Hypothetically speaking, if there were to be an impeachment trial tomorrow for all our political leadership (in both the ruling party and the opposition), I’m convinced that few would survive the vote.
Even if we were to put morality and integrity aside, and vote on the basis of policy contribution and liberal debate of ideas, still, the outcome would be shameful.
Nations fall, democracies regress. This is the nature of any human construct. Decades after our democratic and political independence, the moral and ethical transgressions, which have become the hallmark of poor countries the world over, have knocked at our front door. In fact, they have been knocking for years, ringing true the notion that our ‘exceptionalism’ amongst our African peers is no more. If it's not a former President who won't excuse the nation from politically self-actualising and moving on, or the acute failure of political parties to provide strategic leadership in a time of crisis, it's the seemingly lax attitude given to improper conduct in the civil service.
I think the recent storming by pro-Trump supporters of one of America’s most revered symbols of democracy - Capitol Hill - rings a true reminder of the mortality of any democracy. But it also, coupled with the entire presidency of Donald J. Trump, offers important lessons. Primarily: that strong institutions are and must remain the true virtue of democracies. As a living, breathing construct, the constitution that safeguards our democracy must be nurtured to grow.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has exposed how fragile our institutions are. It has also shed some light on the fabric of the country’s leadership within all political circles. The country must acknowledge that we are in deep trouble. The pandemic has undoubtedly undone any development and growth gains we made in the last decade. Inequality is fast on the rise. The reality of Botswana’s superficial economy is fast becoming an existential threat. Meanwhile, our politics are arguably at their worst, giving us hope and despair in equal measure: Hope that perhaps the cracks will compel anybody with a viable alternative to step forward and despair at the utter complacency and lack of moral integrity within our political and public service leadership. What the outcome will be when things go back to any kind of ‘normalcy’ is anyone’s guess. As Lenin observed in the context of the Russian Revolution: ‘There are decades in which nothing happens and there are weeks in which decades happen’. The COVID-19 crisis has been an unfortunate unravelling of decades of misgovernance.
The past weeks have been dominated by news cycles of political party defections. I am eager to be pulled in by debates on policy and post-pandemic economic recovery. Voters are faced with a tough reality: an incumbent party that keeps selling it Trojan Horse after Trojan Horse, and on the other hand, an opposition bloc that keeps committing tactical blunder after tactical blunder. Our present predicament is an opportunity to reimagine our democracy and rescue it from the mostly self-inflicted defects it has come to be associated with.
Over the past half a century and more, democracies have become deeply unequal societies with large and growing wealth and income inequalities. There have always been such inequalities, but never as acute as they are today.
What is particularly gloomy and worrying is the increasing deterioration of social mobility, a major plus point in democracies. Globalisation has led to significant increases in wealth and reduction in levels of poverty. The wave has carried everyone to a higher level but those at the mountaintop are far higher than those at the bottom of the wave. This inequality is not the inevitable result of globalisation. It is the simple failure of public policy to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth. This explains the rise of anti-globalisation rhetoric, of ultra-nationalism and sways towards populist politics, even in advanced democracies. Botswana is no exception.
The pandemic has brought out in sharp display the inequities that have been systematically pushed under the rug for decades, hidden by our unfortunate obsession with global rankings and credit ratings. The government’s well-meaning responses have revealed an insufficient awareness of the plight of our poorer citizens, for whom social distancing, lockdowns and curfews make life even more difficult in their deprivation. Where even clean drinking water is unavailable, how do they wash their hands with soap? Where land is a luxury they cannot afford (the painful irony being that land is free for every citizen), and as a result, they have no homes to work from or to isolate in. Respect for human dignity is indispensable in a democracy.
No nation’s goodwill and ‘exceptionalism’ are eternal. No democracy or nation is perfect. This isn’t in any way an absolute indictment of the good that can be found in this young but old democracy of ours. We have done exceptionally well. But the fact that we cannot stop being nostalgic about the days of that outstanding economist and global statesman, Festus Mogae and his predecessors, and the days of the profound Dr Kenneth Koma, is a symptom of a deep-seated concern for the state of our politics. We are proud of our history. But I think deep within us, is a brewing resentment for where we are headed.
In the mix of it all, I also don’t think Batswana are blind followers. Our core values still remain intact and have, more often than we admit, shaped how we vote. The state of our politics is in crisis because no one has the appetite to put ethical leadership at the centre of governance. This is an opportunity for political parties to redeem themselves in the eyes of the public and fix the apparent weaknesses they and their comrades continue to exploit.
The urgent task of rebuilding the economy and rescuing the livelihoods of everyone plunged into poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic will be deferred for as long as those entrusted with the responsibility to govern, or to hold those in government accountable, violate the principles of ethical governance and professionalism.
To echo new US Vice President Kamala Harris, I hope we all ‘emerge from this with a new wisdom’ and remind all political leaders and their political homes what their role is.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist working at the nexus of think tanks, research and international development. He writes in his capacity as a Motswana.