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Rethinking Botswana Politics in the 21st Century: What’s to be done?

Publishing Date : 10 July, 2017

Teedzani Thapelo

Researcher, historian and award winning writer, Teedzani Thapelo* situates Botswana politics in the context of Western anxieties about public life, security, and happiness, and asks the critical question: in the world of Trump, Brexit, mounting terrorism, and climate damage, how should we do our politics? How best can we secure our public goods, and future? Should we allow BDP to continue creating commitments, and connections, that work against the people they represent; monstrous entanglements that work against the public interest, and the future of the country? How best can we handle our external relations? Bad politics, Thapelo says, can only lead to ruin, and it might be time students, intellectuals, and workers, started seriously taking it upon themselves to equip the public, and politicians, with ideas necessary to survival in our time.



I must point out I have only ever worked as a herd boy, researcher, academic and writer. Politics is something I am just drifting into as I enter the evening of my life. This, I suppose, is only natural. People my age worry about the future of their children, and this concern generally manifests in several ways, principal among which is the direction the country, and its public affairs, are taking.

The security, and success, of our children, is contiguous with that of the country they live in, grow in, prosper in, and eventually die in. This is something that old timers like me understand perfectly well. This, I suspect, is the reason why it is so easy for political parties to take old people to polling stations. Serious political parties understand our fears, and concerns. After years of taking personal responsibility for those you love, it is hard not to love the country they live in as well. There really is not that much difference between your country, and your home.

Any harm that comes to your country is likely to hurt you at home as well. We also know the damage people inflict on children at home eventually spills out into society in one way or the other. Nobody needs Freud to understand this simple fact. The other thing, of course, is the simple fact that as elders we are also driven by an abiding sense of nostalgia, and gratitude;

the exasperating wish that no matter how bad the odds, no matter how hard life becomes, no matter how complicated things get, and no matter how confusing the circumstances of our fragile human condition, we have a moral duty to preserve, and, improve that which gave us so much happiness, and excitement to our fading lives, and the oppressing regret, that we did so little with the possibilities open to us to build a better country, a better society, for our children.

It is not an easy thing to be a man my age. We have experienced so many things, seen so much, we know so many things, it is hard to contain all these things in the bosom of weakening hearts, and aging brains; oh, life, oh, life. Old people are great philosophers, and perfect psychologists. As we grow, we learn things along the way; the real world is our finest university. Only a few fools fail to realize this obvious fact. But I have never suffered fools in my life. Interest in politics presupposes one thing; concern about public policy.

I really do think politicians should understand this connection. Most of them don’t, and this is frequently reflected in the emptiness of their political rhetoric, and diatribes. Politics derives substance from two sources; human interaction with the natural world, and human experience of reality. I don’t want to go deeper than this but I must point out that good politics adds great value to community, and social life, and to the confidence, strength, and quality of national life. It is a recipe for great good in society.

Yes, many politicians are just greedy villains, but politics is essentially an art of conscience; a terribly fascinating art. It is through politics that we learn first-hand the complexity, and ambiguity, of both social systems, and human nature. Politics is both literature, and human life, writ large, both drama, and reality; it is the font of human existence, and both rich, and poor, worship at the same shrine in politics. This explains the origins of the parliamentary system; even democratic culture itself.

I sincerely do believe that politics can be a force for tremendous good, and that it has the potential to enrich everyone in the world. But I draw the line at arbitrary, and often disingenuous, efforts to internationalize the mantra of globalized political federation, especially when it comes to poor, small, and young, republics like Botswana. There are universal political values that we all admire, and adhere to, but all of us articulate, and domesticate, them differently.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with international standards, and expectations in politics, but everything wrong with applying the same haphazardly, and imperiously, on all and sundry, to the exclusion of local contexts, and concerns. Politics is, by nature, a very dynamic social and psychological force. It is the driving energy of social and national life. It should never be conceived as a universal abstract concern, for the simple reasons it is not.

We have different cultures, and religions, and we live in completely different natural habitats. Our politics can never be the same all the time, and all over the world. In conceptualizing politics, ecological, and behaviour, contexts matter a great deal. I am speaking to the real world, and the solutions, it daily proposes for its troubles. As a historian and enlightenment advocate, I seriously doubt the necessity to radically rethink the global political system as it has evolved since the end of the war in 1945. We tried this with the cold war, and failed. In other parts of world, such efforts have led to terrorism, and wars;

especially in the Middle East. Besides, this system, particularly its human rights, and environmental justice cultures, has benefited humanity spectacularly. It is also important to note developments, like Brexit, and the election of Trump, have just added more anxiety about this revisionist posturing; what the media calls the rise of native populism. My concern is with small countries, Botswana, in particular. How should we do our politics in the twenty first century?

How should we do our economics? What is best for us? What is likely to harm us? What is likely to benefit us? I think we should enter this debate from this direction. Let us not blindly copy what other people are doing elsewhere. This just will not get us anyway. Let us do things our own way. Some may say but, Teedzani, this is exactly what we have been doing, but I beg to differ, vociferously.

Let me explain. The dawn of the previous century, thanks to the failure of internationalism, was bathed with blood, and mass deaths, right from the beginning, and some of us were born at the height of its most puzzling madness. That is now behind us. Our own age opened with both great hope-thanks in part to the controversial workings of globalization-and serious crisis, thanks again to the mixed blessings of the same phenomenon. Politics has never been more fascinating.

This is not surprising, given the number of people now allowed to have a voice in the art of politics; close on five billion human souls, a most staggering human experience in history. For all the past centuries, politics was largely a closed art, the preserve of way less than 1% of the number of people who lived on planet earth.

Just imagine that! By the end of the nineteenth century little Britain alone controlled three-quarters of our earth, possessing colonies, and dominion subjects, in every continent in the world, and where the British flag flew in the skies only propertied, well-educated British males voted, and everybody else, man or woman, black or white, young or old, obeyed British imperial diktat without raising a voice every day of their miserable lives on earth.

In less than a hundred years we have managed to bring more than 70% of earth inhabitants into political life. Is it any wonder politics itself is now rapidly changing as an art of managing human and environmental affairs? I think not. The people shocked, at the recent political experiences in the America of Trump, Brexit, Islamic terrorism, and the frightful political horrors in Africa, are people who have no sense of history, no knowledge of modern human experience. Look at the financial crisis of 1997 and 2008;

both of which eventually engulfed the whole world. Look at climate change. Look at the coming of freedom to African peoples. All these things have happened before but they happened in a different world, a fragmented and much smaller world, a world though occupied by many people, remained nothing more than isolated pockets of human islands, most of which knew nothing about each other.

Today thanks to integration of global markets, rising education standards, low communication, and transportation costs, the wide opening of political markets, the world has become completely different, much more complex, and sophisticated, and though in many ways still a small world, the expectations of all who live in it are now more pronounced, and the resources are becoming more strained under the pressures of ballooning populations; and this is a world we are still trying to figure out how best it can be managed. Is it any wonder our political lives are so turbulent?

In past centuries three subjects obsessed mankind; philosophy, theology and science. In our own time science, unsurprisingly, retains its place in the minds of scholars because broadly it is the source of all human life. God has failed so many people it really is no surprise theology is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Politics, and economics, both of which descend from philosophy and history, have now conquered human imagination.

It is these two disciplines that presently have the force to either help us create paradise on earth, or drive the entire human race, and planet earth itself, to ruin, and extinction. The sad thing is, not many politicians, and economists seem to realize this. Yes, technology, and nuclear science, are just as potent, but if they are going to ruin, and end human life, that would be the result of political decisions made by people who should have known better. It is not the first time in history that human beings have possessed weapons of mass destruction. In the end, it is how we use them that really matters.

Politics on the other hand is a different phenomenon altogether. If I had my own way, nobody would go into politics without a firm grasp of the potential for politics to either build, or destroy, societies. But then we live in changing times, and democratic culture, which so many clamour for, and so few really understand, dictate that all must have a say in their fates, and destinies. I really have no problem with that. What bothers me is the ignorance that characterizes political discourse, and practice, especially in Africa, and more troubling here in Botswana.

What I am going to say in this article will, no doubt, shock many in this country, and please a few. But I don’t mind sticking out my head for the truth. The subject of contention here must set a lot of minds to great reflection, and I have no doubt, it will generate a lot of debates. That is good for our democracy. To succeed as a nation, and a people, we need to be honest with ourselves. This is what the New Politics of our time is all about; raw truth, and honesty.

Good education, travel, television, internet connectivity, and cellular phones, now assure that billions of people have first-hand knowledge of how the real world works. The world of research is now wide open to billions of people. In much of the modern world ignorance is now a matter of personal choice. Things are still, of course, different in Africa were millions are struggling daily to get into school, to put food on the table-if they have one-and just to make it through the day. Such experiences abound here in Botswana as well, but in all honesty we are doing much better than other Africans.

As a matter of fact, we really could be doing excellently by now, but both our politics, and economic lives, are rotten, and for that we only have ourselves to blame. The fact that we openly admit our mistakes, and failures, I take to be a sign we are ready, and willing, to correct them, to put things right. People in opposition politics are clearly prepared to take this road. At BDP they are still in denial. They see themselves as national heroes, and heroes don’t make mistakes, heroes don’t fail.

What a load of nonsense! The reality is that people at BDP are scared shitless. They fear not only for their future lives, but also for the promises, and commitments, they have made to others, to outsiders, and worse, the crimes they have committed against the people, and the state. They fear enemies they invited, and continue to bring, into the republic. In life we are free to choose our friends. If such friendships eventually hurt us, then we have only ourselves to blame.

But people who hold political office by public mandate have no right to create friendships, and political commitments, and connections, that work against the people they represent; monstrous entanglements that work against the public interest, and the future of the country, things that may completely change the face, and spirit, of Botswana, as we know them today, to the detriment of not only Batswana, but the entire land as well.

Batswana gave BDP the privilege to govern but not destroy Botswana, and Batswana. This much I must make clear. Good governance has the potential to benefit everyone in the country. Bad politics, and misguided economic policy, on the other hand can only accomplish one thing; national ruin. BDP rule needs to be radically rethought. The way we are governed is very troubling. I lived in Britain under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair, and every time a serious economic or social issue threatened public lives, and national security, you would be excused to think bees were trying to create their hives throughout England.

Every time reform was proposed in education, social security, transport, labour, wages, nationalization or privatization of public utilities, even bankruptcies of large private employers of labour like multinationals, or mergers of the same that might threaten workers, and public welfare, and safety, there would be a great deal of buzz, and intellectual, bellowing throughout Westminster, the City of London, Oxford, Cambridge and the Midlands.

Students and professors equipped with terrific ideas would march in the streets prescribing solutions. Workers would join them, armed to the teeth with their own fantastic solutions, and politicians, all of whom have offices stuffed with the finest researchers in the land, would have a hard time just trying to be heard by any side of the protagonists. Political constituencies would rise in revolt, demanding to be heard, and every hour or two freely sweating politicians from both sides of the House of Commons would be forced to appear on TV channels desperately defending their positions on the issue. Voters in Britain always voice their concerns on all public issues.

In the end a solution would be found, probably not suitable to everybody, but I always noted people were satisfied they had been heard, and if the solution recommended turned out to be too costly, unworkable, or even more of a threat than was expected, it would be brought down, torn to pieces, and another road taken. I know how democracy functions in civilised society. I have since lived in Canada, South Africa, and Sweden, and here public issues arouse just as much interest, and debate.

But in Botswana, well, I don’t even know what to say. Try to talk to a politician about bankruptcy law, or educational reform, and he will refer you to his permanent secretary, who in turn will refuse to talk to you, or refer you to a foreign consultant whose advice they frequently seek, and the latter will appeal to confidentiality clauses; you just can never get anywhere. Such matters only interest a few unionised workers, and journalists, who, in reality, are the only people daily engaged in democratic process, and struggles, in this country. The rest of the population cares not what happens so long as they have food to eat.

Many laws, and reforms, in public life, pass unchallenged because the majority of Batswana do not think it their business to engage in public affairs. Most of the time a few words memo from the president-acting alone-is enough to propose a solution to a complex issue like privatization of national assets, and transference of national symbols to the direct ownership of foreigners, and the matter ends there, and everybody goes out to drink beer, enjoy sex, and snore till kingdom come. Isn’t this shocking?

Worse, not one of these so-called government policies has really ever worked! It is easy to blame opposition politicians, but these committed men, and women, are terribly under-resourced, in fact they depend entirely on their brains to get any work to be done at all. They have no really well trained researchers, competent legal advisors, and their workload is alarmingly huge, comprising as it does, not only parliamentary business, but constituency services as well as family commitments.

In other countries brilliant university students, and professors, volunteer their services in opposition offices, or accept work as interns, helping to considerably reduce this burden, and open political, and research, careers for themselves in public life through such opportunities. But here university teachers with no knowledge of public life at all and no highly specialized, and internationally acclaimed, research background on matters of national interest, expect to be picked from their small perches in academia, and be appointed directly to parliament, or worse, cabinet. Is it surprising that many of them have failed so dismally; read Sheila Tlou and other BDP PhD holders?

Do Batswana know any famous researcher who has been turned up by Government Enclave? Do you know any famous Botswana researcher who comes from the University of Botswana? Why is it that all solutions to the serious problems facing our country never work? Isn’t the answer obvious? We never research our problems! We never seriously think about them. We never seriously talk about them. People just take it everything written on paper will work out in the real world. Are we really that foolish? Now here is where we err most. Two things corrode our ability to deal with national problems, even when we have resources at hand; ideology, and politics.

All my life I have noticed that decisions to deal with problems are made because of politics, and ideology. Such actions, of course, never solve the problems at hand. BDP likes doing things this way because such actions perfectly fit the beliefs, and interests, of the people in power. In short, they make policies for themselves, for their own benefit, as a political group, and the entire nation sees nothing wrong with this; the attitude is: if you can’t beat them, join them, and meanwhile, everything throughout the country goes to ruin and waste every hour of the day. Just what kind of citizens are we?

French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu has suggested that politicians must learn to behave like scholars, to engage in scientific debate, to look for evidence before they can engage in actions for the solutions of national problems. Well, I suppose this might work elsewhere. Probably that’s how governments now do things in their countries elsewhere.

But here where not one politician knows the meaning of the word research, and given politicians spend most of their time with witchdoctors, bathing in piglet, and chicken blood, trying to divine the least costly ways of doing away with their opponents, within, and outside, the party, this sort of thing is never ever going to work. It’s not an easy thing to live in Africa. I know BDP often involves foreign professors in making policy recommendations but these routinely get politicized.

Frequently, even good policy prescriptions are bent to fit with the ideas, and expectations, of BDP cabinet ministers, and their Indian, and Lebanese allies. Batswana are always left out, including the majority of BDP members who live in rural areas that have seen their real incomes decline by more than fifty per cent in less than twenty years. I wonder what the witchdoctors, most of who live in rural areas, think about this. Isn’t it, perhaps, time they ditched these BDP hypocrites, and start taking the side of the suffering majority?

I don’t know what the success rate for these nocturnal mumbo jumbo services are, but I don’t suppose many Batswana would mind much if these fellows started helping us to divine the least costly ways of getting rid of our useless BDP politicians. A backward economy like Botswana can easily benefit from advanced and latest ideas in applied subjects like the economics of the public sector, development, and monetary policy. I am thinking here subjects such as bankruptcy; for we should expect many failures going ahead, corporate governance, and the openness of, and access, to information.

We really ought to know how to handle such transitional transactions before we can talk about things like privatization, before we can create a really working stock market, pass, and implement, effective competition laws, and other institutions, that add value to a small growing economy. We must always get our priorities right. Put resources where they are needed most, at the right time, and for the right reasons. As things stand right now, it is obvious the legal flatulence that assaults society every other day from BDP parliament is informed by nothing else but pure political greed, and the endless demands, and expectations, of crony capitalism.

This is dangerous given how poor the country is. Our markets are small, and not at all competitive. Our resource base is small. Our tax base is small, and contracting. How best can we really improve the lives of our citizens? This is the simple question that should exercise the minds of our politicians; not how best can we engorge till we bust. Good economic policies have the potential to really lift thousands of Batswana from extreme levels of poverty.

Our researchers must stop picking whole ideas and paragraphs from World Bank and IMF research papers, and start seriously engaging in local empirical research in the areas of market imperfections, and failures, so that we evolve theoretical work in economics that will make our markets work for us.

We need local research work that convincingly explain things such as differences in information between workers and employers, lenders and borrowers, the insurance companies and the insured. We need to lay firm foundations for more realistic theories of labour, and financial markets, we need to know why there is unemployment, and why those who need credit often cannot get it; just simple things like that.

Local economic expertise must inform World Bank, and IMF research findings, and not the other way round. IMF researchers, for instance, only spend, on average, only three weeks here, reading rotten government documents, in their hotels, and then after they are gone, we turn to their stupid reports, always based on simplistic economic models, for information about how we should manage our economy. Isn’t that silly? Our own researchers live here all their lives and they need to do better than this.

Information economics, with its useful analysis of labour, capital, and product markets, is critical in the development of macroeconomic models that provide deeper insights into unemployment, and theories with strong policy implications for economic growth. We need theories which are in touch with the real world. I am just giving one example.

But in 2016 the Nobel Committee awarded an economics prize for contract law which means the world is really moving forward. We should be doing the same. Archaic economic models will not do us any good. We need social models that speak to the situation, and condition of Botswana.

Planet earth is changing, the environmental world is changing, global economic trends are becoming more complicated, and uncertain, and we really need to know ourselves well, to know our country, and appreciate our circumstances, and changing situation well, if we are to grow, and prosper, as a nation, and a republic. It happens, sometimes, that models developed in other developing nations may work here, but most of the time, home grown is better, and more rewarding. Stop those silly wasteful benchmarking trips, and start educating yourselves, about your own needs, and possibilities for success. That is the way forward.

Teedzani Thapelo*, is author of the Botswana novel series Seasons of Thunder, Vol. 1(2014), Vol. 2 (2015) and Vol. 3 (2016) and forthcoming books; Battle Against the Botswana Democratic Party: the beginning of the point of departure, Politics of Unfulfilled Expectations in Botswana: a dangerous mess, Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe: abandonment and revolt, The Argument Against the Botswana Democratic Party: an intellectual inquiry and Khama Presidency and Vanity Fair in Parliament: an African political tragedy.



Do you think the closure of BCL will compel SPEDU to double their efforts in creating job opportunities in the Selibe Phikwe?