FRANCISTOWN: The role of the First Lady is not fully catered for in the Constitution of the country.
However, it is widely recognised as one of the key elements that ensure that the Office of the President and State House function optimally. For a decade Batswana were deprived of a First Lady, as President Ian Khama preferred to maintain his bachelor status.
All three presidents who came before him were legally married and their wives by virtue of their status as First Lady played an active role in charitable initiatives.
On the other hand Khama established and spearheaded his own charitable activities, which have in the past been undertaken by first ladies while the President tackled serious governance issues.
It is widely known that Ruth Khama, the wife to the first President of the country, Seretse Khama, was very active in charitable works, especially those concerning the needs of the disadvantaged.
She helped set up the Botswana Red Cross Society and held leadership roles at the Botswana Council of Women and SOS Children’s Villages. Ruth’s portfolio as first lady is filled with stories of her remarkable charity work.
Mma Gaone, as the late former President Sir Ketumile Masire’s wife, was affectionately called so and she too was involved in charity, as was Mma Nametso (Barbara Mogae) then wife of Festus Mogae, Botswana’s third president.
Mma Gaone used her status to raise funds for various charitable activities. Former first lady Barbara Mogae was known for her passion for environmental issues. During her then spouse’s presidency she worked with various NGOs devoted to environmental matters.
Botswana finally has a First Lady in Neo Jane Masisi, widely referred to as Mma Atsile for the first time in 10 years as of last April when President Mokgweetsi Masisi took over. Just like past presidents’ wives the First Lady or Mma Atsile appears to be very passionate about charitable activities and issues affecting women.
Mma Atsile’s ascendance to the position of First Lady was widely celebrated by many including political commentators. Writing in one of his weekly columns immediately after the ascendance of Masisi, political pundit Ndulamo Morima averred that like other nations, when the president engages in public events, both locally and internationally, he will be seen with his wife, and, in some instances, their child, Atsile, which will be a representation of the family unit that is, after all, the basis for nationhood.
He also posited that a First Lady moderates her husband’s character and temperament, something, which influences his leadership style.
“Though the state house has cooks and all manner of staff responsible for making it hospitable, the state house cannot be complete without the First Lady. When heads of state and other foreign dignitaries visit, the First Lady’s presence in the state house is invaluable. A First Lady is not only confined to the state house,” Morima added in his weekly columns.
One year into her role as First Lady there are also those who believe that Mma Atsile has rekindled and maintained the status of the position of First Lady by keeping a clean demeanor when playing her role instead of immersing herself in political matters. Those fighting in her corner cite her visibility on various charitable activities. One such initiative is the First Lady’s Girls Summit in Palapye whose aim is to equip girls with life skills that would help them navigate through various challenges. The initiative is her brainchild. Mma Atsile has also in the past months participated in gender-based violence seminars countrywide. She has also shown passion for education.
Amongst others, Mma Atsile is a patron of rural primary schools of Machana and Bikwe. First ladies have often been criticised for doing too much or not doing enough. At times they have been accused of using their gravitas to lobby political support for their husbands.
Criticism associated with the role has not escaped Mma Atsile. Some have accused her of unnecessarily travelling with her spouse both locally and abroad.
Local political analyst Leonard Sesa stated that Mma Atsile has to some extent managed to rekindle the vibrancy associated with the role of the First Lady.
He, however, said that it is difficult to fully calculate the impact that she has made as First Lady in the lives of Batswana because she is yet to show an area she wants to specifically focus on in relation to her newly found role (as First Lady).
Sesa was quick to note that at this juncture Mma Atsile should have pointed out her road map and her specific area of interest in relation to serving Batswana.
She said that having an area of focus as a First Lady helps one to leave a well-defined legacy once she vacates her role.
“The First Lady is also always seen with her husband on both international and regional trips. It is not clear if she is attending the trips representing her role as First Lady or just to accompany him as spouse. There has to be clarity in that regard to avoid speculation or unnecessary scrutiny from the public,” he added.
Furthermore, Sesa stated that it is high time the government gives clear clarity on the position of a First Lady to prevent the nation from speculating on its exact purpose.
On the other hand Sesa noted that it is possible that Mma Atsile is familiarising herself with her role (which is why she is yet to choose her area of interest) and keeping her roadmap to herself under the anticipation that she will fully come out in the open if her husband is fully elected President at the 2019 general elections.
Sesa added that its inevitable that Mma Atsile, given her widely known academic credentials, advises President Masisi on administrative matters relating to the running of the country and his overall leadership style.
“Mma Atsile is close to Masisi’s heart and there is no way she can stay away from playing an advisory role to him,” he said.
He highlighted that all the decisions made by President Masisi in relation to running the country are known first by the wife before reaching other people.
In an interview with a UB political science scholar Dr Gladys Mokhawa said that although First ladies are not elected into office, they are susceptible to public scrutiny.
“What we have to understand is that there are no formal or legal responsibilities of first ladies. Although the Constitution of Botswana expresses the powers of the President, it does not do the same for the First Lady,” she said.
Mokhawa further explained that responsibilities of the First Lady include her role as the nation’s hostess, which means she takes care of the affairs of the State House.
However, she said that tradition has shown that other First Ladies play political roles by supporting the President in his political campaigns and some wives can expand their roles by becoming advisors, but if the first lady seems like she is playing a political role she can be subjected to serious public backlash.
She also said that the role played by First lady can be based on her idiosyncrasies but the best thing therefore is for the First lady to focus on issues that she feels passionate about and are of national concern.
When speaking of Mma Atsile, Mokhawa said that over the past year the First lady is focused on different issues across the national spectrum including issues affecting a girl child, charity work to mention but a few.
She also said that Mma Atsile just like other First ladies support her husband when he travels abroad for bilateral relations.
“The First lady, historically, accompanies their husbands as they travel outside the country. However, their roles should just be ceremonial,” she concluded.