Saturday, October 23, 2021

Masire’s 18-year rule expressed essence of botho

In a Botswana with underdeveloped oversight institutions, Sir Ketumile Masire could easily have become filthy rich. Had the late former president been a Mobuto Sese Seko or a Teodoro Obiang, the money from the world richest diamond mine in Jwaneng would probably have made him the richest African. Masire would have had extensive business interests in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s most lucrative tourist assets where a whole cast of Hollywood A-listers and European royalty holiday regularly. He would have allocated himself vast tracts of prime land across the country and would probably own the new Gaborone CBD. Under Masire, Botswana enjoyed Africa’s longest and one of the world’s longest economic booms. From the resultant construction boom, he would have personally made a killing. Granted he was not a poor man but by African standards and given what was at his disposal, Masire was one of the continent’s poorest political leaders.

He must have had very little to chit-chat about with other leaders at OAU meetings. Suppose he was seated between cologne-sodden Mobuto and Obiang during the downtime of a summit and the conversation turned to châteaux on sale in the South of France or the new model of super yachts or professional barbers specially ordered from European cities on a weekly basis. He would have had to look around the room to locate Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere or any other modest-living African president that he could relate to.

In kakistocratic Africa, the children of presidents not only carry their father’s name but become accomplices in the looting of state assets. Masire could have made each one of his six children a node in a deeply entrenched network of political patronage. However, unlike the children of most African heads of state who typically lock their lips around the teat of the state and greedily suckle non-stop, Masire’s own have always been independent. Even during his presidency, they thrived outside state largesse. One, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, was Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth from 2008 to 2014. In an alternative kakistocratic setting, she would have been a multi-billionaire and the official explanation would have been that she is a genius who developed intense interest in business when she was only five years old. She would have three customized Boeing 747 jets, two for shopping trips to western capitals and the third for pilgrimages to her church’s headquarters in Europe. Whatever the vocal quality, acapella offerings from his granddaughters would clog the public airwaves and consistently top national music charts.

At Masire’s state funeral, which was telecast live on Btv, one London-based grandson regaled a captive audience with an intimate detail. He had to cancel a London Fashion Week date with a model, he said, in order that he could that he could be with Masire who was visiting. In suggested alternative setting, that grandson would, as a platinum sponsor of the show, have had the fashion show postponed so that he could kill two birds with one stone. Another, much younger Masire grandson said that he also wants to be president when he comes of age. In the kakistocratic setting, his parent would be president and he would have been anointed heir after the style of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. If, upon coming of age, this grandson still harbours such ambition, he would have to immerse himself in Botswana Democratic Party factionalism, barnstorm across the country to build a nationwide support base and probably have to do a lot of acrobatic polka-dancing along the way. The London grandson said Masire never nudged him towards politics, clear indication that the late former president had no desire to start a political dynasty. Masire knew that such dynasties are a manifestation of greed.

Western scholars are tearing their hair out over how, for an extended period of time, Botswana managed to stay an island of sanity in an ocean of political insanity. One theory in this new sub-genre of scholarship suggests that the country’s exceptionalism was a direct result of presidential meritocracy. A corollary of the latter would have to be that Masire’s unique personal character played no small part in making Botswana what it became at the height of its glory. Much of Africa is in a mess because of the sociopathic character of leaders. Saintly though he wasn’t, Masire was definitely not a psychopath. His failings can be safely categorised within the realm of normalcy and through his 18-year presidency, essentialised Botswana’s fifth national principle – botho.

There is temptation to call Masire patriotic but that term would degrade his worth because it is problematic at both a semantic and philosophical level. Language expresses the philosophy of a culture and some have noted the absence of a specific term for patriotism in English. The term comes from patrie which is French for homeland. The latter is also the case with Setswana whose apparent lexical equivalent to patriotism (bomamu) expresses an altogether different conception of duty towards fellow beings and society. The end result is that trying to understand patriotism is not unlike trying to wrestle smoke. From Socrates to Samuel Johnson to Karl Marx to Dolf Sternberger, a brow of scholars in the western canon have wrapped their minds around the concept of patriotism but failed to agree on what it is. In common usage, the term is tossed about in a loose, largely meaningless sense and at its ugliest, the enterprise of patriotism involves waging wars of aggression against other states. Patriotism cannot essentialise botho – that is the context in which it would be deeply problematic to assert that Masire was a patriot. In Setswana, there is no such thing. Instead, it would be much easier to assert that he was public spirited and evidence of that abounds.

While Sir Seretse Khama laid the foundation, it was Masire who painstakingly laid brick after brick to give Botswana the distinct form and shape for which it is now beheld from near and afar. Through his public spiritedness, Masire harnessed political stability in a continent where civil strife is the norm. The result was that alongside Mauritius, Botswana is the only other African country to have consistently adhered to democratic rule since independence.

Public spirited leaders believe in the sharing of resources. While Mobuto was amassing personal fortune that ran into billions of dollars, Masire was transforming Botswana from a desertful of dust into a citadel of economic prosperity. The economic boom he oversaw enabled the country to spend lavishly on social development and in some cases, Botswana sent thousands of students to pricey universities in Europe and the United States. On a less inspiring note, the country retains a social protection system so absurdly generous (and unsustainable) that the World Bank has called for its overhaul. As just one example, 6 percent of households in the richest quintile benefit from at least two social protection programmes. In a kakistocratic system, money that could otherwise be spent on educating the children of multi-millionaires goes into the leader’s Swiss bank account.

Masire fatefully tightened up the public financial management system by commissioning British consultants to make it almost impossible to steal from public coffers without leaving an incriminating paper trail. Leaders who are not public spirited don’t do this because they would not themselves be able to loot public coffers. Partly as a result of the latter, Botswana is ÔÇô at least according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Africa’s least corrupt country.

It is interesting to observe that next month, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, will controversially visit Botswana to lecture about a principle (botho) which he says he heard about from Archbishop Desmond Tutu when a Motswana man who essentialised that principle through his 18-year presidency was never called upon to offer such service.

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