With the party trading a lonely path after falling out with partners to the opposition umbrella, Botswana Congress Party (BCP) followers descended to this year’s congress with a resolve to raise a steady hand that will guide the party’s fortunes into the coming general elections. Party big guns jockeyed for the crucial position of chairperson and well wishers resigned themselves to the hackneyed phrase: May the best man win.
There was however a slight problem. The best man was a woman. Motsei-Madisa Rapelana made history by becoming the first woman to lead a political party in Botswana. She snatched the BCP chair by beating party stalwart and political veteran James Olesitse in a very tight contest.
Madisa-Rapelana, a UB administrator and one time history teacher did not rise to the BCP top post on the coat tails of affirmative action or political correctness, far from it. With a political history that spans more than three decades, she is not exactly a lightweight. She was down in the trenches ducking the South African Apartheid regimes bombs as an African National Congress activist in the 1980. Barely out of the fox holes, she dusted off the dust but kept her black gold and green tunic to continue the fight for human rights under the Botswana National Front (BNF) banner. That was until 1998 when BNF activists traded war threats and threw chairs at a bruising congress in Mahalapye. Motsei-Rapelana emerged from the dust up in the colours of the breakaway Botswana Congress Party, where she became Secretary General for the 15 years that saw the party grow from a bunch of disgruntled BNF members to the country’s leading opposition party. Her election to BCP chair did not exactly come as a shock to those who have been following her colourful political career.
PHD graduate in African Diaspora Studies (UC Berkeley) and gender activist, Dr. Maude Dikobe who also teaches courses in gender and feminist literary theories at the UB, says of her colleague, “Rapelana is not a newcomer to politics. Her win is a sign of determination and commitment to politics. She has even incurred some loses before on behalf of her party (BCP) but she did not give up.” Dr. Dikobe who is also the Chairperson of the Gender Policy Programme Committee which spearheaded the establishment of the ‘Centre for Gender Research’ at the UB is referring to Rapelana’s loss when she contested in the 2009 elections for the Gaborone North constituency, the race was won by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) MP Keletso Rakhudu.
In Botswana, the freedom square and the corporate boardroom are a male domain, and Rapelana is one of few women who have been able to break through the “glass ceiling.”
An article from Fortune is quoted on CNN (online) revealing that, “The country with the most women in high places? China. Over half of corporate leaders in China are women. Estonia (40%), Vietnam (33%), and Botswana (32%) rank in the top 10.” The reason given is that emerging market economies ‘have more opportunities to hire women since they are growing’. Quoted from the Fortune article, explaining this corporate trend is Erica O’Malley a partner at Grant Thornton LLP (Chicago, US), “If you look at more traditional-valued countries who you think would struggle with putting women in leadership rules, they’re also the growth countries, so they’re creating new jobs.”
‘As these nations are developing their business cultures, women are entering the workforce in high places from the get-go’. As further clarified on the Fortune article, “When countries with traditional gender norms implement government mandates or top-down rules about gender equity in business, they tend to take hold.” Back to the issue of political representation, or cabinet and parliament positions for women, on AfricaFiles.org it reads that, ‘Gender representation in Botswana is the lowest in the region dropping from 11 percent before the 2009 elections to only 6.5 percent. ‘ In her article published in 2011 titled ‘The SADC Gender Protocol; Are the 2015 Objectives Achievable?’ Human and Economic Development Consultant and Researcher, Takura Chamuka (at the time based in JHB, SA) further shows that ‘South Africa has the highest proportionate representation of women in parliament at 45 percent, Mozambique is second at 39.2 percent, Angola comes third at 36.6 percent and Tanzania is fourth at 36 percent’. In comparison Botswana’s numbers reflect critically low at 6.5 percent.
Dr. Dikobe explains that these small percentages reflect not only the SADC region or African states but the entire world. “Globally because of patriarchy women have to work twice as hard as men in order to penetrate the political arena if they are to win political elections,” she further adds that the significance and lesson from Rapelana’s win locally is that, “Vigorous campaigns are needed and are essential in bringing women into politics if we are to have more women in political positions both in the ruling party and the opposition.”Dr. Dikobe adds that as a result, “Rapelana will have to work hard and draw from lessons in the region such as Mozambique, South Africa, Mauritius, Namibia and Zimbabwe in order to beef up her strategy to focus on inclusion of women in politics and especially those in her party.”
Rapelana recalls only two other women in local politics; her Excellency Tebelelo Seretse the Ambassador of Botswana to the United States (also the first woman to be appointed to the US) and lately her honour the Minister of Education, Skills and Development, Pelonomi Venson-Motoi, both high standing members of the BDP, as having come close to attaining the top party seat. “Seretse and Venson-Motoi may have failed to win but it was because of them that I gained confidence to stand. They gave me confidence,” shares Rapelana. Just like Seretse and Venson-Motoi who served as catalysts for Rapelana, Dr, Dikobe believes Rapelana’s win will also encourage other women to enter the realm of politics.
“She serves as an inspiration to women who have been hesitant to throw themselves in the muddy waters of politics which some women have been socialised to view as a male preserve.” Social expectations and cultural norms including ‘sayings’ can contribute to the reluctance of women to enter politics further adds Dr. Dikobe, “Ga nke di etelelwa ke manamagadi pele.” One of the off-key comments the gender activist hears often is that, “Re batla mosadi yo o nang le bokgoni (we want a capable woman). The same idea is not applied to male politicians; does this mean all men are capable by virtue of being men?”
Apart from socialization the newly elected BCP chairperson says one of the factors that could be deterring women to enter politics is the unstable nature of the terrain. “Educated, articulate women don’t find politics stable. What do you do after you lose an election? Instead women use politics as a retirement home.” Another factor she notices prevents women from entering politics is that they are financially unsecure and unstable. “As BCP we advocate for party funding to give critical masses who want to stand for elections like women. If you ease their financial burden you will bring them closer to politics. Am not saying men shouldn’t receive funding too only emphasizing that women are financially vulnerable as compared to men.”
Rapelana who is married with one son and one adopted daughter says the thin line between one’s social and public life becomes blurred in politics which she suspects is another hindrance to women entering the field. “The mud-slinging that goes on can get terrible. Name calling. When you are married your husband may wonder if you will also not get slung with mud at the political rallies,” chuckles Rapelana. Luckily for her her hubby, Mr. Rapelana always knew what he was getting himself into and that she can stand her own ground when faced with her political opponents. “I started out quite early in politics. It’s all about how you handle yourself. Whatever you do never stand for elections without consulting your family first; they must agree understanding fully the impact of what you will be doing to them and their lives; financially, socially and otherwise.”
Another history making woman is Dr. Margaret Nnananyana Nasha, the current Speaker of the National Assembly of Botswana (Parliament of Botswana). She was the first ever female to be elected into this position (October 2009) and she represents the ruling BDP. In congratulating her colleague Dr. Nasha says, “Anytime a woman moves up the ladder of politics it is a time of celebration for me. I think that is quite a landmark achievement. In politics women should tighten their belts. We need to be serious about what we want in politics. It’s not easy that achievement for Rapelana; for her to be elected by congress is something commendable. I am happy for her. I hope she does not consider that to be the end. There is a long road to be travelled. Good luck to her!”
Information from the web reveals that a platform called ‘The Botswana Caucus for Women’ was established, “To enable women from all political parties to converge and support each other in their attempts to make their mark in a male-dominated field,” and Dr. Nasha was quoted explaining that, “The Botswana Caucus for Women in Politics has failed to realise the objectives it was intended for, but we will not give up on it just yet.” Was this win just a political strategy on the part of the BCP? Rapelana responds unwavering, “The message that I got clearly was that we need to move you from this position because you have delivered and we believe you can. I was ready and the party was ready.” Rapelana agrees that affirmative action also helped.
“Affirmative action has always been there in the BCP. A minimum 30 percent representation of women which was benchmarked against SADC until SADC shifted the post to 50 percent of women in decision making positions. No one doubts that I can deliver.” Dr. Dikobe also supports the notion of affirmative action, “I don’t think men and women have a level playing ground that is why maybe we need affirmative action to bring more women into politics.” As the nation heads towards the 2014 general elections Rapelana says her party already has a strategic plan with specific targets however all the planning can easily be derailed by a lack of discipline.
She has observed that during the political peak seasons the most common trait that crops up is the conflict between party members. These internal wrangles, particularly during the primary elections need to be dealt with so they do not take the focus away from the elections. Rapelana says every leader is faced with such challenges and must face them head on as they have the potential to cripple the party. “Eradicate conflicts immediately. If left to fester they can paralyze the campaign. A whole constituency can be lost as a result.”
Rapelana says in politics there are no permanent enemies because every vote counts and strength is in numbers. “Much as I wanted to be MP and didn’t win. The focus is now the 2014 elections. I must win the elections. I also want to be a chairperson at parliament. I will work very hard, double what I did in the previous election. I have to win and be in the next parliament, that’s why I’m here.”