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Trouble with Botswana Politics: Hedgehogs and Tortoises

Publishing Date : 27 February, 2018

Author : Teedzani Thapelo

In this provocative article Botswana poet and novelist, Teedzani Thapelo*, argues that the salvation of African nations demand the rise of statesmen in democratic space. We need, he says, to rid politics of the idle voluptuousness that very often reduces it to the level of immoral luxury, and Botswana politics is in particular so insipid and shallow it will always fail us in hours of darkness, unless we can somehow manage to redirect politics toward the demonic center of the world we live in, work, and die. Botswana opposition, he says, should heed this message, since BDP has long abandoned the art of good politics.

Why write about politics? It’s such a tiresome subject. But is it really that bad a job? Come to think about it, is it really boring, both as topic for discussion, and job? I think not. Oh, no, God forbid, I am not a politician. I swear I am not one of those fellows, and you will soon learn why. After reading this article I am sure those people who proudly write on their Facebook timelines, under employment, the word politician, may very, very seriously want to reconsider; though I doubt many politicians will consider quitting, and that’s the paradox of politics. It is in reality more than just a complex art, it is an infuriating occupation; both to the theorist and the practitioner. Some are drawn to it by that façade of idle voluptuousness that very often reduces it to the base ladder of immoral luxury. A few by its lofty ideas, poetic appellation to human imagination, and even a fewer number think it can help them change the world.

But would life be really interesting if we all just sought security and comfortable occupation in politics as it is general discoursed, and practiced? I think not. My first objection to politics as it is practiced in Botswana, and much of Africa, right now, is that it fails to both investigate and improve human experience. Second, it erroneously equates public noticeability with civic duty, a social vanity I find most irritating. More than 2000 years ago Socrates warned us against the barrenness of a busy life. But Batswana refuse to listen.

Who can ever forget the annoying cross country tramping by Ian Khama and his useless cabinet these past ten years? I am told they visited every village in Botswana. But what did they do for those poor villagers? Nothing…the barrenness of a busy life. Now Ian is taking goats and chicken from those villagers, people he did nothing to help, not even the worst politics ever gets so low. When Kenneth Kaunda returned to his mothers village after twenty seven years in power he screamed, visibly shocked; “Oh, my God, nothing has changed! God forgive me,” and then burst into tears. The barrenness of a busy life…African politics.

Politics though is an elemental force in human life; perhaps even something more than that. Just like religion, food and God, we cannot live without it. The real question is what kind of politics is useful for the management of human affairs? Both the businessman and intellectual who say they are not politicians, or interested in politics, are liars. Otherwise how can one do business and the other write his theses and research work without kneeling at the altar of politics? The priest speaking at the altar every Sunday is a politician. Otherwise how does he grow his parish? How does he remain relevant to his community?

The greatest practitioners of politics, to me, though, are those men and women who only go into politics at the point when they become self-conscious enough to participate in the making of their own destiny, those who refuse to abandon their lives to chance, and the dictates of cruel fates, and these great human beings I call statesmen. Most people who attach to themselves the label of politics are nothing but opportunists-the Masisis of this world.

The real problem with African politics is insufficiency of conventional practical knowledge in the face of darkness. We just don’t have enough intellectual insight to look more deeply into the demonic center to the world we live in, work, and die. That is why our politics always fails us so miserably in the face of terrifying circumstances, and irreparable conditions. Of course the fundamental imperfection of fellow human beings is also a problem, but these things can be remedied.

We do bad politics because inadequate human perception, our poor grasp of reality, our weak grip of the deep subconscious energies of humanity, all work against our best efforts. But more often than we exert far too little, to no effort at all to improve our political enterprises, and this is the reason why I have no time with most postcolonial liberation political parties in Africa, especially in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Politics is not synonymous with partying; it is an art of governance.

Those who wish to govern should be willing, and ready, to set aside their wishes and desires, and prepare to do what is really expected of them. This is a message that opposition parties should note. By dismissing politicians we are not saying there is no significance to human effort, only that people can, and should, do better.

Politics fascinates us because it concerns all the things that madden us, torment us, stir up the lees of things-human and natural-all the truth with malice in it, all the troubles that crack the sinews in our bodies and lives, cake the brain, all the subtle demonisms in human life and society; all evil, politics is art, it is music, it is poetry, it is religion, and we must respect, and improve it. This is the only reason why I write; to summon the reader not only to the monstrosities and carelessnesses of public life, but also things so pertinent to human existence, and human enterprise, they harness all the manifestations of human life itself… are Batswana aware of the political watershed that is unfolding before their eyes?

In a few weeks Ian Khama will be sent out to pasture. Masisi will automatically succeed. The same way Mnangagwa, and Ramaphosa, took the baton from Mugabe and Zuma respectively. The comparisons are not frivolous. The three men will, if they win the pending elections in their blighted neighboring countries, find themselves placed in the unique position of deciding the fate, and future lives, of almost 70 million human souls, 60% of whom are under the age of twenty five; a daunting task by any means, and an incredible political privilege. The statistics are contestable. That much I grant. But that is not the point. The real question is, are these men up to the task?

The moment this question reared its head in my mind I thought I should for once critique, not the major problems facing these countries, per se, but the nature, and character, of the men and women, we routinely elect to govern our countries, and solve these perennial problems. The utility of this premise is obvious. I get a good chance to look at both the people in power, and those in opposition, to assess, and critique those who are departing, and, more important, to shed light, on those who are coming into office. I have followed the careers of these men for close on forty years, the exception being Masisi. The focus on Botswana is simply to illuminate the historical character of the other figures, and help explicate the problem of politics facing citizens today.

We have a big problem in Botswana politics, and this is, in fact, a problem of African politics. I am talking about the devastating drought of statesmen in national politics, and the worrisome, and annoying, flood, of politicians, in democratic space. What do I mean by a statesman? A skilled, experienced, and respected leader; already we are beginning to disqualify some of the people I mentioned above.

A statesman always stands on political principle, and his ambition is country first and other considerations, including the particular interests of his political party, second. He leads the way, and the people, with a vision whose clarity is beyond doubt. He has education, conviction, and ideas, and builds his platform on a foundation of firm, unchanging, unchangeable, fundamental truths.

Think of Nelson Mandela and racial equality. That man, almost single-handedly, taught an entire generation of politicians, black and white, the value of living together, respecting, and loving each other and building a community called a nation. So did Martin Luther King, and many others before him. Can we say the same thing about Mugabe? No.

Statesmen, guided by a moral compass rooted in a profound sense of absolute right, and absolute wrong, build nations, not political constituencies. Can we say the same thing about Ian Khama? No. The statesman leads by moral authority, and represents the best qualities in his countrymen. Can we say the same thing about Zuma? No. He is a man capable of rallying his people to his vision, and convincing them of the soundness of his political philosophy.

Think of Abraham Lincoln laying the foundation for American democracy, through blood and fury, till a bullet struck him dead. We need such leaders in African politics. We need men and women who always speak to the very best within their fellow citizens, leaders who exhibit great wisdom, and an ability to directly deal with vexing public issues. We need leaders who build a national consensus to achieve proclaimed political vision.

Do we do this kind of politics here in Botswana? No. Already I can visualize some readers mumbling, Teedzani doesn’t know politics, let him try it... these are just words. What does he mean by these abstract, and absurd, heavy political feelings? But wait. I am still talking about statesmanship. I will get to politics, and that wayward species, the politician. Only then can you start castigating me to your heart’s content. The reality is we cannot do good politics if we neglect the bigger picture of these heavy political feelings.

All good politics derive from human intelligence and feelings; from the totality of experienced human conditions. We should never lose sight of this simple reality. What made Morgan Tsvangerai, may his soul rest in peace, and Julius Malema, successful opposition leaders? These heavy political feelings that dry political science maligns, and I would really like our opposition to rid themselves of formulaic demagoguery, and start doing politics the right way; harnessing the power of the written, and spoken word, to the wrath of intolerable human conditions.

I am not the only person exasperated by the conditions of political life in this country. What would a statesman do in a situation like ours? He’d strive for the principal things that Ian Khama failed to do; a constitutional republic guaranteeing freedom and justice for all. Described by the BBC as a man who likes to fly high, Khama proved throughout his tenure in office to be cold, aloof, ascetic, authoritarian, and his callous disregard for Basarwa, whose life he described as obsolete, and extinct, and his particular antipathy to journalists, and roughshod strangulation of the judiciary, and intellectual community, are things completely foreign to statesmanship.

Who can forget that implacably hardening attitude to the press, and trade unions, and the imposition of puritanical discipline on free citizens? Ian worked for the BDP, his family, friends, and close colleagues; not Botswana, and Batswana. The entire country he turned into a safari destination, a theater for personal amusement. He would, I believe have done a good job as an explorer, but he chose to be a politician, and I shall to return to this subject soon.

A statesman does not crave absolute power, and where he has power he never uses it in an oppressive manner, like Mugabe, and Ian Khama did. Is he necessarily perfect? No, that is not humanly possible. Churchill bombed Dresden, and the Germans are still mad. Lincoln suspended habeous corpus during the civil war…but these are exceptions. He doesn’t use force to rule over the entire country the way Mugabe did.

Lincoln took war to confederate forces, but allowed them to surrender with dignity, laying a clear example for future generations the world over. Mugabe took war to the Ndebele, and used his victory as a useful precedent to deal with future political opponents, and the result? In the end he ruined an entire nation, and republic. Even those who stood by his violent pacification of Ndebele people lived to regret the powers, and veneration, they’d invested in him.

I remember a group of Shona children, and their terror, and bewilderment, when, trying to escape hunger, and death, they found themselves crossing the land of the dead in Matabeleland on their way to Botswana…had it not been for pious Ndebele chiefs and priests, God forbid.

The immaturity and shallowness of African politics is really a terrible thing. That’s why statesmen focus their efforts on the common good, national prosperity, and the inheritance of future generations. Placed in the hands of bad, or weak, men, politics has the potential to ruin, not only citizens, but whole nations, and any prospects for creating wealth, and opportunities, for future generations. Statesmen are always conscious, and apprehensive of this, but politicians don’t care.

My problem is that in Africa, and Botswana in particular, we have too many politicians, and not enough statesman, and not many people seem to understand, and appreciate, the differences between the statesman, and politician. When Batswana say someone is a good politician they mean someone who does them favours, no matter how small..o reka bojalwa, and that sort of thing. Many people were prepared do die defending Zuma. I understand even Zulu warriors were itching to test blood. That’s the sort of narrow-mindedness I am talking about, pandering to partisan interests, and not the public good.

The statesman knows what he wants to do when he gets in office. Does Masisi know what he wants to do when he gets in office? Does he know what needs to be done? Rona ba ga domkrag…malope, really, Batswana? It is things like these that terribly pain me. If Masisi was a good leader he’d long have given rousing, intelligent, motivating speeches to Batswana, spelling his vision, admitting the problems he sees in society, the obstacles to solving them, and inciting participation, and movement, with convincing arguments, and making it hard, if not impossible, for his critics, within and outside BDP, to ignore his message.

But is there any such hope to be expected from Masisi? Nope, like Ian he’s working for his party, and not Botswana, and Batswana. Ditto, Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe. Cyril Ramaphosa seems to be bleating in the right direction, but only just…buffaloes might yet rule in South Africa. Only time will tell.

The trouble with Africa is the flood of politicians in democratic space. It may sound strange to the reader to say this but the only definition of politicians in this context is that they are the major, and most notorious, perpetrators of politics in public life. This is neither sophistry nor tautological nonsense. I have here as I write the classic, In Defence of Politics, by Bernard Crick. I have already advanced his major arguments about the nature of politics in previous articles and I am not going to repeat myself.

So what do I mean when I say politicians are the perpetrators of politics in public life? Simple. They are the men and women who give the word politics, and the art of politics, a bad name. How often have you heard sensible really nice people say; “I don’t get involved in politics? Oh, how I hate politics! There can be no person more dishonest than a politician. Politicians are thieves, rascals, hooligans...”

Talk to people who campaign during elections and you will be amazed by the kind of reaction they get from frustrated women, youth, old man, and other citizens with integrity, and a firm sense of purpose in life. Many times these campaigners get kicked out from homes of really good people simply because they mention the word politics, dipolotiki, and this is not surprising.

Look at the irrelevant endless arguing, preposterous fights, name-calling, mud-racking, back-biting, lying, sense of arrogance and self-importance that passes for politics in Botswana. Many Batswana think these dirty insults the essence of good politics. That is wrong. These things are not politics. Only badly brought up kids indulge is such nonsense.

Politicians stand behind the word politics to hide their lack of principles, personal character, and the courage to stand up for what is right. To these irresponsible citizens politics is a product of pride, the lust for power, and partisan pursuit of self-enrichment. To them the end justifies the means, no matter how disreputable, no matter how dishonorable. Obsessed with power, public images of individual grandeur, and motivated by greed, these shameless men and women in due course learn the artful craftiness of deceit, and cunning methods of distortion, distraction, denial and blame shifting…in short they will do anything to stay in the public eye, to snatch a vote, to remain relevant to the social scene.

These charlatans are found in all political parties, and they are accepted, and respected, as politicians, as patriots. This is wrong. This is where the rot in our politics comes from. These are the people who weigh down struggling opposition parties. These are the people who erode the moral strength, and institutional character, of ruling parties. These are the people who supported Zuma in South Africa, the people who elevated Mugabe to the status of a demi-god in Zimbabwe, the people who vote BDP, the people who are giving Khama millions of presents and money.

What then is politics, Teedzani? Politics is primarily civic duty. It is love of country. It is deep affection, and concern, for those you seek to govern, or already govern. Responsible citizens go into politics the moment they realize not enough is being done to fulfill civic duty; respect for the rule of law, preservation of the republican constitution, involvement in community life to safeguard the republic, watch over government, and police the fabric of society and the nation. People who enter politics from this direction are statesman, men and women, trained in humanity.

Citizens with a strong moral code of right and wrong, and patriots possessed of valuable attributes of honesty, humility, reverence for personal responsibility, and a poignant apprehension of the future state of rewards and punishment. If Mugabe and Zuma where statesmen, they would not have resisted popular censure from enraged populations. But being petty politicians, they already considered themselves demi-gods, angels beyond moral, and legal, reproach.

To me this is the greatest problem with our politics. The simple fact people who call themselves politicians actually do not know politics. This is the tragedy of African politics, the tragedy of Botswana politics. There’s dire need to educate Batswana on this subject. You don’t just wake up and decide to be a politician.

“Why,” friends ask.

“I don’t know. I too want to eat. I must pay my debts.”

Such a person is already a bad politician, before he can even start. Unfortunately this is the direction taken by many people who go into politics. You are working on a biography and you ask the old man, “What made you go into politics?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was recruited by so and so.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“Yeah, I can’t really think of any reason. I thought it would be fun, and boy, have I done well. Never, in my wildest dream…”
At this point I’d advise you to drop the research project altogether because really you are talking to an ignoramus, a complete fool.

Sad thing is there are millions such people in our countries, and as long as we continue to look at the art of politics this way we’ll never mature as democracies. South Africa is doing very well thanks to its robust institutional framework. But Botswana, and Zimbabwe, well, a lot needs to be done here. A politician like Mugabe never stops to consider that he actually belongs to the state. No, he thinks the state belongs to him. He treats it like personal property. This is not politics. It’s theft.

A politician like Khama thinks only about the next election, not the next generation. A man like Zuma does not possess a strong desire to serve others. He refuses to recognize his imperfections and strive to overcome them, to be the best person he can be. Such men are not statesmen.

Not one of these men defended liberty and virtue in their countries, not one respected and honored the moral sanctity of the constitution. Not one of them put country first, making it stronger, stable, and taking it on high on the bases of growth, inclusiveness, harmony and social justice. Who can really respect all those terrible decisions and judgments made by these men all these many years? As a matter of fact Zuma and Mugabe had no qualms about directing political vision towards personal gain, in broad daylight. Khama chose simply not to bother working with other leaders at home and abroad. Why bother? He’d no political vision. Batswana wanted him to play, and he did.

This is where we stand now; on a most tantalizing political cliff, as anticipation begins to enter the public consciousness regarding the men earmarked to succeed these political failures; Mnangagwa, Ramaphosa, and Masisi. All three owe their elevation to their political parties, and not the best political parties in the world. What should we expect? I am afraid not much. I said before Mnangagwa is a split image of Mugabe. I have nothing to add. Ramaphosa is a self-made man.

He has a strong grounding in civic duty and grassroots politics. He is a firm constitutionalist. But the master he serves, the ANC, is a merciless behemoth. There is, I think, hope for South Africa. Trouble is ANC has already squandered the public will conferred on it by admiring and grateful citizens only twenty five years ago. In Wretched of the Earth, France Fanon argued African liberation movements would start degenerating in twenty five years. Who can argue with that now? Great man, and great philosopher, that France Fanon.

As for Masisi, ah, I think, I should leave him to Botswana opposition parties. This brings me to one interesting point, the drought of statesmen, and flood of politicians, in Botswana opposition parties. What really is happening here? Can the statesmen in Botswana opposition please stand up? Do these people love this country? Why can’t they originate a political vision, and sustainable platform, that actually transcend their petty, almost personal, differences, and move towards the goal of national preservation?

One would assume opposition parties are familiar with the organization of political conflict in society, and that they consider their sole responsibility to be the search for political resolutions. Are these people really interested in good politics? Do they know what is at stake?

Already, Masisi has moved to ads, PR campaigns, futile obsession with public opinion, including the harmless pieces I write-the man is in a panic mood, but does opposition capitalize on this poor political strategy? No, they are busy fighting among themselves, risking loss of public support, and sympathy. Does the reader see what I mean by the value of political education?  Even the few statesman-like people in opposition are being pilloried with reckless ease, and far too many decisions, decisions that eat at the fabric of political unity, are now based solely on power, wealth, and conformity to facile legal rules, and not a look at BDP and its effect on the nation and the economy. Is this proper opposition politics?

Masisi follows the crowds, and if need be he looks set to live and die with his finger in the air, blowing wind, laboring on a dead horse, maintaining an image of leadership even though we all know he is a just a vacillating opportunist, but opposition does not seem to care much to deliver the knockout punch. Is there something we don’t know here? What is happening! Could it be there is some truth in the saying all politicians are hornets and mosquitoes, that citizens can never really understand why they have to endure them? Is politics really this useless? Is it necessary the burden of political affairs should be so irritating? Is it surprising that griping, moaning, and complaining on a daily basis Batswana continue to return BDP political amateurs to office?

Part of the problem with opposition I think is that people in this side of politics often thrive for a while, and then lose steam, or worse, suffer extinction, and just as often these happens to be the people who really care to push the opposition agenda. Mental fatigue is a serious strain in politics-not to mention personal material resources, and dealing with entrenched incumbency does not help the situation. In the end some opposition members begin to feel just comfortable with marginal political participation.

The few really seasoned opposition members also develop entitlement complexes that madden new entrants in the game, especially impatient, and frustrated youth. In the end the chain of moral authority and mutual beneficence collapses and far too much time is spent mending fences.

Pray, opposition must realize this also happens to ruling parties. Giving up is not an option, it is moral suicide, and most of you guys are good Christians. If in doubt adopt the defense strategy of the hedgehog who protects himself by rolling into a tight ball, quills jutting at enemy position, shielding the tucked face, feet, and belly; in short fight with spirit, and determination, never give up. The human spirit is an immeasurable political treasure. In BDP you are face to face with the tortoise.

The shell is still hard though much of this might by now amount to nothing but sham. The tortoise symbolizes longevity in some cultures, and some of these creatures, just like BDP, have been known to live long lives. Adwaita of Aldabra, for example, lived 225 years but eventually, like all nature, died.  Note too that some species of the tortoise, just like BDP politicians, have very small brains and others do not have hippocampus in the brain, an organ that relates to emotion, learning and memory. You can live long like BDP without learning, or feeling, anything, about the people you lead. Both Zuma and Mugabe tried to survive like these tortoises but see what happened in the end. Tjisingapele tjo hula.

More leaders in opposition must really start turning to the amour of statesmanship. Yes, I accept the nuanced subtle differences between the politician and the statesman but it must take advantage of the fact BDP completely abandoned good politics long ago.  If everybody in Botswana remains stuck in political mediocrity, who is going to stop political corruption? Who is going to prevent national ruin? Do you really want all this bribery, extortion, cronyism, influence trading, and peddling, and graft, and embezzlement to go on unchecked? Do you want to facilitate criminal enterprise in the country through voluntary abdication? Batswana have not abandoned you; not yet. The use of power by government leaders to extract and accumulate private enrichment is not permissible.

So the use of corrupt means to stay in power. The repression of opponents. General police brutality. The use of extracted resources for political preservation, and power extension purposes, and the politically motivated distribution of financial and material inducements, benefits and spoils; things like namola leuba and Ipelegeng…these are criminal things, and they must stop.

Batswana need education, jobs, and sustainable social safety nets; not handouts. If nobody stops the gravy train this country will be what nature decreed it to be before we turned it into a home: arid desert and dustbowls. Is this what you want?
I don’t think so. Tembezelani Batjibilibili, shangoyapalala.

Teedzani Thapelo* is author of the novel Seasons of Thunder, and the books, Battle against the Botswana Democratic Party: point of departure, Politics of Unfulfilled Expectations in Botswana: a dangerous mess, Argument against the Botswana Democratic Party: an intellectual inquiry, Ian Khama Presidency and Vanity Fair in Parliament: an African tragedy.



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