It may not be immediately apparent but in terms of presidential history trivia, February 2, 2018 has something in common with July 17, 1999.
February 2 was when the Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, publicly tackled President Lieutenant General Ian Khama when the latter’s national farewell tour came to the former’s constituency. That constituency has been heaving under untold hardship following the unplanned closure of BCL copper-and-nickel mine that has sustained both the town and neighbouring region for more than four decades. Through it all, Khama has never visited Selebi Phikwe and when he came to bid residents farewell, Keorapetse vented about that in front of a quite sizeable crowd. The president took offence and in response, said that as a soldier, he knows how to return fire when he is attacked.
Those are the same words that Khama used on July 17, 1999 when he officiated at the Manual Workers Union national conference. Then he was still vice president and had been invited to officially open the conference. He was accompanied by his private secretary, (DIS) Colonel Isaac Kgosi, who is now the Director General of the dreaded Directorate of Intelligence Services.
The union’s Organising Secretary, Johnson Motshwarakgole, got to the podium first and immediately started taking pot shots at Khama. Then, as now, relations between the government and civil servants associations (which, with the exception of Motshwarakgole’s, would only unionise in 2004) were strained and there had been talk of a looming strike. Motshwarakgole’s attack on Khama took the form of him running down a laundry list prefaced with “The vice president can’t deny that …” for each item. One item was that “the vice president can’t deny that in anticipation of the looming strike, the government has bought sjamboks that are being kept at Thebephatshwa Airbase and will be used on striking workers.” Some delegates from Central District shifted uneasily in their seats, their loyalty torn between their supreme traditional leader and their overassertive trade union leader.
When Khama’s turn at the podium came, he announced that he had planned to read a prepared speech but would not be doing so. He had been attacked, he said, and as a soldier, had to retaliate. The retaliation – such as it was, was conveying his understanding that he would officiate at the conference and hadn’t been forewarned that he would be attacked by the leadership. He disavowed knowledge of the sjamboks plan and challenged Motshwarakgole to prove that he had anything to do with either their purchase or planned use. The programme didn’t feature Khama for any other activity that day and he returned to Gaborone. However, he showed up unannounced the following day, Kgosi in tow, with the apparent mission of having another turn at the podium. It was clear that Khama hadn’t slept off the rage he must have felt from the humiliation of the previous day. However, he never got to address the audience because the union leaders couldn’t slot him anywhere.
Shortly thereafter, Khama walked off across the street ÔÇô Kgosi in tow – to a humble two-roomed house where an old woman was going about afternoon household chores. At once elated and reduced to little more than a ball of nerves, the host scrambled to find Khama a chair, repeatedly rushing from room to room in vain search of a chair suitable for a vice president and supreme traditional leader. From across the road, she could be heard profusely apologising that she didn’t have good enough chairs.
The 1999 incident marked the precise moment when Motshwarakgole’s name disappeared from Khama good books. Keorapetse should expect the same thing to happen with him.