Whose interests do Botswana’s politicians represent?

SHARE   |   Tuesday, 15 October 2019   |   By Ricardo Kanono
IEC officials counting the votes IEC officials counting the votes

University of Botswana academics, Prof Christian John Makgala (Department of History) and  Mokganedi Zara Botlhomilwe (Department of Sociology), have unravelled the fallacy peddled by politicians seeking public office, that they want to represent the interests of electorates in different constituencies.

Through a research paper published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, the duo analyse 'Elite interests and political participation in Botswana, in the period 1966–2014' and conclude thus: "In the past, seeking parliamentary  or council position may have been  seen  as a patriotic duty for selfless politicians, with this even leading to some falling on hard times economically. However, as time went on, and the country’s economy grew significantly, a culture of con- spicuous consumption led to some politicians seeking parliamentary, cabinet and council positions as an avenue  to wealth accumulation  and fame".


Such conclusion is buttressed  by the former minister for education  and later speaker of parliament, Ray Molomo, who observes in his book that: "There is an urgent  and dire need  for more vibrant and enterprising  members  of Parliament and  representatives of the  electorate,  whose  primary function would be to strengthen the institution rather than to curry favour with the executive as a ploy to earn a cabinet position."

Considering Marxist critiques and using power elite frameworks, the research paper demonstrates  the development and dynamics of Botswana’s elite in the political scene. With the passage of time, the country’s  market-oriented economy  led  to  some  opposition  politicians, whose parties traditionally preached  pro-poor  and left-oriented  economic  politics, engaging  in joint business  ventures  with ruling party associates.  There is nothing  inherently  wrong with joint business  ventures  across party  lines, as long  as they  are  above  board.  The concern  is the irony whereby  ordinary party members  are sold the rhetoric of different economic ideas while the leadership privately harvests from the government’s economic practices which they openly condemn in public.


Some politicians have, over the years, resorted  to tribalism in a bid to outmanoeuvre their competitors  or to justify their defeat  in elections. However, the uselessness  of this strategy has seen politicians preferring defection  to other parties to further their careers instead.  

Botswana’s  tiny  economy  is overwhelmingly  government-driven and political participation,  particularly on  the  side  of the  ruling party,  is critical for one’s  economic  survival and  prosperity.  This has  led  to  enduring   intrigue  and  conflict  among  the  countrys political power elite. Opposition party activists traditionally have embraced  leftist  policies  and   claimed  to  be  representing the countrys poor and downtrodden while castigating the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (in power since 1966) of being pro-rich and politically connected business. Ironically, some members  of the opposition  elite also engage  in business ventures  with their ruling party counterparts. The scramble  for economic  opportunities has fuelled debilitating  factionalism within both  the  ruling and opposition  parties over the years. In some instances  tribalism was mobilised   in  intra-  and   inter-party   elections   for  positions   of influence   even   though   voters   are  more   interested  in  service delivery than traditional ethnic issues.


The question: Whose interests do Botswanas politicians represent?’ was first raised by sociologist Patrick Molutsi almost  three  decades   ago  in  his  pioneering   book  with  John  Holm: ‘Whose Interests Do Botswana’s Politicians Represent?

Post-colonial political  elite

The country’s first political party of note  was the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP), formed in  1960  by  Phillip Matante,  Kgalemang  Motsete  and  Motsamai  Mpho  as  key  office holders.  This triumvirate  were  from  traditionally  marginalised  tribes,  and  had  been migrant  workers in South Africa where  the  struggle  against  apartheid  influenced  their political activism in Botswana. The BPP was militantly anti-establishment as it openly condemned  colonial  rule  and  its  attendant racial discrimination,  chiefly rule  in  the tribal  areas   and   poor   working  conditions   for  the   proletariat,   gaining   its  greatest support   in  townships  along  the  railway line  in  the  eastern   part  of  the  country.  In 1962, the  more  moderate BDP was  formed,  headed by  the  hugely  popular  Seretse Khama, uncrowned  chief of the influential Bangwato. The party was seen as an antidote to the radical BPP, and as such had been  encouraged into formation  by British colonial administrators  and  a few commercial  white settlers  and  was very much  supported by them.


The BDP was able to recruit into its rank former school teachers, tribal administration cadres  and  well-off peasants   in significant  numbers  throughout the  country.  Seretse Khama’s  later  vice  president,   Quett  Masire  (1966–1980),  was  also  a  former  school teacher, as well as being a journalist and a successful farmer. He was a con- summate  secretary general  for the party and effectively recruited  members  throughout the country. The BDP appealed to conservative  elements  such as tribal royals and Euro- pean  settlers  in most parts  of the  country and it grew rapidly, while the  BPP was soon faced  with crippling  internal  fighting  and  splits. Generally, the  BDP also commanded strong support  in the majority Tswana tribal areas. Therefore, the well-organised and resourced  BDP easily and overwhelmingly won the country’s first elections in 1965 and formed   a  government,  with  independence  granted   on  30  September  1966,  when Seretse Khama became the country’s first president. In 1965 Kenneth Koma (a distant rela- tive of Khama’s) had returned  from the Soviet Union with a doctorate  and socialist ideas. He tried unsuccessfully to unite the warring BPP factions and splinter groups, and ended up forming the BNF instead.

Interestingly, while Seretse’s government had come into office on the back of conser- vatism, it was determined to deprive  traditional chiefs of the  powers they had enjoyed during  the  colonial  period.  Realising the  influence  that  chiefs  still had  among  their people,  government decreed   that  any  chief  who  wanted  to  join politics should  first resign his chiefly office. This development led to the  resignation  of Chief Bathoen  II  of the Bangwaketse, who joined the BNF in 1969, controversially becoming  its president  in 1970. This was an interesting  expediency as the socialist Koma teamed  up with the tradi- tionalist Bathoen in a bid to topple  the BDP from power. Instead, this led to defections from the BNF by activists from subject tribes as they believed that the arrangement was motivated  by either  tribalism or the  traditional  Tswana tribal elite  domination  – rep- resented by  Koma and  Bathoen.  The  previous  BNF president,   Daniel  Kwele, of  the Kalanga tribe, was at the forefront of these  accusations. This would become  a common feature of BNF politics, with the party becoming  the country’s main opposition  party fol- lowing the 1979 general election.


During the 1970s, the BDP was also able to recruit competent senior civil servants who resigned  from the civil service and became  BDP parliamentarians  either through  special election,  or  through   the  ballot  box  during  elections.  For instance,  before  the  1974 general  election,  Seretse  appealed to  Archie Mogwe  and  Gaositwe  Chiepe  to  resign from  the  civil service, and  after  the  election,  the  two  were  nominated as  specially elected  members  of parliament  and cabinet  ministers. It was not until 1977 that Botswana established  a small army as a response to cross-border raids and other forms of international harassment by the white minority regimes in Rho- desia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa. By now, the country’s economy  had begun  to take shape, becoming  more robust  from the  1980s onwards. By the  late 1980s, the  linkages between military, business  and BDP politics, along the lines of Mills’ power elite, had clearly begun  to emerge.


Molutsi observed  that  in Botswana,  unlike other post-independent countries in Africa, the political elite had been  relatively accoun- table in providing services to the people, including welfare programmes, despite inter and intra-political elite competition. Since Molutsi made  his conclusion, compe- tition within and between parties has intensified many fold, and it has not always been healthy competition,  as we show below. The growth of Botswana’s economy has fuelled a new culture of consumerism  focused  on the  need  for wealth  accumulation.  This has meant that for many politicians, working in the interests of the electorate has become sec- ondary, with the  pursuit of personal  advantage appearing  to be the  primary motive. It should  also be  added  that  socio-economic  survival instincts  and  weak or non-existent commitment to  ideology  in the  public  discourse  have  enabled  this  phenomenon to become  widespread.

The allure  of political  office

Haseler’s observation  that shameless  determination for financial gain engendered by new capitalism is in line with developments in Botswana in recent  years. The call for more conducive working conditions  and increased  remuneration by elected politicians is not necessarily new in Botswana, though  in the past it was not done  with the  open  aggressiveness  that  has been  witnessed  in recent  years. Before the  country’s diamond  boom, which began  in the 1980s, parliamentarians  were poorly remunerated. A good number  of them  do seem to have taken to the political career as a ‘calling’ to ‘the political and public life. In fact, politics impoverished  some of Botswana’s early national leaders. The situation has always been  more deplorable  for opposition  leaders  and  activists whose  parties  were  too  poor  to  help fund activists’ campaigns.


In recent years, it seems the aim of most with parliamentary ambition is to make it into the much coveted  cabinet  with its impressive conditions  of service and perks. The perceived  main advantage of being in cabinet  is access to critical inside information  concerning  lucrative government tenders.  Popular belief is that  one  would make available such information to businesses  owned  by family members,  relatives, acquaintances and  other  tenderpreneurs to assist them  in winning tenders,  and  in the process get rewarded  handsomely  with kickbacks. Within the past five years, two senior cabinet  ministers have been  hauled  before the courts on such charges, but were found not guilty.

Corruption in Botswana appears  to be directly connected to the country’s political and economic systems in line with Girling’s assertion that ‘The capitalism-democracy- society nexus is the structural condition of corruption’. Botswana’s economic situation can be divided into two phases; the  first is the  period  of poverty  between 1966 and  1980, during Seretse’s presidency; the  second  is the  period  of prosperity, spanning  1980 and 1998 during the presidency  of Quett Masire, Festus Mogae (1998–2008) and Ian Khama (2008-). The earlier period was characterised  by stringent parsimony and there is little evi- dence  of rampant  corruption  by government officials. The second  period saw unprece- dented corruption, mismanagement and extravagance  on the part of some government officials and  elected  political leaders. Lack of evidence  of corruption  and abuse  of office by holders  in the  first period  can be  attributed to Seretse’s  leadership style, the country’s poverty at the time and the absence  of an enquiring  private media. On the other hand, Seretse’s demise seems to have coincided with a period of prosperity when  the  state  coffers had  become  plunderable,  hence  corruption,  extravagance  and increased  inequality. The acknowledgement of the  existence  of chronic and  potentially crippling corruption and white-collar crime in Botswana prompted government to estab- lish the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime and the Office of the Ombudsman in the mid-1990s.


While elite corruption persists in Botswana, at a much reduced scale when compared  to other African countries, a 2014 Afrobarometer survey demonstrated a sudden  upsurge  in Batswana’s perception  of corruption in government. Eighty-one per cent of Batswana sur- veyed believed that ‘some’, ‘most’ or ‘all’ government officials were involved in corruption. The study, which was widely publicised in the private press, further noted  that  77% of citizens perceived  parliamentarians  and  councillors as involved in corruption, with 70% of the informants attributing  corruption to the president and officials in the Office of the President.

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