Mmanoko Primary School teachers like to regale friends with the story about the day a celebrity civil servant came to their school. It was the morning of March 2001.
The Head-teacher was announcing the line-up of guests attending the school certificate award ceremony, and the mere mention of one guest provoked spontaneous applause. Tymon Katlholo wasn’t even on stage yet, and the audience made up mostly of chubby faces in shorts and blue tunics was already on its feet.
“I found myself wondering, which civil servant can set off primary school children like that. Music stars like Vee and Franco can probably raise a stir among standard seven school girls, but only excitable squeals, not throaty awestruck homage. I could not think of anyone in the civil service who could do that,” remembers one teacher.
Katlholo’s honesty and the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime’s (DCEC) cartoon superhero Rra Boammaruri (Mr. Right, Mr. Honesty and Mr. Integrity rolled into one) catapulted the DCEC chief to celebrity status before the impressionable school children. The popular superhero was aimed at entertaining and educating children on the difference between right and wrong.
Hundreds of Mmanoko Primary School pupils who listened to Katlholo speaking about corruption were convinced that they were listening to the Rra Boammaruri superhero incarnate. Very few grown ups can deny that Katlholo lives up to the image.
A yellowing copy of the Daily News dated 16 March 2001 captures Katlholo warning Mmanoko Primary School pupils against corruption. The school had obtained position three in a national essay writing competition under the theme: “good things a growing child has to do to be accepted by the family”. Katlholo told the gathering of teachers and school children that although the DCEC had been targeting the business community and the general public, it was also important to catch children at an early age and teach them a culture of honesty.
“Our job is to try and ensure that our children choose the right path and eventually contribute to a corruption free society.”
For a man playing the Pied Piper and trying to talk to Batswana, both young and old into lining up behind him at walking the straight and narrow, Katlholo’s stock in trade was honesty and integrity.
“I can not think of anyone better suited for the role. There is no doubt that he was cut out for the job “says Katlholo’s uncle, Diane Matija, in a brief interview with the Sunday Standard.
The delivery is as rapid as machine-gun fire. The octogenarian with a greying head barely pauses for breath as he explains how he thinks Katlholo was the best man for the job.
“I always felt he could have made a good church minister. I challenge you to go anywhere and you will never meet anyone who can tell you that Katlholo has cheated them.”
However, a few years ago, Katlholo had an insurgency on his hands. About 21 Dissatisfied staff members had filed a case with the High Court in Lobatse. The 21 DCEC officers were challenging Katlholo’s new scheme of service, which re-designated them from the professional cadre to technicians and artisans, lowering their career ceilings. Officers who once harboured dreams of progressing to the post of Director suddenly found themselves trapped at the bottom rung of the DCEC ladder under the new artisan and technician model.
In their court papers, they made claims suggesting that Katlholo acted maliciously and corruptly. The Sunday Standard carried stories under the headline: “Even Saint Katlholo has feet of clay.”
Reports of impropriety did not go down well with Katlholo. The deduction by Sunday Standard that allegations against him “have the same sobering poignancy as that of a child suddenly discovering that there is no Father Christmas” hurt him even more.
High Court Judge Isaac Lesetedi upheld the complaints that the new scheme of service as implemented by DCEC was unlawful; he portrayed Katlholo as a well meaning leader who just made a bad decision.
“It appears to me that the Director, DCEC at all material times acted in good faith though wrongfully, but with no malicious intent.”
Although Justice Lesetedi cleared Katlholo from any malice and corruption, the then DCEC boss was not happy with the decision that he acted “wrongfully”.
Most leaders would have been content with that, but for a man who swears he has kept his nose clean all his life, Katlholo could not live with a “but” on his resume, especially because his retirement from the public service was on the cards.
On behalf of DCEC, the Attorney General’s Chambers took up the matter with the Appeals Court, which cleared Katlholo of any malice and wrong doing. Other than setting aside Justice Lesetedi’s judgment, the Appeals court made an order awarding costs to government and dismissing the application by the 21 DCEC employees.
“I could almost see Katlholo smiling as he read the judgment, thinking, I am going to sue the Sunday Standard broke”, remembers the paper’s Editor Outsa Mokone.
“I was, however, pleasantly surprised when Katlholo said he did not want any money, only an apology. We had no problem apologizing to him. He is the easiest man to apologize to because we all know that he is above reproach. We did not have to worry about any scandal about him coming back to bite him. We tendered an unconditional apology and he accepted in good faith.”
We are seated around a huge dining table at Marang Hotel last week. The dust has settled and we are reminiscing about the whole saga. Katlholo looks us in the face and declares, “All my life, I have never stolen a Thebe from anyone.”
This is not just the idle rumblings of a man trying to play goody-two-shoes. Katlholo knows that for a long time, Botswana’s place on the moral high ground depended on everyone seeing him in that light. Any blemish on his integrity could have turned off Batswana against his crusade for zero tolerance against corruption.
On relating the story to a DCEC staff member, he responded, “Although some staff members had challenged his decision in court, he never held it against them. Some staff members even made jokes about it.”
The DCEC staff member related how other staff members made jokes about it during Katlholo’s farewell party.
“With Katlholo, all is fair in peace and in war. He is the only leader I know who understands the alchemy of turning a divisive issue into a unifying issue.”