Monday, January 17, 2022

Phandu Skelemani: how a once promising nationalist lost his way into no man’s land

For the last few years veteran politician Gilson Saleshando has been fighting a one-man war for the rights of minorities. Ordinarily, Saleshando would have expected at the very least, some kind of moral support from such established figures in cabinet like Phandu Skelemani who are themselves not just members of the minorities whose cause Saleshando is championing, but have in the past also forcefully fought for the same cause. It has not escaped out attention that for Saleshando no such support has been forthcoming. Instead of getting a helping hand from members of ethnic minorities in cabinet and backbenches across the divide, Saleshando has often been made to look like a political clown.

Even for a tireless fighter that he is, the feeling of a letdown must be devastating. Phandu Skelemani and to a lesser extent Mbiganyi Tibone have always predicated and staked their careers on the articulation of the rights of ethnic minorities ÔÇô especially their Kalanga tribe. And rightfully, they made no apologies about it. But not anymore! Exactly what has since changed is the question we all have to grapple with. I recently met a veteran of SPIL (Society for the Promotion of Ikalanga Language). He expressed heartfelt disappointment at how his sub-cultural organisation now feels terribly let down even abandoned by those people the organization for long held as its luminaries.

The name Skelemani kept dripping from his mouth. He did not say it in is so many words, but to the SPIL activist, the foreign minister is just one of the many erstwhile activists who have not only sold out, but have also kind of lost their souls. They are running with the hares and hunting with the wolves. Sleeping with the enemy is a more apt description. While Skelemani might be the glaring embodiment of the changed times in which we live the reality is much bigger than just one person.

People who only a few years ago had clear principles of conviction which they passionately and publicly espoused have all of a sudden recoiled into cocoons. Today all of such people have Ian Khama’s name as their only remaining cardinal point of reference. We must draw some solace from the fact that turning their backs on the principles they once held very close to their hearts has come at some cost to these individuals. And there is no shedding a tear for any of them. Many of them today have to contend with detachment and high levels of opprobrium as that meted on Skelemani when earlier this year he lost primary elections against a little known Billy Buti in Francistown East.

As is the case with the SPIL activist many people in Francistown East are no longer able to identify with Skelemani. They no longer know much less understand what the man stands for. They ask themselves how it can be that a man they used to call one of their own, who used to speak so potently and so passionately for them when doing so was such a clear high risk since he was a civil servant be so distant, be so detached, be o lame and be so timid today when as a politician he should at least in theory be having unrestricted leeway to articulate their concerns? And none of them can find answers to all these questions. The truth of it all is that Skelemani’s future is at Khama’s mercy. This is not the same Skelemani who as Attorney General took a sitting President to court and won. It certainly is not the same Skelemani who gave yet another president sleepless nights by holding steadfastly to his conviction that his membership of SPIL was non-negotiable.

Unlike Skelemani of those heroic days, today’s is neither assertive nor self conscious. To many SPIL members and minority group rights activists like Gilson Saleshando, Skelemani’s clear-cut case of crouching and kowtowing is humiliating enough. That might well be so. But the truth is that under Khama many of our erstwhile heroes especially in government but also in business have since become shadows of their former selves. It would be uncharitable and grossly unfair to say that Skelemani has turned his back against his people. All he has done has been to pretend neutrality. Unfortunately in politics neutrality begets no victories. Neutrality also is often perceived as a sign of weakness, which is why people in Francistown have opted to elect Billy Buti, a little known minnow with the hope that once in parliament he might just be better able to articulate their aspirations, their concerns and fears ÔÇô a task their one time hero has failed to do.

And that is not all. As the senior minister is now painfully learning that same neutrality has also not delivered any guarantees. Not only has it been humiliating and demeaning, it also has led him into no man’s land. As we speak the former self confident Attorney General is uncertain if he will be among the specially elected members of parliament after election. For a man of his immense pride and one time conviction; a man who had gotten used to determining his own path, Skelemani’s inevitable feeling of helpless made worse by this enforced detachment from own people must surely be emotionally draining.

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