Wednesday, May 25, 2022

UDC was formed by Seretse Khama’s senior aide

When they would get together socially and shoot the bull, Lebang Mpotokwane, Emang Maphanyane and Samuel Mpuchane would converge on one target ÔÇô the ineffectiveness of the political opposition.

“We all agreed that if we were to have a strong democracy, we needed to be a multi-party state. In our case we had one dominant party and several weak ones,” Mpotokwane recalls of the main theme this running commentary.

Then came a fateful morning at a funeral (in the downtime after the burial) when the subject cropped up for the umpteenth time. Someone in the group said that they have been taking about the issue for too long and suggested that they do something about it. The process took off in earnest when the trio produced a concept paper that went back and forth between them until they were satisfied with its tenor and wording to want to share it with outsiders.

While it started with this trio, over time the group would add as members Keboitse Machangana, Senior Programme Officer at the USAID Regional Centre for Southern Africa in Gaborone; University of Botswana lecturers, Dr. Onalenna Selolwane, Michael Mothobi and Professor Serara Khupe-Mogwe; Reverend Prince Dibeela of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa; Bishop Cosmos Moenga of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Botswana; and former High Court judge, John Mosojane.

CSDB then engaged the different political parties not as a group but on an individual basis. The process took a bit of time (2003-2005) and when it came, the response from all parties was negative. Mpotokwane, who would become the chief convener of the unity talks, says that while each party appreciated CSDB’s effort, all uniformly stated that the time was not ripe, that it would be difficult to convince the rank and file about the viability of such project.

“We were disappointed but assured the parties that when they were ready to start talks, we would be happy to assist. Later in 2005 I got a call: the four parties had met and were considering some kind of working relationship ahead of the 2009 general election and they asked if I could chair the talks. Apparently when they had had talks amongst themselves in the past, the chair would come from one of the parties and would not be even-handed.”

The second round of talks started in early 2006 with a twist. In the previous round, COSDB engaged each party on an individual basis but this time around all parties met as a group, with Mpotokwane and Maphanyane chairing the proceedings.

This round started in a rather unusual manner. Mpotokwane says that right at the beginning of the process, the parties offered to pay CSDB facilitators. The rationale was that they were taking away valuable time from pressing personal business and it was only fair that they be compensated.

“While we appreciated the offer, we declined because we were just volunteers who wanted to see our democracy become healthier,” Mpotokwane says.

This round also took off as spectacularly as the Palapye glass manufacturing plant. The Botswana Congress Party and Botswana Alliance Movement wanted a pact, Botswana People’s Party wanted a merger while the Botswana National Front preferred an alliance in which the identity of all other parties would be subsumed under its own in the manner that the African National Congress did with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. BNF’s explanation was that it was better known than the other opposition parties.

All along the parties had been represented by negotiating teams. After the 2009 election, the leaders themselves got involved. Mpotokwane and Dibeela were the only ones involved in the process as Maphanyane was helping BCP and BAM work together and Dibeela was working in Johannesburg. The outcome of Maphanyane’s effort was the subsumption of BAM into BCP.

The first negotiation meeting of the leaders hadn’t got off to a good start. Not being able to attend, BNF leader, Otsweletse Moupo, sent the party chairman in his stead could not attend which became problematic in the course of the meeting when other party leaders said that certain issues could only be discussed by the executive leadership. The meeting was postponed and a few days before it could convene, Mpotokwane says that one party (whose name he won’t mention) indicated that it would be too busy with its primary elections to be able to send its leader to the meeting. The talks died an unnatural death at this point, the parties went to the 2009 elections as separate entities and as was to be expected, the Botswana Democratic Party got another five-year term.

In what was becoming something of a tradition, representatives of the parties knocked at CSDB’s door in 2011. There was a new important entrant ÔÇô the Botswana Movement for Democracy, formed with members who had broken away from the BDP. The importance of BMD in this process was that it proposed a cooperation model that was able to break the deadlock that had long stymied cooperation effort. BNF and BCP wanted a pact, BPP still wanted a merger and BMD proposed a loose confederation that came to be known as “umbrella.”

“That’s where this Umbrella [for Democratic Change] comes from. It was proposed by BMD,” Mpotokwane says.

Before that, CSBD had spent the next several weeks studying all three models and setting up a committee made up of lawyers from all the parties to consider which model would be “easiest to implement.” When the lawyers reported back, they unanimously endorsed the umbrella model.

“The big advantage they saw in the model was that there would be a common presidential candidate and all parties would use the same colours and symbols, making the coalition easier to sell to the electorate,” Mpotokwane says.

It was only a lull before a storm that had been brewing. The parties couldn’t agree on the allocation of constituencies and with CSBD’s intervention failing to change the situation, the talks collapsed. Late 2011 brought fresh desire to make the umbrella work and CSBD (Mpotokwane and Maphanyane to be precise) was once more asked to facilitate the talks.

“We spent some weeks going from one party to another. Our mandate was to find a common position and if that failed, we were to make our own recommendations,” Mpotokwane says.

The pair submitted their report in December 2011 and met all party leaders the next day. The leaders said they needed time (10 days) to study the report and when that was done they met at Oasis Motel in Tlokweng where each party submitted its own constituency wish list. Soon it became apparent that very little headway had been made.

“Some constituencies were still appearing on more than one list,” Mpotokwane recalls of this episode.

Finally the parties stalemated on five constituencies and no amount of persuasion would sway any of them.

“The negotiations collapsed not because of the umbrella concept but because of the five constituencies. I was extremely disappointed and very worried because I knew that the nation was looking forward to a changed landscape of opposition politics. I asked the leaders if they knew that their decision meant that there would be only one winner in 2014 and by that winner I meant the BDP,” Mpotokwane says.

Against all hope, he got a call from BNF leader, Duma Boko, two days later who told him how embarrassed he was about the outcome of the Oasis meeting. Boko undertook to persuade his party to go back to the negotiating table. Soon thereafter, Mpotokwane got a visit from BMD leader, Gomolemo Motswaledi, who expressed sentiments similar to Boko’s. Motswaledi said that he had spoken to BPP leader, Motlatsi Molapisi, who had also indicated desire to go back to the talks. After this phase, Boko would write a letter to all three leaders, stressing the need to resume the talks. However, when they did in February 2012, BCP stayed out, saying that it wanted to consult internally. The leaders had asked that Dibeela and Moenga be included in the talks. Apparently the two men of the cloth had privately urged the leaders to restart the unity talks.

The parties in the talks agreed on the colour and symbol. Mpotokwane says that at one of the meetings with party leaders, CSBD was asked to brief BCP on everything discussed at the talks. The result was a meeting between CSBD represented by Mpotokwane, Moenga and Maphanyane as the BCP leadership represented by Saleshando and party chairman, Batisani Maswibilili. The meeting that took place at the Parliament Annex where Saleshando had an office as Gaborone Central MP.

“We briefed them in detail about everything. The idea that if the party rejoined the talks, then it should know about everything that had gone on,” Mpotokwane says.

BCP never went back and the result was that what became the Umbrella for Democratic Change would be made up of the BNF, BPP and BMD.

There is a perception that senior government officials are either closet BDP members or sympathisers. This should be interesting when one considers the fact that at the time of his retirement, Mpotokwane was Administrative Secretary in the Office of the President. He had previously worked as Senior Private Secretary to Seretse Khama, founding state and BDP president as well as Clerk to Cabinet.

“The civil service is completely separate from the government,’ he says.

He owns up to having written political speeches for Khama in the early years of Botswana’s independence. His explanation is that at the time the BDP was thin on the ground, didn’t have speechwriting capacity. As Khama’s private secretary, Mpotokwane felt obliged to avert a situation where his principal and the state president would embarrass himself and the nation with a poorly written speech at a party event attended by foreign dignitaries. However, he may have sent the wrong signal by doing that because he remembers that afterwards, a BDP activist asked him to help with some party task.

“I told that person that kana I’m a civil servant, I shouldn’t be doing BDP work. That person accepted my explanation and no one ever asked me about it because they understood how the system works.”

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