The disruptive force of the 'Serowe Consensus' (Part 2)

The BPF made inroads in the Central District PIC: KEOAGILE BONANG
The BPF made inroads in the Central District PIC: KEOAGILE BONANG

The Serowe Consensus: A concerted, resourceful push marshalled by Ian Khama and company, and endorsed by a culturally and politically conservative section, initially to oust the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) out of power.

The consensus, triggered in Serowe that led to the formation of Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), feeds on the misappropriation of Bogosi and cultural sentiment to inappropriately influence political discourse.

The consensus achieved what it set out to in Serowe. Khama’s influence worked, but why were factors different in the South of Dibete?

The dynamics of the 2019 vote hinged on a variety of clashing interests. The key question to answer in the scope of this analysis is why the Khama factor did not work in the South of Dibete as it did in Serowe and other parts of the country where either Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) or BPF won.

Khama didn’t only campaign for the BPF, he also scurried to the Northeast, Southwest, Ngami and Okavango constituencies. Although the BPF and UDC never had a formal cooperation agreement, the general feeling is that they had an unofficial alliance where BPF voters and sympathisers likely voted for UDC candidates where BPF didn’t field any candidates.

The outcome in the South of Dibete was a different animal altogether. The Southern voter is more modern and urban, cosmopolitan, middle class, unpredictable, observant with possibly a more refined view of the world. They are clearly not swayed by Khama’s brand of politics and more concerned with pragmatic bread and butter issues like how the economy works.

Their consciousness to the world around them and how similar democracies function makes their vote aspirational, seeking to speak to transformation in the way they want their vote to reflect on the country.

The proximity of Botswana to South Africa and the high concentration of South African media, entertainment and politics by diffusion, informs and is relatable to more urban voters. From observing more mature democracies and institutions like the South African Parliament, we expected their vote to be different because the amount of oversight and accountability in these democracies is a model that these voters aspire to emulate.

But since the UDC and other opposition parties brought a somewhat radical element to Botswana’s politics, and threw respectability politics out of the window, why did they lose the majority of the Southern vote from Gaborone to Kanye through Gantsi via Kgalagadi? There are many layers to this answer.

In contrast to the Central vote, the Gaborone vote was less about Khama vs. Masisi and more about the alternative that UDC offered. In any case, the Khama element to their decision was a clear vote to reject any strand of politics that allied with Khama. The modern cosmopolitan vote concentrated in Gaborone and the South is more responsive and observant to their needs.

The other explanation is that although opposition party candidates were brilliant at pushing discourse for regime change, they weren’t as effective at legislating in their own constituencies.

With regards to Duma Boko and Ndaba Gaolathe, opposition party presidents have a history of failing to retain their constituencies when they get overwhelmed with the burden of pushing the regime change agenda for their entire political movements.

A case in point is Dumelang Saleshando’s Gaborone Central loss in 2014. In addition, and speaking more directly to their ineffectiveness, the system is rigged against them when it comes to development planning.

The fact that offices of Members of Parliament (MPs) struggle with qualified staff and resources in the first place, means that it’ll always be difficult for them to maintain a consistent presence in their own constituencies.

The role of LOO, plus the developmental and budget processes in Botswana, make it difficult to channel resources to constituencies if they are not in the NDP in the first place.

The general expectation was that the UDC and other opposition parties would win Gaborone, especially with the calibre of candidates that they fielded who reflected the urban and cosmopolitan feel of the areas. The battle eventually came down to what Masisi was offering in contrast to what the individual MPs were offering. The crop of young voters who identified with the different camps was also significant and played a role. But as much as the young voters identified and expressed hope in the UDC’s narrative, others equally identified with Masisi’s brand of politics.  The emerging young voter population who had an interest in this election were a generation that got conscientised to politics at the end of former president Mogae’s presidency and the beginning of Ian Khama’s.

Between 2000 and 2018, the crop of young people born in the 1990s transitioned from school, teenagehood, graduated from university and started their professional journeys while Ian Khama was rising from the vice presidency to the presidency. They have seen and experienced Ian Khama’s leadership or a lack thereof.

They have also seen and experienced the different waves of Gomolemo Motswaledi, Gaolathe, Boko, tertiary education politics (where they possibly got radicalised or just politically aware), trade union uprisings and so forth.

As a nail to the coffin, former president Khama’s strand of politics was never relatable to the younger voter anyway, but Masisi’s ‘flat-cap diplomacy’, coupled with townhalls, selfies etc, seemed to be an easy sell. These are factors that possibly influenced their vote.  In the event that they didn’t identify with the UDC, they possibly identified with the ‘tlogelang Masisi a buse’ tag, because after living in the era of Ian Khama, they anxiously believed Masisi could be and do different.

Although UDC led the entire discourse and debate around electoral issues, the vote didn’t come down to which party had a glowing manifesto. Voter psychology is fascinating. People are drawn to new things. And although Masisi campaigned under a typical ‘grand old party’, the Gaborone vote bought into the personality and philosophy of his ‘new dawn’ and his narrative of a rebirth.

So, in the end, the Serowe consensus was disruptive, both to the detriment of the BDP and to the entire opposition movement itself. But it also worked in some parts to the benefit of both the BDP and the UDC.

What a conundrum! Fascinating but annoying at the same time, but good lessons for democracy in the end.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.

Editor's Comment
Not yet uhuru

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