Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sir Ketumile Masire the frontliner

I am at that place in my life where I’m defined by the people I’ve lost, like one of those negative-space pictures, where what’s not there is just as important as what is.

So as I sat in front of my computer, Saturday morning to write this tribute to former President Sir Ketumile Masire, my last meeting with him loomed large, like one of those defining moments in my life. It was not exactly that kind of turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. It is, however, up there with the day I had my first child Natalie and the day the first edition of the Sunday Standard hit the newsstands.

I had just buried my wife, and Sir Ketumile who had lost his wife a few years earlier had come to my place to pay his respect. At such times, even small humanitarian gestures can light a flame of hope. But the meeting with Sir Ketumile over tea was so much more.  The feeling between two widowers opening up to each other can be very profound. You go places where normal people don’t go. You feel each other’s pain, burdens and vulnerabilities. You can never be that close to another human being. It is an experience that my command of spiritual vocabulary does not stretch far enough to describe. It is like a merging of souls. Perhaps most important, here was a man spreading optimism and lifting my spirits even when his own heart had been broken.

The one hour meeting with Sir Ketumile was a metaphor for his 18 years as president of Botswana; both victim and consoler. For close to two decades at the State House he was in the strange position of being both victim and champion of democracy.

As the second president of Botswana, he came in when the euphoria of independence had long worn off and the country had to deal with the hard stuff. Sir Ketumile had to steer the country through the post honeymoon phase. And he had the worst of it. He was fodder for a burgeoning zealous press still trying to probe the limits of free speech, which he tolerated with humour, and he had it. I should know that, because I was one of his biggest critics. I was part of a pack of newshounds clamorous in print about perceived government excesses.  I would go home after a ruthless headline and sleep like a baby. Even when a stranger knocked on my door at midnight, I would not think twice about waking up to open the door.  Those days are long gone.

I was the hero, he was the villain. However, with the wisdom of hindsight, I realise he was the hero. It is easy to be a champion of free speech when you are the one speaking, but it takes an extra-ordinary man to protect free speech when he is at the receiving end of savage criticism. Sir Ketumile had all the power to silence his media critics, but he never used them. It is those personal sacrifices he made for the sake of high ideals that make him great.

How excruciating to imagine those little unsubstantiated stories printed over and over about him, as the country asked: ‘Have you heard?’ His transcendence of the prevailing media storm is a life affirming parable of the triumph of the human spirit, and of hope over adversity, hackneyed phrases both, but true.

It is fitting that it was during his term in office that Botswana gained the accolade: “Shining example of democracy.” His legacy as a champion of democracy represents an important stake in the ground for a small nation questioning its place in the world. When his colleagues in the continent were pushing for life presidency, he voluntarily stepped down as president and introduced the two-five term presidency into our constitution. When a young Jacob Nkate, then Secretary General of the Botswana Democratic Party youth league first called for a reduction of the president’s term in office he was not shouted down and punished. Instead his star rose.

That, Sir Ketumile did not see it as an attack on his person and embraced the debate as deepening our democracy was a win of human values, responsibility, strength of character, ability to take criticism, resilience, and it was a big victory for Botswana and her democracy.

The legacy he bequeaths this country is both a source of national pride and an important influence on the national psyche. Many years and two presidents later, Botswana’s democratic credentials are still her biggest selling points. I pay tribute to Sir Ketumile not out of human decency but out of gratitude.


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