Africa’s greatest son rests

SHARE   |   Monday, 26 June 2017   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane 
Sir Ketumile Masire with Lady Olebile Masire Sir Ketumile Masire with Lady Olebile Masire

Sir Ketumile Masire is no more. Exactly 92 years after he was born, former President Sir Ketumile Quett Joni Masire succumbed to illness at Bokamoso Private Hospital in Mmopane on Thursday night, after being confined to the ICU in a comma for four days. Though the family did not disclose the nature of his illness, sources said a blood clot had been found on his brain and was immediately operated on. As Botswana mourns its founding father, and the world celebrates the life of an exceptional statesman and democrat, many are in agreement that Masire was in the league of his own all the way to his last day on earth. With a great sense of humour and a rolling laughter that still reverberates through the ages, coupled with an incisive command of Setswana language, many share fond memories of how Masire used to hold his audience in awe and leave them in stitches. Born on July 23, 1925 in Kanye Sir Ketumile Masire has had a huge impact in the development of an independent Botswana and the Southern African region. The rural set up into which he was born dictated, as with many of his peers, that naturally agriculture was the bedrock of local and national economy. The only other alternative was becoming a migrant miner in neighbouring South Africa. There were no diamonds to speak of and the then Bechuanaland was a vast expanse of desert where pockets of tribes sporadically spread to eke out a living. From an early age, through school, different roles in politics and government Masire remained a prominent commercial farmer of repute in the Ngwaketse area and Gantsi farms.

From a modest upbringing in Kanye, Sir Ketumile escaped becoming a miner when he excelled in primary school in Kanye and Tiger Kloof in SA where he attended school, before his dream of obtaining a Bachelor's Degree in Agriculture was arrested by the passing of his parents. He instead settled for a shorter course obtaining a teaching certificate, but never gave up farming. His new farming methods, which produced impressive results earned him admirers and enemies in equal measure, among them some Dikgosi who gossiped about his suspected 'witchcraft'. Because of his farming exploits, Masire first had a brush with death just days before his wedding in December 1957 when he picked a mercuric chloride fungicide that spread through his body and almost led to kidney failure. He married Gladys Olebile Molefi on January 2, 1958 in a hospital ward at Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Kanye. They later sired six children. Although doctors told him chances of survival were minimal, and pre-death counselling with the family had already began, Masire made a miraculous recovery and returned to normal life. Except for a near fatal renal failure in 1964, he has maintained a healthy lifestyle until the age of 92. As fate would have it, together with his ingenuity, Masire was thrust into an essential role of helping lead one of the world’s poorest nations at independence (1966) to a middle income economy. Soon after Tiger Kloof he founded Seepapitso Secondary School, serving as its headmaster while he continued farming. Later he ventured into journalism, as an Editor of the African Echo/Naledi ya Batswana newspaper after realising the need to spread news about the country to other parts of the world. He was elected to Bangwaketse Tribal Council, and thereafter the national Legislative Council (LEGCO), which met at Lobatse to pave way for independent Botswana. He was the deputy prime minister of Bechuanaland during the 1965-66 transitional period of nominal self-government; Botswana’s first Vice President and Minister of Finance and Development Planning (1966-1980) and the second President of Botswana (1980-1998). 


On Friday morning, Batswana watched and listened in shock as international news channels reported on Masire's death several hours after his death. There was a total news blackout on national broadcasters (Botswana televisions and Radio Botswana 1 &2), as though it was business as usual at the Government enclave. Almost 11 hours later, Khama issued a statement, posted on BWGovernment Facebook page and later read by his Senior Private Secretary George Tlhalerwa on radio, announcing a "three-day period of mourning, which shall run through to Sunday the 25th of June 2017, during which flags shall fly at half mast, as they will also do on the day of the funeral". As the controversy over the indifference of the state towards Masire's passing rages on some observers opine that the tension between Masire and Bangwato tribesmen is legendary. Apparently they never accepted Masire as the successor of their paramount chief Seretse Khama in the presidency. Pointing to a petition by senior Bangwato tribesmen in Mahalapye against the inclusion of Masire's portrait on national currency, observers say those tribesmen never accepted his presidency. Ever since he retired from active politics, Masire has differed more and more with the current leadership of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), the latest being disagreement over the plans to use Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in 2019 general elections. At the height of tensions over EVMs Masire warned the BDP government not to destroy Botswana's democracy after ruling party MPs passed amendment that seeks to bring EVMs in the wee hours of the morning without consulting the citizenry. 

Against boot-lickers 

In one of the rare incidents where Sir Ketumile Masire clashed with BDP, its then Secretary General of Mpho Balopi threatened to drag him before a Council of Elders shortly after BMD president Gomolemo Motswaledi's funeral in July 2014. Masire's crime had been that he had showered the late Motswaledi with praise, whom Ian Khama openly disliked, with accolades and warned that as much as the BDP is in power it could be in the opposition in future. The BDP youth even labelled the former Presidents (with Mogae) senile old men irrelevant to current politics, who are trying to rule from the graves. "Is my sin the fact that I did not get briefing notes from the Secretary General or his minions before I went to speak at the funeral? Indeed, “pelo yame e tletse bogalaka” to find that my name and those of my stalwarts is so easily, cheaply and wantonly dragged in the mud by fellows who were either boys, toddlers or yet unborn, when fundamentals or principles that were to be corner stones of our policy or philosophy were crafted. These were principles which in essence provided for multi-partisan and allowed Batswana to freely form parties whose sole interest is to serve Botswana to the best of their ability. Not to “eat” or to “boot-lick”." Before then Masire made enemies at Government enclave when he openly criticised the Khama administration for the decline and regression of Botswana's democracy, which he held dearly. Early in his life, Masire became enemies with his paramount chief Kgosi Bathoen II of Bangwaketse because of his liberal and progressive thinking, views on bogosi and later his political inclination. Being a commoner the chief wanted Masire to submit to his authority and autocratic decisions, which he challenged. Both Masire and his predecessor Seretse held similar views about bogosi and dictatorial tendencies of dikgosi and moved fast to clip their powers through policies and laws that accorded the citizenry freedoms and enjoyment of their rights as equals. Only ceremonial powers were reserved for chiefs.