Run up to the 1994 general election stood out for frenetic campaigning never before seen in the country’s electoral history as the two main contenders Botswana Democratic Party and Botswana National Front headed down the home stretch. Back then there were no private radio stations. Four private newspapers, namely Mmegi, Guardian, Midweek Sun and the Botswana Gazette came out weekly, in black and white. The only colour publication, Newslink Africa which I contributed to as a student stringer had come to a sorry end. Local television was a distant fantasy and certainly no one contemplated social media. In terms of media consumption it was a different world far removed from what we take for granted today.
Going into the election BDP was weighed down by the baggage of the NDB debacle as well as reports, respectively of the Christie and Kgabo Commissions all seared into the public consciousness by a feisty little private press and Radio Mall at full blast. Against this backdrop and riding on a wave of outrage mainly in the urban areas, BNF with Dr Kenneth Koma at the helm criss- crossed the country unveiling the manifesto and national candidates. Attracting multitudes on its various stops, the cavalcade winged its way for the finale in Gaborone, which would include a midweek rally at the University of Botswana, an incubator for opposition student activism. Dr Koma and entourage arrived for the rally which drew a huge gathering of students and townsfolk alike, leaving no doubt that the main opposition was a serious contender. Back then the university was not the pluralistic institution it would later become where formations of every hue and ideology co-exist in a climate of tolerance and friendly rivalry. Although not violently enforced, the unspoken code was that politically inclined students who didn’t want to invite unflattering attention were better off in the mainstream BNF student formation known as MASS.
So, supporters of the ruling party went about business at their fraternity known as GS 26 in somewhat clandestine fashion, a tacit recognition that unlike their government ruling outside the campus perimeter fence, here the power pendulum swung differently. Four electoral constituencies were up for grabs in the city, with the university falling under Gaborone Central, thereby pitting BDP hopeful GUS Matlhabaphiri, an ex diplomat against the decorated Robben Islander, Mike Dingake. Our small group volunteered for campaign duties including drumming up support within the student community, an exercise we did without the benefit of a voters’ roll meaning we wasted precious time canvassing nonvoters. At the rally we listened to our party being pummeled by household names like Paul Rantao and Maitshwarelo Dabutha, spewing rhetoric generously marinated with taunts and theatrics. Afterwards GS 26 leadership convened to plan a counter response to salvage a desperate situation. We resolved to organize our own rally at the same venue in two days’ time because we could not be seen retreating as more students were coming out of the political closet on our side.
That decided, we had a problem. We needed a big name to address the rally. Whereas BNF had rolled out its heavy artillery, our heavy hitters were not available at short notice. Besides our candidate we needed someone who could wade into hostile student terrain with some swagger. One of the rising stars was an activist by the name of Kabo Morwaeng who generated some buzz on the stump and enjoyed poster boy status in the party. I was liaison person between GS 26 and Tsholetsa House where Morwaeng had previously worked as a political officer. On this basis we were fairly acquainted and he had at times driven up to my residence to pick me for off campus activities. And so it happened that Morwaeng arrived on campus for battle. In the words of our rivals we were reactionary interlopers of sorts, and so MASS hecklers came out in force to defend their hallowed space. But in Morwaeng we had made an inspired choice. Pacing around the square, hemmed in by hecklers he laid into them with relish, dispatching our message but always at the ready with sarcastic putdowns to anyone who got too cocky. Showcasing fine oratorical skills he sowed carnage through the heckling brigade. At the end, having delivered a masterful class in freedom square combat tactics he invited the now punch drunk hecklers to attend parliament and bear witness when, in his own words he would be taking oath on 25 October 1994 as the youngest legislator at age 27, representing Mogoditshane constituency.
So certain was he and his fan club that he was bringing the constituency. The political gods had other ideas though. From that fateful election it has taken Morwaeng 25 years to make it to parliament. Now freshly resurrected from the graveyard of politics to which was consigned for a quarter century in cruel repudiation of his talents, the fact that through dogged determination and sheer force of will he has finally made it will go down as one of the most remarkable political feats ever witnessed. But let’s put perspective to his 25 years wandering in the wilderness. A child born that election month in 1994 has crawled, attended crèche, primary and secondary school; graduated from varsity, gotten a job, raised family and voted twice in 2014 and 2019 between Morwaeng’s first attempt and his victory last month. A product of the DK Kwelagobe assembly line, on completing his studies at National University of Lesotho, he was employed at party headquarters where he worked for a bit under his mentor who was then Secretary General. Having served his apprenticeship he emerged with flying colours so much so that when elections approached he was deemed ready to run for parliament. Morwaeng’s emergence on the national scene coincided with a shift in BDP fortunes as the party transformed from what someone once described as a party of farmers, teachers and rural peasants.
In came the young turks from professional backgrounds, educated and confident to proclaim themselves as examples of its empowerment policies which could take the child of a peasant from the village to a university degree. From this lot would emerge leaders, reformists, dissidents, war lords and plotters par excellence. The election held on 15 October 1994 yielded 13 constituencies to BNF in the expanded parliament of 40 seats, the party’s best performance ever with BDP retaining power with 27 seats. In fact something not often mentioned in textbooks is that soon after final results came in, BNF demanded a government of national unity. On our side casualties were many including the poster boy himself losing Mogoditshane constituency by a margin of 246 votes. His ambitions were dashed and the hecklers invited to witness the triumphant arrival in parliament were having the last laugh. In addition to the corruption scandals, BDP woes had been compounded by all out hostilities for control of party and government between the Daniel Kwelagobe and Mompati Merafhe led factions, alternatively known as Big 5 and Big 2. With the dust barely settled, recriminations ensued because electoral underperformance demands accountability. For BDP an unintended consequence of the outcome was the impetus it gave to the conversation around reforms to the country’s political and governance architecture. It was the young turks, most prominently the likes of Jacob Nkate, Sidney Pilane, and Morwaeng emerging from the polls with mixed fortunes who amplified calls for reforms which would among others birth automatic succession and term limits. Proposals for amendments to the party constitution drafted by a working group were consistent with what Morwaeng, who had remained national youth information officer after leaving secretariat for a better paying job had been championing for some time. This most notably when as resource person at a GS 26 seminar, he used his slot to advocate for the party president to be elected by membership.
As things stood for as long as the party was in power the state president stayed remained president of the party without further elections. By all accounts this amounted to life presidency. Newspapers reported that some young turks were further agitating for the president to consider retirement so the party could have a fighting chance of winning the coming elections against a menacing BNF. But before the reform debate took centre stage, and some two weeks before the general election, a tragedy occurred which would give Morwaeng a shot at redemption. What happened was that former vice president Peter Mmusi who regained his position of party chairman at the 1993 Kanye congress after a spell under suspension with Kwelagobe, died after a long illness. This meant postponement of his Thamaga constituency poll to accept fresh nominations. A sliver of opportunity had opened up for Morwaeng’s deferred dream to enter parliament. Instead, leadership tapped a serving senior civil servant called Gladys Kokorwe to quit her job and contest the primary. Morwaeng was ordered not to contest but defiantly went ahead and submitted his candidacy, proceeding to romp to victory meaning he would be the BDP flag bearer in a different constituency barely a month after losing Mogoditshane. That, however, was not to be because leadership proceeded to exercise its power of veto by annulling the result and selecting Kokorwe as candidate in the name of gender empowerment.
The turn of events upset Morwaeng who saw it as political injustice. He also felt betrayed that the Kwelagobe faction with its formidable machinery had not protected his interests despite all the work he had put in as a dependable foot soldier. After all he had acquitted himself at the tumultuous Kanye congress when he lobbied for the suspensions of Mmusi and Kwelagobe to be lifted so they could contest the positions of Chairman and Secretary General, which they went onto to win. It was in this charged climate that Kokorwe kick started her political career on which she called time 25 years later when she retired as speaker of the national assembly. The Thamaga experience left Morwaeng feeling alienated from the party but he moped around only to announce in September 1995 his resignation from BDP, ostensibly to attend to private affairs and concentrate on his job. He vanished from politics only to resurface months later in BNF colours. An indefatigable organizer, it was not in his character to take a backroom role in the hustle and bustle of political life. Soon he was knee deep in the trenches, waging war on the side of those who felt Dr Koma had reached his sell by date and lacked the wherewithal to lead BNF to state power in 1999. The situation reached its nadir with the implosion of the party at the infamous 1998 Palapye congress .
There is contradicting information on the role Morwaeng played in the formation of Botswana Congress Party. Some reports said he had his eye on the position of founding chairman but other accounts dispute this. For a second time, Morwaeng took leave of the political scene. Word was that he was busy with business including a gig as promoter of gospel music concerts. No matter the vicissitudes it visits on them, politicians of heart and conviction always come back to the game. A few years down the line the prodigal son was back home. His return came ahead of the delimitation exercise which carved a new Molepolole North constituency. Those in the know said in Kwelagobe’s design, the division of Molepolole constituency would leave him ensconced in his fiefdom of Molepolole South with the other portion gifted to Matlhabaphiri, his loyal enforcer as soon as he was done with diplomatic duties in Namibia. True to form, Morwaeng expressed interest in the 2003 primary election only to be informed that as a recent returnee, the rules prohibited him from contesting. For BDP watchers the relationship between the Kwelagobe/Matlhabaphiri symbiosis and Morwaeng has always been complex. Punctuated by on and off fall outs followed by reconciliations before the cycle repeats itself, it was always left to the trio to navigate its twists and turns. The rule book thrown at him, Kabo Morwaeng must have wondered just what he to do to become a legislator. With each passing election, circumstances contrived to sideline him from realizing his dream whilst chancers of less ability sauntered into parliament and cabinet unimpeded. As they say necessity is the mother of invention, and in no time he was in the ranks of the lobby group that supported vice president Ian Khama’s bid for party chairman when BDP went to Gantsi for its 2003 congress.
Ever the man with a knack for conjuring the right optics, newspapers ran pictures of a tearful Morwaeng celebrating Khama’s win in smug knowledge it would smoothen his passage to the ballot. This of course happened immediately on return from Gantsi when the same rules that had locked him out were given a different interpretation. But once again things did not work out when Matlhabaphiri won the primary to pave way for his own entry to parliament in 2004 for the first time as a non-nominated legislator. Now wiser, and a mellow family man Morwaeng took it in the chin. Little did he know he was destined to play a major role at the 2009 Kanye congress whose outcome led to the first BDP split some months later when together with other aggrieved individuals they walked out to form BMD. What distinguishes politicians like Morwaeng is that they are indispensable in internal party machinations owing to their knowledge of the lay of the land acquired over a lifetime. Veterans of his ilk are valued as strategists who can be called upon to lend their considerable skills to a certain cause or the other. Often their involvement, to borrow a phrase currently in vogue in America, is on a quid pro quo basis. When they go to war it is no longer on the basis of sentimental loyalty to some individual but because they expect their efforts to pay off with a political dividend of some kind. Although holding the key position of organizing secretary in BMD, things didn’t quite work out with the project and for a second time, Morwaeng retraced his steps to BDP. Deployed to working committees he went about his work with minimal fuss, making sure he kept a safe a safe distance from any unprofitable war mongering. During this time he also embraced religious faith with regular pilgrimages to Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, about whom he would wax wonderment to anyone caring to listen.
Just as he had done in 2009 Morwaeng sat out the 2013 primary election. Unsurprisingly and once again back in the bosom of Kwelagobe he relocated to Molepolole South to assist the old war horse in the 2014 poll. Playing the long game Morwaeng surmised that biding his time would put him in pole position to replace the larger than life legend upon retirement. But fate threw up a different script when Kwelagobe unexpectedly lost a seat in his grip since 1969. Fast forward to the 2017 primary elections and Morwaeng lined up for the primary election ticket which he finally won. I have known Morwaeng for ages, but his approach to this year’ s general election and the primary election preceding, evoked thoughts in me of a man who was giving his last throw of the dice in a game which over the years had been unkind. A human being can only take in so much disappointment. From distance I tracked his campaign which, next to achieving a political objective was also a spiritual journey. It left little to the imagination that if he didn’t triumph this time round he would shuffle way with a heavy heart into the sunset, bearing scars of his political battles. Another rejection would have amounted to a lifelong passion remaining unfulfilled and unrequited. But as they say fortune favours the brave, and one may add those who don’t give up. In this country’s most toxic election to date, that has produced upsets and surprises galore, the amazing resurrection of Kabo Morwaeng, 25 years after his first shot at parliament is the standout feel good story of interesting political times we live in.