Sunday, June 16, 2024

Serowe meeting proved a president can never lose a kgotla battle

It may not have been the intention of the founding fathers of the new republic of Botswana to make the presidency a near 12th century monarchy but that was certainly the result. Nothing has changed since and ironically, the super-concentrated powers of the presidency, all but crafted by Sir Seretse Khama, are now being used against his son – who has himself used those same powers maximally for those he favoured and against those he disfavoured when he was still president. With the possible exception of Festus Mogae, all Botswana presidents have successfully used their near monarchical powers to soundly defeat dikgosi. In that regard, it was least surprising that President Mokgweetsi Masisi ran rings round the Bangwato kgosi and his predecessor, Ian Khama, at the royal seat of power (the kgotla) in Serowe this past Tuesday. There is a reason this happened.

In pre-colonial society, all executive power was super-concentrated in bogosi (inherited traditional leadership. The kgosi (traditional leader; pl. dikgosi) was President, Chief Justice and Court of Appeal President as well as National Assembly Speaker. On paper, Botswana’s 1966 constitution separates the powers of the executive, judiciary and legislature but the reality is that the president controls all three branches of government. In the case of the latter, the National Assembly is a department within the Office of the President and before the lower house of parliament, Ntlo ya Dikgosi, can seat, its Chairperson has to seek written permission to do so from the Vice President. The president also controls the elections office, making him the de facto Chief Elections Officer.

Having first lost power to the colonial government and having hoped that self-rule would bring back that power, dikgosi were furious upon finding that nothing changed with regard to restoring them to their pre-colonial power and glory. Perhaps the most disgruntled was Kgosi Bathoen Gaseitsiwe who, in 1968, resigned his position as Bangwaketse kgosi to join the opposition Botswana National Front. “Resigned” is indeed the word that is commonly used with regard to this development but there is a tantalising theory that invites use of an altogether different term: “pre-empted expulsion.”

The latter theory is that displeased with what he saw as anti-bogosi policies of the Botswana Democratic Party government, Bathoen, who was essentially a civil servant, began not only butting heads with senior government officials but also openly fraternising with the opposition. Khama (future Sir Seretse) was as displeased with such development and planned to expel Bathoen from bogosi. At a personal level and despite their familial links, the two men were not the best of friends. When Seretse fell out with his uncle and regent, Tshekedi Khama, Bathoen took the latter’s side and minutes of the historic 1950 meeting prove that.

In order to prevent the humiliation of being fired, the Bangwaketse kgosi resigned his position and joined the BNF, which wasted no time in making him president. Fearing what a royal with plenty of time on his time could do to both political career and job security, Khama moved up the election date from 1971 to 1969. In so doing, Sir Seretse forever altered Botswana’s general election schedule – 2021 would otherwise have been an election year. Granted, Bathoen would win the Kanye parliamentary seat (against no less a person than Vice President Ketumile Masire) but the ultimate winner was President Khama because he had managed to oust a kgosi from his kgotla and rigged the electoral process to triumph over a fellow kgosi-turned-politician.

When Masire was himself president, he went toe-to-toe with Bathoen’s son and successor, Kgosi Seepapitso and at one point, had him suspended from office. Officially, the 1994 suspension was made by then Minister of Local Government, Lands and Housing, Chapson Butale. However, there is no way in the world that an action that earth-shattering could have been made without the express consent of the president. The suspension meant that Seepapitso had been removed from the kgotla, a place where dikgosi wield what little power they have left.

So far, Festus Mogae counts as the only Botswana president to not have epically fallen out with any kgosi. That was certainly not the case with his successor, Ian Khama, who took on Kgosi Kgafela II of the Bakgatla-ba-ga-Kgafela – and won. Ironically, it was Khama who invested Kgafela with the regal leopard-skin coat to mark his ascension to the bogosi. Soon after his ascension, Kgafela controversially set about “restoring culture”, part of which involved administering extra-judicial corporal punishment – even on women, who are legally exempted from it. Through his Minister of Local Government, Lebonaamang Mokalake, Khama “derecognized” Kgafela as kgosi (removed him from the kgotla)and had a criminal case laid against him. Kgafela ended up fleeing to South Africa and officially is still a fugitive from the law.

A decade after the Kgafela saga, it is Kgosi Khama himself who is on the receiving end of presidential power being used against a kgosi. Masisi and Khama don’t see eye to eye – both figuratively and literally because they haven’t been in the same room since 2018. If 12th century rules of settling a feud still applied, they would probably have gouged each other’s eyes out by now. In the most recent pitched battle, Khama (who quit the Botswana Democratic Party in 2019 to form the Botswana Patriotic Front) is alleged to be in unlawful possession of guns, which was the reason a search warrant was issued against him. On learning about his, some of his subjects in Serowe held a kgotla meeting, which had “BPF” plastered all over it. Fireworks were expected at that same kgotla when it was revealed that Masisi would be addressing a public meeting the following week – last Tuesday.

There are 19 different types of fireworks, which, in terms of explosive composition and spectacle, range from firecrackers to skyrocket. While billed as a skyrocket event, the Serowe meeting actually turned out to be little more than a firecracker event. In large measure, that had to do with the political and administrative design of the 21st century kgotla. Contrary to popular belief, this forum is not owned and controlled by dikgosi but the government – whose ultimate head is the president. That is to be expected because the kgotla staff, from the kgosi to the cleaner, are civil servants, the buildings are managed by the government and when there is a high-level kgotla meeting, the director of ceremonies is the District Commissioner, a government employee under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

There is a Setswana idiom (mafoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe – all words spoken at the kgotla are beautiful) which, all too often, is understood one-dimensionally to mean that everybody has a right to speak at the kgotla. The least appreciated dimension of this idiom is that those in charge of kgotla meetings habitually ensure that only those who will sing praises of the powers-that-be (“speak beautiful words” in other words) get to speak. Besides, the myth of the kgotla being a democratic space had been thoroughly debunked. For the most part, it is the DC, working clandestinely with the village leadership, who decides who gets to speak and s/he is always discriminating in his/her choice. While this method doesn’t always have a 100 percent success rate, it scores well above 95 percent in terms of denying firebrands any opportunity to take the podium and vent against those at the high table. That explains why a meeting billed as a skyrocket event became a firecracker event.

At least going back to Masire’s time to Masisi, Botswana presidents have historically discouraged the exercise of freedom of speech by village firebrands by getting and weaponising very personal village gossip against them. If say, a firebrand happens to be a local builder who collects deposit from clients and leaves the village speckled with unfinished buildings, that information will be relayed to the president as that firebrand spits fire at the microphone. When he gets up to answer, the president will remark about certain builders in the village who are in the habit of making noise at the kgotla when they should be clearing the backlog of construction work they have been paid for but haven’t finished. A very close parallel of that happened at the Serowe kgotla in 2019 when Masisi all but said that a now popular firebrand, Wame Rapitsenyane, was an underperforming Agriculture teacher at the Lotsane Senior Secondary School. As a result of this, few are willing to challenge a president and be publicly ridiculed.

All that and more leave one man standing in the battle for the kgotla – the president.

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