Thursday, October 28, 2021

“A People Without a Past is a People Without a Soul” Sir Seretse Khama’s Vision of Development of Botswana (Part I)

In my autobiography, The Magic of Perseverance, I introduce Chapter Six with an epigraph in the form of a quote attributed to Sir Seretse Khama, our founding President, to set the tone for what is to unfold. The quotes says, “A nation without a culture is a nation without a soul”.

  As rational, insightful, and truthful as the quote sounds, it is not accurate at all, a fact that dawned on me at a time when the book had long left the presses and now loomed large on the display racks in the local bookshops. It’s not that I phrased the quote wrongly or erroneously: I was simply misled by some scribe who had invoked it in a piece and whose credentials, at least prima facie, seemed above board.  Yet that is not to absolve myself entirely of all blame. Had I read much more widely and therefore known history better, or had I not omitted to have the quote cross-checked by other   historians of note such as Neil Parsons, Christian Makgala, or Jeff Ramsay, I would have no doubt nailed it.   Seretse’s exact words, uttered way back in 1970, were these: “We should write our own history books … because … a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.”

Seretse alluded not to culture as such as his underlying premise but to our past, our history, and underscored the imperative of documenting this past through the agency of our own people and not through the prism of instinctually jaundiced outsiders. The substitution, in due course,  of “history” with “culture” maybe was done in good faith, but it does not crisply drive home the point Seretse was trying to put across.   Seretse was not a historian: he was a trained lawyer-cum-politician. Yet he was aware of the centrality and paramountcy to a nation of being acutely cognizant of its past, without which it would forever be groping in the dark, without which it would be soul-less, meaning it would be without a definitive identity ÔÇô without unique or peculiar attributes that set it apart from other nations. Sadly, that’s the anonymity into which we’re headed, if we’re not there yet as Seretse’s concern fell on stone-deaf ears. A case can be made that history as a discipline is not only looked at with scorn by the relevant authorities in the structures of government: it’s verging on near-irrelevance. It’s like there’s a systematic and concerted effort on the part of the powers that be to plot into total oblivion the knowledge of our antecedents as if  that smacks of treachery or perfidy of some sort. 
                                                                                       

If I may venture a layman’s viewpoint that may possibly step on some toes and offend sensibilities to boot, the orthodox conception of, or classical approach to history is blinkered.  History is too superficially defined. Or rather, it is too lopsided in its thematic drift. 

  When I was  at high school at Moeng College between 1958 and 1962, I learnt precious much about Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Shaka the Zulu and the Mfecane, the Monomutapa Kingdom, a bit about “Khama the Good”, how the gun-wielding and horse-mounted Europeans made mince of waves of African warriors with their hopeless assegais or bows and arrows, and the various stages of the evolution of man ÔÇô from a hominid known as Homo Habilis, or something to that effect, to Homo Sapiens, who I was taught I represented. I learnt close to nothing about edifying African history, of how the great King Sechele I of the BaKwena warded off a Boer incursion into Botswana and in fact had the Boers turn tail in the historic battle of Dimawe of 1852-1853.   But history, anyway, is not simply about the rise and decline of once mighty kingdoms and age-old dynasties. It’s not all about a nation’s arduous and tortuous path to independence and the central protagonists thereof. History is not only about setting down the life trajectory and milestones of a David Magang, a Michael Dingake, or a Gobe Matenge.  

History ought to be more overarching than that. It must seek to answer questions such as this: after more than 50 years of nationhood, where are we culturally, politically, macroeconomically, socio-economically, educationally, inventively, innovatively, ethically, infrastructurally, and industrially in terms of our work ethic?   All told, to limit history to archeological excavations, to only seminal socio-politico events of the past, to key developments latterly in the political and cultural firmaments, to factional dynamics in  the ruling party and what the attendant fissures and schisms therein portend,  constitutes, in my own considered view, myopia of the most morbid order. History must embrace and take stock of principal developments in a nation’s every field of human endeavour, including economics, science, and technology, particularly in the context of how these impact the tone and tenor of national development, as its pace and magnitude. Thus if need be, history must attempt to blur the lines between rigidly delineated fields of inquiry without necessarily losing its quintessence in the process.   Lest you take me for a hypocrite who is simply quick to shoot from the hip, my own contribution to  eclectic historical discourse is attested by three works to date, namely The Magic of Perseverance, a fundamentally biographical sketch which nevertheless weaves together a host of inter-connected themes into one comprehensive compendium, and Delusions of Grandeur Volumes 1 & 2, which are economic critiques informed by our macroeconomic performance since winning self-determination from Britain way back in 1966.
   

Why is a study of a nation’s history crucial and pivotal to national aspirations? Granted, I could posit a whole catalogue of reasons but I will only proffer a handful.
 

History is the ultimate frame of reference in this pilgrimage we call life. It is the compass that helps us navigate the labyrinths, turbulences, snares and other such atrocious terrains of life. If you do not know your history, you will never know how far back your roots reach and therefore will define yourself only parochially and subjectively. You will never know how and why you find yourself in your present existential station within the larger vista of the human ecosystem, and whether the direction you are headed is indeed the right one in the greater scheme of things.  You’ll simply be drifting along, going with the flow without a proper grasp of your grand purpose in life, even if you may be under the illusion that you are actually the very master of your destiny.   The great African-American writer and author of the once highly acclaimed fact-based novel Roots, Alex Haley, knew the criticality of a reasonable degree of familiarity with his past. Although he was born and bred in the relative utopia that is the US, he still felt a huge identity void and over 12 years of research and intercontinental travel retraced his roots back to his motherland, Africa, where he discovered and reconnected with his kinsmen in a country known as The Gambia. It is these living links with his West African ancestry going back six generations who helped him fill the jigsaw of exactly how he ended up a denizen of America ÔÇô through the capture of a certain Kunta Kinte, who was torn from his homeland and shipped off to the state of Maryland in the US, where he was sold as a slave in 1767.  His book was seminal: it led to a cultural sensation in the US and a radically new mindset on the part of African-Americans as to who they exactly were and how they should henceforth chart their destiny as a demographic.  

History provides us the raison d’├¬tre to contemplate the greatest question that could ever exercise the human mind ÔÇô why?  In the quest for answers to this great enigma, we get to understand why we live the way we do, and why we are where we are as individuals, as a household, as an extended family unit, as a  clan, as a tribe, as an ethnic grouping, as a social class, as a society, as a municipality, as a province or district, as a country or a nation, as a region, as a continent, as  a species, and ultimately as the human race.   Our own people take it for granted that Botswana is such an oasis of peace, that it is so economically buoyant by the standards of the Third World, and that democratic governance and the rule of law hold more sway than despotic impulses. Once again, this is all rooted, by and large, in our age-old cultural institutions such as the kgotla system, which had the dichotomous aspect of regnal absolutism and a pluralistic tolerance of the commoners’ viewpoint, and our innate predisposition as a race to be frugal and not extravagant. Economic prudence and a characteristically peace-loving bent on the part of Batswana are not recently nurtured virtues: they are for practical purposes integral to our genetic make-up. Of course we have over the years seen the emergence of a level of greed and self-aggrandisement in certain quarters that is eye-poppingly brazen and blatant ÔÇô necessitating our putting into place graft-bursting institutions such as DCEC to provide the necessary checks and balances ÔÇô but that is more of an anomaly than an all-encompassing national trait.   When we study history, we see societal patterns over the course of time which inform critical thinking and therefore form the basis for decisions about a viable course of futuristic action.  Once we have understood the past, not only will we be in position to predict the future more or less but we will also be galvanised to help create it.                                                                  

Much of the xenophobia for which countries such as South Africa have become a byword can be put to a peripheralising of history ÔÇô the utter disregard on the part of the relevant institutions to emphasise the instrumentality of fellow African countries in freeing South Africans from the cruel yoke of apartheid. By the same token, the fragile potential for economic and political integration on our continent can in part be ascribed to a reluctance by our leaders to preach supranationalism, like the legendary Kwame Francis Nkrumah impassionedly did, albeit in too precipitate a fashion, as opposed to statism, and the manifest failure by our leaders to articulate both our oneness as Bantus and that most cardinal of human virtues ÔÇô botho. In places such as Europe, for instance, where the underlying racial homogeneity is underscored at high-level summits, we see fairly stable economic agglomeration in the form of the EU and even glimmers of political convergence notwithstanding the aberration of Brexit.   Whereas in Europe the buzzword is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, here in Africa we’re busy reinforcing  territorial barriers  and keeping our own brothers and sisters at bay as though they are the very scums of the Earth. It is a shame that Europeans have been more empathetic to Arabs fleeing the conflagration in Syria than we have been to our own people who come knocking on our doors as fugitives from economic hardships.  

Throughout history, there have been both great feats of success and horrific failures. Studying history helps us avoid the pitfalls of yore and build on our accomplishments. Experience is always the best teacher. A people who do not know the missteps in and the blunders of their history are fated to repeat them. History puts all life into perspective. A good grounding in the lessons of history puts us on the alert: it predisposes us to be ever on the qui vive so that we avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The more we study history, the wiser we become. Doomed are those who can’t interpret history well, who evaluate it shoddily, or who simply neglect to pay heed to it.   In Botswana, the one great lesson we have learnt is the belatedness with which it dawned on us that it was time we beneficiated our mineral resources, an imperative I obsessively kept calling attention to as far back as the early 80s and to which the powers-that-be were so lackadaisically resigned. Sadly, there is a whole host of lessons we have chosen to simply ignore. For example, our examination-based educational system has on balance been resoundingly vain owing to its archaic emphasis on rote-learning instead of spontaneous internalisation of the inculcated knowledge. It should have been discarded a long time ago, like the Scandinavian country of Finland has, but why we continue to cling to it so boggles the mind as to numb the senses altogether.    *This is part of a public lecture speech given by former cabinet minister David Magang at the University of Botswana on the 17th August 2017

 

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