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Tribute to Gobe Matenge

Gobe Matenge
I received the news of Gobe "GW" Matenge's passing from her daughter, Tsompie, on April 26, 2018 with great sadness and sorrow. Tsompie's message was brief: " Hi Boss, papa is resting". Her message left me cold and disoriented. I felt a deep sense of personal loss.

Over the years, since GW commissioned me to write his biography:  “Unearthing the Hidden Treasure: The Untold Story of Gobe Matenge” my relationship with him and his family deepened. We became one family – his children my sisters and brothers. I wrote the book in close collaboration with Tsompie – the special emissary of GW on the project. This is how I earned my tittle: “Boss”.

I deeply regret that due to my being trapped in the bowels of the Pacific I could not make it to Botswana to pay my last respects to my mentor, friend and father. However, with modern technology I followed the proceedings every step of the way and I was deeply touched by the outpouring of grief and love from hundreds of our people, young and old; people of diverse religious denominations and political affiliations. A fitting tribute to a man who respected every person without any distinction whatsoever.

At this juncture it is proper that I must express my sincere condolences to his family and say to them that as much as I understand the loss they have suffered, they must take heart that he has rested. He seemed to be in great pain when I last visited him at Gaborone Private Hospital in March, 2018. What was remarkable though was that GW was ready to meet his Maker. He was not afraid to die. He was fearless to the end. 

GW’s passing was not only a loss to his family, friends and relatives, but it is a great loss to the country too.  A larger than life figure has fallen. The mighty tree that sheltered the young and old, the poor and rich has fallen. The aftermath of this loss shall be felt in many parts of our republic, not least in Matenge where GW used to pay for uniforms of school going pupils.

Death may have succeeded to physically separate us from this iconic son of the soil, but it cannot succeed to kill his name and deeds in this, our earthly world. Although GW did not play any visible and prominent part in the nationalist movement that ushered republican politics in our country he was instrumental in building certain aspects of our identity as a people and nation.  For instance, he contributed in ensuring that the song “ Fatshe leno larona” is chosen as our national anthem. As GW explained to me, “Fatshe leno larona” composed by Tumediso Motsete was more appropriate than other competing songs because it was unique and exuded national pride. The preferred song, according to GW, captured the pulse of the nation and expressed the joy and patriotic mood of the people at having taken control of their affairs.

Our country has lost an exceptional human being whose kind we may not see again.  He was extra-ordinary in many respects. He was a snappy dresser, with a passion for a white shirt. His children say they often lost count how many times in a day he would brush his teeth. His brother Robert once told me that GW exhibited propensity for being clean at all times during his early days. According to his brother: “Gobe o ne a rata metsi. Ha a tsene mo metsing ko nokeng o ne a sa tswe; a ikgotha dinao jaaka mosetsana”

GW is well known for his punctuality. He doesn’t like people who don’t respect time and he was hardly sympathetic to any excuse proffered for not keeping time. His contemporaries say that he was not a great fan for quorum in meetings because he firmly believed that having quorum should not stand on the way of delivery.

All those who knew him well would testify that he was a man of unbending principle. It is in the class character of the middle class to blink and equivocate in the face of injustice. No so GW. On principle he never equivocated. At the time he permanently fell asleep he remained committed to a fairer and better society for all. He was famous for being even handed. As a District Commissioner in Kanye he used to reprimand the Special Branch Police who were mandated for reporting on party political meetings for filing reports only on the opposition, telling them in no uncertain terms that they must file reports of all political meetings.

From humble beginnings, in Matenge, a small village tucked away in the North East of Botswana, he achieved so much and touched so many hearts with his regal posture, dignity and sharp intellect.

He is one of the Elders of our nation that had a profound impact on our democracy. He was principled, warm, loving, empathetic, thoughtful and kind. He was humble in the way he treated everybody, no matter how they ranked on the social ladder in this class divided society of ours.

GW was humble and wise. He would listen very intently to a debate; nod if in agreement, but maintain stony dignified silence when not in agreement and on occasions he would quietly shake his head in disagreement, and once the speaker is finished, he would clear his throat, chuckle and engage. He respected everyone’s opinion, no matter how humble their station in life and treated them with respect and dignity. He commanded without issuing commands and he would offer his path breaking wisdom. He had an unmistakable sense of purpose and justice especially for the poor and the marginalised. S

omewhere in the book of Luke it is reported that Jesus spoke about preaching the gospel to the poor, about healing the broken hearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives. GW was not a religious man, but his mission in life was to uplift the poor; to end the indignity brought by poverty and to fight against discrimination based on ethnic, gender and other irrational grounds. GW had hoped that the Balopi Commission set up to address the issue of equality of all segments of our society would finally lay to rest complaints of ethnic inequality; and was disappointed that this was not so.

This tribute is not the place to give a full account of who GW is. What I hope to do is to sketch, in broad strokes, his remarkable life journey, just to give a sense why he was so much loved and respected. My hope is that young people will learn something positive from his life experience. At the end of this sketch, I will outline in summary form what I think the valuable lessons of his life are to the youth of our country.

GW believed in political pluralism. This is a man whose political home was in the Opposition, but some of his best friends came from the other side of the political divide. He counted amongst his best friends His Excellency former President Mogae and David Magang, amongst others. This generation of leaders represent who we are as a people – a trait that unfortunately appears to be on the

wane. In the contemporary Botswana, one can pay a crippling price for holding a different point of view. We should refuse to go in this direction. It is alien to who we are as a people. It is a deadly seed to cultivate.

GW may have been critical of his government, but not once did he doubt the patriotism of its functionaries. He was tolerant and decent in his politics. He did not believe in the politics of abuse and insults. He was dignified and civil and made politics seem so natural like breathing oxygen. He always insisted that critiques of the establishment must articulate robust policy positions that can drive the country forward.

GW was a product of his own circumstances - a scion of Wilinani and Goitsemang Matenge.  He was born on February 28, 1926, in Matenge Ward near Makaleng Village in the North East District. The name, Gobe, means “ Mpho” in Setswana and in English it simply means, “ Gift” – and what a gift he was to this nation.

According to some sources the Matenges originated from West Central Africa. Their Totem is Ngama (hartebeest). The Matenge men, like most Nswazi men share the honour of being addressed as Bo-Ntombo – a revered salutation of his people. He is the eldest of the three brothers, (GW, Robert and Tjiga. In 1950 GW married Daisy Matenge, daughter of Motshobi and Gertrude Sebina of Tonota. They were blessed with six children: Kutlwano, Tjakazwagwa( Bandu) Nkwebi, Goitsemang(Chibi), Nlebeleki (Matsi) and Tsompie (Selloane).

GW lived his life to the full. He did not scale the heights of formal education but he could debate any scholar on major issues of the day. He rose from being a messenger/interpreter at the office of the District Commissioner (DC) in Francistown to being a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs. As a public officer he knew that he was a servant of the people and a trustee of people’s property and funds.

GW’s rise to the top echelons of the civil service did not surprise those who knew his passion for delivery. His sense of fairness. In terms of service delivery and in conducting himself as a public figure GW had no rivals. If all our civil servants could emulate GW’s sense of duty our country will develop in leaps and bounds and would be corrupt free.

As a District Commissioner and Permanent Secretary he was guided by the law in carrying out his mandate and feared no one. An encounter with the then Vice President Masire when he was a District Commissioner in Kanye illustrates his principled and fearless nature. GW had received communication that Vice President Masire who was also the MP for Kanye was going to be touring the area and that the office of the DC was expected to arrange for the tour. GW demanded to know in what capacity the Vice President would be touring the District.  He got no response. On the appointed day for the tour the Vice President did not come to his office, instead he went to the office of the Police Station Commander. And as fate would have it, towards the end of his tour the Vice President’s vehicle needed petrol which could only be authorised by the District Commissioner. The VP drove to the office of the DC. GW was advised that the President was outside and asked if he cared meeting him. He requested that the Vice President come to his office so that they can discuss whatever assistance his office may render. The VP went to meet GW but was livid at the apparent insubordination of the DC. GW refused to bend.  He put it to the VP that he takes instructions from his Minister not the VP.

The duo engaged in heated exchange. At the end of the exchange Vice President Masire was willing to make peace. He offered a handshake. GW was not impressed, asking: “Why do you want to shake my hand”?. Such was the unbending nature of GW on matters of principle. 

Then is the much told story of a government vehicle. The story is told how once when GW was having a chat with President Seretse Khama’s private secretary, he saw the President’s daughter driving a government vehicle to which he took exception openly. He was reprimanded by his Minister but later exonerated by the President.

His colleagues in the opposition said he had a rare courage of talking truth to power. A source reports that once at a heated meeting of his party he told his revered and highly respected leader that despite the obvious love and adoration of the masses, he must remember he is not God, but a mere mortal with faults and flows.

GW’s life is an inspiring lesson to all young people. His life teaches that with hard work anything is possible; that success is not an accident; that failure is not final and that no one is born a failure. We were all born to succeed if only we could learn to focus on what has to be done. Yes, his life teaches that dreams don’t give up on us, but we give up on our dreams, more often than not prematurely. GW’s life teaches that we may come from hardship circumstances yet we can still cast aside our circumstances and succeed. The principle remains the same for every struggle – that if we have stubborn determination to succeed, we will.

GW served our country with distinction, more pre-eminently as a District Commissioner and Permanent Secretary. He was once tasked with the organisation of the 10th Anniversary of Independence Celebrations a task he discharged with pride and distinction. As his friends would testify, he made sure that everything was “tip tops”.

I end this tribute with a humble call to those who have power to make things happen. As a nation we need to honour every Motswana who deserves to be honoured because there is verifiable evidence that supports such an honour. I think there is sufficient evidence to support a plea that GW must be honoured in some form. Perhaps, we as a nation could name some street, space or building after him so that future generations can read about him and be inspired.

Farewell Ntombo.  You were a cut above the rest. All is well with my soul. I have accepted it was your time to go. You ran your race and completed your tasks in this world as a servant of the people. I have accepted that as they say, there is a time for every matter under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. Parting is always hellish. My consolation is that good men never really die, they sleep. God bless the memory of GW. May His Soul Rest in Eternal Peace.

*Justice Key Dingake  (PhD) is a Judge of the National and Supreme Court,  Papau New Guinea




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