• A radical nationalist who re-wrote the BNF history
• Father of Botswana labour movement
The late former Botswana National Front (BNF) national chairman and founder of Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) Klaas Motshidisi was a master political player that shaped the country’s opposition politics.
His biographer, Professor Monageng Mogalakwe, informed a handful mourners who attended a memorial service held in Gaborone that Motshidisi was a progressive and radical nationalist who was instrumental in the formation of BNF. “He was one of the first people to be charged with sedition in 1967 but the charges were later dropped in 1968 after some protests,” said Mogalakwe, a former BNF Secretary for International Relations. He told mourners that Motshidisi played a pivotal role in the formation of BFTU and his wish was to see all trade unions united. He then called on BFTU and Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) to honor Motshidisi’s legacy and unite.
Motshidisi and Mogalakwe were part of the team that ushered in Otsweletse Moupo as BNF President at the Kanye congress in 2003, as members of the Concerned Group. Motshidisi who died last week is described as the master political structural engineer who is credited for building BNF structures. He is described by some as the invisible hand behind the infamous 1998 BNF split, something that is disputed by his longtime friend Billy Makuku. Makuku said many people have the wrong version of the BNF split “and am here to set the record straight. The BNF veteran said problems started in 1993 ahead of the 1994 general elections when some within the party wanted them to topple Dr Kenneth Koma as party president and boycott the general elections. The year 1993 was a bag of mixed fortunes for BNF, this was at a time that the party’s popularity grew and signaled the arrival of Michael Dingake, a former Robben Island inmate whose arrival unsettled some party members due to his closeness to Koma. It was also the time when some BNF members started to question leadership style of Koma.
It was at the Mahalapye congress that a resolution was taken to boycott the 1994 general elections unless the government meets some of their demands like reducing the voting age to 18. “Motshidisi who by then was the secretary general convinced us that we cannot boycott the general elections and the party headed his call,” said Makuku noting that the party even performed well. It was in the 1994 general elections that BNF pulled 13 parliamentary seats which led to the ruling party panicking and seeking the advice of a political consultant the late Lawrence Schlemer. Motshidisi who stood against Festus Mogae in Palapye lost in the elections garnering 1500 votes.
Makuku maintains that they were fighting for the BNF the Ledumang Congress hence they challenged the legitimacy of the elective congress in 1997 which led to their suspension.
The Motshidisi faction which named itself the ‘concerned group’ started addressing rallies and informing BNF members that Dingake’s faction wanted to topple Dr Kenneth Koma as party president. According to Makuku they then wrote a book “Se se tsentseng tlhobaelo” which was edited by Motshidisi to state the reason for their protest. Some church pastors and elders tried to strike a deal between the warring factions but failed to bear fruit and the relationship between Koma and his deputy Dingake was now deteriorating as he felt that the former wanted to oust him.
In the late 1997 Motshidisi, Billy Makuku, Mareledi Giddie, Mogalakwe Mogalakwe and Patrick Kgoadi led members of the concerned group were shown the door by the central committee with Koma threatened with suspension from the party. Defending their uprising against the party leadership Makuku said that leadership is walking in an invisible line ad those behind you can see better what is in front. “If it was not for us there will no BNF right now, we saw what was happening and fought to protect the party,” said Makuku who still has glimpses of militancy though age is betraying him.
BNF members, on Thursday 9th April 1998 just like Christians on a pilgrimage to commemorate the death of Christ, took a painful journey to Palapye for their special congress which was to determine the fate of members of the concerned group. On Good Friday 10th April 1998, when Christians soberly remembered Christ crucified on cross at mount Calvary, Botswana's main opposition was on the brink of tearing in two just like the cloth at the temple when Jesus Christ died.
According to Makuku, a day before the special congress commenced they sent their chief spy Reggie Reatile to go and steal keys to the room where the central committee was to meet and eavesdrop on what was discussed. He is adamant that if it was not for the visionary leadership of Motshidisi, BNF was going to the dogs but he led them to return the party to its members.
On Friday 31st July 1998 three judges of the High Court of Appeal dismissed a case brought by some members of the BNF central committee. Koma by then had the young Gabriel Kanjabanga as his legal advisor and brought Advocate Z.F. Joubert (S.C.) while the appellants were represented by Monthe Marumo. After they lost the case most members of the suspended central committee resigned from BNF and formed Botswana Congress Party with 11 MPs and 68 councilors defecting to the new party.
Some wrote BNF political obituary but Motshidisi and others started to rebuild the party from scratch leading it to win six parliamentary seats in the 1999 general elections while BCP got only one.
The relationship between Motshidisi and Koma was blowing hot and cold as after the 1999 general elections, the party prepared for the 2001 elective congress in Kanye in which Koma was expected to retire. Another faction was formed known as Party Line and had Peter Woto as their presidential candidate while the Concerned Group (CG) had Otsweletse Moupo as their candidate backed by Motshidisi. The CG won all the seats at the Kanye congress with Motshidisi voted as National Chairman and just like the 1997 central committee, used the purge political system which was now common within front, and expelled Woto. The expulsion of Woto led to the formation of National Democratic Front and Kenneth Koma as its first MP in parliament before he retired from politics in 2004. The party was led by attorney Dick Bayford but the party would later be swallowed by the BCP and its president is currently in a political island. While many people believe that it was Duma Boko’s legal prowess that he won his case to stand for BNF presidential position in 2010 when the party disqualified him, Makuku revealed that it was because of the assistance they got from Motshidisi. “When I was called and informed him that Boko had been disqualified to stand for BNF presidency I rushed to Motshidisi to check the record if ever Boko was expelled with the likes of Woto,” he said, adding that it turned out Boko was never suspended.
The affidavit played a key role in court as attorneys for Boko relied on it and led to him being exonerated to stand for elections and ultimately won at the Mochudi congress, said Makuku.
Motshidisi retired from politics after a fallout with his ally Moupo and became a chief in Palapye, a position he held until he passed on last week.
Motshidisi is the founding father of labour movement in Botswana who was instrumental in sensitizing workers about their rights. Botswana Federation of Trade Union (BFTU) Secretary General Gadzani Mhotsha said Motshidisi was the founding member of BFTU as he was worried about the division within the labour movement in Botswana. Mhotsha said as BFTU they owe their existence to Motshidisi during whose tenure as commissioner of Labour in 1978, Botswana was admitted into the membership of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). “This clearly showed that he cared about the welfare of the workers of this country,” said Mhotsha.
The BFTU chief scribe said it is their wish to honor the legacy of Motshidisi by uniting with other unions to push the workers’ agenda. Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) Secretary General Tobokani Rari said Motshidisi is regarded as the founding father of trade unions in Botswana. He said that BOFEPUSU is ready to work with any workers union to ensure the welfare of workers is taken seriously in Botswana.
Professor Monageng Mogalakwe, who is writing Motshidisi’s biography, called on BFTU and BOFEPUSU to unite. “This will make the soul of Motshidisi to rest in peace as this has always been his wish.” There have been calls for BFTU and BOFEPUSU to unite and form one federation which seems to fall on deaf ears. Motshidisi was the founder of Bechuanaland Trade Union Congress (BTUC) which later joined forces with its rival Botswana Federation of Labour (BFL) to form Botswana Federation of Trade Union (BFTU).
Motshidisi was buried in his home village of Palapye on Saturday.