No rational person can deny that former president Lieutenant General Ian Khama was a heavy-handed autocrat who fatefully stitched a cloak-and-mostly-dagger spy outfit into the fabric of public life; that he supplanted rigorous public policy processes with cosmetic common-sense solutions that yielded their own set of often intractable problems; and that contrary to his public proclamations of meritocracy, he entrenched nepotism which, in as far as it benefitted ex-soldiers, revealed that contrary to the hype, the Botswana Defence Force is actually little more than bastion of managerial mediocrity.
Likewise, no rational person can ever deny that under Khama, blended sporting and cultural events of the premier class were more exciting than they currently are.
By some linguistic quirk, Khama’s name became synonymous with “Khawa” – a sporting and cultural event held annually in the sand-duned Kgalagadi District village of Khawa. While they were credible allegations about him rigging motorbike races, Khama was much to the delight of spectators a competitor himself and would cut the rug with desert maidens to a polka beat. The polka itself is a full story on its own but the summary is that it was Khama who literally brought this European-origin dance out of obscurity and onto the national stage.
The desert winter is more ferocious than anything you will encounter in the eastern part of Botswana and Khawa is smack bang in the middle of the desert. However, Khawa was such a huge spectacle that every winter, people from the east with very low tolerance of extreme cold, made a beeline to Khawa village for the Khawa Dune Challenge and Cultural Festival. They still do and Khawa still enjoys presidential patronage in the person of President Mokgweetsi Masisi and Vice President Slumber Tsogwane. However, complaints are flying thick and fast the Festival is not half as exciting as it was during Khama’s time and patronage.
“The event was boring this year,” wrote Baemedi Seloka on the Khawa Dune Challenge and Cultural Festival Facebook page after this year’s edition of Khawa.
One of the reasons why it was boring is that the crowds are thinning out, the entertainment menu less varied and patronage from the Office of the President less qualitative.
Makgadikgadi Epic is another premier event that Khama bestowed presidential prestige on. The event is held in the Makgadikgadi Pans which used to be part of the Okavango Delta millions of years ago but are now as dry as Molepolole water taps. At a personal level, Makgadikgadi Pans are near and dear to Khama’s heart because his great grandfather (Bangwato supreme traditional leader, Kgosi Khama III) was born in Mosu – which is in the eastern half of the Pans. Khama has a holiday home there which he started building during his days as Vice President.
As with Khawa, Khama was also an active participant in the Makgadikgadi Epic sporting activities. The mere presence of the charismatic son of the founding president, former BDF commander and Bangwato kgosi itself had a magical effect on the crowd. Makgadikgadi is still exciting and at least on the basis of social media feedback, this year’s edition was impressive. However, Khama’s absence still rankles with some. While Khama performed dangerous stunts at both Khawa and Makgadikgadi, the public record shows that the only dangerous stunt that Masisi has ever performed at a sporting event was to hold to dear life from the passenger seat of a car being gently swung around by a South African stunt driver.
By far, Khama’s signature arts and culture programme was the lavishly-funded President’s Day Competitions which Khama introduced in 2008 upon ascending the presidency.
The Competitions feature a smorgasbord of visual and performing arts. Beyond providing commercial opportunity for artists, the President’s Day Competitions have helped give some tribes cultural visibility and with it, a respectable measure of cultural citizenship. It was because of Khama that Batswana came to know of polka which, until 2008, was largely confined to the Kgalagadi Desert. Towards the end of his rule, Khama loosened up and began to dance performatively at public events. With the complicated steps of borankana out of reach for him, he settled for polka.
In his final state-of-the-nation address in 2017, Khama said that the Competitions were a key programme in pursuit of the goal to promote Botswana’s diverse cultural heritage.
“Participation levels in the Competitions have grown from 3,274 in 2008 to 18,971 this year. The number of categories in which artists compete has at the same time increased from 25 to 58 this year. This growth has resulted in the prize money awarded to artists also rising from P1 million to P4.6 million over the same period,” he said.
This point has not been harped upon enough but the President’s Day Competitions also improved the quality of art across the spectrum. There may be an issue with the aesthetic principles of borankana being corrupted by some traditional-dance troupes – ready examples are the martial-arts dance steps and cluttering the stage with props. However, today’s borankana (as indeed other dances in the Competitions) is much more spectacular than it was before Khama became president. The latter is a seminal lesson for how to make indigenous dances more interesting and internationally competitive.
Under Khama, the Competition’s finale always generated a festive mood in town as different traditional dance troupes descended on Gaborone. Very early in the morning, hours before the Competitions even started, would-be spectators would stream to the BDF barracks in Mogoditshane and pack into the hall. Not only did Btv livecast the Competitions, it also rebroadcast them around the clock. Apparently, the traditional dance was highly popular even outside Botswana. A Motswana who studied at a university in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, says that fellow students (most of them white) would stay up all night watching reruns of the traditional dance competitions on Btv. In this regard, the Competitions were a wonderful marketing opportunity which, unfortunately, was never exploited. Granted, Khama may have used his powers as president to ensure that the Competitions got this much publicity but there were tangible benefits. Tragically, not all such benefits were exploited to the fullest. Post-Khama, the Competitions have been reconfigured and in the process, the thrill factor has been severely denuded.
To be clear, there was a downside and the irony is that Khama himself bears blame for some of the Competition’s shortcomings.
Sources at what is now called the Ministry of Sport, Gender, Youth and Culture say that the former president was not receptive to ideas on how to improve the Competitions and that he micromanaged them relentlessly. Resultantly, the Competitions remained stagnant – thus necessitating reconfiguration that itself appears to have adversely affected the thrill factor.
When an ACP-EU meeting was held in Gaborone in 2009, Khama had been more in office for little more than a year. Phakalane Golf Estates and Resort hosted a delegates’ reception and most of the spectators excitedly and repeatedly encored the performance of the borankana troupe. Tragically though, the Competitions still don’t have a robust market structure and remain the preserve of the Ministry of Sport, Gender, Youth and Culture when there is pressing need to involve two other ministries: Industry, Trade and Investment as well as Environment and Tourism.