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In the Beginning – From Where did the Impulses Come?

Bashi Letsisidi’s article on John Syson In the Sunday Standard (2.10.16) came as a very welcome surprise not least because Syson, political advisor to Seretse (1968-74) is very much a forgotten figure.

It quickly emerged that the article was based on a recent lecture given at UB by Professor Jeremy Seekings, entitled, The Origins of a Conservative Welfare Doctrine in Botswana under Seretse Khama, 1966-1980.

The paper opens up for scrutiny an area of major importance which to date has attracted little academic attention. 

Because it is difficult to summarise a very long paper, it may be most helpful to provide Professor Seeking’s own abstract. Thus: ‘By the early 2000s Botswana had acquired an extensive but conservative welfare state that provided parsimonious benefits for the poor through a combination of workfare for working- age adults, pensions for the elderly, and grants to orphaned children.

This paper examines the origins of the corresponding welfare doctrine during the presidency of Seretse Khama between 1966 and 1980. Khama, together with his Vice-President (Quett Masire) and their Botswana Democratic Party, developed a doctrine that was to provide the normative foundations for a conservative welfare state: The poor were both the responsibility of the community and responsible for themselves, through their labour. The doctrine reflected the congruence of ideas between the new BDP leadership, committed to conservative modernisation, expatriate British and South African advisors, and international agencies (notably the World Development Programme).’

From the onset, there may be reservations about some of Seeking’s observations.

The reference to expatriate advisors is overly simplistic whilst the World Food Programme, misnamed here – was not involved in policymaking although it did undoubtedly make its views known. 

Seeking suggests that neither Seretse nor Masire fit correctly into any of the academic slots that have been previously attributed to them. 

He describes the varying political influences to which Seretse was exposed during his stay in London, the ideas current at the time and the friends he made and deduces that these all helped to shape his later mindset as President.

The notion is attractive and plausible. But what came before has to relate, if it is to be credible, to what came after. And in this respect, I have my doubts.

However, enter, John Syson of the newly established Ariel Foundation in London, very much a part of those new ideas swirling around in London, who was appointed to be Seretse’s political advisor in circumstances that are unclear. Seekings, relying on Lucy Syson, indicates that the contact with Ariel and Syson was made by Masire rather than by Seretse himself. 

The Seretse-Syson partnership, nevertheless,

worked out a charm - Sheila Bagnall commenting in June 1969 that ‘if Syson writes the President’s speeches, he is doing well.

The last three or four have been good.’ It was Syson, therefore, according to Seekings, who was the behind-the-scenes architect of the social and economic policies which Seretse and the BDP, bit by bit, expressed and formulated. Policy was, however, very much shaped by Masire’s Ministry of Development Planning and by its hugely capable Permanent Secretary, Quill Hermans.

If Seretse had his highly capable advisor in Syson  provide Seretse with two great success speeches in New York and Stockholm, Masire had his own team of heavy weights.

The whole thing could so easily have unravelled with committed individuals, engaging in destructive power battles.

It nearly happened with the seemingly inconsequential spat in 1966 between Pierre Landell Mills, the new Government Economist and the old hand, Alf Beeby, Financial Secretary, ex-Mafikeng, and between Seretse and Masire. Beeby complained to Seretse that his authority was being undermined by the government’s new flash economist. Seretse backed the old hand, rather than the new and Landell- Mills was half way to the boat home when Masire confirmed that he, Landell-Mills had indeed acted with his knowledge and approval.

Had Landell- Mills lost his job which, at one time, seemed to be inevitable, he would have taken away with him all the knowledge he had acquired as a development planner in Tanzania which he was beginning to apply here. Interviewed by his local newspaper in England Landell-Mills said,  “I was invited to become the Director of Economic Affairs in the Botswana government,” he said.

“It was a country about to achieve independence and I had the opportunity of renegotiating the Southern African customs arrangements, establish a new currency, set up a national development bank, prepare a national development plan and much more.

 It was incredibly interesting and exciting. I was pleased to play my part, but the real key to Botswana’s success was the brilliant leadership of Seretse Khama.

We were all determined to prove that a black-run country could succeed in Southern Africa.’ Sadly, Professor Seekings may be unable to interview Phil Steenkamp, one of the country’s dream team of the time, but if he were to talk with the others who were involved, he would then be able to treat us to a very exciting, more balanced, second paper.

Etcetera II



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