Thursday, July 16, 2020

Schlemmer breaks his silence

In November 1997, President Ketumile Masire took his position in parliament’s State chair to deliver the annual state of the nation address ÔÇô as he had done since 1980. At the end of the prepared text, he reached into one of his jacket’s pockets to fish for another speech ÔÇô this time much shorter ÔÇô in which he would announce his imminent retirement from office the following March.

The political air had been thick with speculation ever since the ruling party acceded to sweeping constitutional reforms that included setting a limit to presidential terms, lowering the voting age, extending suffrage to citizens outside the country, and establishment of an independent body to supervise the country’s elections. In the midst of the speculation and expectation, what was unknown was that the ruling party had been in a soul-searching exercise. The man who led the behind-the-scenes exercise had also been searching the soul of the voter. The verdict was that the party needed a fresh look: bring in new and youthful blood, create space fore more women, and jerk up service delivery. Masire was the biggest casualty of the independent study’s recommendations. Its biggest beneficiaries were two men who, a few years earlier, could never have been imagined as the country’s chief stewards.

Masire’s successor, Festus Mogae, was known as a technocrat without political clout ÔÇô and certainly no constituency in the party. A constitutional amendment that guaranteed automatic succession by the Vice President became his ticket to the presidency.

Inheriting a party and government wrought with incessant infighting, Mogae looked outside for a number two ÔÇô as per the doctor’s orders. In came Ian Khama, the former army commander, who is set to succeed Mogae in about seven months.
Since then, Lawrence Schlemmer, the South African consultant and researcher, who led the study, has been back once ÔÇô prior to the last general elections ÔÇô to gauge the voter’s pulse once again, and decide where to place the BDP.

For a man who has had such profound impact in Botswana politics, Schlemmer has surprisingly avoided media contact. I first requested to interview him in 2005. He politely refused, citing the work he was still doing for the BDP at the time.
We finally sat for a face-to-face in a coffee shop in Cape Town’s up market shopping centre, Canal Walk, last week.

Dr Lawrence Schlemmer is vice president of the think-tank South African Institute of Race Relations, and director of the research organisation, MarkData. He also does consultancy work and impact assessment for a host of other organisations.

I am interested in finding out how he came to do the work he is known for in Botswana.
“It was probably from the interaction that government has with fairly large capitalist enterprises such as De Beers, Anglo-American and the businessman ÔÇô what’s his name?”

He searches for the name in his mind’s bank.
From the description, I mention the usual suspect ÔÇô to which he snaps his fingers, exclaiming simultaneously, “Yes, that’s him. These guys operate across different countries. The interaction between industrialists and politicians caused the politicians to realise that they needed to relook themselves again. The interaction…gave (the politicians) the sense that ‘you needed to be on top of the game.”

From the work that he has done in other countries in the sub-continent, he has found out that one of the characteristics of ruling parties is that, over time, they become complacent, and lose their competitive edge. Leaders of such parties usually delude themselves, thinking that their supporters are still with them, while the reality points the opposite way. He credits BDP for acute self-awareness for having the mind to rethink itself in order to maintain a competitive edge.
Having conducted research in a number of countries and watched their political systems, Schlemmer talks with enthusiasm about the maturing character of the voter in each of these countries.

“I’m becoming increasingly impressed by African voters because they seem to have learnt a lot over the past decade,” he says. “They are much less trusting in leadership. They have a healthy cynicism. They vote, choose parties, and do what they are supposed to do, but they are not suckers, although often leaders treat them as suckers.

“One of the biggest problems that I’ve noticed in politics in the countries I have studied is that shortage of jobs for bright, young people is pushing into politics people who have no interest in politics. One sees this clearly in Kenya and Uganda where absence of career opportunities make people frantic to get a job as an MP, which is one of the most comfortable jobs. The result is that if one does not win nomination to stand for Parliament, they shift to another party. This is letting down the voters. Voters have been promised so much for so long by leaders that they no longer believe that governments can deliver on promises that leaders make in elections, and they are right. One of the promises that can’t be delivered is jobs. All parties promise to create employment, but it is one of the toughest promises to deliver. All countries in Africa have employment problems, probably less so in Uganda because agriculture is so good around the lakes.”

He has a theory to explain the difficulty of job creation. Most governments on the continent have programmes meant to aid local business, especially small and medium enterprises, but the big problem is that people who implement the programmes don’t have enough experience to help businesspeople.

“It’s a big problem in South Africa as well at the moment. There are huge amounts of money, but it does not reach the intended beneficiaries because the people who are supposed to ensure that it does have no experience. It’s a tragedy,” he says.
Schlemmer maintains that Botswana’s democracy is much more advanced and vibrant than in many countries in developing world. This is mainly so given that none of the three major political parties ÔÇô BDP, Botswana National Front (BNF) and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) ÔÇô is a write-off.

“BNF and BCP have significant support. Together, they are stronger than BDP. Botswana is a political system where there is choice. This is not true of all countries. It is certainly not true of South Africa. BDP is in a more favourable position than ANC (the governing party in South Africa) because ANC has no opposition. The main opposition party here is half the size of BCP. In Botswana, there is awareness of competition, particularly in urban areas. It’s the kind of competition that can lead to a change of government. Any governing party in Botswana that sits on its butt could lose power. If you look at it, the BDP never has absolute majority. It is difficult to imagine any of the parties getting such a majority of votes that would allow it to relax. Botswana strikes me as the more developed democracy than many other places in developing world because it has pluralism,” he says.

He believes that democracy has been able to take root in Botswana because the country was spared the post-colonial one-party state experiment that was in vogue on the continent. This, probably, accounts for his open admiration of Botswana’s first president Seretse Khama.

“I admire Seretse Khama because he tolerated so much crap from the British, yet he didn’t become distorted by the behaviour of the British government. He remained self-confident with a great sense of self-worth. It probably had to do with the fact that he was an aristocrat,” he says.
He also has high regard for the way Khama’s government emphasised tight policy coordination, which is an area where many governments fail at because ministers become dictators at their own turf.

He talks of “a big difference” in political culture between rural and urban voters. He credits the labour unions for having done a lot to sensitize workers about economic and labour issues, which accounts for the different political climate in urban areas.

Had BDP not undergone re-engineering 10 years ago, he believes the 1999 race would have been a very close match that the ruling party would have won with a slim margin ÔÇô possibly even close enough to require coalition politics. But he maintains that the rural vote would have stabilized the ruling party’s position.

One of the things he mentions as striking about Botswana is that voters don’t write off the parties they don’t support. While opposition parties have a fairly good assessment of BDP, nearly 80 percent of the ruling party’s supporters say they are willing to consider voting for another party if the government were to fail completely in some significant area.
He says it is difficult to convince voters that BDP has failed completely because even the opposition concedes that the government has done exceptionally well in areas such as a good telecommunications infrastructure, good roads, improved health services, educational facilities, water, and social security for the vulnerable groups, such as orphans.

He faults Botswana’s opposition for inability to clearly spell out its alternative policies.

“Voters in urban areas, as opposed to the rural voters who have a value-based commitment to BDP, would respond to an opposition party that says, ‘Look, we propose to create jobs and improve your lives in the following way’ ÔÇô and spend time explaining what it plans to do. Voters are cynical. They don’t always believe the BDP, but they are grateful for the fact that Botswana is stable and peaceful. Even opposition supporters are thankful for that. But what (opposition) politicians are not good at spelling out in detail for people is how they would get about doing something. They get up and attack opponents. That is not a convincing thing… Voters don’t think it’s justified to attack the government because that (what the opposition says) is not the way it looks to them,” he argues.
Schlemmer states that at the time he recommended injection of youthful blood in BDP’s top leadership, he didn’t have any individual in mind. He emphasises that the bottom-line at the time was to get the party to appreciate the urgency of women’s empowerment, as well as allowing younger people to come forward because that was what the market demanded, especially in urban areas.

“I didn’t know people well enough to favour anybody. I had no particular brief for Ian Khama, except that he genuinely appeared to have a profile across all parties. Of course, not everyone liked him. But all parties regarded him as a significant person. They cited his role in the military, his father, and his lineage. It’s not difficult to know why Ian Khama is going to be the favourite son in Botswana politics. He creates an image of being an efficient person in his personal conduct. He’s very focused,” he points out.

I ask Schlemmer what he thinks of the criticism that Ian lacks the requisite academic credentials.
“I didn’t pick any reservations about that at all,” he answers. “Quite wisely, voters don’t think that is important. In the first study, learned people didn’t come out strongly. People wanted commitment to problem solving, not academic learning. I expected educated people to have a high profile, but they didn’t feature at all. I don’t think that is held against Ian Khama. In fact, it is a wrong assessment because he is a graduate of Sandhurst. A person with a qualification from Sandhurst is rated by universities at their level. It’s not true that he is not an educated man.”

He senses that Botswana opposition spends too much time articulating issues of little value to the voters. He believes that what would swing voters to the opposition is development.

“If you are convinced that you have a formula for development and you talk about it long and often enough, that would swing the voters,” he says. “I’ve seldom come across voters sensitive to development issues like Botswana voters. Botswana voters are quick off the blocks. They talk development issues all the time ÔÇô roads, water, new schools, technical colleges, another university ÔÇô even very ordinary people who have never smelt a university spoke about it. Politicians shouldn’t feed voters morality. It’s not the job of a politician to try to be a saint. Their job is to improve the lives of people and concentrate on that. If BDP was too complacent, the opposition was too moralistic.

“It’s a shocking thing that Kenneth Good (the political science lecturer who was deported) was kicked out, and I can sympathise with the moral issue, but it doesn’t work for the voters. All over Africa, the opposition complains bitterly about corruption and they are right, but voters wouldn’t kick out somebody because of corruption because they think the guy who is going to take over will be corrupt within two years. The temptation of politics is such that you are bound to have a certain amount of corruption,” he says.

He makes a surprising comment that even though it was an open secret that BDP was deeply divided, he didn’t get a sense of an unstable party, especially when he interviewed cabinet ministers. What stood out was a sense of complacency and arrogance, even among those in cabinet.

“Among the general membership, there was a sense that they desperately needed to bring more women into the system because women are very people-oriented. Whether conservative or liberal, women are always concerned about the concerns of the people. The party needed to express people’s concerns,” he explains.

Did the party listen to his findings?

“Oh yes! But let’s face it; many of them knew it already. You can only be successful if a client already knows what is wrong and only needs a consultant to start a debate about it. There was a lot of awareness. But it’s always difficult for cabinet ministers to speak out on issues that are not part of their portfolio. That’s another useful thing about researchers coming from outside. Cabinet ministers tend not to confront each other. That’s why opposition is so important. Another thing that struck me was that just as the government was not debating issues, equally, opposition parties were not hitting the nail on the head. Voters were not seeing interesting things to take issue with, either to support or reject. Even opposition supporters were not able to say, ‘the reason I support this party is because of a plan called this’. Rather, they said, ‘I support them because the guys in power have eaten long enough; let someone else eat’. Now, that’s not reason to change a government. They were not referring to plans and specifics. I got the impression that the opposition politics was mainly a question of moral debate and human rights. Now…that is great in university and newsrooms, but the ordinary voter is not really interested in that. Even opposition voters spoke in development terms; practical things, not moral issues. It may have been an interesting debate in newspapers that you could score points on, but you can’t get a government out of power on that alone,” he says.

He explains the opposition’s relative strength in urban areas in terms of class conflict, which is not so much pronounced in rural areas. He talks of the antagonistic relationship between the urban rich and poor; the controllers of capital and the workers. He posits that this capital-versus-labour conflict compels parties to take sides with either of the protagonists. Liberal parties elsewhere often claim the middle ground.

“BDP has a history which is more elitist than opposition parties ÔÇô and that’s not difficult to understand because it was an aristocratic party at birth. BDP can’t be all things to all men. It can’t be a friend of workers and bosses. Opposition parties pick support among the workers, urban intelligentsia, and schoolteachers, who are usually left wing. They tend to go for opposition parties, and not conservative parties.

“But I don’t think the two big opposition parties have clarified where they stand. It is very difficult for the voters to say, ‘BNF is this and BCP is that’. But they can say, ‘BDP is that’ because it is a conservative nationalist party. It’s fairly easy to define BDP. But I didn’t get a feeling that the opposition parties have a sharp image among the voters. They might do among the academics, but for the average voters such image is not coming out clearly,” he argues.

Schlemmer points out that “theoretically”, a united opposition (that includes BCP and BNF) could pose a serious threat to BDP’s rule. The numbers show that combined, the two major opposition parties have slightly more support than the ruling party. But he qualifies that it is not a foregone conclusion that if the parties were to go into a coalition, they would carry their original support into the united project. He does not rule out the possibility of some voters from either party staying away from the unity project due to discomfort with their party’s partner. At another level, he sees such a threat to BDP awakening the ruling party’s supporters to vote in large numbers.

“I think there would be tight competition, but it wouldn’t be an easy run for the opposition,” he says.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper