Businessman Lebang Mpotokwane was a key player in seeing to the formation of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) that brought together three parties which heavily dented the ruling party’s hold on power in the 2014 General Elections. Of recent however those leading the movement appear to be ignoring his wise counsel. In this wide-ranging interview, he warns:
What motivated you to start playing a leading role in seeing to the unification of the opposition parties?
It was my concern about the irony of Botswana’s multi-party democracy turning itself into a one-party democracy, the one party being the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
How did you bring together likeminded people that participated in this process – Maphanyane and others?
In the early 2000s Motlhabane Maphanyane, Samuel Mpuchane and I often had long conversations about Botswana politics. In particular, we often talked about the ease with which the BDP was able to win election after election since the first one in 1965 as compared to the opposition parties’ continuous poor performance. The conclusion we always reached was that the BDP’s electoral successes were mostly due to the regular split of the opposition vote by the four or so opposition parties. So, one day in 2003, we decided to stop talking about this problem and try to help resolve it.
Have you always been interested and involved in politics?
Yes, I’ve always been interested in Botswana politics, but only as a voter rather than a political activist.
Most former senior civil servants have been associated with the ruling BDP – have you ever been its member?
Yes, I think during my high school days. But I never really took it seriously.
Having been a business man all these years what prompted you to act after the 2009 general elections?
Our involvement in trying to re-shape the country’s opposition politics started in 2003. Then in 2005, the opposition parties decided to launch negotiations on cooperation in preparation for the 2009 general elections. They asked us to chair the negotiations and invited us to a press conference to announce their intentions. Until that press conference, we had conducted our project in secrecy out of fear that any publicity might scuttle it. We achieved this by briefing the Botswana media (including Btv and the Daily News!) about it in advance and requesting them to keep it secret. To their credit, they all kept their promise.
Would you say this had anything to do with the new leadership of the country at the time?
No, it had absolutely nothing to do with the leadership of the time. We just did this out of conviction that Botswana’s democracy needed to be improved by strengthening the opposition.
Take us through the journey that ultimately led to the UDC’s successful formation – the lows and highs?
Owing to the failure of the parties to agree on a model of cooperation, the 2006 negotiations collapsed after 9 months. In contrast, the 2011 negotiations reached consensus on the “umbrella” model of cooperation in a fairly short space of time. For me, this was the doubtless high of the negotiations. Another high was the general friendliness that prevailed for most of the negotiations, compared to those of 2006. The only low that I can recall came during the allocation of constituencies to the four parties. It was caused by the reluctance of two parties (later only one) to recognise the BMD’s right of incumbency over the five parliamentary seats that it had kept when it crossed the floor from the BDP. This, in turn, was despite earlier agreement by the parties regarding the importance of incumbency in the allocation of seats. Needless to say, this was the principal cause of the collapse of the negotiations in December 2011. Then in early 2012, three of the parties decided to return to the negotiations, while the third did not, following consultations with its members around the country. The rest is history.
Of recent there has been tension in the party – from your take what has caused this and is the future of the Umbrella at risk?
The reason for the current tension within the UDC is that following the success of the negotiations to admit the BCP – Botswana Congress Party - to the opposition alliance, the UDC NEC set up a committee to recommend the necessary arrangements for the formalisation of the BCP’s admission to the UDC. The committee handed its report to the leaders of the UDC’s three group-members in early June 2017, with a view to having it considered by the party’s NEC. The NEC would crystalise the terms on which the BCP would become a full member of the UDC. However, before this formal process was completed, the BCP was invited to a meeting (on 2 August 2017) of what has been described as the new UDC NEC, which would launch the party’s intervention in the BMD dispute. A few days later, the press reported that the leader of the BCP had informed Parliament (by a letter dated 3 August 2017) that BCP MPs should in future be referred to as UDC MPs. To my knowledge, these developments explain why the leader of the BPP has not attended meetings of the UDC NEC since 2 August 2017. In the meantime, the chair of the transitional committee presented its report to a meeting of the old UDC NEC on 5 September. The NEC didn’t complete its consideration of the report and will therefore meet again in the near future. Although I cannot deny that the resulting tensions are a big risk to the future of the UDC, I hope that they can be carefully controlled and eventually overcome.
Talk to the various conflicting interests within the UDC leadership and how best they can be harmonised.
The only way to overcome the current tensions within the UDC would be to complete the process set in motion when the transitional committee was established after the successful conclusion of the negotiations with the BCP. To abandon the process at this late stage would be a major error.
Some view the UDC leadership as being carried away by the prospect of assuming state power in 2019 – some possibly positioning themselves. What is your take on this?
If this were true, it would also be a big mistake. There’s a lot that needs to be done to convince the electorate of the credibility and readiness of the UDC to govern the country. These are the important issues that should be preoccupying the UDC leadership. Absolutely nothing should be taken for granted regarding the 2019 general elections.
As the initial convenor what do you consider as necessary steps to ensure there is focus and an all embracing attitude in the leadership so as to keep the UDC unified?
To put it very briefly, there should be more haste and less speed in the admission of the BCP into the UDC.
Under the circumstances do you feel the party is in a position to defeat BDP in the 2019 General elections?
The party could indeed defeat the BDP in 2019. But to do so, it needs to approach the next elections the way it did the 2014 elections – without any animosity or disaffection among its members.
What is your take on the problems besieging the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD)?
What has happened to the BMD is extremely disappointing. I doubt, however, whether the two factions can ever be reconciled. A more realistic solution therefore needs to be found.
Should the UDC have intervened earlier in the BMD matter?
It couldn’t, as that would have been seen as interference in the internal affairs of another party. I therefore fully support Rre Boko’s views on the matter because the group-members of the UDC remain very independent of the UDC.
Some have accused you of seemingly being sympathetic to the BMD’s Ndaba Gaolathe faction. Your response to this?
Not true at all. If the accusation is based on my recent invitations to him to discuss the UDC office rental and how the transitional report should be handled, I invited him because he was involved in both matters long before the party split.
What will be the effect of a new political formation on the UDC and its prospects of winning power?
The effect would be huge indeed. It would be particularly huge if the new party were to convince the electorate that its departure from the UDC couldn’t be avoided.
Generally, the leadership of the current government often accuses those associated with the opposition of being unpatriotic. Do you consider your involvement with opposition as unpatriotic?
Not at all! On the contrary, I regard it as patriotic because it’s seeks to strengthen Botswana’s democracy.
Have you not felt that your security could be at risk due to this involvement?
No! I’m not doing anything that could undermine the security of the state, so why should I feel at risk?
Your involvement could not have come cheaply both in terms of personal resources, time and emotional abuse. Reflect.
Personal resources and time, yes. As for emotional abuse, this only comes from people who don’t really understand what we’ve been doing for the opposition, and it leaves me cold.
Do you see yourself continuing as involved as you were in the run-up to the 2014 elections?
Not really. The party is five years old now and has members with five years’ parliamentary experience, so it’s in a much stronger position than it was in 2014.
What is your personal outlook for the 2019 elections and beyond?
In the current circumstances of the UDC, it’s difficult to be too confident about 2019. More and more voters now vote with their heads rather than their hearts, so it’s important for the party to get its house in order well before the 2019 general elections.