Until June 29, 2017, “marakanelo a ditsela” (which means a crossroads) was just another Setswana saying.
On that day, Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) stalwart and former minister, Daniel Kwelagobe, elevated the status of this saying by embedding it within an eloquent attack on a thin-skinned President Lieutenant General Ian Khama who sat alongside other heads of state and a former president. The longest-serving minister, Kwelagobe was one of the speakers at the funeral of the second president and founding father, Sir Ketumile Masire, in Kanye. In the midst of singing Masire’s praises for his abilities as a leader, Kwelagobe implored the “national leadership” (Khama in other words) to “retrace its footsteps to a crossroads” and reorient its path forward in the right direction. More than the fact that this was happening at a public forum, Khama would have been particularly incensed by the fact that Kwelagobe’s words were broadcast live on TV and digital media to an international audience.
For the record, the former BDP Secretary General used the less common equivalent of the saying (“makgaogannong a ditsela”) but it was the more common version (“marakanelo a ditsela”) that found favour with the public and nowadays is mostly used as a nod to Kwelagobe’s 2017 speech.
A year into the administration of Khama’s successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Sunday Standard revisited this issue with Kwelagobe, asking him if Masisi had followed the advice that he offered at Masire’s funeral. The answer was in the affirmative. Given what is happening in the BDP right now, we thought it would be fitting to pay the issue a second visit.
At least according to a sampling of newspaper headlines, Masisi’s stewardship of not just the party but the country as well is nothing short of disastrous. Sunday Standard: “Sebetela could replace Masisi as BDP president ahead of 2024 elections; The Voice: “Reverend Tiego gives Masisi ultimatum, blasts govt”; The Patriot on Sunday: “Masisi misled by bootlickers” and “Masisi under pressure”; Mmegi: “Masisi Covid-19 blunders”; Botswana Guardian: “BDP backbench breaks ranks with executive”; Midweek Sun: “Masisi under siege”; and The Business Weekly: “The waning presidency.”
With that much negative press – which reflects what people are saying on- and offline, does Kwelagobe still hold the view that Botswana is on the right path or is there need to go back to the crossroads and reorient a path forward in the right direction?
“I still hold that view,” he responds.
Kwelagobe themes his elaboration of this point around loyalty, which he likens to devoutness: “If you are a believer, you must keep faith. Likewise, as members of the BDP, we must keep faith in the party and in our leaders.” He adds though that where the leadership strays off course, party members have a responsibility to show it the right way.
At least according to press reportage, that is what some party members – who believe that Masisi have strayed off course, have tried to do but have been persistently rebuffed. When this point is put to him, Kwelagobe says that the aggrieved still have another option: pleading their case with other party members, a group that he is part of.
“They should come to us, we are available and we will take up their grievances with the leadership.”
What he finds unproductive is perpetually shouting from the tree tops but never officialising concerns.
“If anyone has a complaint, it has to be resolved at appropriate forums,” says Kwelagobe. “If you offer the leadership genuine advice and such advice is rejected outright, only then can you criticise the leadership.”
That notwithstanding, Kwelagobe feels that it would be ideal to establish, by way of amending the party constitution, a veterans’ league that can intervene when “things are not going right.” What the BDP currently has is a Council of Elders, an advisory body appointed by the party president, whose meetings occur are at the sole discretion of the president. Kwelagobe says he would like to see an African National Congress-style Veterans League that has powers to rein in the leadership when such need arises. After Masisi and Khama epically fell out, it was the BDP’s Council of Elders that tried (unsuccessfully) to reconcile the two men.
While he thinks that Masisi is on the right path, Kwelagobe would certainly not be aware of concern that has been raised about the latter’s priorities. Concern has been raised by some that at a time that Botswana has not obtained enough vaccines to inoculate even half its population, millions of pula have been diverted to a television production deal with a company owned by Steve Harvey, to the purchase of a hotel in Gantsi and to the building of an executive luxury lodge in the Okavango Delta. In response, Kwelagobe says that Covid-19 shouldn’t stop the execution of development projects.
“Life has to go on while we fight Covid,” says Kwelagobe adding that while said development projects are being executed, Botswana has actually been acquiring and rolling out vaccines as well as implementing all Covid-19 public health measures.
Now a sprightly 78, Kwelagobe holds the record of having served in the cabinet of four Botswana presidents, from Sir Seretse Khama to Gen. Khama, his son. His age and background put him in a unique position to offer a long-term perspective on the challenges that Botswana has faced. Talking about Covid-19 outside a political context, the former Molepolole (later Molepolole South) MP says that this is not the first time Botswana has contended with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. In service of the latter assertion, he mentions the 1996 outbreak of the cattle lung disease in the North West District. The solution to this problem – such as it was – was grim one and had to be announced at a special kgotla meeting in Maun by President Masire: extermination of cattle in the District to contain spread. Kwelagobe says that while this episode may not rise to the level of Covid-19 in terms of gravity, it was nonetheless as devastating because the farmers relied on cattle to provide for their families.