Review: Mogae Addresses Botswana and The World

Statesman: Mogae is renowned for his powerful speeches
Statesman: Mogae is renowned for his powerful speeches

In his seminal work, Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato makes a passionate argument about the necessity for leaders to be intelligent, wise and educated. He calls that kind of leader ‘Philosopher king’, a notion which his own former teacher, Socrates subscribed to.

Plato argues that kings should become philosophers or that philosophers should become kings, as they possess a special level of knowledge to rule the Republic successfully. He says justice is a virtue, as is knowledge, which requires understanding. The philosopher kings, according to Plato have virtue as they possess knowledge, and hence their rule is justified.

To the extent that Plato believed that a leader must be educated, knowledgeable and wise, in the case of Botswana, perhaps the nearest example of a leader who fits the description of a philosopher-king, in a tongue-in-cheek way, is the third president of the republic, Festus Gontebanye Mogae. Better still, the former president fits the mould posited by Plato’s student, Aristotle, who profoundly tempered the concept of philosopher-king. 

According to Aristotle, “What a king should do was to listen to and take the advice of the philosophers. In doing so he would enrich his reign with good deeds and not merely with fine words.” Aristotle emphasised the participation of the ‘demos’ (people) as opposed to the leader lording it over them.

Mogae succeeded Sir Ketumile Masire as president in 1998 and stepped down in 2008 at the end of his constitutional term. Mogae is a graduate of Oxford University where he majored in Economics and studied Philosophy. However, it is not so much the fact that he studied philosophy that Mogae approximated Plato’s construct of a philosopher-king.

It was Mogae’s eloquence, wit and, to a lesser extent, sense of justice as a liberal that perhaps made him one. To the extent that Plato was talking about the ‘ideal’ leader for an ‘ideal’ state, what he calls the kallipolis, Mogae is forgiven for not being the paragon of virtue that Plato contemplated.

In their book entitled ‘Mogae Addresses Botswana and The World’, Benson Saili and Bapasi Mphusu, give us a glimpse into Mogae’s vision for the country, but also his political outlook in a ‘globalising’ world. The book is a compilation of some of the speeches that Festus Mogae made during his tenure as the president of Botswana.

As the editors of the book state in their introduction, it is not a biography of the former president. The book is not a comment on Mogae’s presidency, which the editors, perhaps inadvertently, describe in the introduction of the book as ‘remarkable’. Even after reading the book, one cannot characterise Mogae as this or that kind of president. And this is not meant to take anything away from the book. There is no doubt that the speeches are informative and give one an inkling of the president’s thinking on a wide variety of issues. Hopefully, a biography is in the works!

Saili and Mphusu’s book is the first such work on Mogae, 12 long years since his retirement. In my own humble opinion, this is an indictment on our intellectuals! We will hold the two editors to their word when they commit the introduction of the book that, “It is our hope and trust that other dedicated speech books (on Mogae) will follow in due course, notably on the Botswana Democratic Party and State of the Union addresses, to mention just a few”.

The editors did their best to select the speeches out of the over 500 that the former president made during the period spanning a decade. The speeches provide snapshots of an array of some of the vexing issues that the country faced on the domestic front and internationally that Mogae had to grapple with during his tenure. These include HIV/AIDS, ‘blood’ diamonds, conservation, inclusivity in terms of ethnic integration and gender, etc. The speeches cover a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from political economy to education, health, culture, and foreign policy.

The book is easy to read because the speeches are grouped according to subjects. It is the kind of book from which one can choose where they want to start according to their fancy. It is not sequential or chronological. One can read one speech or more at a time from any of the sections and they do not have to worry about losing track of the story-line. Of course, some of the subjects can be complex and require concentration and much reflection while others are plainly educational.

The prologue, at the beginning of each section, is helpful because it gives context. At the end of every speech, there is a note which explains what the occasion where the former president delivered the speech was. The speeches are still as fresh as they were 15 years ago. Mogae was seized with such issues as factionalism in the BDP, economic diversification, conservation, Africa’s debt crisis, the role of regional organisations like SADC, etc. These are the same issues that his immediate successor, Ian Khama, and the incumbent President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, have been seized with as well.

Mogae Addresses Botswana and The World is over 400 pages long. Since a speech, by its nature, is a monologue and can be dry and dreary, depending on the subject, the book is the type that you want to read in small chunks. The good thing about the speeches is that they are relatively short. The editors seem to have done a good job of tightening the speeches for brevity without vitiating the substance of the content and flair of the author.

For me, the one thing that is missing in the book is Mogae’s sense of humour and wit. The use of one or two ‘unscripted’ speeches, either in a kgotla setting or, say excerpts, from a press conference, would have greatly enhanced the content of the book. It was during ‘unguarded moments that Mogae’s wit and sense of humour came through sharply. Many people, especially his friends and acquaintances, enjoyed him when he spoke extemporaneously.

As soon as I got a copy of the book I rushed to the section on the ‘Media’ hoping that I would find this particular speech by the former president that has stayed with me. It was an address to members of the media when he bid them farewell at State House a few weeks before he retired. Besides warning journalists that they would miss the freedom of the press that they enjoyed during his tenure, he related to them a story about a community in the Central District, which was asked to consolidate their settlements of Tupswe, Malete, Seleka and Rasesa into one and call it TUMASERA (being a combination of the first syllable in their respective names).

Mogae told the journalists that the communities, which were not amused at all, fired back and asked the government officials, who presented that proposition, to consolidate the communities of Mahalapye, Serowe and Palapye, and call them MASEPA (or crap in English). As he said that the audience was in stitches.

He described the treatment he has received from the press throughout the 10 years of his reign in those terms. That was vintage Mogae. Unfortunately for me, that speech is not in the book!

To highlight the power of his logic and eloquence, the editors, in their introduction speak of Mogae patronising Notwane Club in Gaborone, “Where he revelled in pitting his wits against the intelligentsia who were in the habit of frequenting the same club just to acquaint with and pick the brains of the charismatic and sharp-witted future president”. As a matter of fact, he still visited the club even when he was vice president. He wrestled in robust debates over a wide spectrum of topical issues with other patrons of the club ranging from academics to captains of industry and retired top civil servants.

While this may not have been within the scope of the objectives of the book, I wish the editors could have reserved a page or two at the end for Mogae’s memorable ‘quotes’, especially from his extemporaneous speeches and encounters with various sections of our society. Some of his utterances were very funny, while others may have been offensive, depending on the individual. But then Mogae is his own man. He speaks his mind. Hopefully in the ‘coming books’, some of the vernacular speeches will also be included, even if it means translating them into English.

I am aware that publishers do not usually use pictures for this genre. I think it depends on how the designer and the editors use images for impact. When properly used, pictures help break the monotony of text and add colour to the content of a book. One may argue that one can use so many pictures of the former president beyond which it would be overkill. That is true.

But a creative team of publishers would be able to select a variety of appropriate pictures that have a bearing on the various aspects of the country’s political, economic, and cultural life that the president addresses and uses them to improve the aesthetics of the book. Having said that, the use of the picture of the president speaking, on the front cover and the more casual picture on the back cover, have been elegantly done, and for me, achieve the desired effect. 

Finally, given that we live in the era of digital technology I would recommend that for the ‘coming book’ the editors should consider including an audio version of the book so that one can listen to the speeches while driving or doing something else. That would also benefit our compatriots who are visually impaired.

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