The audacity of Ian Khama's privilege

Khama spent the week railing against Masisi in interviews PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
Khama spent the week railing against Masisi in interviews PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO

We should not ignore what just happened in Serowe.

Former president, Ian Khama will perhaps go down in Botswana’s modern history as one of the most polarising political figures. No one will agree on what exactly his presidential legacy is.

His presidential term was contentious, problematic, discursive but also enlightening. Equally as it may seem, his post-presidency will be nothing different. If anything, it should make Batswana alive to their country, their social public discourse and the bar they set for their leaders.

Botswana’s presidency has never seen such blatant disregard for decorum, especially by its former occupant. President Mokgweetsi Masisi faces a unique and historical challenge.

Whether he wins or loses the elections or public approval, history will remember this specific moment.

Khama and President Masisi’s animosity is nothing funny. It is wrong and lacks only what we expect from the presidency and all those who have any association with it.

The Serowe consensus presents a troubling display of strongman politics.  Khama was born into power and has grown to amass even more of his own power, influence and wealth. In addition, these have afforded him access to even more influential circles, the kind of access an ordinary Serowe resident does not have. 

Khama has nothing in common with the most ordinary members of the community he presides over, a community that has nothing but adoration and admiration for him.  It is in fact why he finds it very easy to tap into that loyalty to drag them into his political interests.

But I guess herein lies the paradox: we yearn for a ‘common’ leader yet simultaneously a leader with uncommon genius, charisma and star quality.

Khama hopes that by appealing to his tribe, the sentiments of his chieftainship and his father, he might marshal a credible defence and sustenance of his legacy and convince the people of Serowe to help him dismantle the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). No other person would have had the audacity to mount an offensive attack straight from the ‘proverbial stronghold’ of the BDP against the BDP and its leadership.

At the same time, I’m also not convinced that Serowe or Bangwato are a politically homogenous society.

But here’s the problem. The Serowe gathering was not a meeting of commons, neither was the agenda. The people of Serowe were summoned by an elite section of Botswana with all the privileges you can imagine, (land, capital, ivy-league education), to complain about a curtailing of full access to their privileges and interests, at the most.

The majority of Serowe residents have no direct interest in any of the issues SKI came to address or ‘consult’ them about.

What is the ordinary Motswana burdened with? Unemployment, income inequality, abject poverty, weak and ineffective institutions, no land, no substantial purchasing power and very minimal participation in their own economy.

Surely our parents in Serowe are not mulling sleepless nights over the fact that Khama has no private jet to go to India, or that his chef has been redeployed. They cry real tears because their children and grandchildren have no land, no sustainable jobs and are mere spectators in their own economy.

But deep into the issue is a strand of conservatism that Khama holds onto: an expectation for things to stay the same. He appears to be some kind of ‘fallist’ (but without the pedagogical implications of fallism- with huge respect to the fees must fall activists, of course).

He perpetuates an idea that ‘the BDP is no longer the party he knows’, that it has somehow, suddenly out of nowhere ‘regressed’.

But what is this ‘regression’ that he speaks of, and why is the party’s regression suddenly an event as opposed to a process that has been building up over decades?  Fairly speaking, the BDP as a political institution has been on a free fall since the early 2000s.

There are many events that could point to this fact, both electorally and otherwise. One could even argue that the fabric of BDP grew weaker under Ian Khama’s leadership.

The old guard that is removed from the make of modern politics are easily sold on the notion that the BDP is unrecognisable in its current form.

These crowds of old men, women, community elders sat and listened to Ian Khama, nodding and yelling affirmations, in full-on call-and-response tones, punctuating his punchlines and jabs with laughter and applause.

These are undoubtedly strong believers in the BDP that Ian’s father built. Most of these folks do not debate politics along liberal or cosmopolitan ‘Gaborone ways’, but they vote out of sentimental attachment.

Ian Khama knows how to invoke these sentiments by using Bogosi. This is the crowd that flocks to Ian: culturally and politically conservative folk who are made to believe that Masisi is out to score a quick one against their Kgosikgolo and his circle.

Let’s be honest, Khama’s politics have always been short-termist. At his prime, he came to the army on a short-term loan from his morafe, then entered politics all while on a ‘short term’ loan, then became President still in transit, on his way back to the Serowe Kgotla.

Even his approach to governance was short-termist, characterised by programmes that sought to appeal to people’s short-term, instant gratification as opposed to long-term structural changes for an inclusive economy (a strand of populist rhetoric, if you will, but that’s a debate for another day). 

His Serowe approach is clearly targeted for October and will be a short-lived bubble as a result. The BDP has grown weaker, of course, but I am not convinced that Khama’s quickly cobbled up strategy will work to dismantle decades of the BDP’s organisational and financial machinery.

Even if it worked, Khama’s politics do not resonate with the younger generation who are currently outraged and wondering why a former head of state is still seeking to play an active role in their politics.

SKI’s circle will not be at the forefront of Botswana’s governance structures in the next decade. They will be retired, fatigued and would have wandered off to pursue other interests.

I am not convinced that we are witnessing movement politics so much as a kind of cathartic performance. Movement politics would invoke a stern sense of nostalgia for the future, a rebellion against complacency, a commitment to a revolution coupled with young energy and liberal debate on ‘bread and butter’ issues.

I see Khama as emblematic of a strain of thought I completely disagree with, but want to understand.

He’s definitely no political genius, but he’s a man with an objective, and privileged enough to shake up both political and social circles. President Masisi is not an angel either. Like Khama, Masisi will use the means available to him to confront and destabilise any forces that undermine his leadership.

Often those means will be state resources and institutions. Masisi has the advantage of age on his side. In addition, he has a far much better ability to plug into a generational consciousness of change than Khama does. At the end, I hope the country wins, as opposed to individuals or factions. 

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea. He writes on the intersections of politics, international trade and foreign policy

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