Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mbeki corrects a misrepresentation from the past

It had been my intention this week to write on the gridlock consuming performance among many of our cabinet ministers ÔÇô more to the point, on just how, owing to a dearth of credible quality material inside parliament, President Ian Khama finds himself in a situation where he has his hands tied behind his back.

There is need for a cabinet reshuffle, but other than that one or two senior ministers could be sacked. The change will not amount to much on the overall performance scorecard of Khama’s government.

The President has played all the cards dealt him. And there is no much room left for maneuver. This paralysis is a tragedy that every president has to go through, it now seems.

We can leave that as a subject for another day.

Two weeks ago, Thabo Mbeki delivered what would no doubt go down in our books
as a seminal lecture in Botswana’s modern readings. One acquaintance of mine would later call the lecture a “tour de force.”

The speech was an honest and touching profile of how, as a young man in 1962, Thabo Mbeki first set his foot in Botswana; Gaberones to be more specific, as that is what he said Gaborone was called at the time and started what has since become an enriching lifelong relationship with a country that immensely contributed to the liberation of South Africa.

Mbeki’s speech, in my opinion, should mark an end to the long contest of divergent ideas over Botswana’s bona fides in the liberation of South Africa.

In the 1980s and 1990s, especially during the time when euphoria surrounding South Africa’s independence was at its highest, it had become a habit, and a bad one at that, by the opposition, especially the BNF, to want to monopolise the proximity with ANC.

The BNF clearly did not want the BDP, the government and with it Botswana to celebrate with the rest of the world.

A narrative was created that somehow Botswana authorities had collaborated with the apartheid architects of the racist Nationalist Party. Part of that narrative included a justification of why Botswana was not worthy of a Nelson Mandela visit upon his release from prison when he literally frolicked the region to thank everyone for the assistance rendered the ANC over the years.

It was to be a stinging rebuke that the BDP failed to plausibly rebut, an orthodoxy against which the BDP had no answers, a BNF-glorified tenet on the coattails of which every opposition politician cleaved and used as a beating stick against the hapless BDP and its Government.

Botswana’s true role in helping the ANC and, with that, the liberation of South Africa, has been grossly misrepresented ÔÇô and BNF has been the master architect of such misrepresentations.
An impression, no doubt passed on as gospel truth, was created over the years that Botswana Government was a hostile territory that not only shunned assisting the ANC but more often went as far as to hand over ANC cadres to the apartheid regime for prosecution, persecution and sometimes for hanging.

These misrepresentations have, no question, tarnished Botswana’s reputation and political credentials, especially in the eyes of many countries in the region that are today under the rule of former liberation movements.

Given the immense importance of what he said, and what is at stake, not to mention that his speech presents a groundbreaking revelation on Botswana’s contemporary history, I beg to quote Thabo Mbeki at length to speak for himself:

“…I feel that I am linked to Gaborone, and therefore Botswana, by an unbreakable umbilical cord. I know this as a matter of fact that my own growth into adulthood, and, hopefully, maturity, has mirrored the development of the Gaberones of 1962 into the Gaborone of 2012. Thus will I forever refuse that anybody should separate me from this city and the sister African people of Botswana who constructed it, and, according to what I have said, who therefore also made it possible for us to achieve our liberation, giving me the hospitality to live and work across your border as a free human being and African. Present at the centre of everything I have said, as a constant and important player, has been our principal guest of honour this evening, Sir Ketumile Masire.

“It may be that some or many among us present here this evening might consider the bland statement I have just made about President Masire as a self-evident assertion. However, I would still request your permission to allow me to use this occasion to explain myself. During the 1973 OAU Summit Meeting in Addis Ababa, the late president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, presented the then President of Botswana, the late Sir Seretse Khama, with an immensely difficult request. He asked that the Government of Botswana should allow the ANC to open a representative office in Gaborone, similar to its offices in Tanzania and Zambia, and other African countries further to the North. Courageously, as a member of the formative ‘frontline states’, and given Botswana shared borders with South Africa, Sir Seretse accepted this request, in principle.

“However he asked that the ANC should present this request to him and his Government in writing, and have it delivered to him here in Gaborone by emissaries whom Oliver Tambo trusted. These emissaries would also have the task to assess how the ANC representatives would operate in a manner that would be sensitive to the security of Botswana, bearing in mind that it was an immediate neighbour of apartheid South Africa. I was privileged to travel to Gaborone, together with one of our late leaders and trade unionists, John Gaitsewe, to deliver the letter from Oliver Tambo to President Sir Seretse Khama. “For over a year, I had regular discussions with the staff in the Office of the President, then led by Archie Mogwe, about this matter of the placement in Gaborone of an ANC Official representative. This ultimately happened in 1974. During the period between when I came to Gaborone as Oliver Tambo’s messenger, and when the official ANC representative arrived in the city, I learnt some important lessons about the leaders of Botswana.

“One of the most significant among these was that these leaders were consummate diplomats, strategists, and tacticians never to be taken at face value. For more than a year, Sir Seretse and his staff did not respond to Oliver Tambo’s letter, even to acknowledge it in writing. There were two strategic advantages to this manner of proceeding. One of these was that it made it possible for me to stay in Botswana virtually indefinitely….. At the same time, the Botswana Government could tell Pretoria that it had not agreed that the ANC should establish an official presence in Botswana, which accounted for my extended stay in the country.

“In the meantime, consistent with the firm conviction of the President of the Republic, Sir Seretse Khama, and his vice President, Rre Ketumile Masire, about the imperative to support the struggle for our liberation, the Government of Botswana gave us, the ANC, the space to establish for ourselves the ways and means to work in Botswana in a manner that would not unnecessarily compromise the extremely delicate position of the country relative to the apartheid South Africa.

“I would like to believe that we did indeed succeeded to create the base and mechanisms for us to operate from Botswana as a vitally important forward base in the struggle for the liberation of South Africa, without recklessly compromising the security of the Republic and its Government and the safety of the population…. By the time the ANC Representative assumed his position in 1974, namely, our political and military veteran, Isaac Makopo, he could act only as a ‘diplomatic representative’, – theoretically, and in principle, – with no responsibility for, and with no contact with the already established ANC ‘underground machinery’ in Botswana.

“In this context, I can, today say that the late and outstanding Botswana and African patriot, Kgosi Lentswe, was part of machinery we established before the ANC representative arrived, which enabled the ANC to pass war material through Botswana, to enable us to carry out military operations in South Africa… In this regard, permit me to mention only one other important incident which, I am certain is generally not known, even here in Botswana.

“The late President of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, attended the 1976 celebrations of the 10th Anniversary of the independence of Botswana as a guest of the Government. We decided to take advantage of Oliver Tambo’s presence in Gaborone to arrange for him to meet Steve Biko who, at that time, was restricted to the magisterial district of King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. Arrangements were made for him to be flown out of King William’s Town at night to Gaborone. He would meet Oliver Tambo the same night and immediately fly back to King William’s Town the same night. By sunrise, when the South African Police might check on him, he would be back in his house.

“Unfortunately, the operation failed, as Steve Biko could not fly out as planned, because all of a sudden the South African police mounted open and visible surveillance over him on a 24 hour basis. This meant that he could not leave King William’s Town secretly. We later found out that the reason for this abnormal surveillance was that Steve had informed one of his trusted contacts about his impending visit to Gaborone, on a confidential basis, little knowing that his confidant was in fact an officer in the South African Security Police.

“The reason I decided to tell this story is that all the arrangements for Steve Biko’s plane to land here and for him to be transported to a ‘safe house’ to meet Oliver Tambo, and back to the landing strip to fly back to South Africa, were made by the then Botswana Police Commissioner, Simon Hirschfeld. The story I am trying to tell is that Botswana was genuinely a Frontline State, and despite vulnerability to possible punishing reprisals by the apartheid regime, played a critical role in the struggle to end the apartheid system…”

In his speech just over two months ago at an occasion to celebrate the centenary of the African National Congress, the South African President, Jacob Zuma, mentioned and acknowledged Botswana’s role in the liberation of his country no less than five times, by far the country most mentioned than any other in that speech.

Given what we now know, from two ANC leaders who have been at the centre of that organisation’s nucleus for a period spanning well over fifty years, we can confidently say that what the BNF said all along about Botswana’s role in the liberation of South Africa was not only disingenuous but also manifestly dishonest.

Botswana and her people should be proud of the role they played in the liberation of South Africa.
There is no point insinuating, let alone casting aspersions on the bona fides of the role our then leaders played vis-├á-vis the rest of the world. This is debate, if it ever was that the BNF has lost.”


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