When he stepped out of a car and sauntered into the venue hosting the final independence talks, the dandy-looking Prime Minister Seretse Khama (sharp suit, slicked-down hair and trimmed moustache) was representing every square inch of what would become Botswana. However, there is a real bad chance that his centenary might be celebrated on only a few square inches in Serowe.
Crown Prince Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama (later Sir Seretse) was born on July 1, 1921 in Serowe and after only 14 years as founding Botswana president, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on July 13, 1980. In 2006 and following years-long lobbying by influential Bangwato, President Festus Mogae declared July 1 a national holiday in his honour. Ever since, a commemorative event has always been held at the Serowe kgotla on July 1.
One hundred is a big number, a big milestone and there are plans to hold a big centenary celebration in Serowe befitting the stature of that big man. Historically, the July 1 event at the Serowe kgotla has always been small and local but for this milestone, the organisers want to make it bigger and national. For the most obvious reasons, the organisers want to include the government but more than a year after being notified of such plans, the government has not given the slightest hint of eagerness.
“Subsequent to the initial communication, we haven’t had any further engagement,” says former minister Nonofo Molefi who is the coordinator of the committee organising the centenary celebrations. “I was under the impression that they would revert as promised.”
Molefi, who is from Serowe, was cabinet minister under both presidents General Ian Khama and Mokgweetsi Masisi and Selebi Phikwe East MP from 2004 to 2019. Gen Khama is Sir Seretse’s first-born and Bangwato kgosi – supreme traditional leader. At a time that Molefi came onboard, the organising committee had already been put together.
Sir Seretse’s centenary happens at a time that General Khama and Masisi, whose history goes back to their childhood, don’t see eye to eye. Masisi’s father was Sir Seretse’s cabinet minister. Having defected from the Botswana Democratic Party, which was co-founded by his father, Gen. Khama has founded his own party – the Botswana Patriotic Front. As head of the Bangwato royal family, Gen Khama necessarily has to be part of preparations for his father’s centenary celebrations. As Molefi reveals, the committee periodically consults Sir Seretse’s children “on a need-to-know basis and may seek archival material from them.” Such material will be used to illustrate commemorative literature that the committee plans to produce. However, Molefi is keen to stress that the celebrations are “not a family affair” because Sir Seretse was a national figure.
Since the 2018 edition of the Khawa Sand Dune Challenge and Arts Festival, Khama and Masisi have not been in the same place together. Then, Khama didn’t rise – as protocol demands, when Masisi arrived to take his place at the high table for a short pre-games ceremony. There is no way in the world Gen. Khama cannot attend his father’s centenary celebrations and it would be unseemly if Masisi doesn’t an event that celebrates a man who made it possible for him to be president. These dynamics strongly suggest that getting these two men under the same kgotla leobo (shelter) in Serowe will be near impossible.
Then there is the question of what sort of official media coverage the event will get. Special events require special coverage and are allocated a special budget. Good sources at Mass Media Complex (the headquarters of state media in Gaborone) tell us that the event has not been budgeted for in the 2021/22 financial year, meaning that it will not be accorded special coverage.
Btv, which has a bureau in Serowe, has covered this event for years and so will or could be at the kgotla on July 1. In the last session of parliament, a BPF MP asked why Khama was edited out of footage of a news clip of an event that he attended. If there are instructions from upstairs that Khama shouldn’t appear on Btv, his pictures will be edited out when the July 1 celebrations at the Serowe kgotla are shown.
To the question of whether he has any fear that the current political situation may mar plans for the celebrations, Molefi responds by stating that “it would be unfortunate if partisan politics find their way into an innocent event that has been celebrated in the last couple of years.”
However, if any political chicanery is visited upon the centenary celebrations, it would definitely blow up in the faces of its hand maidens. That is because Sir Seretse holds a very special place in the hearts of Bangwato – especially those who chose to stay with the party he founded when his son formed the BPF. One ventures to suggest that Dorcas Makgato’s remark that Sir Seretse died of alcoholism played no small role in her loss in the 2019 general election. At a manual workers’ union national congress in Lobatse a couple of years ago, a female delegate from Serowe started hyperventilating and had to be immediately carried outside the hall. Reason? The mere sight of Gen Khama triggered unusually powerful memories of Sir Seretse.
“Ngwana yo … ngwana yo … ngwana yo o tshwana le rraagwe,” she said feebly as she was carried out.
The Setswana translates as “This child looks exactly like his father” but in a cross-cultural context, “ngwana” (“child” in English) would mean “man.”
Gen Khama has alleged that Masisi’s administration seeks to diminish and erase the Khama legacy. Some people, whose votes the BDP still desperately needs, will certainly believe that allegation if the state plays no role in Sir Seretse’s centenary celebrations. In 2024, they will get to register their displeasure.
The apparent political intrigue aside, adverse, non-political circumstances have conspired to complicate plans for the celebrations.
The first is COVID-19 whose public health measures will make it impossible for a good, old-fashioned celebration in which people can pack the kgotla in their thousands and not have to social distance. In terms of COVID-19 law however, gatherings are limited to only 50 people – which will make the celebrations (such as they would be) look something like a Village Development Committee meeting. Molefi confirms that on account of the COVID-19 law, there wouldn’t be any grand spectacle that would otherwise have been put together during normal times.
Resultantly, the committee has decided to spread out the centenary activities over two years, such that a grand spectacle can (hopefully) be laid on next year when enough people have been vaccinated and the pandemic has abated. Over that period, the committee plans to host some other Sir Seretse-themed events and publish relevant literature. It is collaborating with some academics at the University of Botswana to host a series of public lectures on a variety of national issues that can be tied to Sir Seretse’s legacy. Invoking a metaphor from obstetrics, Molefi describes the former president as “one the midwives who delivered Botswana’s independence.”
At independence, Botswana adopted four national principles: national unity, democracy, development and self-reliance) and under Sir Seretse’s successor, Sir Ketumile Masire, added a fifth – botho, meaning humanness.
“On the occasion of Sir Seretse Khama’s centenary, we need to remind ourselves of those national principles and determine how we can align them with Vision 2036,” says Molefi, adding that Botswana needs to constantly re-evaluate and reinforce each and every one of those principles as it charts its way forward as a nation.
The committee has been approached by a group of what he describes as “private citizens”, who submitted a proposal to package a book on Sir Seretse’s life and legacy.
“We are giving that proposal due consideration,” Molefi says.
Another private citizen who has approached the committee is a big-name jazz artist who has proposed a day or evening’s jazz session in honour of Sir Seretse. The historical record says was a jazz enthusiast and, as a matter of fact, his romance with Ruth Williams (later Lady Ruth Khama) is said to have blossomed at a jazz joint in London. Back home, Sir Seretse would continue to do what today’s young call “jamming.” A former bodyguard of his remembers him sneaking from State House to dance at a hugely popular nightclub called “Disco City” in the Cresta President Hotel building. is There is now a wedding shop called Thorium where the nightclub used to be.
According to Molefi, the programme has not yet been finalised.
The second set of circumstances complicating plans for the centenary owes to the fact that the state’s role has never been clarified and formalised. With the exception of 2016 and for as long as it has happened, the July 1 event at the Serowe kgotla has always been low key, local and community-driven. In that year, it was the biggest it had ever been but there were also special reasons for that. Botswana was itself celebrating a milestone (its golden jubilee of independence), Gen Khama was the sitting president and the event was part of the official jubilee celebrations programme. The following year, the event was once more low key, local, community-driven and so poorly attended that Kgosi Serogola Seretse (second-in-command at the Serowe kgotla) complained.
“I am so disappointed to see hardly any residents here, despite the fact that you are expected to be the one rallying behind this day,” the July 3 edition of the Botswana Daily News quotes him as saying. “Even some headmen are not in attendance, yet they are supposed to be main role players. I am so ashamed of the turnout.”
The problem here is that while the state declared a national holiday in honour of Sir Seretse, it never took any real measures to ensure that the ay is actually celebrated.