The Mochudi East bye-election may be water under the Notwane River but there is a context in which it has significant implications for a future that is not too far off.
Even for Thomases who doubted, there can’t be any doubt that the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) is still very strong in the constituency. The strength the party exhibited last week owes in part to it being a unified whole of four parties (Botswana National Front, Botswana Congress Party, Botswana People’s party and Botswana Movement for Democracy) and having had the backing of the Alliance for Progressives.
The neighbouring constituency is that of Mochudi West, which UDC won in the 2014 elections and where the party is still popular. Ahead of the 2019 elections, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) is putting together a strategy that worked for it in Serowe and Maun and one that the BNF (the main partner in UDC) has also used successfully in Kanye and Borolong. In a society where supreme traditional leaders (Dikgosi) are still revered, you can’t go wrong if you field one in an election. Historically, the most senior royals (Bathoen II in Kanye, Ian Khama in Serowe, Tawana II in Maun and Lotlaamoreng II in Borolong) have always won hands down in an electoral contest. In 2008, the BDP pushed the limit by fielding the second most senior royal, Tshekedi Khama, in Serowe to step into the shoes of his elder brother, Ian Khama, who had ascended the presidency. The former won and the BDP is retesting the potency of the second most senior royal as a political candidate in the neighbouring tribal territory of Kgatleng, one part of which is made up of Mochudi West.
While the involvement of dikgosi in politics destroys an important non-partisan cultural institution, it is also a smart business decision that yields a noticeable financial dividend. Electoral political campaigns are prohibitively expensive but parties spend less on royals running for office than they do on commoners. Based on experience that goes back to 1965, the latter have an extremely high likeability rating and don’t have to do as much campaigning as commoners.
The BDP’s candidate in Mochudi West is Mmusi Kgafela, the younger brother to Kgosi Kgafela II, who fled from the law in 2012 and is now in living in South Africa. In actual fact, Mmusi Kgafela is the second most senior royal in the Bakgatla royal house but with his brother away in South Africa, technically, he is the most senior Bakgatla royal in Botswana. On such basis and supposing Kgosi Kgafela is not back yet, Mmusi Kgafela will retain the latter status when the BDP puts his name on the ballot for the Mochudi West parliamentary seat in next year’s elections. The party will be hoping that it can replicate what has happened in other constituencies when the most senior royal is a candidate. However, Mochudi West is a different kettle of fish and there is a whole history behind this.
Part of the anti-establishment sentiment in Kgatleng has to do with what happened decades ago. Ahead of independence in 1966, Kgosi Molefi, who is Mmusi Kgafela’s grandfather, wouldn’t allow a group of colonial government-aligned politicians to hold a meeting to found a political party in his territory. The venue was changed to a site in Gaberones where the Bechuanaland Democratic Party was formed under a morula tree. Thus it came as no surprise that Mochudi’s first MP was a member of the anti-establishment Botswana People’s Party. While he never personally dabbled in party politics publicly, it was no secret that Kgosi Linchwe, Kgosi Molefi’s son and Mmusi Kgafela’s father, was an opposition sympathiser whom some associated with the BNF. This is the tide that Mmusi Kgafela will be swimming against when Botswana goes to the polls in October next year.
To the extent that the youth are, numerically speaking, the most powerful voter constituency, the election will also be a referendum on youth’s attitude towards bogosi. Over the years, royals have been voted into political office by an age group whose numbers are dwindling. The young don’t respect bogosi and dikgosi as much as their parents did. The respect aside, today’s youth have to contend with issues (like unemployment and corruption) that their parents and grandparents never had to contend with on a scale that they do. To the former, a royal who associates himself with a party that they hold responsible for the adverse economic circumstances they find themselves in wouldn’t hold that much appeal as a political representative.
However, this is not a black and white issue because there is a complex interplay of factors. The alternative to the BDP – the UDC – is going through an extremely rough period and might have ceased to exist in its current form in October next year for a group of voters who find opposition politics appealing only when parties fight as a unit and not as individual entities. The other factor is that the BDP could yet use its financial muscle to wrest the constituency away from the opposition. The party has already announced that it intends to build a half-a-billion-pula war chest ahead of the 2019 elections. The UDC may not be able to compete in this regard.
In the last electoral cycle, the UDC appealed to businesspeople well enough for them to open their wallets. Such generosity literally became visible during when BNF president, Duma Boko, launched his candidacy for the Gaborone Bonnington North parliamentary seat. From the outdoor performance stage to the branded campaign buses to the tied-and-suited bodyguards to the JumboTrons to the crowd control barriers to the professional catering to the entertainment roster, everything about the launch spelled big pula signs. The moneyed people were investing in what they believed to be a viable political venture. However, with the fighting in the UDC, the party is definitely losing its appeal to a group of people who typically invest (and not just spend) money.