The Blackbeards and the Khamas

Giving me a touch of unease has been Professor Seeking’s recent paper, “A lean cow cannot climb out of the mud, but a good cattleman does not leave it to perish”:

The origins of a conservative welfare doctrine in Botswana under Seretse Welfare State in Botswana, 1965-1980.’  I have always understood that Seretse was disillusioned,  understandably, with both the Labour and Conservative parties in the UK.

I was therefore surprised by Seekings contention that ‘the ideology that he helped to articulate in the late 1960s and 1970s resembled closely the ‘One Nation’ conservatism articulated by young Conservatives such as Ian Macleod.’ Wondering therefore who did influence Seretse, apart from John Syson, I cast around and  remembered an article in an English magazine, Picture Post of 1956 or 1957. which had included a photo of Ruth in the Serowe post office ‘with her friend, Audrey Blackbeard’. This was of some interest because much of the white trader community in Serowe at that time was extremely hostile to Ruth.

But still casting around, it wasn’t too difficult to remember that the Blackbeards had been residents of Old Palapye and possibly also of Shoshong. In 1895 Samuel and Walter Blackbeard had been amongst the traders who signed a letter of good wishes to Khama prior to his famous visit to the U.K. Also in Old Palapye is the grave of Ernest Khama Blackbeard. In my book on Botswana’s Heritage I included a photo of the graves’ headstone with the caption, ‘The gravestone of a young child of the Blackbeard family suggesting an unusual commitment across the racial divide’.

I believe that the headstone has been defaced and the name, Khama removed. Now leap forward to the 1970s and we find that Colin Blackbeard is the Minister of Works and Communications. Fast forward again and we note that Roy Blackbeard  is the country’s High Commissioner in London, an office he has held since 1998 giving him a 19 year tenure and perhaps thereby gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records.  Move forward again, to the Sunday Standard of  January 24, 2016 which reported that Tim Blackbeard, Chief Wildlife Officer in the Department of Tourism had run up huge hotels bills when undertaking an unauthorised trip to the Okavango.

Tim Blackbeard, is believed to be the blue-eyed boy of Minister Tshekedi Khama who handpicked him. Blackbeard who has never been to secondary school was appointed to a post traditionally held by university graduates.

In the latest controversy, sources inside the Ministry said that Blackbeard usually reports directly to the Minister, sidestepping the director. Blackbeard and another officer were head hunted, their posts never being advertised.

The former BDF officer was appointed as Chief Wildlife Officer (Head of Law Enforcement Division). In a response to queries, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks former Director, Dr Oduetse Koboto parried claims that the Minister influenced Blackbeard’s appointment. Head hunting, he said, is an acceptable practice in government. Fast forward again to an article in the Voice of October 26, 2016 and to the appearance of yet another Blackbeard, namely Gillian or Jillian in the same Department of Tourism.

It reported that Chairman Guma Moyo questioned the background to a letter authored by Minister Tshekedi instructing Brian Dithebe, Botswana Tourism Organization’s Chief Executive Officer, to restructure the organisation effectively upgrading Jillian Blackbeard to Executive Manager and raising her to Grade 2 pay level.

Damning allegations have surfaced surrounding Tuesday’s resignation of Dithebe with allegations steming from Marketing Manager, Jillian Blackbeard’s constant efforts to supersede his authority. Well informed sources at BTO this week told how, since her appointment in July of 2014, Blackbeard has undertaken a myriad of activities that are not related to her portfolio of marketing. Instead, it is alleged that at times she creates initiatives that she takes directly to the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism – Tshekedi Khama, often without the knowledge of Dithebe.

It is asserted that while Dithebe was away, Blackbeard undertook a vigorous campaign to restructure the entire organisation without the consultation of Dithebe or the Human Resources department that is tasked with this responsibility. The new structure sees Blackbeard installed as Executive Manager. Self-evidently therefore there has been a remarkable relationship between the Blackbeard and the Khama families which has lasted for 128 years and maybe for longer.

In effect, it has spanned the period between Khama III to the current President and to one brother if not both. To date, it seems that this extraordinary relationship and its significance has been overlooked both generally and by academia. It might be thought that the Khama family is now repaying the Blackbeards for past support when the going was tough. Such an explanation, however, would correctly be viewed as being over simplistic, even trite.

So the question remains. What is it that gives a single family exceptional privilege and political leverage over such a very long period and which allows it to exercise so  disproportionate an influence in the country’s political life? 

Editor's Comment
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When the pandemic reached Botswana’s shores last year March, a nation united in the quest to defeat an invisible enemy. It is a moment never witnessed in recent memory, with the catastrophes of the world war and the 1918 Spanish influenza being the only other comparisons in living memory. Botswana, like the rest of the world, had to readjust its priorities and channel most, if not all, of its energies towards fighting COVID-19. It has not been...

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