Saturday, February 24, 2024

Forever an uncommon commoner

News travels fast. Tragic news travels even faster. Many people remember exactly where they were when they heard of Gomolemo Motswaledi’s death. The shock and incredulity of it all is still strikingly vivid. Disbelief gave way to dejection, followed by a feeling of enormous loss, and a deep sense of hopelessness – a literal sinking into the abyss.Before the death, there was a life – one lived in a hurry as if with constant foreboding that his time was limited. Before he even turned 30, Motswaledi had formed and conducted what became the country’s leading choral group KTM Choir (itself named for another legend, Kgaleman Tumediso Motsete, the composer of Botswana’s national anthem); led the choir to sold-out performances around the world; and been the youngest recipient of a presidential honour for service to the arts (which led his friends to playfully knight him “Sir G”). When that illustrious life was tragically cut short in a road accident on 30 July 2014, he had just turned 44 the previous month, and he had long reinvented himself as a politician – first in the governing party, where he was touted as a potential future leader, and later – almost by default – as an influential figure in the opposition. Motswaledi’s associates remark that he had an uncanny ability to be everywhere all at once – an omnipresent character you couldn’t fail to notice. It speaks to the man’s single-minded sense of mission that on the morning of his death, he was driving from an official trip in South Africa to a Central Committee meeting of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD).What would have eventually become of Motswaledi and how he would have helped shape Botswana’s destiny had he lived longer will remain a subject of unending debate and conjecture.  What is without doubt is that he was extraordinarily talented; a man who in a day could wear and change many hats with ease – a chorister, conductor, organiser par excellence, music composer, raconteur, and orator-in-chief. He revelled in public admiration, and still managed to maintain his feet firmly planted on the ground.A member of rare breed of the human species with a gift to hold crowds spellbound with his speech, Motswaledi was astonishingly fluent in both Setswana and English.

His younger brother Gape says of him: “He wasn’t one to type-cast or pigeonhole. When addressing a political rally, he would pass for a maverick artist and scientist of the game. When conducting a choir, he did it with the discipline of a classical maestro, and when giving a sermon at church, he did it like one who just came out of a meeting with God Himself. He was such a shrewd organiser of both events and people, and he had the requisite measure of gravitas to induce confidence upon his crusades.”

Besides the gift of speech, he possessed something else: a mind schooled in the arts in all their various forms, which could process and analyse information such that when he got to make his point it would be in a persuasive manner that suggested remarkable clarity of thought. An associate who knew Motswaledi since university says he was not always interested in winning an argument, but wanted to hear the other view as well – and could listen patiently. “But,” he says, “when Sir G was convinced that he was right, he would navigate the discussion such that he’d make you feel that you were both right; only that his was the stronger position. Though he was of strong convictions, he was not given to dogma, and so he allowed himself to be persuaded when the case was strong and circumstances dictated so.”When people who knew Motswaledi well are asked what underpinned his being, three narratives consistently come to the fore: a strong faith; a high sense of service to country and fellow citizens; and an uncompromising discernment of right and wrong. Sometimes his deep convictions (one of his favourite readings from the scripture was the opening line of Psalm 23 from the Setswana bible, Jehova ke modisa wame; ga nkitla ke tlhoka sepe.”) and unrelenting belief that right is right and wrong is wrong often drove him to sail too close to the wind, and go where even daredevils dared not tread. This was the case when, as a newly elected Secretary General of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) he stood up to what he perceived to be the authoritarianism of party leader and the country’s president, Ian Khama. His standoff with Khama came at great personal cost. He was shunted aside as BDP’s parliamentary candidate, removed from the SG position he had obviously long coveted (smart money is that he was going to build his base from there and ultimately make a bid for the presidency), and effectively banished into the wilderness.Even for a man who made everyone believe that they were his best friend, Ndaba Gaolathe ranks highly as possibly Motswaledi’s closest comrade, confidante, counsellor and intellectual sparring partner. He was the convenor of Motswaledi’s 2009 campaign for Gaborone Central. When with the stroke of a pen Khama removed Motswaledi from his party’s ballot paper and suspended him from five years, he actually called off a match that would have brought toe to toe two of Botswana’s young and smartest minds in politics – Motswaledi and the incumbent at the time, Dumelang Saleshando.Gaolathe’s recollection of it all is that even for a resilient man like Motswaledi, Khama’s action was painful, but he chose not to dwell on that act of unwarranted injustice. He makes the point that it was Motswaledi’s resilience and tenacity that saw him through that period.Another man who always orbited not too far from Motswaledi was Wynter Mmolotsi, the MP for Francistown South, who was elected Motswaledi’s deputy at the same party congress in Kanye in 2009. They would have both been debutant parliamentary candidates that year had fate not dealt Motswaledi the hand it did. That was meant to be the year the BDP’s future generation of leaders blossomed.Motswaledi’s suspension from the party effectively opened an opening for Mmolotsi to rise to the SG position. He turned it down.“After Gomolemo’s suspension I could not ascend to his position because I felt that it would be the worst form of betrayal especially given that his suspension was so grossly unfair,” says Mmolotsi today. “He was suspended for the views we shared and it would not have made sense for me to take his position because if he was wrong, then I was complicit.”Rather than go away quietly as was perhaps expected, Motswaledi his star refused to dim and die. Instead, he rebounded big time, and threw himself in the task that would define the last four years of his life – and which probably led to his demise. He answered two calls almost simultaneously: one to lead a new political party that would primarily be a shelter for those who no longer had a home in the BDP, and secondly to work towards meaningful cooperation by all the opposition formations. So at the inaugural congress of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), he emerged as the party’s founding president. For the first time, the governing party experienced a major split that left it very vulnerable and whose effect is still felt a decade later.

Gaolathe explains the motive for forming a new party as opposed to joining any of the existing opposition parties at the time: “This (decamping en masse to the opposition) had of course been an option, discussed at different occasions by various stakeholders in a vast operation. There were impediments to that idea, stemming mainly from the conservatism of many of the stakeholders who held strong if not undue perceptions about established opposition formations, including the idea that they were inherently susceptible to internal wranglings that spill into the public domain.  There was also a strong suade of thought from within that believed this was an opportunity for a fresh political formation with not only a fresh core policy platform, but also a modern approach to the management of an organisation.  The feeling was that most political organisations were more preoccupied with political rhetoric than on efforts for building an organisation that possesses capacity and capabilities that are necessary for providing a viable alternative government.”

Then began the next task, which was to build a united opposition front. After gruelling and marathon talks, three contracting parties – Botswana National Front, Botswana Peoples Party and BMD – came together under the electoral alliance Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), while Botswana Congress Party chose to stay out of the arrangement.Motswaledi emerged as the formation’s Secretary General and parliamentary candidate for Gaborone Central in 2014. History was intent on repeating itself all over again. With just three months before the elections where Motswaledi was once again an SG in a face-off against Saleshando, his name had to be removed from the ballot once more – this time the curtain had fallen forever.On July 30 of that year, Gomolemo Motswaledi died in what the police said was a road accident, an explanation that was never accepted by his party, which maintained that he may have been assassinated by pro-government agents. The UDC opened a parallel investigation whose findings were never made public.In the midst of public speculation that read a sinister plot in Motswaledi’s death, the police did something uncharacteristic.“It is not common practice for the Botswana Police Service to publicise the findings of police investigations of this nature,” said police commissioner Keabetswe Makgophe in a statement. “But for speculations and innuendos made by some commentators in the mainstream media and social media regarding this incident, we have found it necessary to make public the result of this particular investigation.”The police ruled the death a result of a road accident “uninduced by any foul” near the Ramatlabama border. The explanation was that Motswaledi, who was travelling alone, had apparently lost control of the vehicle.Such was the measure of Gomolemo Thatayaone Motswaledi – “a mighty good man”, as his unlikely comrade of the last four years of life, UDC president Duma Boko eulogised him; a colossal figure who had effortlessly straddled the arts and politics – comparisons are never off. For instance, it was remarked that the last time his home town Serowe saw such grieving multitudes, it was in 1980 when they came to bury another favourite son – President Seretse Khama – whose charisma and gravitas Motswaledi exuded greatly.   Did Motswaledi’s death end an unfulfilled ambition to one day assume the baton once held by the father of the man who sought to end his political journey?

“He never explicitly expressed that (wish to be president), but we made jokes about it and there was an understanding that he was the right man for that role, and for realising the bigger dream for our country.  We had an understanding that if you wanted something too badly, then you probably did not deserve it.  Our philosophy was also that the role must need you more than you need it if we are going to achieve anything monumental that will stand the test of time,” explains Gaolathe.I ask Gape what he thinks is his big brother’s legacy.“His monumental legacy is subordination of the self for greater communal good yet uncompromising on principles and underpinnings that described and labelled him as a preponderance of a human being, the uncommon commoner in the community, a pacesetter in many respects and a man of the people,” he says.The many unanswered questions go beyond the circumstances surrounding Motswaledi’s death. They include the fate of his party. Had his life not been snuffed in 2014, would BMD have tragically split the way it did? And if the dead look down at those who still walk this earth, where is sympathy – with what is left of the BMD or the breakaway outfit formed by his close confidantes, Alliance for Progressives (AP) led by Ndaba Gaolathe and Wynter Mmolotsi? 

NB: The writer is part of a team that is working on a forthcoming documentary on the life of Gomolemo Motswaledi.


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