It can’t be any secret that historically, you (almost necessarily) need to be somehow aligned with the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) to reach the top rungs on the ladder of the civil service. That is why it was surprising that a day before she gave her last address as Secretary General at the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) elective congress, Motsei Rapelana had ended a short stint as Acting Vice Chancellor of the University of Botswana. Never before had a high-profile opposition figure served in a position that high in the civil service.
Lightning struck twice for Rapelana whose substantive post is Director of Academic Services and has been serving as Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. She was appointed to the latter post when she still held the position of BCP’s Secretary General. This seems almost an impossible dual role because, among other things, it means that Rapelana was advancing government agenda during working hours and attending meetings of an anti-government political outfit after hours. When the Vice Chancellor, Professor David Norris recently went on a five-day leave between 18 and 22, Rapelana held the fort for him as Acting Vice Chancellor. A day after that stint ended (October 23), she gave her last address at BCP’s elective national congress which was held virtually. With Norris back from leave, Rapelana is back to her post as Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.
While some senior civil servants have been known to be opposition sympathisers (even financial sponsors) they have never been open about such affiliation in the manner Rapelana has been. As one of the high-profile Botswana National Front members who broke away to found the BCP in 1999, Rapelana has always been part of the BCP leadership, holding various Central Committee positions and undertaking high-profile activism. In 2009, when she held the position of Deputy Secretary General, Rapelana made an unsuccessful bid for the Gaborone North parliamentary seat. The following year and when she still held that position, she reported then President Ian Khama to the Office of the Ombudsman for “abusing” Btv, by which she and the BCP meant that he was hogging air time at the expense of opposition parties. The complaint was prompted by an incident in which a then virtually unknown former soldier and Khama’s friend, Thapelo Olopeng, featured at a BDP politically in Ngamiland. Olopeng, who would become Tonota MP and cabinet minister, auditioned for prime time by calling on party members to protect Khama from “attacks” (by which he meant critical coverage) by the private media.
The BCP’s complaint letter read in part: “In the most bizarre form of abuse of a national television station, the President, the supposed custodian of national resources and values paraded his long-time friend and party activist, a certain Olopeng.” In the letter, Rapelana said that “this bizarre act was afforded extended coverage by Btv in a manner that has never been seen before.” In the ever-evolving world of politics, BCP and the Botswana Patriotic Front (the party Khama founded) are now both in the opposition.
In July 2013, Rapelana defeated James Olesitse, a veteran opposition and repeat parliamentary candidate for Palapye, to become Chairperson. As BCP Secretary General, Rapelana has also been at the centre of controversy regarding the party’s relations with the Umbrella for Democratic Change, an opposition collective that BCP is one third of. Last year, she was named among BCP leaders who feel that the party should leave UDC after the elections – which allegation gives an idea of what fate awaits a future UDC government.