For 20 years, Caroline Lesang ran a humble fashion and tailoring business in Lobatse. Fast forward a few years later, she is now the mayor of the town.
It sounds like a dream come true but the candid and articulate Lesang is adamant that her intention has always been to serve her people. Last weekend, she was elected chairperson of the Botswana Democratic Party women’s wing congress in Kang, garnering 275 votes, followed by incumbent chairperson Angelina Sengalo’s 129.
Towering at close to 2metres, Lesang is a strongly- built woman who seems the no-nonsense type until one sits down to chat to her. She oozes class and sophistication, tapping on her state-of-the art cell phone with well manicured nails.
The resilient Lesang, who is also a business woman, describes herself as a “foot soldier of the BDP”. In her capacity as chairperson of the women’s wing, she wants to empower and equip women with skills that will help them become self sufficient and competent in the political fraternity.
“The BDP women elected me based on my experience and the trust they have in me. I have served in the women’s wing as treasurer when Assistant Minister of Local government Botlhogile Tshireletso was chairperson a few years ago. That stint gave me a chance to prove myself and so when I stood for chairpersonship, I lobbied on my experience.”
On the issue of women empowerment, Lesang feels that more women can get positions in council and Parliament and play an active and influential role in local politics.
“Being a woman is not a disadvantage. If you look at the private sector, there are many women in high positions. They worked hard to get where they are. Women should stop being cry babies. We must be intelligent enough to look beyond the pettiness of sexism and gender sabotage. I work with men and they respect me because I don’t tell them that I am a woman ÔÇô they can see that. If I start to belittle myself based on my gender, they will treat me with similar contention,” she explains.
She further says that women need to be taught about developing their self-esteem, public speaking, how to interact with and talk to different people. There has also been the issue of the financial cost of women going into politics, as candidates have to be bear the cost themselves.
“Women must be taught where to go for funding and how to approach potential sponsors. The problem here is not the money, but the fact that some people don’t know how to garner support; it’s important to know who to ask for assistance and how to approach them. These are basic things I want to teach our women. The more you network, the more you meet people, learn new things and sell yourself and competencies,” she says.
Lesang is adamant that some women fear politics, but there is nothing to be afraid off as men are human beings like them.
“More of our women should come out of their shells and show what they have to offer. No one is going to knock on you door and say, ‘Oh you are a woman? Come here and take this opportunity.’ We must all take the initiative to pursue our goals. Yes, there will be challenges but what is life without overcoming those challenges?”
She insists that quotas will never work because people will now be selected based on gender and not their competency. The BDP does not subscribe to quotas.
“As much as we have gender disparities and challenges, the more we focus on it, the more we give it undue attention. I must look at myself as an individual and refine my abilities. It should be, “What does Caroline bring to the table?” not “What does Caroline the woman, have to offer?” she says sternly.
She is however quick to note that she is committed to grooming more women, especially youth.
Political parties are synonymous with old people which have seen many youth losing interest in that domain because it seems they are not welcomed to play an active role in shaping the country.
“We still need to mobilise more young women to get active in the women’s wing but we are working with those we have. I feel it’s important to empower them to make the transition easier when we hand over the baton upon our retirement. I plan to include several women aged below 35 in the finance committee. This will help them understand the internal operations of the party.”
Lesang is confident and doesn’t seem easily fazed by negative reports, even the damning article in a local newspaper, which fingered her as corrupt, after landing 19 tenders in the town’s schools district.
“I am a businessperson and found nothing wrong with tendering; it’s not illegal. I have tendered before and have been turned down, was I supposed to quit? I had tendered to supply bread to the eight primary schools but it was instead awarded to Phoenix bakery. I then tried my luck with the districts tender which I won. I supply to the teaching colleges and secondary schools. I followed the correct procedures as laid out by the PPDAB and was awarded the tender on credit. If anyone doubts this or is aware of irregularities, they would have lodged a formal complaint.”
Lesang doesn’t hide her anger with the report. “That journalist never once contacted me. There were also false information; like that I am chairperson of the finance committee which is false. I was also said to be a member of the central committee. It is only last week that I made it into the central committee, by virtue of being selected BDP women’s wing chairperson,” she says.
Lesang dismisses the report as desperate attempts to discredit her. “As a Christian woman, I trust my living God and do what I believe is correct. I will not prove myself to people who have preconceived ideas about me,” she says casually. With so much on her plate, does this woman find time to rest? She smiles when I ask her. “I don’t usually rest but when I have time on my hands I watch television. I am an active member of the Seventh Day Adventist church and have a choir I sing in.”
Lesang has been married for 27 years, and has four adult children who all have university degrees.
One is a businessperson, the other a teacher, while the other two work in government and the private sector respectively. I brace myself and ask her what the secret to a long marriage is. She gives me a twinkling look and points out that one has to be patient.
“Like all things, there are challenges in marriage but one has to be patient with their partner. You also need to understand the person you are with because you chose to share a life with them.”
It’s this patience which probably saw her start from the bottom as a clerk at Itireleng secondary school in Lobatse and work herself to the top. To date, she has a Degree in Business which she obtained from the University of Botswana, a diploma in accounting and several certificates in accounting. Lesang enjoys challenges and learning and that saw her applying to study French with the Alliance Fran├ºoise.
“Unfortunately, I have been busy campaigning so I have missed a few classes but I want to catch up on the lessons.”
She also did a short course in fashion before starting her tailoring business, which impressively enough is still operational. Her love for fashion is the reason she always looks regal. For our interview, she is dressed in a stylish black top, long red coat and knee length boots. Her hair is styled in a neatly cropped bonding style with a middle parting.
With so much on her plate, Lesang insists it won’t bee too much as she believes in delegating tasks. “As a leader, you should involve people and share your goals to lighten the work load. I should do my part, and the people I work with should do theirs.”
She says she has an open door policy and encourages people of the town to visit her to share ideas and learn more about the initiatives the council has. “Poverty can be eradicated if only people would change their mentalities and work to sustain them. Nothing is going to fall on your lap; you must go out there and make things happen. I always preach this to people and this is a lesson I taught my children: the importance of work, work, and work. If you are lazy, then poverty will catch up with you.” She points out that despite criticism; government’s poverty eradication programme has helped many people. “We need to have a shared goal and unite as Batswana. We must find out what we can do for ourselves and share information on the schemes, funding and programmes,” she explains.