Local government is the bedrock of popular participation in any participatory democracy. Because of their proximity to the voter, local government councilors are by nature really political representatives that are at the coalface of all that directly matters to a voter. For many voters the age old adage that says all politics is local could not have been more apt. That is even more the case in rural areas where councilors are expected not just to be political leaders, but also philanthropists, midwives, undertakers, social workers, counselors, ambulance drivers and much more.
If our politics was worth its salt, councilors would be a distinct set of people most versed with the aspirations, anxieties, dreams and indeed fears of a voter. For this to happen councilors should be politicians of higher quality and caliber than is currently the case. But as it is in our case the opposite is the case.
The question that we should all ask ourselves is why our political parties across the board continue to send half-baked candidates to represent them at this immensely important democratic citadel called Local Government? History will show that to represent it at local level in the General Elections of 1984 the Botswana National Front fielded such politicians of high quality like Paul Rantao, Tshepo Motswagole, and Obonye Legwaila to name but a few. That year was to be a turning point in the history of the BNF as a serious contender for state power.
Supported by such veterans like Frank Marumo and Fish Keitseng, the new crop of highly educated and professionally successful young turks constituted part of BNF’s young but formidable intellectual elite. Before joining active politics, Rantao had distinguished himself as a talented journalist working for Government of Botswana. For their part Motswagole and Legwaila ran a prominent legal practice. As a reward for deploying talent where it mattered most the BNF went on to win all the wards in Gaborone, except, if my history is correct, the Government Ward ÔÇô which as is still the case today, was a ruling party heartland. The BNF had fielded Legwaila to contest Government Ward.
After his victory, Rantao went on to become the City’s longest serving Mayor and arguably most successful since. Many years later Rantao further distinguished himself as an accomplished Member of Parliament and academic of note, before he passed on. Today Tshepo Motswagole is a High Court judge, having previously served as a senior official at the Attorney General Chambers. Had he lived longer, there is no doubt that Legwaila too would have attained greater heights. I highlight this era while attaching these individuals to it in great detail because it was the beginning of a long run for the BNF ÔÇô the starting point of momentum on whose impetus the party still lives to this day.
As a result of a deliberate policy decision by the BNF, the City Council became a bastion of erudite political and policy debates that were to grow incrementally over the subsequent years ÔÇô on occasions even surpassing the National Assembly on quality, depth and broadness. What remains unexplained is why no political party, including the BNF itself has repeated such an imaginative and creative policy disposition since. What has happened since is a steady but increasingly irreversible decay of quality among local government politicians.
During Rantao’s tenure the City Mayor was like a Pope; there could be only one of a kind. Even as a councilor, Rantao’s presence was unmistakable. What feat London and indeed New York are only today just accomplishing, Gaborone managed some thirty years ago ÔÇô before tragically letting the eyes off the ball that is. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson is an accomplished politician who is highly expected to succeed the current British Prime Minister. He has previously served as a frontbencher of the Conservative Party in the house of commons. In New York, the immediate past Mayor, Mike Bloomberg was an accomplished billionaire businessman and intellectual long before he headed the city hall. This is exactly the kind of high quality deployment that to their credit the BNF started some thirty years ago. The problem unfortunately is that there was to be no continuity. The country has since gone tangent.
Today we see every politician aspiring not to be a councilor but a Member of Parliament. A reluctance to reinvent is a primary reason why political parties are struggling to stay relevant. But talent misallocation is by far their biggest undoing. While problems of quality run across the entire spectrum of our politics, the headwinds have been strongest and most unremitting at local government.
Today a sizeable proportion of our councilors can barely recognize their name on paper much less write it down. For all the parties, the biggest problem is that every activist now wants to become a Member of Parliament. The situation is worse for the ruling party because every activist looks at themselves in the mirror and what they see is a bulging image of a potential cabinet minister. Concerns about the quality and caliber of our politicians have been voiced by everyone.
With elections around the corner the level of public scrutiny can only go up. But is any political party listening? There is no evidence to suggest so. A colleague tells me that one of the leading contenders for a council ward that includes Phakalane is a form five dropout who is often out of breath on such matters as raised by many of the urbane and sophisticated constituents who make the bulk of the country’s Chief Executives whose residences straddle that high-end suburb. The upshot of it all is that because constituents simply cannot connect with their leader-to-be they simply do not come to meetings when called to do so.