“The experienced game-tracker does not fear the lion…..” Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe likes to talk in adventurous metaphors, often with a motivational tinge to them. Officiating at the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) awards Dinner in 2008, he offered the lion/ game-tracker image to journalists as an allusion to his bravery.
“This past week I received all sorts of comment, from all sorts of people who, in so many words, suggested that I would be walking into a proverbial lion’s den tonight…People fear most what they understand least. The experienced game-tracker does not fear the lion; she or he rather has a healthy respect for its habits and habitat. It should be the same for an experienced politician, or any other public figure, when being tracked by the press.”
In planet Merafhe the vignette represented how fond he is of a performance that reeks of his own determination to tread on dangerous ground. But the problem with Planet Merafhe is that there is no place for the kind of subtlety that would not rock the boat. Keeping his head down has never been part of his approach during an eventful 23-year political career.
Hardly three years after joining politics, he stood upright, roared his defiance against the goings on in the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and challenged the party untouchable trinity: Peter Mmusi, Daniel Kwelagobe and Gaotlhaetse Matlhabaphiri.
A “game-changer” had suddenly entered BDP politics. He is the kind who thinks nothing of landing the first strike, whether deserved or not, to show who’s in charge. He truly enjoys getting people to knuckle under.
Writes former President Festus Mogae in his yet to be published memoirs about the man he refers to as “my friend”: “Simply stated, as a Specially Elected MP, Merafhe was a political appointee chosen on merit directly by then President Masire out of the Botswana Defence Force and as such Merafhe owed Kwelagobe nothing. I think Kwelagobe felt challenged for the first time by someone within the upper level ranks of the BDP who was basically independent and therefore uncontrollable. When Merafhe came into government after 1989 he was deeply resented because he had the audacity, the boldness, to challenge the established order and wanted to challenge the dominance of Kwelagobe within the BDP. This resulted in worsening relations between the party members. Merafhe wasn’t wrong per se; he was just asking questions and trying to get his bearings in the party. The problem was that the questions he asked rubbed Kwelagobe up the wrong way and compounded some of the issues which had been simmering under the surface of the party for years. One of the biggest examples of the conflict was the issue of party fundraising. Specifically Merafhe asked why only Kwelagobe and Satar Dada know who is giving us money, how it is given and how much is contributed. This issue of party funds was then, and remains now I suppose, a closely guarded secret, and knowledge of its details is a source of immense power. To add to the situation brought on by Merafhe, there had been a personal rivalry between David Magang and Kwelagobe for a few years, so when the factions materialized in a big way, it was understandable that Magang was on Merafhe’s side. The factional activity, in many ways revolving around the personal rivalry between D.K. and Merafhe and to some extent also Magang, meant that we were at our weakest or most vulnerable in 1994.”
In July 1992 Merafhe challenged Kwelagobe for the post of Chairman of the BDP. Kwelagobe’s political star seemed to be waning following the Kgabo Commission land scandal. He had stepped down as a Cabinet Minister and was at his weakest. But no one dared challenge the party strongman who was lionized for his political skills and grassroots appeal. It was left to the experienced game tracker to stalk the lion. As it turned out, the political green horn was more testosterone and less experience and Merafhe soon discovered that he was battling not just an opponent, but a fully fledged movement. Kwelagobe had control of all the party structures, the central committee, youth league and women’s wing and played them all like a puppet master.
Merafhe however did not just fade away into the sunset. His dogged determination to tread on dangerous ground ensured that the two combatants from the most memorable political duels of the 1990s would keep at it hammer and tongs for the next decade, turning BDP internal politics into a blood sport.
Remembers former president Mogae:” Incumbency is an advantage until things go wrong because that’s when the ruling party will be blamed for everything. In the case of Botswana the opposition failed to exploit the factional divisions within the ruling party and did not take the measures which might have led to the creation of a new government.”
Aware that the BDP was on slippery ground, the party with the help of former Debswana managing director roped in Professor Lawrence Schlemmer to try and put Humpty Dumpty on the wall again. Professor Schlemmer’s recommendations resulted in Mogae calling Ian Khama from the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) to take over as Vice President and try to resolve the party factional infighting.
In the months leading up to his ascendancy to the leadership of the country, Khama mapped out a strategy to address the Kwelagobe and Mompati Merafhe bitter feud for control of the party. It is argued that knowing that his imminent rise to the presidency had already triggered jostling for the post of deputy; Khama had devised a plan to keep the lid on any acrimony that could arise. The two serious contenders were Kwelagobe and Merafhe. Knowing their history of rivalry, a delicate balancing act was required. Unbeknownst to Kwelagobe, by lobbying for the chairmanship, he was smoothing up things for Khama to appoint Merafhe as his vice. Whilst some of Kwelagobe’s supporters were celebrating his stage-managed occupancy of the chairmanship scenting the vice presidency, Khama had other ideas. By the time he unveiled Merafhe as the chosen one, the die was cast. Both men enjoyed a position of status though Kwelagobe’s was without the material benefits and pomp that went with the vice presidency. Imperfect as it were, the balancing act by Khama had gone some way to appease the long term rivals and their backers.
It is this nerve-wracking attempt at a balancing act that is attributed to BDP split which led to the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). Those who profess to have the ear and counsel of the president say he has always been looking for a way to extricate himself and the party from the Merafhe and Kwelagobe rivalry. In his view, the two men had always taken centre-stage during the mid-term of the Masire era and for the entire duration of Mogae’s presidency. Khama was not prepared for the same.
For Merafhe, the scene at the end was the perfect clich├® of the never-say-die, heroic ex-army commander.
In his 70s, Merafhe was not about to let years alone dictate his future. As his age, health becomes the key issue for a man’s work and he was blessed with the stamina and energy to cope with the demanding job. Merafhe’s reputation as a dare-devil was matched only by his wit and intellect. As Minister of Foreign Affairs he turned Botswana from a reluctant international player into a global mover and shaker. Recalling some of his heroic exploits as Foreign Affairs Minister, Merafhe related to the Sunday Standard how he found himself “in a very precarious position of having to fulfill my role as Chairman of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and not jeopardizing Botswana’s relationship with Zimbabwe.” With that, out came one of the most inspiring stories of conflict management in Botswana’s history.
The story involved Zimbabwe’s longtime president Robert Mugabe, the CMAG and the then Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon.
This is how one local newspaper captured Merafhe’s precarious position: “It is perhaps a fitting symbolism that Merafhe’s election to chair the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) should be competing for newspaper space with reports of Zimbabwean white farmers being attacked by Mugabe’s supporters and stories of anti-Mugabe demonstrators being bludgeoned to death on the streets of Harare.”
The symbolism was in how Merafhe’s history with Zimbabwe mirrored that of the Commonwealth. Both had been battle hardened by Zimbabwe’s turbulence. Merafhe was commander of the Botswana Defence Force when 15 Botswana soldiers were killed by Rhodesian (Zimbabwe’s pre-independence name) forces during the Lesoma ambush in 1977.
He was still commander of the BDF when his charges killed a Zimbabwean army officer during the Zimbabwean unrest, which resulted in the suppression of dissenters in Matebeleland after independence.
The Commonwealth had absorbed equally tough blows from Zimbabwe and the country’s hard-line Robert Mugabe.
In his autobiography, Eye of Fire, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku, says, “Zimbabwe occupies a special place in the history of the evolution of the modern Commonwealth.
The crisis in Rhodesia posed the most serious threat to the continued cohesion ÔÇô indeed at a certain stage, the existence of the modern Commonwealth.”
In his acceptance speech as chairman of CMAG, Merafhe stated: “As Commonwealth member states, we share a common interest in the search for solutions that will usher in peace, stability and security.
“As CMAG, we must demonstrate our resolve to foster unity and to uphold the Harare principles with respect to democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
All that was easier said than done.
The British and Southern African media, however, had other plans. Accusing the Mugabe government of flouting the Harare Principles, they demanded that Zimbabwe be expelled from the Commonwealth.
The situation was further complicated by the marathon-shouting match between Mugabe and McKinnon. The Commonwealth Secretary General was supported by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and a junior Minister, Peter Hain, who had a penchant for picking a fight with Mugabe.
There was also a school of thought arguing that western countries were more concerned about the Zimbabwean crisis because the people at the receiving end were white farmers.
A racial element crept in to add to the crisis, and if anyone was to be counted on to bring Mugabe to his senses, it would not be McKinnon. The best bet was an African voice. Merafhe stepped up to the plate.
Unlike McKinnon, Merafhe was Mugabe’s neighbour and did not have the luxury of shouting and criticizing Zimbabwe from the safe distance of thousands of kilometers.
He steered the issue with such deft dexterity that when he finally called it a day after a record six years with CMAG, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called him aside and said, “We have not always agreed, but I thought I should let you know that I admired your leadership.”
It was only two years after Merafhe’s exit from CMAG that, fed up with what he thought was endless meddling with the affairs of his country, Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth; a loose body of countries many of which were formerly colonized by the ‘Great’ Britain.
Merafhe’s baptism of fire, however, came in the form of a small island that is submerged under water most of the year. Eleven years ago, the government enclave circulated a confidential report that suggested that Namibia and Botswana were on the verge of war over the Sedudu Island.
All ingredients of war were in place. No one could say whether the mixture would be ignited or peacefully dispersed. Though neither side wanted to go to war, one foolhardy move could still set it on.
Said the document, “There still remains, however, the question as to what will happen on D-day when judgement is pronounced. Namibians have been quick to suggest that a winner-loser outcome, far from improving relations, will worsen the bilateral discord.”
D-day came. The International Court of Justice awarded the island to Botswana. But, instead of wagging his finger and shouting, “We told you so” ever a diplomat, General Merafhe issued a statement saying: “Nobody has lost.
What has won is our ability as Batswana and Namibians to resolve our differences peacefully.” Merafhe’s speech on that day went a long way in assuaging the feelings of the Namibians who were naturally hurt at losing the case on which they had staked their pride.
The powder keg was detonated and peace won the day. Eight years later, Merafhe proudly leaned against his rocking chair and pronounced to the Sunday Standard:, “We are in the best terms with Namibia.”
Towards the end of his term as Minister of Foreign Affairs, if you entered the name Mompati Merafhe on the Google search engine, it turned in 22, 600 entries, which were higher than that of any foreign affairs, minister in the region at the time.
This was internetese for: Mompati Merafhe is the most newsworthy foreign affairs minister in Southern Africa. He was at the crest of a life that has tilted toward recognition, toward the kind of respect that gets a person treated like royalty in diplomatic circles.
For example, it was South Africa’s former President, Nelson Mandela, who, during the commonwealth meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1995, insisted that Merafhe should be co-opted into CMAG.
A while ago, former President of Mali and the then Chairman of the African Union Commission Alpha Oumar Konar├® coaxed Merafhe to contest the Secretary Generalship of the African Union. He was also approached by friends from Nigeria who promised their support. Merafhe passed up the opportunity. He would not leave the constituency of Mahalapye.
This, however, was a big vote of confidence on him and Botswana, a country that, for a longtime, was regarded as a reluctant international player.
As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Merafhe was de facto commander in chief of Southern Africa’s foreign policy and was able to ensure that Botswana’s presence was felt in the outside world.
His subordinates, who have sat with him through meetings with other foreign affairs ministers, say he always had the last word.
A colleague from the ministry of foreign affairs remembers one of the meetings in Swaziland where Southern Africa’s foreign Affairs Ministers ‘discussed the region’s position on the United Nations Security Council.’
“All ministers had their time on the floor. There was haggling and shouting. When the debate was at its height, Merafhe took the floor and you could have heard a pin drop. And then presto! The riddle of Southern Africa’s position in the Security Council was solved.” Merafhe’s position became Southern Africa’s position. Once again he had prevailed over his raucous colleagues.
“I lay down the rules,” Merafhe told Sunday Standard three years ago. He was dead right, his words, far from the ranting of a stuck up politician. Merafhe, who was the dean of Southern Africa’s foreign Affairs ministers, held considerable sway in diplomatic circles.
Having been Botswana’s foreign minister for close to thirteen years, his colleagues in the region always look up to him for counsel and guidance.
They were never been disappointed. His stewardship made SADC a powerhouse in continental politics. “SADC candidates almost never loose in contests for continental positions. A small country as we are, Botswana candidates always win in the first round,” he said.
Former Executive Secretary of the Botswana Law Society, Sanji Monageng, currently High Court judge in Banjul, Gambia, liked to regale friends with stories of how Merafhe lobbied for her nomination to be commissioner of the African Union’s 53 member Commission on Human and People’s Rights, a body based in Banjul.
The 53 commissioners hear cases from individuals and NGOs who allege violations in AU countries. Monageng spent the nomination weekend next to the phone as Merafhe and his counterparts lobbied and jostled for the coveted posts.
Monageng could not believe her ears when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said “congratulations.” It was Merafhe phoning from Namibia. The nomination was Monageng’s stepping stone to her current position.
Midway through the interview, Merafhe challenged us to quiz him on the population figures of any country in the world. “If you ask me what the population of Indonesia is or any country in the world, I will tell you.”
This was an uncomfortable turning of the reportorial tables, and we were reluctant to take him up on that challenge. We were convinced he knows population figures of all countries in the world by heart.
“I go all the way to inform myself. To market Botswana, I have to understand details. People do not like abstracts,” he said as a matter of fact.
Once I had an opportunity to sit not far from him during a meeting with Japanese investors in Tokyo. He was reeling numbers of schools in Botswana, the total number of kilometers of Botswana’s tarmac roads and the total number of hospitals in the country – all off the cuff.
A few days earlier he was fielding questions from a British television crew. During the interview, the reporters’ jaws dropped as they marveled at how Merafhe had all the facts and figures at the tip of his tongue.
Merafhe awakened to this life every morning. He hardly ever watches TV, he reads everything that catches his eye, and unwinds by listening to his car radio. “Reading is my hobby. No document passes without me reading it. I try to inform myself and when my car radio is not working, the car is not working,” he said.
His head for numbers has seen him set records, which have never been broken. In the late 1960s he scored an 83 percent in General Overseas Officer Police Duties Course in the United Kingdom, a record that has not been broken to this day. “This was a turning point in my career.”
From a police constable who was always chasing criminals on the streets of Lobatse and Barolong areas, Merafhe rose to the rank of Deputy Commissioner in a record 11 years. Six years later, he was appointed the first commander of the Botswana Defence Force with the rank of Major General in 1977.
“I skipped some ranks. I do not know how it feels like to be a Senior Superintendent because I moved straight from Superintendent to Assistant Commissioner of Police,” he said with a boyish smile of contentment. At 73, he was the oldest member in Cabinet and parliament and the longest serving cabinet minister. In the end, his biggest strength was his undoing. With his health failing him his dogged determination and the fearlessness of an experienced game tracker spurred him on until he became the plaything of tabloids. The game changer finally called it a day last week, although he was not exactly still ahead of his game.