Say what you will about former president Ian Khama but you certainly can’t deny that in the 10 years that he was president, he did more for indigenous arts and culture than any one of his predecessors – as well as his successor incumbent. That is context in which it shouldn’t be surprising that the Pan African Heritage World Museum Foundation has just named Khama as a patron.
By its own account, the Foundation is “an international, not-for-profit, non-political, non-governmental organization, registered in Ghana, with branches around the world, to create the environment to preserve and curate the unique history, arts, culture and indigenous knowledge of Africans and people of African descent.”
On becoming president in April 2008, Khama introduced the lavishly-funded President’s Day Competitions, which feature a smorgasbord of visual and performing arts. It was also under Khama that the government started buying local artistic products to decorate its offices across the country. Really good artists made a killing from this programme, fetching tidy sums of money for their creations. More than provide commercial opportunity for artists, the President’s Day Competitions helped give some tribes cultural visibility and with it, a respectable measure of cultural citizenship. It was because of Khama that Batswana came to know of polka, a European-origin dance which, until 2008, was largely confined to the Kgalagadi Desert. Towards the end of his rule, Khama loosened up and began to dance performatively at public events. With the complicated steps of borankana out of reach for him, he settled for polka, often being shown on Btv cutting the rug with a maiden from the Kgalagadi Desert.
This point has not been harped upon enough but the President’s Day Competitions also improved the quality of art across the spectrum. There may be an issue with the aesthetic principles of borankana being corrupted by some traditional-dance troupes – ready examples are the martial-arts dance steps and cluttering the stage with props. However, todays’ borankana (as indeed other dances in the Competitions) is much more spectacular than it was before Khama became president. The latter is a seminal lesson for how to make indigenous dances more interesting and internationally competitive.
In his final state-of-the-nation address in 2017, Khama said that the competitions were a key programme in pursuit of the goal to promote Botswana’s diverse cultural heritage.
“Participation levels in the Competitions have grown from 3,274 in 2008 to 18,971 this year. The number of categories in which artists compete has at the same time increased from 25 to 58 this year. This growth has resulted in the prize money awarded to artists also rising from P1 million to P4.6 million over the same period,” he said.
However, there is a downside and the irony is that Khama himself bears blame for some of the Competition’s shortcomings.
Sources at what is now called the Ministry of Sport, Gender, Youth and Culture say that the former president was not receptive to ideas on how to improve the Competitions and that he micromanaged them relentlessly. Resultantly, the Competitions remained stagnant. Apparently, the traditional dance was highly popular even outside Botswana. A Motswana who studied at a university in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, says that fellow students (most of them white) would stay up all night watching reruns of the traditional dance competitions on Btv. When an ACP-EU meeting was held in Gaborone in 2009, Khama had been more in office for little more than a year. Phakalane Golf Estates and Resort hosted a delegates’ reception and most of the spectators excitedly and repeatedly encored the performance of the borankana troupe. Tragically though, the Competitions still don’t have a robust market structure and remain the preserve of the Ministry of Sport, Gender, Youth and Culture when there is pressing need to involve two other ministries: Industry, Trade and Investment as well as Environment and Tourism.
The Competitions had an educationally-beneficial commercial spin-off – however, with it came a disadvantage. Prior to the Competitions and going back decades, it was customary for children of the poor to be pulled from classrooms of government schools in order that they could dance for visiting dignitaries at the kgotla. Ironically, the children of these dignitaries themselves went to elite private schools – or “English-medium schools” as they are more commonly mislabelled – where education is always prioritised over entertainment. There was at least one dignitary who frowned at the human sacrifice of children at a government school in Gaborone – Prince Harry. The English prince was heard to ask why the pupils were dancing at the welcome ceremony and not in the classroom learning. The Competitions also spawned hundreds of traditional-dance troupes, most comprised of out-of-school youths, which replaced student entertainers. The latter meant that rather than entertain visiting dignitaries during school time, students were left alone.
In tourist areas like Maun and Kasane, these troupes raked in a lot of money. Expectations for payment have created a problem for a society in which volunteerism (especially at kgotla events) is still common cultural practice. On Independence Day in 2019, local borankana troupes, who were asking for P10 000, refused to dance free of charge. Resultantly, attendees had to settle for not-so-exciting entertainment by local choirs and a church brass band which were scrambled at short notice.
Political expediency by a Khama aide and during his administration, has also served to undo what he was trying to do. In 2018, then Gaborone Central MP, Dr. Phenyo Butale, tabled a motion that called on the government to develop a policy for the creative and performing arts. Not only did the ruling Botswana Democratic Party throw the motion out, the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Thapelo Olopeng, poured scorn on the mover of the motion, in the process making hurtful personal comments. In opposing the motion, Olopeng said that his ministry was already putting together such policy. As Sunday Standard learnt at the time, the minister misled parliament because no such policy was being put together and still doesn’t exist.
Khama’s new gig with the Pan African Heritage World Museum Foundation appears to be a fund-raising initiative. The former president is not into Pan-Africanism and the Foundation would know this because he routinely sided with the west on controversial international issues.