Going back to at least Sir Ketumile Masire’s time as president, senior government officials have never been “relieved” of their duties. To be clear, they were relieved of such duties but that word was never used. That changed on May 1, 2018 when, upon entering his second month as president, Mokgweetsi Masisi fired the Director General of the Directorate of Intelligence services and Security, Colonel Isaac Kgosi. Then Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, issued a press release that stated that Kgosi had been “relieved” of his duties as DISS Director General.
Kgosi had terrorised people for 10 full years and those people were themselves too relieved that the latter’s reign of terror had ended to even notice that there was something problematic with the use of “relieved” in Morupisi’s press release. However, there has emerged a disturbing pattern that shows that “relieved” (or sibling terms) could have become standard practice when President Mokgweetsi fires senior government officials.
Two months ago, when former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Solomon Sekwakwa and the Deputy Permanent Secretary, Dr. Morrison Sinvula, were fired, Morupisi’s replacement, Elias Magosi, put out a press release stating that the contracts of the two men had been “terminated.” A fortnight ago, as Masisi reshuffled his cabinet and dropped Specially Elected MP, Unity Dow, Magosi used “relieved” in the context Morupisi had used it when Kgosi was fired.
What has become patently clear at this point is that for as long as Masisi is president, senior government officials will either be “relieved” of their duties or having their contracts “terminated.” Having grown up in Botswana’s first exclusive residential district, having gone to elite private schools, having taught English at Gaborone Secondary School and having attained two advanced degrees in the United States, Masisi is highly proficient in the use of English. He knows that the public will understand “relieved” and “terminated” to convey a particular meaning as opposed to other English words that can be used. “Relieved” and “terminated” conceal and yet reveal: they conceal the reasons why someone was fired but reveal the fact that the person was fired. Their public use effectively amounts to double punishment because they subject people who have just lost their jobs to public humiliation. If official action is oriented towards public interest, how does the public benefit from the humiliation of people who just lost their jobs?
What happened with Dow suggests that there could be some push-back behind the scenes. Hours after the press release that announced her being relieved of her ministerial post was publicised, Magosi issued another release, with a more conciliatory tone in which he clarified his earlier use of “relieved.” The clarification was in a “slip-of-the-pen” context, that “relieved” didn’t mean that Dow had been fired from her post. The problem with what Magosi is that going back to May 1, 2018 when Kgosi was fired, there is a thought process behind the choice of “relieved.” The “relieved”/”terminated” press statements are issued by PSPs but there can be no doubt about who prefers this language.