Sunday, September 27, 2020

Our democracy has become a sorry spectacle

After 40 years of political independence – a little less than ten years from 2016 – there should be worry about the shape of democracy that should guide the country.

Nine general elections have not yielded a change of government. Each time it looked as if it would happen, the opposition devoured itself in abysmal inner turmoil.

Seretse Khama’s advocates laud him for building a united nation, undermining racism when it was the predominant ideology of governance in southern Africa and putting the country on a proper footing for a prosperous economic future.

He also connected the new Botswana to the international economic aid network when the country was counted among the ten poorest in the world.

In addition, Seretse is credited with spearheading the regional grouping of the Frontline States, later transformed to the Southern African Development Coordination Council, thereby earning respect from the leading voices of the decolonisation movement including Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. Their countries carried the major brunt of catering for the liberation movements.

Balancing the country’s national budget for the first time was one of the highlights of Seretse’s political administration. That launched the country’s international image of prudent economic management and attracted more development aid.

Ketumile Masire is praised for his management of the country when the anti-colonial guerilla struggles were at their height in the 1980’s.

He had to carry off the seemingly contradictory foreign policy of international support for the decolonisation of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa whilst pursuing a domestic policy that disallowed the launching of military attacks against the colonial regimes from Botswana.

He also had to manage a bourgeoning capitalist economy after Botswana discovered diamonds and a construction boom that raised the expectations of labour and every other sector of the country’s economy.

The country was fast shifting away from cattle and ploughing to a more vigorous capitalist-based cash economy.

He also discovered that more political and economic decisions were being made internationally rather than nationally where he was most comfortable.

Having been a victim of the rise of the opposition when he lost at the Kanye parliamentary election to Bathoen Gaseitsiwe in 1969, he had to manage the ruling Botswana Democratic Party as the Botswana National Front mounted a formidable challenge earning the status of ‘the alternative government’.
The BNF brought six members to parliament in 1984, only four years after Masire became president.

Ten years later, the BNF brought 13 members to parliament and registered an election poll that indicated that it was very close to taking government.

For the first time cracks appeared in the previously impervious wall of unity at the BDP. First, the upstart army general, Mompati Merafhe, took on the invincible veteran campaigner, Daniel Kwelagobe, shocking party traditionalists in the mould of Kebatlamang Morake who would have died to preserve the ‘Domkrag ya ga Seretse’ myth.
That set the precedent for Ponatshego Kedikilwe, overlooked by Masire in favour of Festus Mogae for the presidency, to want to challenge the newcomer and later, his partner in crime, Ian Khama, for the leadership of the BDP. He only managed chairmanship.

Kedikilwe is down, but not out. Especially that the BDP youth pursued Masire for his lack of the technical skills and knowledge of economy that was necessary for the age of ‘globalisation’ at the dawn of the 21st century.

Kedikilwe, except for his loss of favour with Masire, possesses almost every quality that Mogae had going into the presidency, perhaps with a less disguised sense of self and a generous gift for intellectual arrogance. Mogae, no less guilty of the offence, appears to have coped better at managing that personality trait.

Mogae was faced with the domestic challenges of AIDS, an unprecedented pandemic of corruption in the civil service and cabinet, the rise of ethnic consciousness and the public expectation that his academic equipment would stand him in good stead in the globalised economy of modern capitalism.

Far more than his predecessors, Mogae spends most of his time in foreign boardrooms and parliaments protecting Botswana diamonds against the movement against ‘blood diamonds’ and abuse of the indigenous peoples rights, particularly the Basarwa of the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve.
He is the key negotiator for economic assistance for development projects at home and the government’s chief tactician in the campaign to attract foreign investment.

Botswana’s democracy and prudent economic planning are now in doubt, locally and abroad, when seen against the high levels of poverty and the highest disparities in the distribution of wealth between rich and poor.

Land corruption is at its highest and it is supported by systematic stifling of the findings of the Boshoaeng, Lesetedi, Kgabo and Christie reports. The Directorate on Crime and Economic Corruption, the courts and the Land Tribunal have been reduced to mere vassals of the small clique of land rustlers who have dispossessed the state and average citizens of the land that is referred to as ‘Fatshe Leno la Rona’ in the national anthem.
The Land Tribunal settles land disputes without a public land audit and cabinet has thwarted parliamentary moves to force declaration of assets in elective offices.

The President has also been cartooned by journalists who depicted him as a dwarf next to his vice president, Ian Khama, who was recruited from the army to save the BDP from political demise in 1999 in the midst of bitter inner party bickering.
The virtues of his appointment of some women to critical posts have been questioned even as it has proved politically expedient.

Regardless, there is little on the horizon to signal a change of government, usually a good indicator of the state of health of democratic governance.
This despite the deteriorating condition of the largest majority of the population.

The most recent UNDP report indicates that a third of the country’s population lives on less that P12 or about US$3 a day despite a per capita income rocketing around the US$3 000 mark.

Government figures show a dramatic decrease in poverty from 47 percent of the country’s households to about 33 percent in less than ten years. This is more likely due to official tempering with the tools designed to measure poverty rather than any improvement on the ground in the quality of life of the Batswana.

Unemployment hovers in the region of one out of five people who should be working.
The parliamentary public accounts committee has reported official tempering with the national books of accounts to give the impression that public money was properly managed when in fact the contrary appeared to be true.

The country’s heads of state have been extremely successful in carrying off what is in essence a fake democracy. Performance has been steadily deteriorating in respect of democracy indicators such as: –
an independent judiciary and citizen access to justice regular free and fair elections a free and independent press equitable distribution of wealth
freedom from corruption recognition of minority rights
Seretse’s authority and legitimacy as a leader ÔÇô despite the public declarations of disdain for the backward institutions of feudal society ÔÇô came from his status as a ‘King of Kings’. It also came from his ability to manipulate the instruments of the feudal state ÔÇô the kgotla, the Setswana speaking plebeians and their Chiefs and elders ÔÇô for the political advantage of the Botswana Democratic Party which he formed with the assistance of the British colonialists.
This authority and legitimacy ÔÇô as if by some violent form of osmosis ÔÇô was thrust upon his trusted lieutenant and representative of the southern Tswana speakers, Ketumile Masire, who took over in 1980.
Parliament, the young civil service and the judiciary drew their authority from the general appreciation that they were an extension of King Seretse’s instruments of governance with the BDP serving as the central link between all of them.
It was the unstated rule that one could not be a cabinet minister, permanent secretary, or judge without unwavering allegiance to the BDP and Seretse.
The voters in the countryside, trapped in unprecedented levels of rural idiocy, happily surrendered their wisdom to the service of the returned King of Kings. They were unschooled, illiterate, and uninformed.
They had little access to the decision-making centers along the eastern railway line. For all practical purposes, they continued to live in Bechuanaland after the government moved to Botswana.
The novelty and boldness of the King who had married a white woman and brought her into the racist sea of southern Africa where apartheid was the order of the day stupefied them.
Botswana was shielded from direct oversight of the colonialists who were only too pleased that the country, in the absence of any pursuable economic prospects, would serve as a satellite post for their ideological interests in so called ‘cold war’ with the ‘communist’ Soviet Union.
In exchange for the country’s political obedience, Botswana would be permitted to exploit its status as a poor country to solicit plentiful grants and generous aid from the western industrialised countries and Scandinavia.
The revenues from the diamonds, cattle and taxes were used to further entrench the economic interests of the nascent indigenous bourgeoisie whilst the less certain revenues from foreign aid were directed at ‘rural development’.
The marriage between De Beers and the government at Debswana consummated the economic and political bond between the otherwise disparate local aspirant petty bourgeoisie and international monopoly capital. That relieved the international donor community of part of the burden of perpetual suckling of this otherwise burdensome parasite.
It was necessary for the donor countries to post only a few professional novices as expatriates to keep an eye on the books of accounts whilst they enjoyed the exotic climate of the subtropical jungles with their savage women and Bushmen.
This laissez faire environment at the country’s central administration, shielded by its political ties to the BDP, laid the seeds for a civil service that would soon grow to usurp political control and to cultivate and establish a network of corruption and gangsterism that has come to haunt the nation.
That is if it is still possible to disentangle the web of interconnections that has been woven over the years between the BDP, senior civil servants, chiefs and the army generals.
The soldiers hang on dearly to their connections at the army and do active business and mischief there.
There are few, if any, authentically independent people at parliament, cabinet, the civil service or the judiciary to uphold the principle of balance of powers. The administration is more akin to that of Ali Baba and the forty thieves.
The pretentious civil society is as connected to the ruling party as is the civil service. The largest portion of the media ÔÇô particularly the state owned press and a good section of the private – pays its allegiances to the establishment rather than to truthful news reporting and the public interest.
Former leader of the BNF and the opposition, Kenneth Koma, makes so much of his political advice and kinship ties to Seretse Khama that it is difficult not to consider that they were in cahoots in acting out the play of Botswana’s fake democracy.
A faithful army, as exemplified in the steady flow of senior officers into cabinet, completes the three-part legacy of Seretse that continues to feed the fa├ºade of Botswana’s democracy.
Seretse guaranteed his replication on the political landscape of Botswana by the appointment of his son, Ian Khama ÔÇô also Seretse – to the senior military rank of Brigadier at the age of 24. Ian Khama attachment to the military toys at the BDF has compelled President Mogae to defy the Ombudsman claiming Ian’s right to use army vehicles on demand.

Ian has grown to become the guardian angel of the BDP, retrieving the party from possible political demise at the ‘99 general election.

He is now rehearsing for the presidency which he will inherit on Mogae’s retirement, exempting him from standing for parliamentary election in 1999. Ian wields more power in the position of vice-president than any of his predecessors.

His ascendancy to the presidency will have brought the Khama legacy full circle if he should also be compelled to retire somewhere around 2017, having renewed and modernised the cultist methods that Seretse used to manipulate Botswana’s democracy.

The greater fear is that these cultist methods are likely to be accompanied by abusive use of the police and army, encroachment of the state intelligence establishments into the private lives of citizens, human and civil rights abuses and further machinations to cripple and undermine the non-government press.
The alternative will demand a shift from the moribund feudal institutions that lend legitimacy to the current system of governance.

The trade unions, student groups and other non-governmental community based groupings that are accessible to the average citizen will provide a popular base away from the elitist structures that supported the Seretse legacy.

The movement for an alternative form of governance will seek to dislodge the lower strata of the government bureaucracy, the despised ethnic groups, revolutionary intellectuals, professional associations, farm and domestic workers, the foot soldiers at the BDF and indentured labour from the electoral reserve of the elitist political parties.
Even as the Botswana Democratic Party has been the direct captive of the Seretse legacy, it will be evident that a good portion of the opposition parties are also organised along elitist lines and model their quest for political power on the example of the BDP.

These parties are squeamishly committed to pseudo social democratic programmes in their books but exhibit envy for the crude capitalism in their deliberations in parliament, at the freedom squares and in their lifestyles.

The parties envisage the parliamentary approach as the exclusive strategy for achievement of power and shy away from extra-parliamentary methods of achieving that end.

They thirst for the recognition that the BDP enjoys at De Beers and aspire to cultivate the same with the multinationals that dominate the ‘global’ economy.
The organisations are distrustful of the wisdom and good judgement of their members and the disenfranchised, preferring the scholarly advice of academics that are as vulnerable to vacillation on matters of principle as are petty thieves.

They are content with playing the cat and mouse game with the BDP at parliament, deceiving the disenfranchised majority into believing that they represent a real opposition, when in fact the ‘national assembly’ offers an easier salary for the leaders than the factory floor and the streets.
That makes the search for alternative governance that much more difficult. The opposition is not necessarily synonymous with ‘the other way’. Even more frighteningly, in its present form, the opposition could very well portend a more life-threatening path to the future.

The Kenyan, Zambian and Malawi examples offer little encouragement. Where there has been successful change of government, it has been accompanied by near irretrievable collapse of the economy and followed by mimicking of the management systems of the old regimes by the new.

A little light shines over Ghana and Liberia where the novelty of a woman president overshadows the more fundamental concerns with political and economic redemption of the larger population.

The moral crisis sparked by Vice President Zuma’s cash deals and sexual enterprises and the snail pace democratisation of the economy in the new South Africa has done very little to shake the hold of the African National Congress on political power.

So, even in Botswana, it will take some serious soul searching and a willingness to challenge the set frontiers to find a president of the people and a political party that will pay proper attention to the upliftment of the disenfranchised majority.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

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