Thursday, June 13, 2024

Peter Olsen dies at 75; an HR sage and an elegant journalist

When Peter J. Olsen arrived in the then Bechuanaland in 1963 from England, at only 18 nothing could have prepared him for a roller-coaster of life ahead of him.

He died last week – according to his son, Shike, of bladder cancer. He was 75.

Olsen arrived as part of the then British Overseas Volunteer team. The team that included several young Britons that went on to play bigger roles in the development of Botswana, as Bechuanaland was to be called post-independence.

Peter Olsen was self-conscious.

He was exceedingly knowledgeable in many subjects.

He was an elegant writer and a good journalist.

And by the end of his life, an accomplished businessman too.

Having done his apprenticeship in Fleet street – one of the best journalism addresses in the world, he hated mediocrity in journalism. And in the newsroom was forever on the back of journalists who he felt were not pulling their weight.

Speaker after speaker at the memorial service talked of what a maverick and independent streak Peter Olsen was. That was true, but not the whole truth.

Peter Olsen was much more. A speaker that came closest to giving an unvarnished account of how Olsen lived his life was Botsile Gubago – an engineer with whom he had worked closely.

Gubago said Olsen was openly rude. And he was right.

Gubago also correctly observed that Peter Olsen had a rebellious streak.

And went out of his way to annoy people.

Olsen could be both sarcastic and also provocative.

Some people often felt belittled by his musings; he did not care.

And as yet another speaker said at the memorial service, Olsen was a consummate professional.

He was well aware of his abilities and his success. So much aware that he felt he needed no self-validation.

He was a workaholic and a merciless taskmaster.

But perhaps most crucially, Olsen never took any prisoners.

He spoke out his mind. And was least bothered what the other person would think.

Early in my career he imbued me with a spirit never to hold government officials with any reverence.

Citizens, he said should forever work at reducing the power of their government.

If that could happen, government would become irrelevant in people’s lives.

It was a dream he pursued with vigour.

He never understood exactly why Batswana held politicians with such awe.

The media, he said was a natural component of democracy. And it was the job of the media to get under the skin of those in power.

Mr Olsen was the opposite of humility.

And he could be condescending too.

But it was also clear that he cherished friendships. He talked a lot about Phillip Steenkamp, a long time Permanent Secretary to the President under both Seretse Khama and Quett Masire. Over time I also learnt that he had a soft spot for Lebang Mpotokwane, another permanent secretary from the early years of the republic.

Louis Nchindo, the famous now late Debswana Managing Director was a constant presence at Botswana Gazette, especially on Sunday mornings. He liked and respected Peter Olsen. But the respect was hardly mutual.

One Sunday morning Nchindo arrived to find Olsen and I huddled around a computer editing an article.

Olsen advised Nchindo to wait for him at the Tsa Badiri office. When Nchindo was gone, Mr Olsen whispered with his trademark laughter, “you know Louis is here for gossip,” and we both burst into laughter.

It is clear that early in his life he wanted to get the best out of his talents.

And he worked hard at it and managed to do just that.

He started his career in Botswana as a journalist working for government owned Daily News. But he later on moved to labour related matters where he really made his mark.

He was for a long time easily the country’s foremost Human Resource expert.

He groomed and mentored many young people in the field.

For HR executives in the private and parastatal sectors, his office was like a shrine – a must visit place.

Tsa Badiri Consultancy that he started and managed, often as a one-man show was like a pilgrimage.

They came to get advice, to issue briefs and to compare notes.

Yet for trade unions and workers he was perceived as a hatchet man whose consultancies often recommended job-cuts, right-sizing and even salary cuts.

A big job that he carried out for Botswana Government caused a storm as relations between unions and government soured and deteriorated into near violence.

A report by Botswana Guardian at the time alleged that Olsen and his Tsa Badiri Consultancy had walked away with a hefty fee running into multiple millions.

He was peeved. He demanded an apology which he got saying the story opened him to attacks from hooligans who would think he was carrying millions in his pocket.

Another big job at the University of Botswana also ended up in acrimony as lecturers and professors went on strike action opposing the Tsa Badiri Consultancy recommendations.

Olsen was not cowed.

“Too many of those guys at UB cannot even spell the word ‘professor’” he said to me at the time.

He clearly enjoyed gossip, was strong-willed and never attempted to hide his contempt.

At Gazette he seldom made pontifications. His rebukes were few and far between. Mrs Olsen always made it clear that he was the non-executive chairman of the board. But when he did, he went all the way, such as when the salles team struggled to meet targets. Or when reporters continually failed to meet his very high journalism standards and expectations.

I first came into contact with Mr Olsen after I graduated from the university in the 1990s.

The then news editor of Botswana Gazette had given me a heads up that they were looking for a few reporters.

I called the office of Managing Editor, Ms Clara Olsen and an interview was arranged.

Across the table was a woman who introduced herself as Mrs Olsen and a man who introduced himself as Mr Olsen.

Mr Olsen was clearly the lead guy in the panel of two.

He talked rapidly. And with clear authority. He was worried by what he called laziness among “today’s” journalists.

The impressions stayed with me. At the end of the interview that lasted just about 30 minutes, I was instructed to come back in the afternoon.

In the afternoon Mrs Olsen was now sitting alone across her desk.

“Congratulations. We have decided to hire you. This will make you the fastest person to be employed by Gazette. And like you heard from the company chairman we expect hard work.”

I did not know what to make of the whole thing. I was both excited and also anxious.

Less than a month later Mrs Olsen left for a holiday in the United States.

That has remained the most enjoyable and memorable moment of my entire journalism career.

It was also during that time that I received the best journalism training of my entire career.

His immense abilities as a writer and journalist became clear to many of us the cub reporters who worked directly under his supervision.

He knew how to turn a badly written story into a masterpiece.

And he did that with amazing ease.

All he needed were the raw details and a few quotations.

He was a fast thinker and also fast writer.

Where with Ms Olsen we could spend hours and hours to finish the paper, with Peter Olsen a fraction of that was sufficient to take the whole thing to bed.

Without even disclosing it, it was clear from conversations we had that he had deeply held views against the Germans and also the Palestinians.

Years later I learnt almost by chance that Peter Olsen was Jewish. But we never talked about it.

At his memorial service last week, his Jewish heritage was celebrated.

His parents had fled the Nazi Germany in the 1930 and ultimately settled in England where they also changed their family name to disguise their true identities.

It was this history of persecution that remained deeply etched inside Olsen’s psyche.

His wife, friend and business partner Ms Olsen had pre-deceased him.

He is survived by his sister Barbara and three adult children; Douglas, Shike and Dudu.

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