In no way do we mean to rain on Elias Magosi’s parade but the honour of first Motswana to occupy the Southern Africa Development Community’s most senior position goes to someone else. That someone is Lebang Mpotokwane who served a stint as President Sir Seretse Khama’s private secretary between 1970 and 1973 and was Administrative Secretary in the Office of the President when he retired from the civil service in 1989. It is likely that Mpotokwane didn’t stay in the SADC position for too long because of political intrigue playing itself out in Harare.
SADC’s first Executive Secretary was a Zimbabwean man called Frederick Arthur Blumeris. Prior to his appointment, Blumeris was Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to the European Economic Community – the present-day European Union. At the time, SADC, which was founded in Gaborone in 1982, was itself called the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC). Blumeris served from October 1982 to March 1984 when he died in office. Resultantly, Mpotokwane was appointed Acting Executive Secretary from March to July of that same year. He was more than qualified for this role because since SADC’s establishment, he had been serving as First Chairman of the Standing Committee of Officials.
Mpotokwane recalls that through Vice President Peter Mmusi, President Sir Ketumile Masire relayed a message that he wanted him to take up the SADC post on a substantive basis. All other SADC leaders, whom Masire had consulted, were comfortable with this proposal – until a few hours when Mpotokwane’s ascension was to be formalised.
Such formalization was to happen at a July 6, 1984 SADC Summit that was being held in Gaborone. A night before the Summit, country representatives were entertained to dinner at the Holiday Inn, then the only hotel in Botswana that could host an event of such status. Now on its third name change, the hotel became Gaborone Sun and is now called Avani Sun. Mpotokwane says that after dinner, the country’s representatives (Presidents Masire of Botswana; Samora Machel of Mozambique; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia; Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; Prime Ministers Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Prince Bhekimpi Dlamini of Swaziland; Angola’s Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant Colonel Alexandre Rodrigues (Kito); Lesotho’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Evaristus Sekhonyana; and Malawi’s High Commissioner to Zambia, M. Banda) detached themselves from everybody else to huddle in a corner of the hall. Through a messenger, Masire notified the Botswana delegation (which Mpotokwane was part of) that when he was done, he wanted to meet it.
When the informal mini-summit broke up, a forlorn Masire came over to inform the Botswana delegation that the leaders had resolved that Mpotokwane would not be confirmed as SADC’s Executive Secretary on a substantive basis the following day. Such honour would instead be extended to a Zimbabwean nominee. The rationale was that Zimbabwe still had a few more years left to serve out in that position and on such basis, it was only proper that a Zimbabwean be nominated for the post. Masire told his audience that he had done his best to resist but ultimately failed – largely because numerical strength favoured the pro-Zimbabwe position. Resultantly, Dr. Simba Makoni was nominated and confirmed as the next substantive Executive Secretary. Thus ended Mpotokwane’s short stint as SADC’s head.
This version of events has been confirmed by Forshiah Koloi, a Serowe man who, through the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, performed protocol duties in foreign affairs coordinating committees for various state visits and national celebrations during this period. Koloi had been handpicked for such role by President Khama and trained by former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, Kingsley Sebele. Naturally, this assignment placed Koloi in the thick of foreign relations and he is familiar with Mpotokwane’s stint as SADC’s head. Like a few other people in the know, Koloi has been reading with both disbelief and dismay, newspaper accounts that rub Mpotokwane out of SADC history. However, in adding his voice to those that seek to clarify the record, Koloi is keen to stress that he is happy about Magosi’s ascent and wishes him success in his new position.
Why Mpotokwane never became SADC’s substantive head may have had something to do with political intrigue that was playing itself out in the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF). At this time, Makoni was the Minister of Industry and Energy Development in the cabinet of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe – only in 19887 was the position upgraded to President. A graduate of Leeds University where he obtained a BSc in Chemistry and Zoology and Leicester Polytechnic where he obtained a PhD in medicinal chemistry, Makoni had been appointed Deputy Minister of Agriculture at Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. At only 30 years old, he was the youngest minister in Mugabe’s cabinet.
Beyond his stellar academic credentials, Makoni was very well-steeped in ZANU-PF politics and structures, having represented ZANU-PF in Europe. The theory being peddled in the press at the time was that Mugabe saw Makoni as a threat and sought to neutralize such threat by not only removing him from cabinet but by also basically banishing him 1076 kilometres away. A skillful negotiator, Mugabe would have lobbied other SADC leaders to support his plan. The result was that Makoni spent nine years (1984-1993) in the political wilderness as the head of the SADC secretariat in Gaborone.
Not being on the ground would certainly have had the effect of eroding Makoni’s political support within ZANU-PF. When he went back home at the end of his SADC assignment, he was not as hard-wired in party structures as he had been in 1983. Mugabe would also not have considered Makoni a threat because in 2000, he returned him to cabinet as Minister of Finance and Economic Development. However, president and minister fell out two years later: the latter was opposed to the devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar while the latter was in support of it. Consequently, Makoni was replaced by Herbert Murerwa, exiting the echelons of official power for good.
The fear that prompted Mugabe to nix Mpotokwane’s ascent would appear to have been real. In 2003, a year after Makoni left cabinet, it was reported that he was favoured by some in ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, as well as African mediators, as a potential replacement for Mugabe. Indeed, on February 5, 2008, Makoni held a press conference in Harare where he announced that he was challenging Mugabe. ZANU-PF fell on him like a ton of bricks, labelling him a western stooge, and ultimately he formed his own party – called Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn. It is reasonable to assume that had Makoni stayed in Harare and in cabinet, his challenge to Mugabe might have come a lot sooner – and Mpotokwane would have been appointed Executive Secretary on a substantive basis.
At SADC, five executive secretaries would come after Makoni: Dr. Kaire Mbuende of Namibia (1994-1999), Prega Ramsamy of Mauritius (2000-2005), Tomaz Salomão of Mozambique (2005-2013), Stergomena Lawrence Tax of Tanzania (2013-2021) and now Magosi of Botswana – whose contract should end in 2029. The latter’s election followed an intense campaign that saw President Mokgweetsi Masisi barnstorming through the SADC region to lobby for his candidate. On August 17, the SADC Summit meeting in Lilongwe, Malawi elected Magosi as SADC Executive Secretary over the Democratic Republic of Congo candidate, Faustin Luang.
Magosi’s election has been described in terms of “the first Motswana SADC Executive Secretary” and during Masisi’s campaign, a claim was made that it was time that an SADC Executive Secretary came from Botswana, a founding SADC member. The latter is not accurate and credible information sources (like rulers.org) list Mpotokwane as the second head of the SADC secretariat.
Understandably, the issue gets mired in semantics that lean towards the technical. Mpotokwane was not a substantive Executive Secretary but he was an Executive Secretary all the same, vested with all the powers and exercising all the responsibilities of the position. For purposes of comparison, Kgalemang Motlanhle makes a good parallel. Between September 25, 2008 and May 9, 2009, Motlanhle, a Motswana, was South Africa’s Acting President after the resignation of Thabo Mbeki. Motlanhle is now acknowledged as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa and the first South African Motswana to become president.
“Substantive” would be a useful word to use when describing Magosi’s status. He is indeed the first Motswana substantive SADC executive secretary and while that word has not been used, it is important for purposes of clarifying the historical record. Magosi, who is the immediate former Permanent Secretary to the President, is himself not entirely new to SADC. He served as Director of Human Resources and Administration at its secretariat from March 2017 to April 2018.