At least from the point of view of social-media commentators, the most remarkable thing about the just-ended Southern African Development Community summit in Luanda, Angola was when two Extension 5-bred men smiled at each other and shook hands.
Eager to milk that historic moment to its last drop of PR value, BWPresidency, the official Facebook page of the Botswana presidency, posted a short video clip that shows President Mokgweetsi Masisi shaking hands with his predecessor and publicly known nemesis, Lieutenant General Ian Khama. A good many comments reacting to that moment conveyed the distinct impression that the epic feud between the two men was finally over.
“Let love lead,” wrote Oneilwe Moeko on the BW Presidency comment board. “The devil has been defeated.”
What appeared to be the defeat occurred within a particular context.
At its summit in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo last year, SADC posthumously honoured the leaders who founded what was then called the Frontline States in 1970. The latter was a group of eight Southern Africa states (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and, from 1980, Zimbabwe) which were on the frontlines of the war that pitted white-minority governments in South Africa, South West Africa and Rhodesia against black liberation movements. At this time, Botswana was led by President Sir Seretse Khama – who is General Khama’s father.
In essentialising the central message of a Jeffrey Osbourne hit song (“If my brother is in trouble so am I”), the Frontline States brothers supported their oppressed brothers in any way they can. Much later and out desperate need to promote their own development and free themselves from South Africa’s economic hegemony, the Frontline States formed the Southern African Development Coordination Conference in 1980. Some 12 years later, SADCC was renamed SADC.
At least from what Khama has alleged and what the Botswana government hasn’t refuted, the SADC secretariat in Gaborone notified family members of the founding fathers to attend the Kinshasa summit for purposes of receiving the SADC Founding Fathers Medal on behalf of their late parents. The result of that cock-up was that no member of Sir Seretse’s family was on hand at the awards ceremony to receive the award. The award ceremony in Luanda corrected that mistake and as family patriarch, Khama received the award at a ceremony that was attended by SADC heads of states – who included Masisi.
After receiving the award and posing for photos, Khama returned to his seat, passing a line of heads of state. The video posted to BWPresidency shows him walking past Masisi looking straight ahead – which could have been a deliberate move to avoid eye contact with him. Masisi can be seen calling something out to Khama, whereupon the latter breaks his stride and walks back directly towards Masisi. The two men then defeated the devil with a handshake that no one was expecting. The biggest information gap in this interaction was what Masisi had said and fortunately, Khama has been gracious to fill that gap by explaining that Masisi had called out his congratulations. In a roomful of heads of states and diplomats from across the globe, the former president certainly knew exactly what he had to do.
Still on BW Presidency, Kay-Kay BW David Junior rhapsodised about the seemingly “beautiful” Luanda moment: “Waitse when he passed his brother & his [successor] a bo a mmoela, to me dat was a beautiful moment despite their differences.” More than being impressed with the handshake, Kagiso Mosotho saw the handshake as a sign of more good things to come: “A handshake was enough and it was what is needed, a point of contact for the two was required! Kamoso re tla a bo re bua dikgang tse di monate.” The Setswana means that “tomorrow we’ll have good things to talk about” but nothing could be farther from the truth.
To Sunday Standard’s question of whether the handshake had any significance, Khama’s very direct response was that it didn’t.
Ahead of the summit, there had been public reporting to the effect that SADC heads of state would attempt to reconcile the two men. While, as Khama would reveal to SABC TV when he was back in South Africa where he is living in exile, that didn’t happen. To Sunday Standard, he explained that “We did not meet at any time to discuss his persecution of me, my family and many others.”
“My family” would refer to Khama’s younger brothers, Tshekedi and Anthony, and their own respective families.
Last year, Anthony as well as Tshekedi and his wife, Thea, were arrested and detained by agents of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services. Tshekedi’s arrest, part of which was video-taped as it happened on a busy Gaborone street and shared on social media, was probably the most dramatic. At the time he was Serowe West MP and the arrest happened when parliament was sitting.
Khama has said that the arrest was unlawful because as MP, Tshekedi had immunity because parliament was in session. There is indeed such immunity for MPs but when and how it should be applied is unclear and has been the subject of numerous legal disputes in some Commonwealth jurisdictions. At the time of the arrest, a former minister and long-serving MP told Sunday Standard that the immunity applies only within the parliament estate. Following their arrest and detention, Tshekedi and Anthony fled to South Africa with their families, joining Khama, who himself had fled in late 2021 a few hours before DISS could arrest him.
On the list of “many others” whom Masisi is supposedly persecuting would be former DISS Director General and long-time Khama confidante, Colonel Isaac Kgosi, and some members of the Botswana Patriotic Front – which Khama founded in 2019.
Individual heads of state (like South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa) have attempted to reconcile the Khama and Masisi but nothing positive has come out of such effort.
It is unclear whether the African National Congress controls state media the way the Botswana Democratic Party does but whatever the case, it is more than a little odd that SABC has been allowing Khama a lot of airtime to attack Masisi. That happened after the Luanda Summit when, as everybody else, the female reporter who routinely interviews Khama, asked him about the significance of the handshake. His response left no doubt about the fact that love is not leading, that the devil has not been defeated, that the Luanda moment was anything but beautiful, that the handshake was not enough and that we won’t have good things to talk about tomorrow.
“A handshake and a smile in front of leaders and members of the international community and cameras doesn’t translate into the possibility of reconciliation,” Khama told SABC TV.
Evidently having either monitored social media or having been briefed by his aides, the former president is aware though of the excitement that the handshake caused in Botswana. His overall message to Batswana is that they should join his quest to unseat Masisi in next year’s general election.