that he is controversially in possession of.

“These are weapons that I have been given or I have bought over the years,” Khama replies.

“What do you need weapons for?” Mabuse presses.

“I know I am going to be shooting myself [in the foot] when I say this,” Khama responds, adding that some of the weapons are hunting rifles, then clarifying that he doesn’t hunt because he is a conservationist.

“That’s what I know,” Mabuse says.

At this point, Khama is getting uncomfortable and offers that, on account of his military background, some people assume that a hunting rifle might be “a nice gift” to give him. As regards when and how he has used those rifles, he reveals that “I go to the range and I fire those weapons.”

His next thought is interrupted by Mabuse asking: “How many are there?” There is a moment’s hesitation and by way of answering the question, Khama deploys a uniquely made-in-Botswana cop-out.

Batswana have the world’s most stringent observance of the sub judice rule. In other jurisdictions, notably the United States, United Kingdom and South Africa, the application of this rule seems to be overly relaxed. During the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, the sort of commentary and legal analysis that was done in the media would have been deemed to be sub judice in Botswana. About the same thing happened in the United States during last year’s Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard case.

Using the Botswana standard, Khama invokes the sub judice rule, telling Mabuse that “I am just wondering if I should tell you this because it’s before the courts.” Quoting information on the charge sheet could in no way have broken the sub judice rule but Khama was only doing what most people in Botswana do. His convenient invocation of the sub judice rule is followed by something that has never been known to happen with him: an interviewer talking over him in combative exchange. When Mabuse lets him speak, Khama tells that all the weapons are licensed.

“But let me tell you something,” he begins to say before she interrupts him.

Once more, they talk over each other and at a point where he stops talking, she repeats a question he never answered: “But how many are there?”

Back home, Khama’s supporters were excited about the interview but practically all went radio silent after it aired. On his Facebook page, a subscriber who goes by the name Maleficent Megumi Kurylenko had this to say about the interview and interviewer: “Watching checkpoint , this woman looks like she is Masisi’s fan. Trying hard to put. Ian down . On another page, Balebeng Motswana Keetile wrote something demonstrably more accurate: “Surely he’s not used to facing tough questions from a neutral interviewer. He’s used to crèche questions…”

Indeed, this was Khama’s first baptism of fire in the Fourth Estate church. He could have prepared himself for that uncomfortable moment by giving press conferences when he was president. However, he passed up that opportunity.


Read this week's paper