Monday, September 28, 2020

My friend the president

The early years

Our relationship is more than friendship; he is more of a brother to me. We must have possibly first met around 1953/1954, even before we became classmates in 1955. I did lower primary at Western School, and he was at Khama Memorial. At the time, schools such as Western, Masokola, Khama Memorial and Central all offered classes up to Standard Four. Those who passed Standard Four would then proceed to Serowe Higher Primary School for Standard Five and Six. To go to higher primary was a major milestone.

Serowe had a small business centre, mo ka Setswana go ka tweng ko mabenkeleng. As children, we would be sent on errands to the business centre. That was where we met, and we took a liking to each other. We got so close that we even got to sleep over at each other’s homes, and the other’s parents accepted each as part of the family. I had a bicycle that we rode together to school.

After primary school, we went to Moeng College together. Moeng under the principal B. C. Thema was probably more cosmopolitan than UB is today. There were students from South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and from throughout Botswana. Students learnt a lot from such diverse backgrounds and cultures. A lot of Moeding’s former students went on to hold positions of responsibility in their countries. In Botswana, these included people like Mogolori Modisi, Thebe Mogami, Baledzi Gaolathe, David Magang, Lepetu Setshwaelo, Lebang Mpotokwane, and Keetla Masogo. The students were multi-talented, and we were the best school in sports.

Among our teachers were TJ Molefhe and Ray Molomo.

Gontebanye was a very brilliant student all-round. He was interested in sport, but he was not a good performer. The same applies to music; he liked music, but he did not sing in the choir. He had other strengths. He had leadership qualities, and he was a good debater, gifted in command of the language. He was a prefect, while David Magang was head prefect.

Tertiary education

He went to the UK, while I went to Roma University, in Lesotho. When we came back I went to Local Government, and he went to Finance. I became permanent secretary before him. When I was made PS at Local Government, he was Director of Economic Affairs.

Mogae the minister

When the announcement was made that he had been made Specially Elected MP and Minister of Finance and Development Planning, I was excited and surprised at the same time. The surprise did not stem from doubt that he could do the job. It was because I wasn’t expecting the appointment. It hit me because he wasn’t in politics. It was a pleasant surprise. I remember that later that afternoon when we met at the Parliamentary lounge, I hugged him and tears welled up in my eyes.

Mogae the VP

When he became Vice President, I was accustomed to him being a minister. I wasn’t as surprised as the first time. I thought the vice presidency was natural progression. He was one of the ministers, and the President didn’t find him wanting

Dictates of protocol

As an ordinary minister, protocol is not strict. Gontebanye’s personality is such that ke motho wa go thola batho. He is easily accessible. He is highly sociable. He cracks jokes. He fits in any conversation, in any class. He likes classical music, as well as African music.

How to relate to a friend who happens to be president

He has other friends, so we allow him his space. There was a time that I was away for six years as High Commissioner to Zimbabwe. We never lost contact, but even when he came over to Harare, you knew that the man was on official duty. You could not expect special treatment just because he is your friend. You allow him to get on with his job.

What they talk about

I am one of the people who take him to the past; and that past had people and incidents. When we are together, we reminisce a lot about mutual friends.

The President’s favourite football team

I support GU. It was believed that he supported GU as well. If he did, he wasn’t very active.

Early social life in Gaborone

Social life revolved around Town Hall, President’s Hotel, and Gaborone Club. That was all we knew, and we were happy. You could safely walk at night. You could leave your car unlocked and nobody would tamper with it.

What goes through the mind of a friend of someone taking the oath of Office of the President?

You feel proud. You feel he is doing it for your generation. You feel a sense of achievement because he is part of you.

When we went to Moeding, we never imagined that we had a future beyond JC. Even in our aspirations, we never thought we could be graduates. We had no course to dream beyond clerical jobs in the post office, or as court interpreters, for instance. It just so happened that we came at the right time. With the coming of independence, there was a deliberate effort to educate young people from BLS (Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) countries. Scholarships were awarded. Those who passed just as well as we did three or four years before us did not get those opportunities. When we started working, we were favoured by the localization policy. I was 30 years old when I became PS. We were favoured by time, and these things took us by surprise.

Mogae’s legacy

He has not departed from the path of his predecessors. Of course, the challenges differ and government has become bigger. But his advantage is that he has always been in government, and he has held very critical positions such as PS at Finance and Development Planning, Central Bank Governor, and head of the civil service. Those postings gave him experience that made him more aware of Botswana’s challenges.

You can’t separate him from the story of Botswana’s development. He has given this country 40 years of continuous and dedicated service. This is a man who has never had a chance to rest since the day he joined the civil service as a planning officer. He is not only retiring from the presidency, but from public service. He is taking a well-deserved rest. In fact, if I were him I wouldn’t do the international engagements that former presidents are tasked with from time to time. I would take time to write my memoirs.
But even as I say this, I know that he won’t rest. He is highly regarded. With his experience and education, he will be in demand in economic and political fora.

A lesson in putting country ahead of personal ambition

He had opportunities for better paying jobs, but he chose to serve the nation. In the process he sacrificed a lot. He was not a mediocre student. He went to the best universities. He had World Bank connections. He could have easily landed high-paying jobs in international organisations, but he put his people first.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.