At a time that relations between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the most prominent member of the Khama family are still frosty, the government is taking suspect interest in the Sir Seretse Khama Day. As happened last year, Parliament grounds are hosting this Day and the traditional commemorative event at the Serowe kgotla has been overshadowed and reduced in status.
Sir Seretse, who was born in Serowe in July 1, 1921, was Botswana’s founding president and Bangwato supreme traditional leader. His marriage to a white English woman, Ruth Williams, during the colonial era, divided the tribe and resulted in his exile to Britain. Upon his return, he went into politics and became president when his party, the Botswana Democratic Party president, won the first general election in 1965. He died in 1980 and was succeeded by Vice President Quett Ketumile Masire – future Sir Ketumile.
Following Sir Seretse’s death, a group of Bangwato, especially those in Serowe, the tribal capital, lobbied hard for the date of birth (July 1) to be declared a national holiday. Masire’s successor, Festus Mogae, granted this wish in 2006 but something interesting happened after this declaration. The commemorative event has always been held at the Serowe kgotla and nowhere else. However, that changed last year when a national event for Sir Seretse’s centenary was cobbled together to basically compete with the Serowe event.
The Office of the President issued instructions for preparatory work a few days before the July 1 event. While the event that would be held on the Parliament grounds in Gaborone was billed as “national”, it was in fact a face-saving, public relations gimmick. National events are planned and budgeted for well in time and also have a national character. Good sources at Mass Media Complex (the headquarters of state media in Gaborone) told us that the event was not budgeted for in the 2021/22 financial year, meaning that it could not be accorded special coverage.
Desirous of laying on a spectacle befitting a president and kgosi, the Serowe-based Sir Seretse Khama Day Commemoration Association presented an indicative budget of P500 000-plus to OP – which would host a rival event. However, no response came until a few weeks before the July 1 event when the Association was offered only P23 000 – which was only 4.6 percent of the amount that it had sought in the first place.
The same thing is happening this year and from the look of things, OP might end up commandeering the event such that it is celebrated in Gaborone only and not Serowe.
Ahead of the Friday holiday, the OP announced that “the Government and the nation” will be commemorating the July 1 event on the Parliament grounds under the theme “Sir Seretse Khama: A Visionary and a Democrat.” As an indication of the prestige that the government has bestowed on this ceremony, heads of all three arms of government attended this event, which was headlined by President Masisi. Also in attendance were Vice President Slumber Tsogwane, former president Festus Mogae, Chief Justice Terrence Rannowane, cabinet ministers, Members of Parliament, senior government officials and diplomatic missions.
Missing on that list was one very important name: that of former president and first-born son of Sir Seretse, General Ian Khama. While he may not have been so declared, Gen Khama is actually a fugitive from the law because he skipped the country when the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security was about to arrest him for failure to comply with an order to hand over “weapons of war” in his possession. He is now staying in South Africa and was recently joined by his younger twin brothers, Tshekedi and Anthony and members of their respective families. The latter happened after the brothers, and Tshekedi’s wife, Thea, were taken in for questioning and spent a night in custody at a DISS facility on the outskirts of Gaborone.
The Khama brothers find themselves in this position because Gen Khama epically fell out with Masisi, his successor and former Vice President. As part of the ceaseless battle between the two men that has been raging since April 2018, Khama’s supporters in Serowe have been barred from using the kgotla. While tribal property, the latter is maintained by the government and for that reason, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development feels that it has the final say on use of the kgotla.
The commemoration of the Sir Seretse Khama Day has always taken place at the kgotla and as late as Thursday afternoon, there were no firm plans for an event that has been commemorated at that place since 2006. An elderly Mongwato man who has been part of the organising team for more than a decade now, says that organisers fear that they may be arrested if they hold a commemorative event at the kgotla.
“We no longer know what we can and can’t do at the kgotla,” he says, adding that it has become clear that DISS informers are watching the kgotla like hawks in the sky and passing intelligence reports to their handlers. “It’s clear that the government’s ultimate plan is to move the event to Gaborone and sabotage one that we have always held at our kgotla here in Serowe.”
At press time, which came before the event, there were tentative plans to hold a very short prayer service at the kgotla by a small group on Friday morning. Thereafter, this group was to walk up to the summit of the hill, where the royal cemetery is, and lay a wreath at Sir Seretse’s grave. The kgotla is at the foot of the hill.
It could well be that OP’s uncharacteristic and evidently opportunistic involvement in this year’s commemorative event is to prevent a situation where the Sir Seretse Khama Day is not commemorated at all. That would be an own goal that Masisi can least afford when elections are two years away and when he hopes to win back Serowe constituencies, which were all won by Khama’s party (Botswana Patriotic Front) in 2019.