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Pass the salt comrade!

BAKANG NTSHINGANE
The three men vying for the country's presidency
It is 6pm on October 22, 2019, the eve of elections.

A group of politicians who also happen to be presidents of all the political parties vying for elections sit down to share a meal.

They sit in a circle around a table draped in blue, black and white, a reminder of what these elections are really about: the country! Atop each folded napkin is a slip izmir oto kiralama of paper with a printed pledge: There’s a lot we may not agree on… How will their conversations go? How will the different schisms play out?

What makes this dinner peculiar is that after the politicians have taken their seats, one chair

remains empty. The empty chair represents the electorate, the voter, who must always be there, lingering over with an overbearing presence, pressing on the hearts and minds of legislators.

The political leaders have known each other for years, because, well, they’ve spent years canvassing for political office in the ‘trenches’ and some have been in the same political parties, have stood at podiums together bashing members of another political party and shouting political slogans or have been family friends, comrades, compatriots and drinking buddies. Some are relatively new to politics because they’ve spent years building reputable careers and walking the halls of Harvard and Wharton.

The empty chair for the voter represents a diverse spectrum of citizens: women, youth, civil servants, urban and rural dwellers, LGBTQI+, indigenous people, middle-class and even the wealthy. They keep their chatter light from the beginning, casually passing compliments, jokes, awkward smiles, gestures of acknowledgement, etc.

There’s an undeniable elephant in the room. In a few hours the country will go on to decide one of the most important elections in modern day Botswana. The voters are anxious to get the ball rolling and speak to issues that burn a whole in the stomach and keep them up at night.

The country is grappling with a crisis of unemployment, income inequality, corruption, the list goes on and on.

But this dinner represents a small gesture of tolerance and openness in a time of unprecedented political division. The state and quality of Botswana’s democracy has probably never been this low. The blurred lines on institutional separation of powers continue to undermine checks and balances and overall efficiency of public institutions.

The amount of complacency that political leaders have demonstrated is enough to cause anxiety across the whole electorate.

The dinner progresses well. Amid a crisis on women’s bodies and women’s well-being, the empty chair presses for a conversation on when political leaders will acknowledge and take seriously the fact that increasing cases of violence against women and children pose a serious existential threat to the entire country.

The politicians take turns dilly-dallying. One mumbles that he does not believe in the concept of gender-based violence in the first place.

The fact there’s no female presidential candidate in the room doesn’t help the conversation, and so, it flies by without any substantial engagement.

The heated

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conversations revolve around jobs and corruption. On corruption there is a lot of finger-pointing, blame shifting and promises made to the effect that if given a chance, each will systematically deal with corruption and prosecute those who have indulged and benefitted from corruption. The jobs debate is a passionate one.

The usual buzzwords get thrown around: foreign and domestic investment, BCL Mine, small-medium enterprises, hemp production, fourth industrial revolution and so on. The people are out of jobs. Those with jobs don’t make enough to get by. But there’s also a stench that leaves a bad taste in the empty chair’s mouth.

A few months ago, members of the recently dissolved Parliament voted to increase their salaries. Most of them, in fact, all of them, are seated at this table. A stale conversation on compensating Honourable Members for their work lingers around for a few minutes before they jump onto another issue. 

Voters have for years consistently struggled to be heard. Political parties often engage and preach to their already converted disciples while the politically homeless swing between poles, searching for electable representatives. Many of the leaders at this table have often been tone deaf, riddled with tactical blunders and a messaging that just does not hit home.

At the end of the feasting, a moment to genuinely reflect on themselves and on the country dawns upon them. One of them could be President in the next couple of days. What do they want for their country and for their voters? Did the empty chair and the draped table invoke any type of feeling for them about what is at stake?

The empty chair is a striking concept to think about and reflect on in this democracy of ours: a chair for the guest who may arrive at any moment, for whom a place must be kept. But the voter is not a guest.

Parliament and government are a mirror reflection of the voter. Somewhat less sublimely, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos apparently insists on having an empty chair at every company meeting: the chair represents the customer, according to Bezos “the most important person in the room”.

So equally, in our case then, the chair IS the customer, the citizen, the most important office in the land. Instead of staging acrimonious elections for the post of President and his members of Parliament, rather than arguing over who stole from the treasury or failed to lower unemployment rates, politicians should simply hold regular viewings of the empty chair around dinner tables.

Perhaps there must even be an empty grand chair on the floor of Parliament, so that they may always remember to behold the absent infeasible ideal ruler, whose always imminent, always postponed arrival may guide them in the endless self and other relation that is politics.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea



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