The role of language in the social construction of reality: the Masisi-Khama duel

Khama and Masisi prior to the letter's ascension to president PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
The role that journalism (mass media) plays in communicating messages to the target audiences and how our brains process the information to determine the next reaction at the individual, group or population level is onerous.

Hence the intent of this analysis is to place the prevailing state of chaos inside the ruling party that observers perilously opine it has the potential to plunge the nation into civil unrest (which I believe is overstretched).

The register used in the media shows journalists’ key role in bringing the nation to this uncertain and anxious moment. Consistently, two realities about Ian Khama have been ingrained in our brains: a monstrous, heartless devil that inhabits the caves and capable of exterminating the nation using militaristic or supernatural powers, or on the other hand, the archangel whose compassionate heart for the downtrodden people to be lifted from abject poverty is his sole objective.

Hence, the last decade has seen unprecedented fear, in which party faithfuls or senior government officials daring to say a word of dissent feared reprisal, resulting in murmurings of bitter disillusionment. Yet others fortified in the belief of the archangel, chanted at every whim; “Touch not the anointed; do no harm to my prophets.” Khama is alive to the dichotomy that describes him since he left the army in 1997.

This article posits that journalism is about projecting a reality, not fiction. This supposes that journalists, unlike creative writers, do not dramatise scenes; they paint a rendition of life as it unfolds in front of the scribe. True journalists; do not pander to the whim of the newsmakers. In this analysis, therefore, the readers should see that Khama’s behaviour and outlook are a manifestation of the narrative in the news.

When Khama left the military barracks as the top general, it is documented that he spelt out his terms for public service career that he was wading into, and conscious that he was the Messiah of the party that was on its death throes, for 10 years deputising Festus Mogae, he refused to oversee a particular ministry portfolio, choosing instead, to exercise oversight duties across all government ministries, and he was granted his wish. For the first time, Botswana operated a system akin to the president as the political head of state and vice president assuming roles similar to the prime minister’s. Headlines such as ‘The Shrinking President’ were splashed on the front pages, creating a larger-than-life character, while depicting a lame-duck President Mogae. It was unheard of that a public servant in the office of the Vice President could take a sabbatical leave, but Khama became the first citizen.

When he finally became the President on April Fool’s Day 2008, Khama was decisive. He reshuffled Cabinet and appointed those he trusted in strategic positions, shook up the top civil service by nominating senior government officials to key ministries and oversight bodies. One such step upon taking the oath of office was the operationalisation of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services with Isaac Kgosi as the director general, whom he had granted sabbatical leave the previous year to embark on relevant studies overseas. From day one, Khama was clear that he was calling the shots as the head of state.

During his presidency, Khama was alive to the voices of discontent regarding his style of leadership. But he was unfazed by any of the outbursts or the murmurings. The security apparatus he established attracted heavy public criticism in no time, but he kept his eye on the ball and refused to dismantle the institution, reduce its unlimited powers, or let go of its director general until he passed the baton to his successor on March 31, 2018.

Khama left office and witnessed Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi sworn in as the fifth president on April 01, 2018 and he knew clearly who was in control of the affairs of the land. But the narrative that he was in control of the party continued in our mainstream media, apparently without the appreciation of what such reports did to the relationship between them. Unlike Khama, Masisi waited weeks to send signals of where he was going.

When he finally did, to his credit/discredit, the President sacked the former director general, an unpopular decision that sent shockwaves as Kgosi was viewed to be untouchable; Cabinet Ministers publicly confessed to his limitless powers. Masisi is unapologetic about his move to end Kgosi’s career in the public service. Clearly, this move did not sit well with the former president, who has tried to outmanoeuvre the sitting president to have Kgosi bounce back into public service, at least as his private secretary. The narrative in the media continued to portray the duel with strong suggestions that the former president was stronger than the incumbent. Front page headlines like ‘Kgosi Re-joins Civil Service’ ‘Masisi: Khama’s Plan Gone Wrong’ and ‘President Faces Backlash from BDP Backbench’ screamed carelessly, showing that the masses followed the former leader rather religiously.

Suggestions have been rife that Masisi’s head will be on the platter as an offering at the July 2019 elective congress, while

Khama and his loyalists assume the leadership of the party, once again. Even more fascinating had been the sworn enemies inside and outside the ruling party, suddenly supporting Khama over the current president in a loose association touted to be formally registered, whose main aim is to block him from axing more officials he might deem pro-Khama. Observers had commented that those with blood-stained hands from corruption dealings had reason to gang up against Masisi, and it was their way to obstruct justice. Journalists hadn’t paused in their tracks that such a narrative fuels strong sentiments on both ends, and it would be hard for either to back down. The former president’s continued expectation to fly state aircraft to private and public events has been extensively reported and Masisi’s refusal was mirrored as his way of stamping authority to remind Khama of his refrain, “don’t try to rule from the grave” whenever he dismissed counsel of his predecessors (Mogae and Sir Ketumile).

Then yelled ‘The Big Lion Roars’ on the front page with a photo of the former president resting on the masthead, and a series of articles in the prominent pages reported verbatim, where Khama openly bears out his soul over issues that give him sleepless nights about the current administration. Might it be the newsmaker or the newspaper itching to torch the BDP house? Glaringly, the duel is set to worsen before calm can return. The party has only one president. The Republic has only one President. The Constitution confers unlimited prerogatives on the President. The President also enjoys blanket immunity against prosecution, either in his private or public capacity; the highest Court has pronounced in a landmark ruling involving Gomolemo Motswaledi versus the Botswana Democratic Party (2009).

In the vernacular, the president is referred to as the “big lion” because of the striking similarity of the inherent power in this office and the might of the “King of the jungle.” It is not just any lion, but the greatest of all in the animal kingdom that is suited to occupy the presidency in Botswana. Thus the recent headline is misleading and mischievous because there is only ‘one biglion’ and it is Mokgweetsi Masisi.

But the media’s choice to get involved in the duel by referring to a former leader with the title of the sitting president might have led to the chaos in the ruling party.

Hardly three days after the edition, had the happenings inside the BDP unravelled like in an action-loaded movie, bringing to a sudden halt, the conduct of primary elections in six days, until the party functionaries have exorcised the evil spirits setting them asunder.

But really, what power is there in an individual who has left office gracefully like Khama? Where does his might rest on when the Constitution has stripped him of the omnipotence? It is no wonder the recent interview series rather make a desperate effort to magnify the supernatural powers that he might use to transform into a beast, probably if his patience is overextended. This is the possible civil unrest those who observe the happenings from a close distance are afraid of in a nation that knows absolutely no history of bloodshed.

How gullible can news media get? Journalists are not to believe everything they are told, mainly because they possess immense power to transmit these beliefs to the masses just by the stroke of the pen! Nation-building requires that the information disseminated to the public is one that is error-free and useful in helping the consumers to make the right decisions.

This analysis, therefore, seeks to cause the media to examine their role, and the extent to which our exposure to information echoing in the mass media influences our attitudes and behaviours. Right now, the polarisation could have been circumvented, had the media rallied behind one ‘big lion’ rather than juxtapose him alongside a retired leader. If it was important to conjure up images of the animal kingdom to describe Khama, arguably the ‘great deer/duicker’ by his birthright as the paramount chief of the Bangwato is the best totem. My analysis, therefore, challenges the media to step back and reimagine the idiosyncrasies that influence the readers’ perspectives, attitudes, behaviours and the unintended effects of the information we receive. Certainly, we act out that which we make sense of. If you want us to plunge into a war, warring we will, simply by consuming your reports!

Language is critically powerful in the social construction of reality, hence we must be careful how we handle it to convey certain thoughts and beliefs – language embodies ‘identities’, ‘institutions’, ‘otherness’ ‘power’ or ‘meanings’. The media must stop confusing us – we learn from you; it is imperative that you should exercise a high degree of personal responsibility for your noble duty.

*Enole Ditsheko - Author is a journalist, creative writer, and communication specialist

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