A day before I embarked on the 120 kilometre journey to Letlhakeng to interview Boometswe Mokgothu, I phoned to confirm our meeting. He was keen to give me directions to his place. “When you arrive in Letlhakeng, you take left at the circle, then right, then....”.
Well, I wasn’t so much interested in capturing his directions because I knew I would easily find his place once I arrived in Letlhakeng. He has been the Member of Parliament for 20 uninterrupted years, who in the village would not know Boometswe Mokgothu’s homestead!
Locating the place was a stroll in the park. I knocked at his door at exactly 1pm and felt ashamed to have arrived at lunch time.
He was eating and listening to Radio Botswana’s English news bulletin. I initially decline an offer for a plate, but he assured me there’s plenty of food. “My wife is doing outside catering so there’s plenty of food”, he reassured me. I was accorded a buffet treat.
“What will you have between samp, rice, beef and chicken?” he politely enquired as he called a nearby lady to dish for me.
During Mokgothu’s time in parliament, the media had portrayed him as timid and annoyingly reserved but today, just as Gloria Kgosi concluded the news bulletin, I discover his witty side. He cracked me up when he said, “I was listening attentively hoping Gloria Kgosi would sign off with her usual “motho wetsho sala, mme o sale ka lorato le le kalo. I wanted to hear her say that in English”.
We sat down for a chat in his living room and it was evident Mokgothu read avidly. The room was brimming with an impressive collections of Britannica and The Laws of Botswana.
His desk is cluttered with newspapers. On the wall, just above where he was seated, hung his official portrait from the time when he was a Member of Parliament.
The man on the photo looked different from the man I was talking to. Well, traces of resemblance were there, but the current Mokgothu has gained more weight compared to the Mokgothu of then.
He is still physically fit, speaks fluent English and Setswana, but you can’t miss that Sekgalagadi accent. Below the photo was a poem of Mokgothu that I didn’t get the name of its author.
Boometswe Mokgothu was born on March 4, 1948. Though he preferred to let people know he was born in Letlhakeng, he said he has been told that he was born at Rabaitaodi, a settlement just about four kilometres outside Letlhakeng.
“Gatwe ke tsholetswe gone koo,” he said dismissively.
Both his parents were from Letlhakeng, with his mother coming from the Babolongwe and his father coming from Bashaga, both predominant Bakgalagadi tribes.
He is the first born.
He schooled at Letlhakeng Primary School but since the school only offered up to Standard 4, he had to go to Molepolole to do his Standard 5 and 6 at Bakwena National School. He thereafter went to Kgari Sechele for his secondary education. After attaining his secondary education, he became a temporary teacher at Maboane and Salajwe.
He soon enrolled among the first group of students to be admitted at the Francistown Teacher Training College where he graduated with elementary teacher’s certificate.
“I went back to Salajwe now as a qualified teacher,” he bragged.
Despite having initially carved a career in teaching, his true love was agriculture and this saw him ditching the chalk and enrolling for a certificate in agriculture at Sebele.
After graduation he was posted to Etsha in the Okavango area, a place far away from his home village.
“Before then I only knew Botswana up to Francistown,” he quipped.
Those were the times when there were no tarred roads and travelling from the south of Botswana to the north western part of the country took several days. He spent only two years in Etsha and went to Swaziland to pursue a diploma in agriculture in 1976. He came back in 1979 and just as he was about to take up a job with the Ministry of Agriculture, he was recruited by the founder of Kweneng Rural Development Association (KRDA), David Inger, who wanted to open an Agricultural wing at the Molepolole Brigade.
Subsequently, Mokgothu became the General Manager of KRDA, taking over from Francis Moswela who was preceded by Robert Ntsima.
KRDA then had under its belt business enterprises such as Bakwena Building Materials and Mafenyatlala hotel.
There was also Boikanyo Engineering which taught mechanics and Molepolole Brigade which specialised in bricklaying.
In 1983, a lot of people started approaching him and asking that he stand for parliamentary elections in Letlhakeng.
“In fact, they first approached my mother to ask me to join politics, but she refused, telling them she doesn’t want his son insulted at freedom squares,” Mokgothu
But he yielded to their requests and was eventually elected Member of Parliament in the 1984 general elections, succeeding Matlho Reokwaeng.
The 1984 general elections were held in September, just two weeks before the independence celebrations and Mokgothu was immediately thrown into the deep end.
He was called to address the villagers at the independence celebrations, in his capacity as the area member of parliament. By then he had been an MP for just two weeks.
“Luckily I had been a teacher before and that helped a lot in easing the nervousness that comes with addressing multitudes,” he recalled with a smile. In his second term as MP, Mokgothu was appointed Assistant Minister of Local Government in Sir Ketumile Masire’s cabinet.
“I couldn’t believe it as I was sitting here at home and Radio Botswana announced my appointment yet no one had informed me about it,” he said, recalling how the President had never approached or even hinted to him about his cabinet appointment.
In 1999, President Festus Mogae appointed Mokgothu the Minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Affairs. Mogae is on record as having declared Mokgothu a very honest minister. I enquired as to what could have made Mogae trust him so much.
“I really wouldn’t know because he never told me why he trusted me, but I hear he told colleagues that I’m the kind of a guy who would find a diamond lying on the ground and call the police instead of pocketing it,” Mokgothu said.
He suspected the trust that Mogae had on him emanated from the fact that he was always honest when advising him or when briefing the president about his ministry.
Mokgothu also said he always put the country first when negotiating diamond sales agreements with De Beers.
In 2004, Mokgothu represented Botswana at the mining conference in Australia where he was singled out for special praise by Gallery Gold MD, Hamish Bohannan. The latter had first-hand experience as a resources-industry investor in several Southern African states.
These are some of the accolades that may have earned him Mogae’s respect. He said he was told of how Mogae was saddened by his departure from parliament after he lost the elections in 2004.Mogae nonetheless continued to show his vote of confidence in Mokgothu when, in 2006, he appointed him Botswana’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, a position he held until the end of his contract in 2010.
The saddest time he recalls during his time as a MP and cabinet minister was when he travelled to the Dominican Republic with one of the parliament staff members for the EUACP summit and this lady fell sick on arrival and never made it back to Botswana alive.
“I shed a tear when we were receiving her corpse at the airport back in Gaborone. Her coffin came out of the cargo apartment and was inscribed ‘the remains of a human being’,” he said heavy-heartedly as he narrated the story.
He also reminisced on the vibrant debates and mutual understanding and respect that reigned in parliament during their times.
“(Dr Kenneth) Koma (Opposition BNF leader) knew how to patronise us and even make us look stupid in the eyes of the public. “He would ask why the BDP was failing to do a simple job of connecting pipes and providing people with water,” he said, gesticulating to demonstrate how Koma made providing water appear so simple and easy.
Mokgothu is enjoying his retirement at home and helps his wife run their businesses in Letlhakeng which include, among others, a restaurant and butchery.
They have five grown up children. His first born is married. His second born works at the Attorney General while the third born is a practising optician who graduated from Glasgow.
The last two are students at the University of Botswana and one of them will be graduating this year while the last born would graduate in 2017. He is a pastoral and arable farmer.
Mokgothu sits on the citizen observatory board, made up of retired elders in the Kweneng region and tasked with advising the Kweneng District Council with assessment and implementation of the district’s projects.
He also works closely with a lady called Monica who came to Botswana from Switzerland and runs a project aimed at conserving lions and keeping them away from the community.
They collar and monitor the lions’ movement in the area.
Mokgothu is a recipient of the Presidential Order of Merit bestowed on him by President Festus Mogae, of course.