Three political leaders who stand to shape the country’s political future are walking a tight rope to 2019, writes MPHO DIBEELA
Local political parties have recharged their batteries, having replenished their secretariats by electing new Secretary Generals. As expected the big losers were under pressure to go for a complete overhaul while those that managed to perform well were conservative in approach. The 2019 General Elections are calling and though it might seem like there are still a few years to go, what parties do now will have a great bearing on who holds State House keys then.
The highly bruised Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) have elected Botsalo Ntuane and Kentse Rammidi respectively. UDC partners – the Botswana National Front (BNF), Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) – that shocked the political establishment have retained their engine room intact. Individual parties have not elected new Secretary Generals. At the Umbrella, the secretariat remains under Ndaba Gaolathe – the BMD President.
He is a political survivor, who is on a resurgence following his 2014 loss in Parliamentary elections. He takes over an oversight role for an office he has occupied for more than 10 years (1995 to 2009) ensuring BDP election victory in three elections. His knowledge of the BDP and its machinations – despite a small sojourn at BMD – is without doubt. He cut his political teeth while a student at the University of Botswana (UB), often having to skip classes to pursue political goals and going against the tide in an institution almost monopolised by the opposition (at the time BNF). His rise in the party was meteoric – jumping from class to the power seat at Tsholetsa House.
He has never worked anywhere else. From there it was Parliament. If he is poor, it will be from his service to his party and likewise for his wealth. His only blip in BDP life was in leading a breakaway section to form BMD after falling out with party leadership at the way they treated his late friend Gomolemo Motswaledi. That was after party leader Ian Khama offloaded Motswaledi on grounds many felt were draconian and harsh. His dalliance with the new movement did not last long. At a cost to his own Parliamentary career, he retreated to his first love. Voters in Gaborone West South - now renamed Bonnington South – seemingly saw the move as betrayal – he had sold himself very well to them on his grounds to quit the BDP and they tracked along. Not many, it appears, bought his story (if he ever addressed them about it) about his retreat. The result; a big loss at the polls! He was not the only loser – the party lost all seats but one in Gaborone and in overall came out at its very weakest from the General Election though holding on to power.
There is a strong belief in some quarters that had the opposition parties been completely united they would have dethroned the BDP. Instead of ditching politics completely, to perhaps try a new form of life in the corporate sector or in farming Ntuane stuck his heels in. One friend pleaded that he be motivated to take things slower; he did not listen. He immediately worked to be elected chairperson of Gaborone region. He was vocal about the need to secure and reconstruct the party. He did not just end there. He ran for the most crucial office of the party to attempt to put to action his convictions about the path they should take. He won against Gaotlhaetse Matlhabaphiri to become the new Secretary General.
Threats to his tenure
He might not be allowed to be his own man and instead be reduced to a minute-taker and a clerical player who simply takes orders without questioning. Motswaledi and Rammidi are best examples of this. One was pushed out; the other quit. The jury is out on what Ntuane stands to achieve in his new otherwise very powerful position. He is by character not timid and very resilient. He will advance his mandate as freely and aggressively as he should and will not be cowered down.
The secretariat Ntuane leads should quickly refocus party efforts on increasing its appeal. Going by the 2014 General Elections, the party’s historical invincibility is a thing of the past. It has never been this vulnerable and unless things change fast and positively for it 2019 would be catastrophic. The economy is in a bad state; unemployment is surging and there are more looming retrenchments and as incumbent government the BDP should rise to the occasion to stimulate growth and safeguard few remaining jobs. Ntuane must raise his voice and alarm at all that make his attempt to sell the party to the electorates difficult. Policies that reignite confidence in the party must be harnessed. The power and water shortage challenges will remain an albatross on the BDP for years unless immediate and well sustained interventions are made. Opposition parties have an easy fodder. What the BDP leadership would do with is a person in it but outside government who would speak to it the hurtful truth of what must be done to win back voters. Ntuane must not shy away from this; but then roll up his sleeves to work and win back voters. The trick also is being aware of the changing voter dynamics – the old folk are giving way to the younger upward moving and technologically savvy population. The old folk were sworn to the BDP; younger ones’ loyalty is not permanent and is available to the highest bidder.
He had everything going for him in his early political days in the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). His dominance in Southern District politics saw him holding two terms as council chairperson. When he made it to Parliament it was logical growth that he was appointed Assistant Minister of Local Government based on his deep understanding of the area. He charms and is at home with the masses. His eloquence and street smartness are attributes that propelled his political growth. He was qualified to be BDP Secretary General before he ran for it and won it. His desire to grow into a future leader of the party was such that he didn’t hesitate to demote himself by resigning from assistant minister position to run for the Secretary General while keeping his position as MP. That’s how charged up he was – denying himself financial benefits for the allure of power. Yet when it came, it was so short-lived. He was blasting when he resigned from the party barely one month after being elected in 2011, accusing the President of running the party as a ‘one-man-show’.
His decision came after the historical public sector strike that paralysed government business for days. In particular he was riled by a development where the ruling party escalated punitive measures against unions by taking steps to declare teaching, veterinary service and diamond sorting as essential services, and hence barring them from participating in a strike in future. In fact when none of his party leaders appeared to be in solidarity with the workers, Rammidi appeared at GSS grounds where workers on strike assembled, danced and created songs caricaturing BDP leaders. And so just like that – on his own – he chose a life outside the BDP. To the surprise of most he did not follow the tide to join the newly formed BMD.
Rather he settled for the BNF – a controversy-prone opposition party that is more dominant in the south of the country and in Kanye in particular where he originates. He never settled. Soon, he switched opposition chairs – joining the Botswana Congress Party (BCP). It is with this party that he contested the 2014 General Elections and came third to BDP and UDC, in a clear case of opposition splitting the vote to allow the ruling party to win. This, if anything, informs the current position he has taken. He wants opposition cooperation at all costs. In fact he threatened recently that he would decline to run for the Secretary General position of the party if it did not commit to cooperation with the UDC. Now that he has gotten the position without a resolution for any form of a pact with UDC, only time will tell how things will go.
Threats to his tenure
He left the BDP on grounds that it was a one-man-show and then left the BNF on grounds that it had lost direction. At BCP, as things stand, he has the goodwill; members have a sense of what he is capable of doing in terms of improving organisational efficiency and improving its image. The ambivalence, indecisiveness and slow pace of seizing an opportunity might get to his nerves. Having performed disastrously in the 2014 General Elections, BCP can’t afford to lose any more time in rebuilding its image and taking advantage of any opportunity. If the BCP does not match his ambition for growth and win-win partnerships, Rammidi will not take long to make his mind. He will quit.
Having come out as the biggest loser of the 2014 General Elections, that included seeing the party leader losing his Gaborone Central seat, a big task lies ahead for the new executive of the party to demonstrate that they remain as relevant as ever. The party leadership hid behind claims that they did not get as dirty as other parties got in attacking them. The question now going forward is – how are they now going to stand against this? At the time party leader Dumelang Saleshando was linked to business dealings with members of the ruling party; something that he flatly denied. It is this perception that they believe did most damage to their brand. Now the party’s youth league have not taken kindly to what they consider as an insult on their leader and have emerged as his stout defenders, calling even on sections of the UDC to apologise before any negotiations could start for a pact.
In overall the league is more vocal than ever before. They boldly declared that they will be contesting the Mabule/Goodhope Parliamentary by-election even before the National Executive Committee (NEC) could decide. They have come out to strategically champion what some of the leaders would want to say in public but shy away on protocol grounds. They broke rules to boldly support Taolo Lucas for Vice Presidency. With the youth radicalism, their restlessness is coming with its own problems. For the first time the party leader has warned of growing indiscipline in the party, which mostly could be attributed to the young brigade. While Rammidi and some other members of the party are pro opposition pact, the youth league is not in a hurry for that. A clear demonstration of how divided the party is, on cooperation is on the Goodhope by-election where UDC pleaded that they withdraw their candidate but the party refused.
More important than the by-election or cooperation issues, it is the party’s game plan of demonstrating that it remains a relevant and a viable option for electorates. Rammidi as the key-holder of the engine room must show his mettle as a magnet for grassroots voters to enhance and provide a dictum that voters can easily understand. The party that entered the 2014 General Elections with six seating MPs and came out with a paltry three suffered from a message deficit. Voters seemingly did not embrace their ‘bring back the jobs’ clarion call. They will have to pay closer attention to their campaigns, projection and impact of their messages. With a diminished representation, the party – like all in opposition – would be faced with increased resource (financial) challenges.
He grew up in a BDP family and shocked most when he chose a new political home. But just like Ntuane his attachment and belief in Motswaledi was not light – the injustices Motswaledi faced made him pack his bags as well to stand by him. He exceeds moderation in his attack on the party of his father – the late Baledzi Gaolathe, who was a longtime Minister of Finance and Development Planning. For his lean body frame and soft voice one would be excused to assume he would chicken down on the face of political dinosaurs. He doesn’t. He comes out as a political dynamite; unafraid to take on the establishment with awesome creativity in his war chest. Ntuane knows better.
Gaolathe launched a campaign of sorts to win Bonnington South Parliamentary seat anchored on his humility and offering outreach programmes to his constituents that showed that he was not just after their vote but eager to change their lives for the better. He reportedly assisted small scale business people with book keeping classes and helped them with access to capital that stood to change their lives for the better. He didn’t plough them with alcohol as some do in their campaigns. He didn’t lie about the economy and its outlook, but again he seemingly didn’t ask potential voters to blame the establishment for the misery – he showed them the way out of it. His mastery of business has seen him running a number of businesses and consultancies in South Africa, having started his professional working life in Namibia.
His political journey started at the BDP. He believed in it and was active in some of its structures. That was until, he saw individual freedoms and un-democratisation of the party and felt it first-hand. An example is the drama that unfolded during his disciplinary hearing in 2010 when the party was trying to quell dissent. He was charged for colluding with other colleagues to select their own candidates for special council and legislator nominations, thus undermining the decision of the BDP caucus. Presiding officer Ambrose Masalila and prosecutor Segaetsho Garekwe were left shell-shocked when Gaolathe pronounces his immediate resignation from the party. He would stand by his friend – Motswaledi who together with others that resigned the same way, including sitting MPs, believed he was unfairly treated by the party.
As the Motswaledi grouping resolved to form a new party Gaolathe was there at the back ground, providing the party with deep grounding on policy and strategic interventions. No wonder before other positions that he would later occupy he was named the party’s policy director and worked endless nights to put the policies together. When Ntuane retraced his steps to the BDP, Gaolathe would answer the call to take over as Party Vice President. With Ntuane dumping them, a vacancy once more emerged at Bonnington South and this time around it was not handed on a silver platter. He worked for it. A history altering moment would come. The sudden death of the party leader – Motswaledi – found no one else but Gaolathe to pick the pieces and make those that chose their movement and believed in its ethos to remain steadfast. His speech at the funeral was more than what they asked for – he challenged them to honour their leader by championing what he stood for. If he drowned himself in tears it was not in public. People looked to him to console them – he didn’t have time to indulge in his own self counselling. Overnight, he had to be a leader. The party’s trust in him remains. He holds the extra role of Secretary General of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) - a group formation that includes BNF and BPP.
Threats to his tenure
As Secretary General Gaolathe has to balance the interests of three parties which vary in philosophies and even policy directions. He is efficient but based on the nature of disorganization of other member parties the work is likely to overwhelm him. Group conflict and being overworked as a leader of his own party might result with him proposing to have another person step in.
As a group member party, conflicts from individual parties stand to affect the main party. It starts just with fighting for constituency and council seats allocation. There is already an example of a Mochudi Council seat which having been won by a BMD candidate – who later quit to go back to his high paying corporate job – in the 2014 General Elections was lost to BCP at by-elections time. BMD blamed sabotage from the BNF for the loss. More of these cases are likely to come in the future. Being seen as the greatest enemy by the ruling party, it is most likely that all efforts will be placed at destabilising the party with all forms of strategies. Already there is a by-election for a parliamentary seat that was held by UDC.
This some have already jumped into interpreting as not just a mere case of an MP resigning because he has diabetes. They insist he has been bought. They don’t see it as a mere coincidence that an MP who won by a small margin with most area councillors going to the ruling party could just abdicate. It is these kinds of developments that UDC must strategise to overcome. Resources will be one key requirement to afford to campaign and retain seats while winning new ones if they arise. However, the biggest challenges of all is doing all to hold the group together up to 2019. It is the most difficult thing to achieve. Gaolathe and UDC leader – BNF President – Duma Boko will have to outdo themselves.