When we went out to interview the then Leader of Opposition almost four years ago, Botsalo Ntuane modestly played down his personal role inside a fast growing movement that was by any measure an excessively combative opposition Botswana Movement for Democracy. While every analyst agreed that Ntuane was the leader of a small club of inner strategists behind the unprecedented waves created by the party he instead chose to compare himself to a Shakespearian slave whose only job, he told us, was to always whisper on Julius Caesar’s ear, reminding the master that for all his popularity he remained a human being with all the frailties inherent in all mortal creatures.
The real toast of the cast, Ntuane told us was party leader Gomolemo Motswaledi whose popularity almost eclipsed that of the party. BMD, we cannot emphasise strong enough was at the height of its popularity. Motswaledi, who Ntuane compared to Caesar, could easily be forgiven if somehow he thought he had become God. Ntuane worried that this should be avoided at all cost. Somehow a way had to be found to keep Motswaledi grounded, and as party deputy leader Ntuane had approbated himself that task. For those who have missed out on the delights of reading history and literature, here is the context:
At the height of the Roman Empire, sat the triumphalist Julius Caesar who would often come back home to victory parades where his greatness would be exalted through street showmanship reminiscent of what praise we often see showered on President Ian Khama on Botswana Television. In all those parades, there would always be a slave, walking right behind the shoulder of the great warrior reminding him of the inevitability of death: “You see how much these people love you. Remember you are not God. Look behind you and remember that you are only human. Tomorrow you too could be dead,” was all that the slave said to Caesar – in Latin of course. The analogy of Caesar’s slave crossed my mind this week after somebody averred in a private conversation that Tshekedi Khama’s recent demeanour was embarrassing to government, to the ruling party and to the State President. Claiming knowledge of what was happening inside cabinet, he said Tshekedi was increasingly behaving like a bull in a China shop, becoming uncontrollable, including by way of domineering and possibly bullying other cabinet ministers.
Specifically he cited as an example Tshekedi’s newly-found passion for calling radio talk shows. It may well be true that the president, the party and indeed the government feel embarrassed by Tshekedi’s maverick behavior. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s high time somebody reminded President Khama that for all his popularity, his unbreakable grip on government, party and indeed the nation that he is still only human, or memento mori as the words would have been uttered to Caesar in Latin. Botswana is currently under the grip of a formidably powerful leader. The conduct and outcome of BDP primaries, including appeal processes show that President Khama can do pretty much as he pleases with the BDP.
The more glaring example of his power, however has to be just how he got away with mismanaging the Francistown West by-election. He can whip everybody into line and also if he so wishes hold out a carrot as a promise of reward for activists that threaten to misbehave. A man of such unconventional power, unchallenged neither within the party nor outside it needs a slave-like attendant close by his shoulder always reminding him that he is only human afterall. And for now Tshekedi seems to be dooming that comfortably too well.
For the record, Tshekedi Khama is by no account near to being a slave. Being a younger brother to the President, he is a prince in his own right. Being a member of parliament and a senior minister, Tshekedi is himself a political high priest in his own right. But the task that he is doing nonetheless reminds all of us that even the strongest and arguably the most powerful politician since independence needs to be told from time to time that he is mortal; exactly the job that Caesar’s slave was assigned. Enjoying such direct and unfettered access and blood relation with the president such as does Tshekedi means that he is best positioned to state unvarnished truths without fears of risks which often include rejection, exclusion and isolation often faced by some of the hangers-on often seen surrounding the President in public. In an age defined by boot-licking, cronyism and politics of the stomach, the role performed by Tshekedi should be good for the President and Government.
Tshekedi puts premium value on providing his elder brother with the pointed facts and hard realities that none among the courtiers is able to even dare mention in whispers. There have always been doubts that there existed enough oversight leverage, especially in cabinet where consensus exists that there is absolutely no appetite among ministers, including Vice President to engage, much less differ with the president. Over the last few months, Tshekedi Khama has however emerged as an unlikely voice to fill the void. He has public warned the President against his so-called circle of friends. He has gone on record to question the impartiality and indeed integrity of some people inside the BDP Central Committee. For a fully paid up member of the President’s inner circle, this has up to now been unheard of. Thankfully we have already begun to see a perceptible pay-off from this immensely great political investment by Tshekedi; alleged meddling by Robert Mugabe in Botswana’s succession plans has been averted and careers of a few cabinet ministers that were on the Mugabe-financed hit-list have been saved.