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A decade later, private media returns to State House

President Masisi flanked by Editors Forum Chairman Spencer Mogapi (left) and BOMAWU president Phillimon Mmeso (right) PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Few journalists from the private press today know the inside grounds of the State House. Only a handful of veterans remember the engaging days of former president Festus Mogae’s administration. But last Friday President Mokgweetsi Masisi, through the ruling party’s communication committee, invited selected journalists to a breakfast meeting at State House Two. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES was on the guest list.

The last time the President of Botswana had a date with the local media at his residence was almost 12 years ago in December 2007. It was a glorious cocktail event with the then president Festus Mogae. Many of the journalists who were on the guest list that night have since exited the fourth estate. Some have crossed to the ‘darkside’ in corporate public relations; some are retired to their small backyard gardens while others have since passed on.

That former president Mogae’s last media cocktail party at the State House is widely remembered as the event that set tone for the biggest news that followed in the beginning of January 2008. It was during that night, amidst plentiful wine, spirits, beer and good food that the president gave a hint of his fallout with “tsala yame ya mohumi Mochindo”.

He was referring to his one-time bosom friend former Debswana managing director the late Louis Nchindo. Hardly a month after the cocktail, when the media houses returned from their Christmas break in the New Year, Mmegi broke the explosive Nchindo’s corruption probe -  ‘Diamond stars in the rough’ - which turned out to be the biggest story at the end of Mogae’s administration.

Ever since that cocktail night, which hinted of the impending troubles engulfing the president’s former friend and a once powerful man, the media has never set foot, let alone wined and dined with the president, on the grounds of the State House up until last Friday.

Now that former president Ian Khama, who abhorred the private press and fought to annihilate the industry, albeit in vain, is a spent force and his decade-long impasse with the media is water under the bridge, journalists finally returned to the lush lawns of the State House.

But President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s inaugural breakfast date with the media was rather awkward in many respects. Firstly it was not at the main State House, but at State House Two where the President is still curiously staying.

Masisi took the opportunity to clear the air as to why he has not moved in to the main State House with almost a year since his predecessor left. There were rumours that the place was heavily bugged by the previous administration and that was the reason why it was taking too long for the Directorate of Intelligence Service (DIS) to debug and ‘sweep’ the house.

“It is just being maintained. There was little money, go ne go scrapiwa hale le hale (we were scraping here and there). It’s a very old building!” Masisi disclosed.

He also gave a little history lesson on the buildings saying that they were both built before the 1966 Independence. State House was then the resident commissioner’s home while the adjacent building reserved for the Vice President but currently occupied by Masisi, was where the deputy resident commissioner resided.

Interestingly, the two buildings are separated by the road called Fawcus in honour of Peter Fawcus – the resident commissioner credited with preparing the way for Botswana’s Independence in 1966.

Another awkward thing about the media’s first home date with the President was the fact that it was organised by the party rather than government. And as is the norm with party events, there were constant slogans and regular politicking from the politicians. For an outsider watching the live video feed, it must have been rather bizarre to watch a press event with plain clothed party members shouting ruling party slogans.

The organisers placed at least one committee member on each of all the media tables, which was an intelligent media relations stunt. The feat also made sure that every table had at least one person shouting party slogan.

Speeches from the chairperson of the Editors’ Forum, Spencer Mogapi and Botswana Media Aligned Workers’ Union (BOMAWU) president, Phillimon Mmeso, were also at times pretty awkward. Both media representatives’ speeches were laced with unprecedented adoring

charms for the President.

Mogapi, however observed that the commendations emanate from the fact that “we come from a period of 10 years of very poisoned relations with the government, so we tend to celebrate even routine things like a press conference”.  He however urged the media to move away from praising the new administration for elementary democratic requirements like a presidential press conference and start calling the leaders to account on big issues.

With his eloquent Setswana oratory, Mmeso showered President Masisi with colourful praises.

He assured him that BOMAWU would continue to support him because Masisi was the midwife during the birth of the union. Mmeso also reported to the President that BOMAWU is on Masisi’s side on the hunting ban debate.  His warnings against those ‘of colour’ who attempted to undermine the Office of the President, with regards to the hunting ban debate, came out like a mellowed Ezekiel 25:17 monologue by Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction.

Mmeso once again begged for the ride for private press in the presidential entourage on international trips.  President Masisi later acknowledged that his government comes from a period where they were not free to engage with the private press so they are now in a process of starting full on engagements, which will include private press seats on OK1 (if it decides to fly unlike in Harare last week where Masisi said the presidential jet refused to start and he had to get another flight).

Masisi spoke in colourful, impressive, and at times pompous English. His passion and vigour when speaking about the hunting ban debate was very authoritative. It kept everyone captive. The President displayed his masterly comprehension on the issue. He showed everyone that he knew what was going on and even spoke about the unsaid undertones of racism inside the Botswana tourism industry.

“It startles me. It really bamboozles me when people sit in the comfort of where they come from and lecture us about the management of species they do not have. They want to admire from a distance. And in their admiration they forget that we too, the people of Botswana, are a species. They talk as if we are trees and the grass that the elephants eat,” Masisi said.

He questioned those against Batswana’s recommendations on lifting the hunting ban saying, “they think there are no human beings here, but just a big zoo”.

He decried, “This is a racist onslaught”.

The President then switched to politics as his party prepares for what promises to be a bruising titanic battle in the upcoming Kang elective congress next month. It was awkward that Masisi chose to address Domkrag members during a breakfast meeting with the media. He asked those Domi members against him whether they want to return to “the old days”. Although it was directed at BDP members with power to choose delegates who would be illegible voters at the congress, it was a smart move for the President to say it to the press.

The private media is the one that came out heavily bruised and limping out of Khama’s administration and no sane media practitioner would therefore want ‘the old days’. Masisi even rubbed it in by saying, “I sense a bit of nostalgia amongst some of the colleagues in the party”. Even though it was rather uncomfortable listening to it, it would surely win the President favours amongst the private press because the man has been engaging the media like someone who actually appreciates the value of the Fourth Estate in a democracy.

And by looking at the happy selfies that were shot after the breakfast between the journalists and President, the man clearly charmed the press and he is now the darling of the media.

Despite the awkwardness on the media side, the breakfast date was a major PR success for the party and the President.




Extension: State Of Emergency

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