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“I feel remorse,” Sir Bob at the Death of Sir Quett: Ambiguities of Character and Accomplishment in History

Publishing Date : 25 July, 2017

Author :

Teedzani Thapelo

In this article novelist, historian, and poet, Teedzani Thapelo*, investigates the moral dilemmas presented to scholarship by the friendship between late president, Sir Ketumile Masire, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and drawing from the influence of Shula Marks on him as a student, explores the ambiguities of political actions and attitudes in the context of southern African liberation struggles asking the disturbing questions: what tied these men together given their contrasting personalities, principles, and public personas; Mugabe melancholy, choleric, impetuous, and sensually extravagant, and Masire, supposedly, sensible, prudent, frugal, hard-working, and personification of a clown as a genius.

Are we now being called upon to distinguish between what such men do as private citizens, and what they do as great men, as public figures? Are we being asked to distinguish between the purely political, and the psychological in public administration? Masire’s longevity in politics, Thapelo disagrees, gave him time and space in which his political vision, and public personality, could cohere, and inspire generations.

Not many people know Robert Mugabe was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. But that does not mean he is not a Knight of the Garter. I am not sure if, once awarded, this thing can be withdrawn. If that is possible, then it is probable mad Bob has already lost it given his frosty relations with the vanquished colonial master. But that is not my point. What I really want to say is that honours like these do not always say much about the characters of those who get them.

This, of course, is not to say it is not worth the sweat for those most deserving of them. I am still reeling from the shock revelation at the state funeral of Masire that these two men have been the best of friends all along. I cannot think of two more completely different men, two more contrasting political personalities, two more dissimilar public personas. But then in politics things are not always what they appear to be; and that statement, “I feel remorse,” What does it mean? Mugabe is a notorious political brute. I cannot start to even imagine what he meant by this statement, to a Btv interviewer, after the funeral in Kanye. It is probable he explained it further, but that is unlikely. For some reason I will never understand Btv journalists are notorious for their reverence for political authority; sordid or sublime.

This could have been the scoop of the century. Just a little bit more probing, a few more subtly pointed questions, and Mugabe might just have come clean on a host of million political misdeeds that have attendant his Machiavellian, and relentlessly brutal, presidency for more than thirty years. The historical saga that is his entire brutal savagery might have come tumbling out of those trembling lips. But no, the good journalist let him off the hook as if this malicious leviathan was a tiny harmless fish; most extraordinary. Is it possible this man, now one foot in the grave, is beginning to regret his murderous rule? Is the burden of guilt now catching up with his conscience? Is there room for sorrow in his breast, in that cold heart? Is he human after all? Is he willing to surrender himself to the International Criminal Court for proper investigation? Should investigators start drawing up the genocide warrant of arrest? A lot of books have already been written about this man.

NGOs and churches have already compiled frighteningly huge dossiers on crimes against citizens, and humanity. The Roman Catholic Commission opened the floodgates, and, as I write, serious investigative journalists, and academic researchers are busy churning out more reports, but Mugabe remains unfazed; keeping a flat face of undisturbed serenity, in the midst of horrors, and the most unmitigated national political calamity. Every little brutal morsel that comes to light he always waves away, laughing, and accusing everybody who cares to listen of calumny: the assassinations, public violence, the executions, forced exiles and migrations, it’s all nonsense, media fabrication to dent his standing out of place in his brilliancy society.

But, and to return to the substance of this article; what really was the relationship between the late Masire and this man? I look back to that sombre scene and I see the gathering of mourners, and I hear orations by friends and relatives, presenting the late president in the most refined and advantageous light, everything served up like a joint of beef garnished with salad on a hot platter; the most proper celebration of a life well lived. I look back at the same scene, and I hear Mugabe speak, making fine biblical allusions, and I ask myself; how really should ordinary mortals like me decode the actions of what lazy scholars call statesmen? Are we now being called upon to distinguish between what such men do as private citizens, and what they do as great men, as public figures? Are we being asked to distinguish between the purely political, and the psychological in public administration? I doubt even that exacting social theory, sociological imagination, could place such an invitation at the feet of ordinary men like me. It’s just too much to ask. Throughout his tyrannical rule Mugabe’s political actions have consistently blurred the line between private and public, personal and professional, moral and amoral. Political literature is agreed he’s perhaps the most unethical, dishonourable, and unscrupulous African leader in postcolonial history.

What did Masire see in this man? What was the essential attraction? Was this real friendship or just a matter of diplomatic manoeuvring, on the part of Masire, a subtle form of political appeasement of a troublesome but very unpredictable, and powerful neighbour, a man not even afraid of mobilizing an entire national army for personal benefit as he did in that ludicrous military escapade in DRC, that created millionaires in Zimbabwe, including the strong man himself? This is quiet probably, but I don’t know if Masire was really such an astute politician. The little literature I know on him is not that exhaustive. It is gratifying to hear Bakangwaketse historians, and writers, vow to the nation they will soon start researching his political biography in earnest. We need this information, and knowledge, badly. To this day nobody has seen it fit, and proper, to give us any definitive biography of Seretse Khama. Now the man who started this political journey with him has departed as well, and it remains hard for scholars like me, people who appreciate the minutiae, and nuances of historical interpretation, before they can pass judgement on the actions, and merits, of historical figures, to really figure out who between these leaders did what, when, and how.

Right now it would appear to me the political debts we owe to each of them are constantly mixed up, confused, lumped together; it is really as if Batswana don’t care much to know them well, and understand their politics, and legacies, well. To me this is unacceptable. BDP, and the children of these two great villages; Kanye, and Serowe, must write the histories of these men. They owe this to the nation, and to the departed leaders themselves. Outsiders like me have no resources, and no access to the most pertinent documentation about them; things like family records, personal memoirs, diaries, elders who grew up, and experienced, the march of history with these politicians, and surviving family members. We are also constrained by our poor knowledge of local cultures and languages. I bring up this point because to understand the relationship between Masire, and Mugabe, to poignantly grasp various aspects of political discernment on the part of Masire, one needs to know the true character of the man, and this is something that we clearly don’t know. What we know are historical facts attending to his political career, but these, we all know, rarely speak for themselves.

Mugabe we all know very well; thanks to disciplined, and persistent, Zimbabwean intellectual labour. For example, Batswana tell me both man are great African statesmen. This I do not accept. Further, nobody can force me to change my mind on this score on the basis of simple vehement assertions; rra we ke a go bulelela. That just won’t do. It’s not how we do history. Being a good heretic I have two intellectual scriptures, Miserables, by Victor Hugo, and War and Peace, by Leon Tolstoy; brilliant literature, 1263 pages, and 1392 pages respectively). A few years ago I convinced myself of the necessity to read them every year for ten years. I’m almost there, and soon as arguments about the greatness to Masire, and the call for his political canonization; things that surprised me to the core, I turned to one of my bibles, War and Peace, and found this poetic observation by the great man: “When it comes to events in history, so-called ‘great men’ are nothing but labels attached to events; like real labels, they have the least possible connection with events themselves,” (2006: 671). Amen!

Listening to Batswana speak about Masire I discovered nothing really concrete beyond endless enumeration of political events, and suppositions that certain things happened because Masire organised them, wished them to happen, participated in their executions, was there when they happened, cheered, clapped, and danced, when he realized they had happened, did not prevent them from happening, approved when he heard they had happened, made good jokes about them, signed a check for celebration when they matured, and succeeded, or all these things combined, in one amorphous mass. Come on, is this how historical studies, and analysis, are done? Someone must put a stop to this silliness. I also want to know the differences between the things he actually did, and the things that were actually done by Seretse. What about the things that were done by BDP, as a party, and government? Does he get personal credit for all these things as well? I should think some people are really very lucky, but luck is not an attribute of political greatness. If you want to convince me about the alleged political heroism of this man, it is critical you clearly, and unambiguously, spell his personal merits out, gathering unequivocal, and incontrovertible evidence, to justify his political accomplishments. The second argument is that he was a great patriot, and democrat, but so am I, and my mother, and millions of Batswana throughout the length and breath of this beautiful country.

One thing I agree, he walked a path strewn with roses, and it is obvious, from the historical record, everything came his way the easy way; thanks, in part, to our constitutional arrangements, on one hand, and national temperament on the other. Just about everything he did, thousands of Batswana could have done if placed in his positions. Better still, thousands of Batswana could have done the things he didn’t do, but must have done, had they had been fortunate enough to occupy his political positions. This is the irony of democratic politics, and culture. In fact the opposition exists in a democracy primarily because this magnificent political culture recognises, all the time, that the things being done by those in power, and positions of authority, within ruling political parties, and within governments as civic institutions, can often, be done better by others who at any time find themselves temporarily exiled, or excluded, from these positions. One remarkable thing about Masire, might be he tried his best to preserve the good things that happened around him, or because of his personal advocacy. But this is not the argument I hear from Batswana. Oh, no, to them he did everything, himself, and he did everything right. No sensible man can accept such nonsense. Things just don’t work this way in politics.

At this point several things occur to my mind. What really should we make of Masire as a) political guardian, b) public servant, c) national patriot, d) political animal, e) economic man, and g) man of letters and world affairs? Hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of books, can be written about him from anyone of these categorical premises. In fact, I would like his people to write them. But before that is done, we must assess his political record using the research evidence available to us now. To my great surprise, Batswana seem not to like this perspective. They distrust intellectuals, and intellectual material, and, at the same time want us to accept their exaltation of Masire as the greatest educationist Botswana ever produced, the man who educated them, and educated them very well. I don’t know what to make of this convoluted rubbish. What would Masire make of it himself? I didn’t know he was an intellectual as Batswana claim, and I am not convinced he was one.

He did hold administrative positions that brought him into contact with our academic institutions, especially the University of Botswana. He did make decisions that impacted our national academic career, but these were collective decisions, made in concert with other Batswana, some of whom, to my knowledge, were men more eminently more educated than Masire; people like Thomas Tlou, and illustrious sons of Africa like Felix Mthali, David Rubari-part of the generation that shined in golden fashion at Makerere University before it was blighted by Amin fascist politics, not to mention a host of other brilliant South African exile intellectuals, men who knew very well the strategic importance of Botswana to regional liberation struggles, and passionately wanted it to rapidly evolve as a strong educational hub. Within BDP itself, and government, he worked with a few but very committed educationists, and the majority of them came from northern Botswana; mostly Serowe, and Bukalanga Country.

Yes, he certainly did teach in Kanye, and I, for one, would have been mighty impressed if his students there subsequently followed the path of the Selma Seven, the first black girls in America whose struggle against segregated education aroused national passion, and revolt; all seven went on to distinguish themselves as internationally acclaimed intellectuals, getting doctorates, and spreading themselves in wide fields of learning throughout the American world of academia, and other fields of learning like medicine. The present leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement are inspired by the educational spirit of these seven girls, and we might add today just about all American universities are dominated, and lead, by female scholars, and we know who their heroines, their role models are. This, to me, is what is called exemplary educational pioneering. Masire had 12 students, what Btv calls the 12 apostles. What, I wonder, happened to these twelve scholars? Where are they today? How did they impact our academic history, and culture of learning?

Let me tell you a story. I grew up in a small village in North East Botswana, Mapoka village. Our parents, the same generation as Masire, valued, and still value, education in a manner so fierce by the time I opened my eyes to the fiery madness of their commitment to scholarship just about every senior secondary school in Botswana had already had an educationist from Mapoka as its school head. We are only a few thousand people, certainly never more than 3000 in my lifetime, but no village throughout this desert country has ever produced, in percentage terms (per its own population) more, and finer, school teachers. That village has contributed more than 30 professors to the national university, in all fields of learning. These men and women have educated their children well. In our village we regard undergraduate degree holders as school drop-outs, and they know it, and work hard to do things the right way. Even five year olds know this very well. In Mapoka village education has always been a right, not a privilege.

Of my generation, the majority of us were sponsored, in many instances, not by their poor parents, but by those who had already acquired education, led, from the front, by the great Chief She Bakwali Habangana; a man who dominated our lives for more than seventy years, and turned a small picturesque African hamlet from a simple traditional setting into an intellectual tower of modern education, and this good man never asked for wings. After his death I quietly preserved his honour, and memory, in a history graduation dissertation; my first piece of work to be deposited into a university library for future reference, and archived in national records. Many years later Prof Ngcongco told me it was only this little miserable dissertation that helped me get admitted into the history department; after the same department had denied me a first class the previous year. This also helped me to enter the University of London on a scholarship but I had had enough of history. When I got there I studied politics, economics and sociology. It was my first detachment from UB. I owe my late chief a great deal of gratitude.

Our own primary school was opened in 1900, many years before Masire and Mugabe were born. Three women stand out in the famous footprint of this remarkable school; the Habanganas, Bakaknewman, BakaMorris, and BakaUyapo. On average, these extraordinary women spent over 50 years teaching at that primary school. They witnessed our births in the village. Watched us playing in dirty grass path roads. Taught us how to read, and write. Marvelled at our rise to secondary schools, and beyond. Celebrated the return to the village of young men and women educated in famous American, British, European and African universities; medical doctors, scientists, educationists, nurses, soldiers, technicians, accountants, social scientists, writers, historians, artists, lawyers and journalists. Some of these remarkable children of a small African village have gone on to become cabinet ministers, judges, writers, human rights campaigners, professors, deans of university faculties, heads of university departments, senior civil servants, and, a few, millionaire businessmen and women, and the indomitable three Habangana teachers have witnessed us marry, build homes, have children of our own, and die; circles evolving within circles, the dynamic spirit of education mapping out new vibrant pathways to modern forms of community identity, and individual academic accomplishments carving out geographies to human souls, a brave new world opening up in a small acre of African soil.

Socrates himself would not have minded much living in our village, a beautiful little community of open-minded scholars whose intellectual aestheticism remains difficulty to apprehend. To some this maybe just a mark of Kalanga genius but to me it’s something more profound; a celebration of the rigour of open minds in a free society, the reason why after getting three university degrees I have never worn an academic gown. Why should I? I owe the new craftsmanship of my intellectual mind to native tradition, and humour, only circumstantially immersion in modernity by administrative circumstances. No sensible man wears a dress to celebrate the fact he has finished ploughing his field. Education is that natural; it is life.

In my own case, my mother, Tanyala Thula Thapelo, tilled four acres of land for more than forty years to see us through school, and beginning with not a single penny in the bank, and not a single cow in the kraal, sent her first child to school, and determined none of us would grow up without some respectable form of education. Our father, a scoundrel, like that of Mugabe, had run away, leaving her to bring up seven children. As I write my mom is 86 years. She still lives in the village. From that miraculous number; seven, she has more than 12 twelve children, and grandchildren, who are qualified medical doctors, lawyers, accountants, technicians, teachers, nurses, and, to the best of my knowledge, the only University of Cambridge Rhodes Scholar in the village, perhaps Botswana; my younger brother Sifelani Thapelo, and we, too, continue the tradition of educating our children as though going to school is something no different really than eating your next meal of the day. To me it is such ordinary people, people who did so much, did things so extraordinary, in their lifetime, who qualify to be designated true educational pioneers, and national heroes, and the story of this village predates independence.

Masire does not feature anywhere in this extraordinary story, if anything we know he was party to its deliberate emasculation by abolishing the use of native Ikalanga tongue in primary schools after independence, something our parents never forgave. For the sixteen years I lived in the village the people voted the opposition, and they have never asked for national honours. I think the reader can now understand why I have difficulty accepting a man like Masire, someone who had so much land, so many political resources at his daily disposal for 60 years, so many connections, and so much education, is a man more deserving of national honour than my poor village compatriots who did so much for this country, with so little capital. I look at these lovely villagers, and I see the soul of Botswana, the very spirit of this nation, the moral spirit of our modern age; hard work, commitment to principle, enlightenment, and global civilization.

Whenever I read the novels of Chinua Achebe I see these magnificent villagers in some of his most memorable literary characters, the first Africans who truly grasped the possibilities of human advancement through modernity, and I cry a little bit, knowing, here I am at home, the best world possible for any educated man, and the Masires and Mugabes of Africa do not feature in this picture, in this astonishing portrait of a village. Plato himself would have had a flourishing philosophical career in our village. I might add there are many other such villages in Bukalanga Country, and none has ever asked for national honours. If Masire was a hero, he would, he should have, done much more than this, but it is because of him, and his BDP party, that education is now in a loathsome crisis throughout the republic. Masire, an educationist? No, never. Give the honour to our parents!

Throughout his UB Chancellorship in the eighties this man stamped an authoritarian imprimatur on academic administration, and student academic freedom, imposing incompetent BDP sympathiser administrators on university admiration, and stupidly interfering in professorial appointments in favour of BDP members; a thing that forever undermined the culture of research, and serious scholarship at UB, as brilliant scholars felt alienated, and stupefied, by the rise of nauseating imbecile mediocrity, and even became contemptuous of UB itself as a centre of high learning, and left in disgust, never to return. His actions radicalized campus politics to such a frightening level students often lived in fear for their lives, and security, on campus. I see BDP has decided to honour him by renaming the UB medical hospital. I wonder if students, and the professoriate, have been adequately consulted. But that does not matter, the moment research work on this man starts doing its serious work, and worms, and skeletons, start coming out, intellectual consciousness will, no doubt, correct this anomaly.

This happened to Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, and I would not be surprised if an incensed radical student population reversed this rush political decision in the future. Batswana, of course, will already have long forgotten about him. In my opinion whatever educational credentials Masire could have claimed these were annulled by his senseless refusal to spare the life of his own fellow tribesman, Clement Gofhamodimo, whose controversial hanging for a poorly investigated, and prosecuted, murder case, led to riots in American universities and great international indignation. This brilliant young man had already made his name in American academia, and remains, in many ways, a pioneer of Botswana diaspora intellectualism, but he was suspected of killing a white man, a man with friends in certain rich mining companies, and for that reason he had to die. Why did Masire not exercise the prerogative of clemency? I respect other man’s opinions but draw the line where such opinions disrespect human existence, and the possibility of human redemption, things that constitute the moral foundation of educational philosophy. Masire was neither a scholar nor an outstanding educationist.

I bed the University of Botswana to rescind government decision to rename its medical hospital in honour of this man.  One other aspect about this debate I must address; the contrast between Mugabe and Masire, the former at once melancholy, choleric, impetuous, and sensually extravagant, and the other supposedly, and this I doubt very much, sensible, prudent, frugal, hard-working, and personification of a clown as a genius. I do not agree Masire’s longevity in politics gave him time and space in which his political vision, and public personality, could cohere, and inspire generations. I agree he once earned his bitter, meagre bread, as a farmer, but once De Beers/Debswana and National Development Bank started financing his farming enterprise, including forgiven loans, everything became so subsidised that his wealth accumulated exponentially. Other farmers were not so lucky, they had no cash cows to milk, and farm at will. This does not square with the imagery of a lonely hard-working farmer working his way to the top by the bare exertion of his power, under every disadvantage of person and fortune. Nor does it tell the story of his alleged frustrated ambition, and resentful drudgery that made him think deeply of life in politics and public administration that would benefit the nation, and the poor.

In fact this man never really had to lodge a petition against his conditions. Fate, and history, worked on his side, but this is not the same thing as self-application to the pinnacle of national fame. There may be some truth about his much vaunted manifesto in defence of Setswana language, but Setswana is a lingo I know nothing about, and while I doubt not the testimony his personal character was suffused with humour, I find what I read of it in social media coarse, uncultured and insensitivity to the reality of poverty in postcolonial society. The man was nothing but an uncouth, arrant boor. Let us not forget throughout his rule poverty stubbornly stayed around 40% of the population while Botswana experienced the fastest and highest, rates of rapid growth in the world, and his government departments routinely returned unspent development funds to their boss. What really happened to all that money in all those eighteen years? Doesn’t this contradict the Anglican tradition that all good men walk by the same path? Masire, I am told, was lay preacher. Is he really the individual, who by his shining of light rendered this path more plain, and pleasant? Was he a paragon of virtue? Did he possess human nature generous with feeling? Was he capable of apprehending the world of real affairs? I really don’t think so, and it is painfully difficult to vouchsafe for the moral integrity of such a highly conflicted man, even though he may have president of your republic.

Position in society alone does not necessarily qualify for heroism. That much we all know. Neither is heroism simply a matter of some range of formal concerns. Heroism is about exceptional personal deeds in the service of humanity, and it is an important part of clearly articulated political vision, and the struggle to make sure as we walk through trials in life, and discover that happiness and what truths we may grasp as we journey lie in the knowledge that all things good, and proper, flourish at home, and in the human breast. The Masire presidency left thousands of Batswana hungering, and without homes; their human breasts overflowing with great sorrow, and despair. Had Masire had the opportunity to bid us farewell he too, and like his friend Mugabe, would have had little to say but, ‘I feel remorse,’ and this epithet to undistinguished public service does not become the political hero I have in mind.

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, and Sir Ketumile Masire: willow in the limelight and the gathering storm.



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