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Ideas of Heroism in Politics: Why I don’t Consider Ketumile Masire a Hero

Teedzani Thapelo

In this thought provoking seminal article novelist, historian and poet, Teedzani Thapelo*, inaugurates a radical revisionist analysis of the political canonization of late president, Sir Ketumile Masire, and drawing from philosophic exposition, argues this action is not only premature but far too precipitate, rising as it does from hysterical hallucinations, and frightening disregard of the critical role of historical interpretation in the place of heroism in politics and public life.

The argument is part of his coming book; Sir Ketumile Masire: willow in the limelight and the gathering storm. The republic buried Masire in Kanye this morning; 29th June, 2017. In the last few days I have watched, fascinated, and appalled, a tempestuous flurry of hysterical allusions, and precipitate confirmations, of this man’s supposed political heroism; prompting my historical conscience to both revisit, and perhaps, rethink, in the same regard, the philosophical idea, and logic, of heroism in politics. This, I am told, is a country of educated people. So I am not going to waste time, and space, on political definitions. Batswana, I think, know what they mean when they talk about political heroes.

My second assumption is that Batswana know perfectly well political heroes are not fictional characters. Third, Batswana know, and I hope, understand, the history of political heroism in Africa, and African struggles for liberation, freedom, democracy, human rights, and human dignity, in the last five hundred years. Four, Batswana, I think, know, and understand, the idea, and logic, of political heroism in political philosophy, Christian doctrine, historical experience, and moral African traditions, even in our daily known world; a world of lived human experience. What type of a hero was Masire?

There are many archetypes of political heroism in political studies, history, and development theory. All these revolve around several cornerstones; the art and culture of war, man’s historical struggles for survival against the ravages of nature, and the elements, and for religious people, human struggle against mortality. All these heroic struggles are defined by the terror of existential menaces, and the necessity to impose sufficient restraints on them, and without such struggles, human history would by now be a thing of the past, and perhaps even planet earth would be extinct. Throughout history, political heroism has almost always manifested several strands.

First, rejection or affirmation of the human condition. Second, the struggle against environmental ruin. Third, and, in my mind, perhaps the greatest object of heroic political effort; the struggle against human extinction. I understand the Sir Ketumile Masire Foundation deals with issues of peace studies, and the resolution of conflict, among other things. So I take it Batswana know what they are talking about when they advocate the republic must crown him a political hero. I also have sufficient reason to doubt the intellectual vigour of this political knowledge.

My concern here is simple: why should the nation crown him a political hero? Is this man, really, a political hero? From what historical premise does this heroism arise? Has it been sufficiently confirmed by historical experience? My second concern is also simple: empirical studies still have to be done to establish any claims to status of such imperial ranking in annuls of national history. But I might be mistaken about this. Sir Ketumile has been University Chancellor at UB, and it might as well be that political scientists and history professors there have already carried out studies to assist propel this argument forward; something I very much doubt.

In the absence of that, my question still stands: is this man a political hero? If these suppositions are simply journalistic impressions, not backed by vigorous, and objective, investigation, my suggestion is that we shelf them for future consideration. If, however, they are just outpourings of human emotions, we must reject them outright. Political grief is one thing, and political heroism, quite another thing. Most of the time the two do not even relate to each other. Some may say he is not a political hero, per se, but he has done so much for Botswana that it would be grossly remiss to not acknowledge him a national hero. Granted; but he alone?

We must, I think, read well, the marked difference between heroism, which, in essence, is individual or human triumph, over adversity, and therefore deserving of national honour, and excellence in one’s duty, which is a simple academic criterion for application of the human mind, and labour, to professional duty, and therefore deserving of a salary, and promotion. I grant both rewards are forms of appreciation. But the two still differ considerably. Masire was paid well for his work, and got the promotions he deserved in his lifetime. If now he must be recognised at a level greater than this, then there clearly is need to re-assess the peculiarity, and genius, of his political career.

This, I am afraid, Batswana have not done. To the best of my knowledge the Botswana national project was collective effort, mostly rooted in African moral principles of common humanity, and human fellowship, and these communitarian precepts are not unique to Botswana: Ubuntu, botho, buthu? To the best of my knowledge it’s untrue to say Masire alone embodied these African values in our political life. Not even the ancient organisational political principle of consultation is unique to Masire’s brand of politics or Botswana political culture in general. These things are common knowledge. Second, our political history is deeply rooted in republican constitutionalism, regardless of the flawed nature of our constitution; a thing that Masire conveniently ignored throughout his life.

What, then, constitutes his political heroism? What political attributes denote the heroic in his political philosophy? What I have heard Batswana say is based on personal observations, professional attachments, collegial cooperation, routine-and rustic- interactions, and, friendships, family connections, and highly select, and unacceptably subjective, historical memory. None of these things are sufficient intellectual tools, in themselves, to confirm the idea, and logic, of political heroism, on their own; not even collectively. The political hero, by definition, is born in war, and allied human struggles; struggles, historical, divine, environmental, eschatological, and metaphysical.

It doesn’t matter what you are talking about; saints, martyrs, statesmen, artists, philosophers, generals, humanist celebrities like Nobel Laureates, all these have homes in these areas of human conception, and imagination. Where, pray, does, Sir Ketumile fit? Is it possible, according to this criteria, to locate, and affirm, to place, his brand of heroism? I think not. And there lies the problem; the simple indifferent challenge of conceptualizing his political heroism. What appears to be indisputable is the fact he was an ordinary, honest, hard-working man. I should think, possibly a most decent fellow, at least to his family, friends, and those to whom he sought audience, and company.

In short, he was a typical Motswana man. There are more than a million men like him in this country. The major difference is that he entered politics, and reached the highest political position in the republic, and in this he is not alone. Are we then to designate all former Presidents political heroes? Isn’t this foolishness of the first order? Would not Sir Ketumile, himself a literate man, and passionate political animal, find this ridiculous to the extreme? Batswana must be aware scholars are already revising the heroic status of Nelson Mandela, the finest amongst African political icons. I have read just about everything solid there is to read about political heroes like Churchill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela himself, Fidel Castro, and several other historical figures that caught my imagination in the last third years. I have also read the political villains; Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mabuto of DRC and Robert Mugabe; a man who tearfully calls Sir Ketumile his best friend.

It shocks me, profoundly, that Mugabe, a man guilty of killing revolutionary heroes in the land of Zimbabwe, can come here and talk about national heroism. He says in Zimbabwe, they would regard Masire as a national hero, and Batswana applauded him, but do they know of the villainous political criminals who lie in the Heroes’ Acre in Harare? Do they know that Mugabe committed genocide against the Ndebele and BaKalanga people in Zimbabwe between 1982-84, right under the watchful eyes of the Masire government?

Or should we take it Masire gave tacit consent to these crimes against humanity? Are we now being called upon to celebrate the horrors of Gukurehunde; the cleansing of chaff, the Zimbabweans Mugabe considered too impure, and unfit, for citizenship in liberated Zimbabwe? Throughout his tyrannical rule Mugabe has relentlessly brutalized, terrorized, intimidated, assassinated, ruined, humiliated, and exiled hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean finest intellectuals, artists, musicians, professors, students, and laid to waste fertile land that once was the economic backbone of Southern Africa. He has scattered millions of hunger-stricken citizens to all corners of the world so that today it is not uncommon to see the children of that beautiful land begging in the capitals of the Western world or being burned alive in South African cities and crowded, equally poor, townships.

The children of Zimbabwe die, lost, and miserable, in the most sordid ways possible, and this man has the audacity to come to a funeral in Kanye and talk about the genocide in Rwanda. Mugabe never mentions Seretse Khama in his inane reminisces about his fond friendship with the good Masire precisely because his politics are a radical pervasion of values that Khama cherished most; moral distinction, racial equality, tribal tolerance and cultural-historical consciousness in pursuit of the public good. Just what is it that constituted such a bond between these two men, Masire, and Mugabe? Should we not consider Masire just as guilty, at least by way of association, of many of the wrong-doings, and heinous crimes, committed by his good friend in Zimbabwe?

Just what are we expected to make of this relationship? Did Masire not care about the killings of innocent little Ndebele, European, and Kalanga children by the Mugabe regime? Then there is the irritating talk about Masire’s mediation exploits in DRC and efforts at reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. Oh, really? What did he actually accomplish there? Nothing, absolutely nothing. As I write Congolese children are still being raped, and massacred, in that permanently lawless country, and Joseph, the arrant son of Laurent Kabila, continues the legacy of his father unperturbed. Yes, some warlords have been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, but all this happened after Masire had thrown in the towel, and flown home to his farms. I really do think people should learn how to examine, and grade, political success.   

Batswana always surprise me. They claim to be educated, and yet seem to know so little about the world around them that ignorance of simple realities has come to define us in the eyes of the world. It is because of our gallivanting around with rude, and rustic, characters, like Mugabe, that we have become the laughing stock of the world. If Masire could choose such men for company, and personal friendship, what does this tell us about his political judgement, about his sense of justice, and moral rectitude? What other kind of friends did he choose here at home? Things like these seriously call into question the personality, and moral integrity of a man. Is this how we want Masire to be remembered? What was that silly applause, broadcast live on TV, about?

The argument for Masire’s heroism is too premature, perhaps even misplaced. I look, in both political literature, and the historical drama continually unfolding in Botswana, at how Masire interacted with public servants, and his colleagues throughout his presidency, and how these people remember him. By the time he left office, and I left graduate school, there were already 10, 000 doctoral theses on Botswana, and I have since made it my business to make them my personal friends. Just about all of them are available online. I look at his relationships with civil society, the private press, academics and students.

I look at the presidential commissions, land tribunals, landmark court cases; just about everywhere this man left a fingerprint in the many years of his political life, and little, to nothing, suggest to my mind, this man is a national hero. I look at his political biography from various angles; cosmopolitanism, entrepreneurship, political innovation, administrative accountability, values of statesmanship, elderhood, and patriarchy, and still I am not convinced any case can be made for political canonization. I don’t want Batswana to misunderstand me. I am not trying to take anything from this man’s political life. In politics people do get embroiled in the most vexatious and violent disputes. The few who rise above these without scars, at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and wearing the grand badge of political glory, are people who are capable of legislating their own path to this glory, people who are their own lawyers in national matters of the greatest importance, and these few we call heroes.

For the most part these people die good, wise, incorrupt, and free of slanderous aspersions, and social acerbities. Masire is not one of them, and this now brings me to issues that bothered me when this man was still president. I have heard Batswana argue these past few irritating days he is the architect of our republican constitutionalism, the crafter of our political culture, an undisputed guardian of the public purse during his heady days at Government Enclave, master of financial prudence and economic austerity, the master-farmer statesmen who gave name, dignity, and prestige, to rural production, the finest educationalist that ever strode the republic; it’s as if even Seretse Khama, and other BDP leaders never existed. I don’t even know how to address this emotional juvenile delinquency. It’s just terribly frustrating.

Can the people who argue he is a national hero answer these questions? Why, and how, did the problems of poor work ethic, productivity, and corruption in the public sector worsen under his administration? What really happened to our diamond wealth? Don’t Batswana want to know? Did we get an agreement that was right for the nation? Is it possible by partnering with this gigantic, and notoriously secretive behemoth, we traded away not only national wealth but certain fundamentals of our democracy as well? Is it possible this agreement clawed back our national sovereignty?

How does a small, uneducated, poor, legally and technically ignorant country, like Botswana, negotiate a secret mining agreement with a giant like De Beers in the turbulent, racist world, and climate of the late 1960s, and still claim political legitimacy, and credibility; even mutual benefit? What is the basis of equivalence in De Beers working together with the Botswana government through a corporate deal of this nature for so many years? The agreement is not transparent, it is shrouded in too much secrecy and darkness; does this not bother Batswana at all? Is there an arbitration clause in this agreement? What exactly is the revenue sharing formulae between the two parties, and how has this been affected by subsequent revisions of the original agreement, including the setting up of Debswana, and other attendant organizational and operational changes? Have all these things been done in good faith, and good will?

For example if there have been cases of over-mining, illegal smuggling of rough stones, gratuitous injury to workers, and the environment, has it been possible for government or other affected parties, to claim compensation? Who exactly is entitled to arbitration, and under what circumstances? What kind of legal protection did De Beers ask, and what did it get? Or is this a non-recourse commercial agreement? What are the limits to regulation? What about the issues of social contract and social conscience? How have these been handled, and continue to be handled at these mines?

Was this agreement a blueprint for others to come? Is it a legal precedent for other mining agreements with international mining companies in Botswana? More significantly, how much political capital was invested in this agreement? Is the agreement as progressive as its signatories claim it to be? These are important issues of commercial justice. Batswana rightly suspect the nature of this agreement stifled our economic growth and development, and that we gave too much away, and got little, to nothing, in return. The agreement has absolutely no contact with real society yet it applied to lucrative mining in tribal land, isn’t that the strangest thing? The voice of the people was totally ignored. Only a small elite of less than five educated Batswana found a sit at the negotiating and signing tables, and these people possessed no expertise! Is it possible the agreement took advantage of national poverty, ignorance and appalling levels of political anxiety to impose terms and even redefine political consensus? Under what circumstances can aggrieved Batswana sue De Beers? These are very serious matters.

Just look at our standards of living. Look at the high levels of poverty and unemployment. Look at the swathe of social wretchedness. It has been estimated we could have built more than six international cities the size of Johannesburg with money from our diamonds; what really happened here? How come this huge wealth failed to inaugurate a historic economic dynamic for radical social transformation, the creation of good sustainable jobs, high incomes, industrialization and modern knowledge society? The whole world is astounded at our missed opportunities. We really should get a prize for this briefest gleam of stupendous prosperity that passed by so swiftly and so inconsequentially.

It is obvious Batswana who signed up to this infamous deal were only looking at the political track; they had no knowledge of economics, and no vision of the future. They knew not the cost of doing such things, and could hardly ensure that choices were made with the fullest possible understanding of the facts, risks, and uncertainties involved. Yes, they had help from other white fellows, people who went on to work for De Beers and its affiliates like Anglo-American while those who stayed in Botswana joined the BDP and sat on the local board of the mining company. What do you make of that? Did subsequent renegotiations of this relationship rectify this anomaly? What should be done now? Kana re jelwe Batswana, go ile fela jalo?

My second issue with Masire relates to corruption and elite behaviour during his rule. We know for certain that substantial mineral revenues accrued directly to the state, which enjoyed monopolistic influence on how they could be spent for a good many years. We also know that massive politico-bureaucratic involvement in livestock production has been enhanced with the result that the rural livestock sub-sector has benefited through input subsidies, lax taxation legislation, and other forms of institutional support, but this involvement has left the majority of Batswana lurching helplessly in the poverty trap; and the institutional origins of state lethargy originate in the Masire presidency, of that most scholarship is agreed. What really happened, and why?

I particularly query Masire’s relationship with De Beers, the cattle industry, and his influence in the funding, and transformation of the entire rural economy. Under his presidency one man could be a senior civil servant, an active politician, a priest, a witch, a self-confessed thief, a businessman, a husband, a father, a community leader and a commercial farmer, and therefore, by virtue of all these accoutrements, a hirer of human labour, a trustee of public confidence, and a moral redeemer; a situation that angered progressive Batswana like Gobe Matenge to the extent the two remained enemies throughout their lives in government.

Let us consider the issue of economic austerity. Throughout his administration National Development Bank was held to ransom by agricultural producers, and at challenging election years, was forced to write-off millions of money it could not afford to lose. In 1980s the bank was under such brutal political siege that faced with uncertain elections, and shrinking BDP urban political support base, government had to save the NDB from imminent liquidation by writing-off over P24 million in debt payments owed by both arable and livestock farmers. When NDB was confronted by yet another bankruptcy threat government was once again compelled to intervene. Its accumulated losses at one point totalled P41.1 million.

Outstanding loans amounted to P91.3 million, of which over one-third were in arrears, most for more than six months. The Government's equity position was a negative P15.6 million. In addition, the Small Borrowers Fund, administered by the NDB for the Government, had at the same time accumulated losses of P32.4 million; 70% of its accounts were in arrears, almost all in excess of six months. The NDB was losing P450, 000 a month. The pre-pacified acerbic weekly tabloid, Midweek Sun, reported that NDB was owed more than P60 million in arrears, and borrowers, all of them BDP politicians, were refusing to service their loans. According to the 1991 Budget Speech, P31 million had been provided by the Government in 1988 in order to write off bad debts.

A parliamentary statement by the Assistant Minister of Finance appeared in the Botswana Gazette newspaper on 30 March 1994. In the article the minister revealed that the loans to the NDB had been written off in 1985/1986 and 1988/1989. According to the minister the total cost to the tax payer engendered by these rescue operations amounted to more than P35.5 million. Press interviews of disgruntled NDB employees, including unsigned documents listing NDB loans to Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament, makes the startling revelation that the Bank habitually sanctioned the rescheduling of loans on an across-the-board basis, neglecting individuals' creditworthiness. It tried to deal with this crisis by using ineffective instruments like direct grants, interest recapitalisation, suspension of loan and/or interest payments, conversion of loans into equity, increasing authorised share capital, extension of loans, hikes in rates charged by corporations, and revaluation of assets, and meanwhile 40% of Batswana lived in poverty.

This political burlesque irked, and riled, a public that was only beginning to awake to the sad reality that pirates were in power, vultures that were daily navigating their horrid and ruined lives with greedy eyes that spared no human carcass. Faced with a possible rebellion from angry citizens, especially poor people like us, government turned to constitutional changes designed to make sure we remained compliant, submissive, biddable, and compromised. These laws have protected corrupt, greedy, lecherous, vile, villainous, unethical, immoral, crooked, avaricious, gluttonous, lustful, randy, dreadful, loathsome, evil, contemptible, base, shameful, unpleasant, horrid, and nasty large cattle producers, multinational corporations, senior civil servants and the various members of the liberal professions for a worryingly long period of time. This means that all these oppressors have licence, authority, liberty, privilege and freedom to abuse us, our women, our children, our resources and our fragile environment with reckless abandon and legal impunity. Is it any wonder that these same rulers laugh at us, ridicule us, mock us and play games with us all the time?

Another issue that Masire lazily, and complacently, ignored is the serious matter of grave civil rights violations in the country. While he was busy accumulating wealth, poverty was worsening in the rural sector as shown in the household incomes surveys of 1975/76, 1985/86, 1993/94, 2002/03, the BIDPA reports of 1997 and finally acknowledgement by President Mogae in the 2004 Annual Address to the Nation Speech (see RoB 1976 1986 1994 1997 2003 2004). The plight of Basarwa communities, most of whom had been pushed out of ancestral land to make way for TGLP ranchers, national parks and game reserves, diamond mines and emerging townships like Gantsi actually worsened to the point that by 2004 thousands of these people were irking a living in economic camps, some will say death camps, called remote area dwellings (RADs).

Are all these disturbing facts marks of heroic politics? My point? Studies in political heroism are a minefield. More often than not, one man’s hero is another man’s villainy. To me, this presents a serious problem. I take it I know Botswana political literature well. I also know the history of this country. In fact just about all educated Batswana know these things very well. We also know the story of our country’s development. We understand, I think, the politics, of this country well. I have heard Batswana speak about this man since he died; in the streets, on social media, radio stations, BTV, and a few other infamous places I would rather not reveal. It is, I think, not a particularly good thing to speak about the dead without compunction. But this does not mean those who choose not to speak in public have nothing to say. To most Batswana, and under such emotional circumstances, it is always prudent to subscribe to the cliché discretion is the better part of valour.

So it is, that I have noted, with great concern that certain sections of the republic have deliberately chosen not to participate in these debates. So it is that I have noted these people more or less chose to discreetly boycott the entire funeral dialogue, and process. So it is, I doubt, they will very much miss the late Sir Ketumile, and many of these people are prominent BDP members, past, and present. Yes, statements of condolences where issued, but reading between the lines it is obvious the praises for Masire, were deliberately designed to criticize, and spite, the Khama presidency, instead of directly honouring Masire, on the basis of his own political merit.

Almost all living former cabinet ministers, high court judges, senior civil servants, ethnic minority human rights activists, intellectuals, trade unionists, cultural workers, stayed away. It would not be an exaggeration to say this man was buried, from the depth of hearts, mostly by his best friends, family, foreigners, and tribesmen. Government officials, and some leading politicians, seemed appalled, even annoyed, by this stupendous hysterical exhibitionism. Why? Do they know something that we don’t? When parliament convened to pay oration, three of the four parliamentarians who spoke were Masire’s tribesmen, and the last an opposition member. The rest just watched, almost stunned.

All this is very disturbing. But what I find even more disturbing than this, perhaps even most extraordinary, was the appeal from certain other sections of the republic for emotional restraint during his burial. This is surprising. What was the meaning of these appeals? I particularly remember the appeal by Vice President Masisi. Botswana is a democracy. Masire was a democrat; perhaps not a perfect one, but a democrat nevertheless. So far as I am aware, I am the only citizen who responded, in print, to the last public lecture delivered by Sir Ketumile at a university in Botswana. I admit I disapproved of his domkrag politics. When this man was still president I was refused permission to research Basarwa anthropological anger in Botswana.

I then proposed to write on De Beers and diamond mining but still I found myself struggling against a wall. Infuriated, I turned to something else just so I could get my doctorate. By the time I reached that decision, I had read so much literature about Botswana politics, and development thrust, that when the PhD Selection Committee demanded I should furnish them with development literature review to demonstrate I had sufficient grasp of what to write about Botswana after such a peripatetic shuffling by the Masire presidency and his bureaucratic machine I gave them 200 pages of modern development theory in three weeks. It was only recently I discovered Debswana had been financing Masire’s farming business, and Basarwa sitting on diamond wealth in CKGR.

I have never met Masire in person, but I know about his rule. I lived under his administration. I too have a lot to say about him. As I said, the conception of political heroism is grounded on historical reality, and not only the attributes of a man. Character is important to heroism, but it is what a man actually does accomplish that makes him to stand out as a hero. The accomplishment must be extraordinary, and of infinite benefit to humanity. I don’t believe Sir Ketumile is a political hero. It might be he was admired within BDP but his presidency was certainly not a distinguished chapter in the history of our republic. Many have suggested he was not the right man for the job in the first place. I will not be that ungenerous.

But I do doubt it was a good idea to keep him in the job that long. He has occupied too huge a space in our lives, and brought far too many citizens great misery, and mistrust of the art of politics. No one can deny these charges. He did try to develop a constructive approach to opposition politicians, but the aim was to accommodate, and destabilize the opposition, and not to nurture it. Otherwise he would have allowed government to fund it. We need to be honest about these things. He retired because, like a pillar of salt crumbling away rapidly, he was losing authority in the party.

It cannot be said a man who could not control political dissension, and revolt, in his own party, was also a man happily enamoured to the interests, and agenda, of an organised outside opposition that wanted to torpedo his government. That is a contradiction of terms. Of his forays in international politics after retirement, I really have little more to say. The strangest thing is that he went out to defend political values he routinely violated during his own tenure in office, political values he allowed his best friends, like Robert Mugabe, to also routinely violate; international law, human rights, and personal dignity.

How will I remember Masire? He was a lucky man who found himself thrust in the momentum of history. Sadly, he did little, to nothing, to benefit his own people, and humanity, with the political light put in his hands by benevolent gods. But then there’s always something egotistical about grand lofty things, about mountain tops, a sort of wisdom that is woe, a path in life that takes those who wonder out of all human understanding, even while living, in the congregation of the dead. Such is the road that men like him, and his friend, Robert Mugabe, have travelled. In the end only history can judge them. We are too human, I think, to pronounce the last word in their careers. For this reason alone, I don’t think political canonization will do his memory much good. Let him rest in peace.

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.

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Can we cure ourselves from the cancer of corruption?

28th October 2020
DCEC DIRECTOR: Tymon Katholo

Bokani Lisa Motsu

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Carl Sagan

Corruption is a heavy price to pay. The clean ones pay and suffer at the mercy of people who cannot have enough. They always want to eat and eat so selfishly like a bunch of ugly masked shrews. I hope God forgives me for ridiculing his creatures, but that mammal is so greedy. But corruption is not the new kid on the block, because it has always been everywhere.

This of course begs the question, why that is so? The common answer was and still is – abuse and misuse of power by those in power and weak institutions, disempowered to control the leaders. In 1996, the then President of The World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn named the ‘C-Word’ for the first time during an annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Institutions. A global fight against corruption started. Transparency International began its work. Internal and external audits mushroomed; commissions of inquiry followed and ever convoluted public tender procedures have become a bureaucratic nightmare to the private sector, trying to fight red tape.

The result is sobering corruption today is worse than it was 25 years ago. There is no denying that strong institutions help, but how does it come that in the annual Transparency International Ranking the same group of countries tend to be on the top while another group of countries, many African among them, tend to be on the bottom? Before one jumps to simple and seductive conclusions let us step back a moment.

Wolfensohn called corruption a cancer that destroys economies like a cancer destroys a body. A cancer is, simplified, good cells in a body gone bad, taking control of more and more good cells until the entire body is contaminated and eventually dies. So, let us look at the good cells of society first: they are family ties, clan and tribe affiliation, group cohesion, loyalty, empathy, reciprocity.

Most ordinary people like the reader of these lines or myself would claim to share such values. Once we ordinary people must make decisions, these good cells kick in: why should I hire a Mrs. Unknown, if I can hire my niece whose strengths and weaknesses I know? If I hire the niece, she will owe me and support my objectives.

Why should I purchase office furniture from that unknown company if I know that my friend’s business has good quality stuff? If I buy from him, he will make an extra effort to deliver his best and provide quality after sales service? So, why go through a convoluted tender process with uncertain outcome? In the unlikely case my friend does not perform as expected, I have many informal means to make him deliver, rather than going through a lengthy legal proceeding?

This sounds like common sense and natural and our private lives do work mostly that way and mostly quite well.

The problem is scale. Scale of power, scale of potential gains, scale of temptations, scale of risk. And who among us could throw the first stone were we in positions of power and claim not to succumb to the temptations of scale? Like in a body, cancer cells start growing out of proportion.

So, before we call out for new leaders – experience shows they are rarely better than the old ones – we need to look at ourselves first. But how easy is that? If I were the niece who gets the job through nepotism, why should I be overly critical? If I got a big furniture contract from a friend, why should I spill the beans? What right do I have to assume that, if I were a president or a minister or a corporate chief procurement officer I would not be tempted?

This is where we need to learn. What is useful, quick, efficient, and effective within a family or within a clan or a small community can become counterproductive and costly and destructive at larger corporate or national scale. Our empathy with small scale reciprocity easily permeates into complacency and complicity with large scale corruption and into an acquiescence with weak institutions to control it.

Our institutions can only be as strong as we wish them to be.

I was probably around ten years old and have always been that keen enthusiastic child that also liked to sing the favourite line of, ‘the world will become a better place.’  I would literally stand in front of a mirror and use my mom’s torch as a mic and sing along Michael Jackson’s hit song, ‘We are the world.’

Despite my horrible voice, I still believed in the message.  Few years later, my annoyance towards the world’s corrupt system wonders whether I was just too naïve. Few years later and I am still in doubt so as to whether I should go on blabbing that same old boring line. ‘The world is going to be a better place.’ The question is, when?

The answer is – as always: now.

This is pessimistic if not fatalistic – I challenge Sagan’s outlook with a paraphrased adage of unknown origin: Some people can be bamboozled all of the time, all people can be bamboozled some of the time, but never will all people be bamboozled all of the time.

We, the people are the only ones who can heal society from the cancer of corruption. We need to understand the temptation of scale and address it. We need to stop seeing ourselves just a victim of a disease that sleeps in all of us. We need to give power to the institutions that we have put in place to control corruption: parliaments, separation of power, the press, the ballot box. And sometimes we need to say as a niece – no, I do not want that job as a favour, I want it because I have proven to be better than other contenders.

It is going to be a struggle, because it will mean sacrifices, but sacrifices that we have chosen, not those imposed on us.

Let us start today.

*Bokani Lisa Motsu is a student at University of Botswana

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Opinions

Accounting Officers are out of touch with reality

19th October 2020

Parliament, the second arm of State through its parliamentary committees are one of Botswana’s most powerful mechanisms to ensure that government is held accountable at all times. The Accounting Officers are mostly Permanent Secretaries across government Ministries and Chief Executive Officers, Director Generals, Managing Directors of parastatals, state owned enterprises and Civil Society.

So parliament plays its oversight authority via the legislators sitting on a parliamentary committee and Accounting Officers sitting in the hot chair.  When left with no proper checks and balances, the Executive is prone to abuse the arrangement and so systematic oversight of the executive is usually carried out by parliamentary committees.  They track the work of various government departments and ministries, and conduct scrutiny into important aspects of their policy, direction and administration.

It is not rocket science that effective oversight requires that committees be totally independent and able to set their own agendas and have the power to summon ministers and top civil servants to appear and answer questions. Naturally, Accounting Officers are the highest ranking officials in the government hierarchy apart from cabinet Ministers and as such wield much power and influence in the performance of government.  To illustrate further, government performance is largely owed to the strategic and policy direction of top technocrats in various Ministries.

It is disheartening to point out that the recent parliament committees — as has been the case all over the years — has laid bare the incompetency, inadequacy and ineptitude of people bestowed with great responsibilities in public offices. To say that they are ineffective and inefficient sounds as an understatement. Some appear useless and hopeless when it comes to running the government despite the huge responsibility they possess.

If we were uncertain about the degree at which the Accounting Officers are incompetent, the ongoing parliament committees provide a glaring answer.  It is not an exaggeration to say that ordinary people on the streets have been held ransom by these technocrats who enjoy their air conditioned offices and relish being chauffeured around in luxurious BX SUV’s while the rest of the citizenry continue to suffer. Because of such high life the Accounting Officers seem to have, with time, they have gotten out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve.

An example; when appearing before the recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Office of the President Permanent Secretary, Thuso Ramodimoosi, looked reluctant to admit misuse of public funds. Although it is clear funds were misused, he looked unbothered when committee members grilled him over the P80 million Orapa House building that has since morphed into a white elephant for close to 10 successive years. To him, it seems it did not matter much and PAC members were worried for nothing.

On a separate day, another Accounting officer, Director of Public Service Management (DPSM), Naledi Mosalakatane, was not shy to reveal to PAC upon cross-examination that there exist more than 6 000 vacancies in government. Whatever reasons she gave as an excuse, they were not convincing and the committee looked sceptical too. She was faltering and seemed not to have a sense of urgency over the matter no matter how critical it is to the populace.

Botswana’s unemployment rate hoovers around 18 percent in a country where majority of the population is the youth, and the most affected by unemployment. It is still unclear why DPSM could underplay such a critical matter that may threaten the peace and stability of the country.
Accounting Officers clearly appear out of touch with the reality out there – if the PAC examinations are anything to go by.

Ideally the DPSM Director could be dropping the vacancy post digits while sourcing funds and setting timelines for the spaces to be filled as a matter of urgency so that the citizens get employed to feed their families and get out of unemployment and poverty ravaging the country.
The country should thank parliamentary committees such as PAC to expose these abnormalities and the behaviour of our leaders when in public office. How can a full Accounting Officer downplay the magnitude of the landless problem in Botswana and fail to come with direct solutions tailor made to provide Batswana with the land they desperately need?

Land is a life and death matter for some citizens, as we would know.

When Bonolo Khumotaka, the Accounting Officer in the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, whom as a top official probably with a lucrative pay too appears to be lacking sense of urgency as she is failing on her key mandate of working around the clock to award the citizens with land especially those who need it most like the marginalised.  If government purports they need P94 billion to service land to address the land crisis what is plan B for government? Are we going to accept it the way it is?

Government should wake up from its slumber and intervene to avoid the 30 years unnecessary waiting period in State land and 13 years in Tribal land.  Accounting Officers are custodians of government policy, they should ensure it is effective and serve its purpose. What we have been doing over the years, has proved that it is not effective, and clearly there is a need for change of direction.

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Is it possible to make people part of your business resilience planning after the State of Public Emergency?

12th October 2020

THABO MAJOLA

His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi EK Masisi, the President of the Republic of Botswana found it appropriate to invoke Section 17 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana, using the powers vested in him to declare a State of Public Emergency starting from the 2nd April 2020 at midnight.

The constitutional provision under Section 17 (2b) only provided that such a declaration could be up to a maximum of 21 days. His Excellency further invoked Section 93 (1) to convene an extra- ordinary meeting of Parliament to have the opportunity to consult members of parliament on measures that have been put in place to address the spread and transmission of the virus. At this meeting Members of Parliament passed a resolution on the legal instruments and regulations governing the period of the state of emergency, and extended its duration by six (6) months.

The passing of the State of Emergency is considered as a very crucial step in fighting the near apocalyptic potential of the Novel COVID-19 virus. One of the interesting initiatives that was developed and extended to the business community was a 3-month wage subsidy that came with a condition that no businesses would retrench for the duration of the State of Public Emergency. This has potentially saved many people’s jobs as most companies would have been extremely quick to reduce expenses by downsizing. Self-preservation as some would call it.

Most organisations would have tried to reduce costs by letting go of people, retreated and tried their best to live long enough to fight another day. In my view there is silver lining that we need to look at and consider. The fact that organisations are not allowed to retrench has forced certain companies to look at the people with a long-term view.

Most leaders have probably had to wonder how they are going to ensure that their people are resilient. Do they have team members who innovate and add value to the organisation during these testing times? Do they even have resilient people or are they just waiting for the inevitable end? Can they really train people and make them resilient? How can your team members be part of your recovery plan? What can they do to avoid losing the capabilities they need to operate meaningfully for the duration of the State of Public Emergency and beyond?

The above questions have forced companies to reimagine the future of work. The truth is that no organisation can operate to its full potential without resilient people. In the normal business cycle, new teams come on board; new business streams open, operations or production sites launch or close; new markets develop, and technology is introduced. All of this provides fresh opportunities – and risks.

The best analogy I have seen of people-focused resilience planning reframes employees as your organisation’s immune system, ready and prepared to anticipate risks and ensure they can tackle challenges, fend off illness and bounce back more quickly.  So, how do you supercharge your organizational immune system to become resilient?

COVID-19 has helped many organisations realize they were not as prepared as they believed themselves to be. Now is the time to take stock and reset for the future. All the strategies and plans prior to COVID-19 arriving in Botswana need to be thrown out of the window and you need to develop a new plan today. There is no room for tweaking or reframing. Botswana has been disrupted and we need to accept and embrace the change. What we initially anticipated as a disease that would take a short term is turning out to be something we are going to have to live with for a much longer time. It is going to be a marathon and therefore businesses need to have a plan to complete this marathon.

Start planning. Planning for change can help reduce employee stress, anxiety, and overall fear, boosting the confidence of staff and stakeholders. Think about conducting and then regularly refreshing a strategic business impact analysis, look at your employee engagement scores, dig into your customer metrics and explore the way people work alongside your behaviours and culture. This research will help to identify what you really want to protect, the risks that you need to plan for and what you need to survive during disruption. Don’t forget to ask your team members for their input. In many cases they are closest to critical business areas and already have ideas to make processes and systems more robust.

Revisit your organisational purpose. Purpose, values and principles are powerful tools. By putting your organisation’s purpose and values front and center, you provide clear decision-making guidelines for yourself and your organisation. There are very tough and interesting decisions to make which have to be made fast; so having guiding principles on which the business believes in will help and assist all decision makers with sanity checking the choices that are in front of them. One noticeable characteristic of companies that adapt well during change is that they have a strong sense of identity. Leaders and employees have a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture; they know what the company stands for beyond shareholder value and how to get things done right.

Revisit your purpose and values. Understand if they have been internalised and are proving useful. If so, find ways to increase their use. If not, adapt them as necessities, to help inspire and guide people while immunizing yourself against future disruption. Design your employee experience. The most resilient, adaptive and high performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other, and support each other.

Adaptability requires us to teach other, speak up and discuss problems, and have a collective sense of belonging. Listening to your team members is a powerful and disruptive thing to do. It has the potential to transform the way you manage your organisation. Enlisting employees to help shape employee experience, motivates better performance, increases employee retention and helps you spot issues and risks sooner. More importantly, it gives employees a voice so you can get active and constructive suggestions to make your business more robust by adopting an inclusive approach.

Leaders need to show they care. If you want to build resilience, you must build on a basis of trust. And this means leaders should listen, care, and respond. It’s time to build the entire business model around trust and empathy. Many of the employees will be working under extreme pressure due to the looming question around what will happen when companies have to retrench. As a leader of a company transparency and open communication are the most critical aspects that need to be illustrated.

Take your team member into confidence because if you do have to go through the dreaded excise of retrenchment you have to remember that those people the company retains will judge you based on the process you follow. If you illustrate that the business or organization has no regard for loyalty and commitment, they will never commit to the long-term plans of the organisation which will leave you worse off in the end. Its an absolutely delicate balance but it must all be done in good faith. Hopefully, your organization will avoid this!

This is the best time to revisit your identify and train your people to encourage qualities that build strong, empathetic leadership; self-awareness and control, communication, kindness and psychological safety.  Resilience is the glue that binds functional silos and integrates partners, improves communications, helps you prepare, listen and understand. Most importantly, people-focused resilience helps individuals and teams to think collectively and with empathy – helping you respond and recover faster.

Article written by Thabo Majola, a brand communications expert with a wealth of experience in the field and is Managing Director of Incepta Communications.

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