Thursday, April 2, 2020

Rejoinder to Mino Polelo: a beneficiary of the welfare state!

Last week in The Sunday Standard, Mmino Polelo launched a diatribe against me for my reflections on the threat to the welfare state posed by a new narrative (Mmegi Monitor: 28/05/06).

But before I get to the core of the matter, I consider it necessary to record my dismay at the tone of language used by the author to challenge my viewpoint. As I was going through the article there was a sense of dejavu in me because it was littered with the intemperate and abusive language which has become the stock in trade for a certain section of our commentators. It would appear some of them are unable to articulate their views without resorting to name calling and innuendo.

Whether this tendency is symptomatic of our intellectual immaturity as a society is a question that shall answer itself in the fullness of time.

All too often when certain individuals ought to engage in public discourse that benefits the reader, and even enrich the perspective of others, they opt to sink to the level of the gutter. This is a disturbing trait which does not promote free thinking debate. In fact, commentators with a marked proclivity to this style tend to come from opposition ranks. Admittedly, there are notable exceptions, but Mino Polelo is not one of them. At one time, the target of their intellectual terrorism were voices that spoke in favour of the BDP. But as we have come to learn, this culture became so insidious that when the opposition experienced division within its ranks, insults and vitriol assumed the metaphor of their engagement with one another. They were simply behaving true to form.

Today we survey the ruins of the aftermath of the internecine feuding of the opposition parties. A factor not often acknowledged explaining this sorry state is the use of toxic language by the rival camps to contest their rivalry. The use of demeaning language against BDP activists may have served some purpose in the past. However, when evaluated against the background that similar discourse is now readily available ammunition in inter opposition conflicts, the adage that every revolution consumes its own children could not be more apt. The choice language used by the likes of Mino Polelo towards their comrades is the oxygen that fuelled the state of crisis engulfing the BNF. In my intermittent forays into public debate, I have striven to exercise d├®corum and to handle with equanimity, views I disagree with. As Mahatma Ghandi would say “courtesy is one of the basic principles of a debate.” It’s an ethic I have tried to maintain. I do so because I am mindful that society, especially a polity that exists in a democratic dispensation can only be enriched by public debate. Democracies and their systems of governance are never perfect.

Needless to say, every one of us wants their vision of perfection to be achieved in their lifetime. It is never possible; hence we plant the seeds of our vision through debate. Any inclination to subvert this ideal through intolerance is regrettable. But coming back to the substantive issue, I must state that the basis of Mino Polelo’s article is simply inaccurate and grossly distorts my position on cost sharing. I am accused of being a turncoat because, though I claim to support the welfare state, I have in the past sought to undermine it. The author quotes me as having once written that ‘ the honeymoon is over and each and every citizen must lift themselves by their bootstraps and get on with the business of self sustenance rather than depend on the state’. Unfortunately, Mino Polelo unfairly chooses to give the wrong context to my remarks. Let me place the matter in its proper perspective. In October 2005, I was invited to officiate at a prize giving ceremony for Marulamantsi CJSS in Gaborone. The event coincided with the announcement by government that cost sharing would be introduced to cover education expenditure. As a result, my speech focused on the new policy and its impact on enrolment levels. I ventured that cost sharing might negatively impact on our ability as a country to provide the quantity and quality of education Batswana have enjoyed since the advent of free education. I backed up my reservations with statistical illustration showing that in 1987 the entire Form One enrolment stood at 12 904. With the introduction of free education the following year, there was a surge in Form One enrolment to 16 719.

At primary school level fees were abolished in 1980 and the following year, intake rose by 16 percent from 27 550 to 32 065. I attributed this development to the welfare state. I also cited Kenya for a broader correlation between school fees and enrolment figures. In that country, the gross enrolment at primary school was 5.8 million learners. With free primary education in 2003, enrolment rose by 1.2 million to 7 million learners. In the same speech, I stated that ‘it is my wish that as a nation we can find additional resources to maintain the programme of free education’. With reference to the part of my speech quoted by Mino Polelo I said, ‘ …the introduction of cost sharing will constitute the most profound rollback of the welfare state in its relatively short life in the history of our country’. This, to me at least, was a lament for seeming erosion of the welfare state. I ended my speech by indicating that because cost sharing was now policy, guardians had to respond to the reality and ensure that their children were educated. That could only happen if parents, and indeed pupils, lifted themselves by their bootstraps.

My message was that I would have loved this country to continue with free education, but cost sharing was now a policy on account of the reasons advanced by the government. For that reason my duty as a public representative, and member of the government, at an official function was to urge parents to respond to the new challenge. I am not an anarchist. I could not tell parents to take to the streets and refuse to pay their 5 percent contribution. (Had I done that in Mino Polelo’s books I am sure I would qualify as a person of principle). But that, I am afraid, is a function of oppositional protest politics. If, as Mino Polelo avers, my remarks were meant to please my masters by marketing the policy of cost sharing then I can only apologise to them for having made a sloppy job of it. Critically still, in urging parents to make a contribution, I was mindful that cost sharing does not disqualify Botswana as a welfare state.

This, considering that we still provide free primary schooling and subsidize secondary education to the tune of 95 percent. Few countries in the developing world (except Mauritius, which introduced free secondary education in 1977 and free tertiary education in 1988) come close to our benchmarks even when we factor in cost sharing. I have been consistent in speaking for the welfare state. Subsequent to the Marulamantsi address, in October 2006, I spoke at Phatsimo CJSS in Selibe Phikwe, on the same theme and encouraged parents not to despair and try their best to raise the 5 percent contribution. Again, in a studio discussion on Gabz FM sometime this year, I spoke about the importance of retaining the welfare state. During the budget debate in March this year, I devoted my entire submission to the welfare state and its virtues. I attributed the longevity of the BDP in power to its welfarist polices. I even made a direct appeal to the Minister for Finance and Development Planning to be vigilant and ensure that government does not further erode the welfare state because such a move would cost the party dearly.

Subsequent to the parliamentary debate, writing in The Sunday Standard (11-17 March 2007) in a two part series titled ‘Manuel and Gaolathe’s budget; whose is bigger’ Dr Oupa Tsheko concurred that, indeed, Botswana runs a welfare state. I take the liberty to quote him, ‘if one puts the per capita cost of all the social safety nets that the government of Botswana has been operating for years, plus the ‘social wage’ such as free education, free health services, free ARV drugs, free water, subsidized electricity, housing (SHAA and telecommunication utilities then Botswana tops South Africa as sub Saharan Africa’s leading welfare state.

Mr Botsalo Ntuane was right on this’. Therefore, my article in Mmegi Monitor, titled ‘New narrative threatens Masire’s welfare state’ is consonant with my widely known contention that the welfare state is a force for the public good. My motive for speaking so often about the welfare state is because of my concern that it could be under threat due to various dynamics – some external. The Bank of Botswana economic briefing of last month is a case in point. With this backdrop in mind, just how my posture meant to please my masters can only be deciphered by Mr Polelo. On the inverse, if my sentiments please my masters so much so that they retain the welfare state, then my job would be done. In challenging the new narrative against the welfare state, I am simply saying to my government: let us, where possible, not dispense with other aspects of this effective instrument of social justice. If, to the author, this denotes a lack of principle then I plead guilty as charged. The ultimate irony is that Mino Polelo and other politicians in the trenches against cost sharing never gave this government any credit when it introduced the welfare package that included free education. They chose to be silent and enjoy the benefits. One wonders why, if they remained silent when free education was introduced, they don’t maintain similar silence with cost sharing. Your guess is as good as mine. In the same article, Mino Polelo accuses some BDP legislators of not being informed by principle when they dissent against certain actions of the Executive. The author’s accusation must be seen in a certain context. He is aggrieved because following the demise of the opposition, some BDP legislators are perceived as independent thereby occupying political space that should be the preserve of the opposition. Grief stricken, he proceeds to question their credentials. In other words the author sees them as trespassers. In dealing with this matter, it would be useful for Mino Polelo to note that the representatives he names did not confer such a status on themselves. To my knowledge, we don’t even consider them independent. If anything, issue must be taken with those responsible for conferring that status.

If public approval for the work done by the ‘so called independent’ legislators is anything to go by then they must be doing something right. If Mino Polelo imputes dishonourable motives to their legislative work, well, too bad. By the same token, I am sure the legislators in question can live without his validation. Mino Polelo ought to know that in a parliamentary democracy, it is normal for constructive disagreements between a ruling party backbench and its Executive. The backbench does so in response to personal conscience and lobbying by voters and organs of civil society. For example, when some of us opposed the Security and Intelligence Bill in its current format, it was partly in response to our engagements with civil society organisations who were more informed about its intricacies than many legislators. It is trite for Mino Polelo to suggest the only time BDP legislators question the Executive is in the prosecution of internal party wars.

Certainly, when the party is not at peace the tempo does rise. But for the past 42 years, bills have been passed, amended and rejected in parliament by a dominant BDP backbench in response to personal conscience and the views of voters. His argument, therefore, does not hold. Perhaps for Mino Polelo the measure of principle would be for BDP legislators to pass, amend and reject only those Bills in which he has an interest. Unfortunately, legislative business does not operate that way. One can only conclude that in as far as Mino Polelo is concerned, not a single BDP backbencher ever acts out of principle and conviction. Really?

There is simply no response to such logic. And for the record, it must be stated that Duke Lefhoko has never wavered on his position that the Zimbabwe presidential elections of 2002 were not free and fair. Neither have PHK Kedikilwe and Keletso Rakhudu on the Intelligence and Air Botswana Privatisation Bills, respectively.

Unless the author is possessed of omniscience, he has absolutely no grounds to say the legislators are not motivated by principle. For that reason, Mino Polelo’s attack on their integrity is based on false premises. Still on the issue of the welfare state, again, I detect a whiff of indignation from the author that says ‘who are they to lay claim to running a welfare state?’ The offence I caused Mino Polelo is not too difficult to figure out. It is because I have credited the BDP government with a concept that tends to be associated with leftist thinking. I am being pilloried for trespassing. I did not originate welfarism but I certainly know what constitutes a welfare state. In my analysis, Botswana’s social policies and programmes form the framework of a welfare state. It cannot be a perfect welfare state because of resource constraints.

After all, even long avowed welfare states are not perfect. In that respect, Mino Polelo’s treatise is just ornamental. It is the usual, shrill rhetoric of privileged Marxists who rail against the ‘neo liberal agenda’ and yet continue to enjoy its quality education and other comforts. It is no use for him to dismiss my definition without stating in practical terms the form his welfare state will take. To me a welfare state means free universal health care. It means life saving ARV drugs. It means a nutritious feeding scheme for school children. It means thousands of students spread across 22 countries, including Mino Polelo as one of 294 in Australia.

It means free potable water for communities in the rural areas. It means public works schemes in both the rural and urban centres to enable the poor to earn a small wage. It means loans and grants for commerce. It means extensive physical infrastructure. It means the reduction of poverty levels from 59 percent in 1985/6 to 37.7 percent in 2002, and a projection of 23 percent by 2007. Of 17 countries in Southern and Eastern Africa, only Botswana is projected to halve poverty and hunger by 2015 in line with the Millennium Development Goals. The list is not exhaustive. To what does Mino Polelo attribute these achievements? He writes ‘in a peripheral state like Botswana the introduction of schemes like FAP,ARAP, SLOCA, free health and education were part of a distribution of a social wage through which the state legitimises itself…’ To me, the state cannot legitimise itself through force or divine intervention.

A democratic state legitimises itself through elections and a deliverable national development agenda. In this regard, the Botswana state has legitimised itself through its welfarist policies. At the end of Mino Polelo’s article I am none the wiser. Instead of creating the illusion that he has a better alternative, I am curious for the author to indicate what other components, besides ‘unemployment security’ would constitute his welfare state, over and above what the government currently provides. Put differently other than the programmes and policies currently on offer to Batswana, how will Mino Polelo’s state legitimise itself? To me the stimulus of the welfare state is human investment and ethical considerations. If as a government your people are poor and uneducated, you ask yourself how they can be helped within the limit of the resources at our disposal. I am yet to comprehend how giving citizens free education is meant to integrate the population into capitalist ideology, balance demands of the subordinate classes and other social groups with the need to facilitate private accumulation (whatever that means). Hence Mino Polelo cannot give the name of a single country on the continent which can match our array of programmes. (For contrast, the African National Congress policy conference is this week debating whether to provide free education at primary school level. Repeat: primary school level). For a country which, at independence, was rated one of the three poorest in the world, we have made progress. No matter the level of denialism by even the beneficiaries, our policies have had a measurable impact on Batswana. We have brought a qualitative difference to the lives of the vast majority of our citizens. That said, I accept we still have daunting socio-economic challenges to address.

But on the basis of what I have just enumerated, I reiterate my contention that we are Africa’s first welfare state. And its embodiment is Mino Polelo studying in Australia. It is this tradition, whose principal architect is Ketumile Masire, which I speak in defence of. And without any need for the author’s certification. In conclusion Mino Polelo reserves the right to dispute Botswana’s welfare state model.

But until he gives us a convincing alternative to this country’s developmental model, we will keep referring to its policies of redistribution and resource sharing as a welfare state.

*Botsalo Ntuane is a Specially Elected Member of Parliament and former Executive Secretary of the ruling BDP