The recruitment of James Mathokgwane to SPEDU

Sadique Kebonang during the 2018 PAC hearings PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Sadique Kebonang during the 2018 PAC hearings PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES

James Mathokgwane has been my friend for many years. At some point he even worked for me. Oh yes, I did employ members of the opposition in my firm.

Once in a while, I would tease them about it especially when I sent them to deliver anything related to the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). My relationship with Mathokgwane has never been threatened by our political differences. He was a political demagogue. A rubble rouser! His charisma during our UB days reminded me of Paul Rantao, Maitshwarelo Dabutha and Daniel Kwelagobe. They had a way with people and often seemed to resonate with ordinary people.

The other, of a similar mould is Duma Boko. He is an orator of note. He is also my friend. We agreed on many things except our political homes. Mathokgwane, who almost became a priest in the Catholic Church arrived at University of Botswana (UB) with no reputation, at least for the first six months. We stayed at the famous Block 479 in UB. This was a block full of boys from government public schools who had just finished Tirelo Sechaba. Some like Raza Chitita were new to the city. He was fascinated by escalators at Cash Bazaar in the Main Mall. He would go there for a joy ride. This was the year 1994. I had served my national service as a teacher in Kasane.

Mathokgwane had been in Kenya studying philosophy. The likes of Brandy, Keith Sweat, R. Kelly, Aaliyah and many RnB artists were not known to many of us who had spent our time outside the city. Being in Kasane then was like being in a foreign country. There was no Botswana Television (Btv), no internet and no cell phones. The post office was very popular. We wrote to loved ones and proposed to others through the post office. We also got dumped through the post office.

Those were the days when you listened to the radio and copied lyrics from songs to impress a girl. Passion killings were a foreign concept. Truly I tell you, coming to Gaborone was akin to being in New York or London. That’s how we felt even though we did not know and had never been to New York or London at the time. Mathokgwane was considered somewhat of a local hero for his sojourn in Kenya. That is how much most of us had not travelled outside Botswana.

 The first time I experienced class division in the real sense was at UB. There was this very popular guy I had initially mistaken for a Nigerian. He was tall, dark and slim and for a student, he drove very expensive cars. Obviously popular with girls! His name was Bissau Gaobakwe. We would later become brothers and his father would become my adopted father. At Lobatse Senior Secondary School or Lobsec I was popular with Indian girls.

I was sure I whgfgould be popular at UB on the same scale. I was completely wrong. During our secondary school days, you had to be good at sports or be intelligent to be popular. These were the only requirements. You also got away with wearing white socks with black trousers. We called it the Michael Jackson look.

Today you would look silly wearing white socks with black trousers, although I have spotted Prince Maele in that MJ look a few times.

Coming to UB, the dating game was completely different. The secondary school requirements did not apply. Whilst we used to listen to music from the likes of musicians such as Chicco, Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Paul Ndlovu, the artists and music at UB had totally chanced and we were introduced to RnB for the first time. Most of us suffered the embarrassment of entertaining the ladies with the wrong music genre. In UB, the girls generally preferred working guys. You could tell that some of these guys who came to date ‘our’ women at UB had themselves suffered a similar fate during their student days. UB had one dining hall where we all ate. Science students in their white coats had a superiority complex but the most pretty girls came from humanities year in year out. Bachelor of Science (BSc) never really had good looking girls. If one was, she stood out. I must admit that the BSc girls looked good in their white coats. Guys and Girls was our clothing store of choice.

 My twin brother Zein was a strange one. He preferred playing mhele and cards with complete strangers at the main mall. You would never have thought he was a university student. His dress code and mannerism betrayed nothing. Completely unsophisticated and totally at ease with strangers and happier in the company of the most disadvantaged members of society. He always said he found them genuine. Like Chex Lekalake, I am sure if it was not for his current position, he would still be playing cards and snookers either at the bus rank or Africa Mall.

 Mathokgwane and many others including myself were not so lucky in the dating scene. Of the whole lot from Lobatse, I would eventually be lucky in my forth year. Our misfortune allowed us to pass time by being politically active. Mathokgwane, Gabriel Kanjabanga, Gaolapelwe Ketlogetswe, Dutch Leburu, Marshall Masilo and Dumelang Saleshando would provide the entire student community with free political lessons. They were efficient and cunning. They were members of the Botswana National Front (BNF) Mass Movement and were very good at pushing their agenda. We all fell for it. Only years later did we realise that these were propaganda agents of the BNF.

The handsome Kanjabanga was also a very smart dresser. Mathokgwane would go on to become the Student Representative Council (SRC) president. His tastes would also change. To this day, I have never met anyone who can consume pizza the way he did. He ate it every day for the period of his presidency. Once in a while I would be invited to the feast. He was joined in this lifestyle by Sidney Mogapi, his secretary general. I never asked where and who sponsored the lifestyle. Sidney Mogapi never lost the weight. He has carried it to this day. Mathokgwane would be joined in this lifestyle by another friend of his, Peter Sedingwe. The friend was his roommate. Sedingwe was not so welcoming when the pizza was around.

 Mathokgwane’s political prowess would manifest when the student community attempted to coup him from office. The coup was led by Tshiamo Rantao. This was quite a surprise and considered a betrayal given that both Rantao and Mathokgwane came from Peleng and both had Catholic roots. Like all African dictators who have had the taste of office, Mathokgwane became a typical dictator but a benovelent one. He deplored his trusted lieutenants into the different SRC offices. The electoral officer became Ernest Bagopi and Lincoln Bome, Tebogo Rapitsenyane and Marvin Torto were also appointed ministers. He had all the levers of power behind him. All of these boys were either from Lobsec or Lobatse. Plato Gaoboi would offer his legal counsel. A brilliant mind! They were also his friends. That is how he survived the coup. He would take these lessons into his political life years later.

 In 2014, I stood for elections in Lobatse. Mathokgwane stood for Goodhope-Mabule constituency. Mathokgwane although popular in his own right in Lobatse, he never campaigned against me. Fankie Motsaathebe, a BDP powerhouse in Goodhope-Mabule also never de-campaigned Mathokgwane in that constituency. That is how we related and understood the need to also preserve our relationships despite our political differences. We both won the elections.

 There is a picture of me, Mathokgwane and Same Bathobakae walking into Parliament to be sworn as MPs. It was a day to be proud of. Here, were individuals with no previous connection or claim to power that had worked their way up. Mathokgwane and Bathobakae had truly enjoyed their month long stay at the Grand Palm. They had gained complexion. Although given a room at the same place, I gave it to one Arafat Khan. It would be difficult to explain to my wife why I wanted to be at Grand Palm when I had a house in Gaborone. I enjoyed lunch once in a while there.

Our election had unknowingly created enemies for us. Our enemies would be right in our midst and they would strike first at Mathokgwane. I was left for later. They would leak confidential documents to the media to create a particular narrative. The attack against me, was a side show. They wanted Mokgweetsi Masisi and thought they would get to him through me. At the time I was naive to think that people are well meaning. I would be betrayed by politicians and people some of whom I had facilitated their employment in government. These included familia.

The latter category happened after I ceased being a Minister. I was no longer relevant. One would collect money for her so-called orphanage work in Serowe and occasionally drive my car to her cattle post while the other would make so much noise in Parliament. He had to be a hero. Such is life. A story for another day. One thing about being betrayed is that it helps you grow spiritually. Although I knew who God was, I was not so spiritual. I thought that what I had achieved was from my own hard work. I have begun to appreciate God and I am working on having that relationship with him. It is not easy though. God will give you peace even in the midst of your storm. I know that. I have experienced it.

 Mathokgwane came to Parliament under the BNF ticket. Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) had also surprisingly done very well, at the 2014 general elections Parliament had young educated Batswana. Duma Boko and Ndaba Gaolathe led the opposition. What an interesting combination. Phenyo Butale and Wynter Mmolotsi led the opposition attack. BDP did not enjoy the same robustness. Mathokgwane’s demagoguery was in full swing. He tabled motions and always seemed to have the privilege of knowing state secrets. Dithapelo Keorapetse was always on top of issues, so was Noah Salakae. Masisi loved Salakae. The team threatened the very existence and relevance of the BDP in the next elections.

 Mathokgwane became a target for his boldness. A senior female and male Ministers colluded and started to spread rumours accusing him of being involved with a student in his constituency. These rumours reached Mathokgwane somehow. He was investigated and nothing came out of the investigations. The investigating officer, I would learn eventually confessed and apologised that he had been instructed to investigate him. He was a wild horse who had never been expected to win. The damage had been done.

 In the midst of these investigations, Mathokgwane became so frustrated and crumbled. He then confided in me that he was tired of being victimised and was considering finding a job for his peace of mind and that of his family. He had just planted a seed without realising it. At the time, government was establishing SPEDU in Selebi-Phikwe. It was one of the companies under the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry, where I was an Assistant Minister. I seized on this moment to propose a job for Mathokgwane. It had to be done purely for political reasons. The BDP was in a state of panic. Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) had great momentum and 2019 did not look promising for the BDP. Mathokgwane’s recruitment to join SPEDU would provide an opportunity to stall the UDC momentum. And it actually hurt the opposition and discouraged any future growth and excitement around the UDC.

I whispered to President Ian Khama, Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Eric Molale, Thapelo Olopeng and Vincent Seretse about the possibility of Mathokgwane leaving his Parliamentary position. I was given the green light to do all things possible to recruit him to join SPEDU. It was to be very discrete and a secret. Many in the BDP did not know about it. They only heard it on the radio after the mission was accomplished.

It did not take me long to convince him to join SPEDU. But we did not trust he would quit. He too did not trust that we would honour our word to employ him at SPEDU. Suspicious as he was, he gave me his resignation letter before he gave it to the Speaker, Gladys Kokorwe. We had reached pay dirt! I gave the letter to Masisi. The day was Wednesday and Cabinet was in session. I felt good about myself. I had delivered a technical knock out to the UDC. I had previously attempted to recruit Duma Boko to the BDP before the 2014 elections.

Such attempt would be maliciously leaked to the press to create an impression that Boko had agreed to join the BDP. I felt betrayed by the conduct of a senior BDP member who was at the time close to the President. I was not close to President Khama at the time. It was at the time when those close to him used his name to push their agenda. I found myself on radio having to answer whether Boko had agreed to join the BDP. I felt I was being driven to betray confidences for selfish self-serving reasons. My hand had been forced and I was told it was an instruction. It was a lie. It was far from the truth. It was leaked at the time I was suggesting ways of luring him from the opposition. At the time 2014 did not look too promising.

The BDP popular vote in the previous elections spoke volumes. Boko would be a coup. Masisi the politician and the heir apparently wasted no time and called the Speaker to inform her of Mathokgwane’s resignation and that she should expect the letter. He read the letter to her. The telephone conversation happened through the red line, the most secure telephone line found in every Minister’s and other senior government offices. Well, we assumed it was secure. The Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) may know otherwise. Someone quickly informed the radio stations about the resignation. Mathokgwane was cornered. He would resign that day. The UDC was shattered. The excitement and disbelief were palpable.

On the day that Mathokgwane resigned from Parliament I had lunch with him at Capello restaurant at Masa Center. He had T-bone with chips. He barely touched his food. I had pizza. Yes I had pizza. Chicken and mushroom to be precise! He could not resist a slice. His spirit was troubled because he had just informed Boko of his decision to quit and he wanted to be around a familiar face. I guess he felt he had betrayed Boko. He would not be the last to quit UDC. Typical of radio mall, those who saw us together later claimed that I had bought him with a plate of food or a bag full of cash. Little did they know that the food was on the house. When I heard of this, I was not disturbed by the uninformed gossip and unfounded rumours. After all my people always strive in such. It’s their pass time.

Having accomplished my mission, I would that evening fly out to Las Vegas on a trip with the SPEDU Chief Executive Officer (CEO). My conversations with him did not involve Mathokgwane. We were on a government trip. I complained to him about the poor airline choice.

I landed in New York still feeling good about my accomplishments. Molale would be next MP, so I and many in the BDP thought. The beauty about being a government Minister is that the government paid 90% of your phone bill. There was no cap as to how much usage one should not pass. I did not have to worry about my phone bill. Things were happening back in Botswana!

The weather was good in New York City (NYC). The smell of freshly baked pizza inescapable. I had flown as you would imagine on business class. That is how we flew as Ministers. I arrived feeling fresh. It was a pity I had flown SAA instead of Emirates, where I always enjoyed being upgraded to first class, where there are showers. You enjoyed such luxuries flying on Emirates. We landed in NYC at John F Kennedy International Airport. There is something different about JFK. It excites you. As you look out of the window as the plane taxis on the runway, you recognise instantly the might of the United States of America.

No sooner had I switched on my phone when I received a WhatsApp message from Spencer Mogapi, saying Mathokgwane was being replaced by the paramount chief of Barolong as an MP candidate for the UDC. I sobered up. This had not been foreseen. I hoped that the WhatsApp message was wrong. I called Advocate Sidney Pilane to get the necessary confirmation. It was true. Yes, we are friends across the political divide. More unites us than divides us. Opposition MPs make better friends because they are not competing with you for possible Ministerial positions. If you want to know people who gossip and lie about each other to their leaders, visit the ruling party.

The BDP did not foresee the paramount chief joining the opposition. We later learnt that the paramount chief was a friend to Mathokgwane. Did he play one on us? He has never confirmed his role on this saga. Maybe one day he will.

Eric Molale would proceed to lose elections in Goodhope-Mabule after winning the BDP primary elections. I had lent him my Hilux to campaign. Some senior BDP members decampaigned him. He was viewed with suspicion. He was viewed as a potential VP and he had the resume to be one. I shared the view that Molale would make the best VP to Masisi come the time. He understood government and how it worked.

Pity he lost then and the opportunity was lost. Preparing for 2019, Molale, having learnt his lesson would ask an outsider to help him campaign. The woman would be accommodated in my house in Lobatse. She would traverse Borolong campaigning quietly for Molale, who would eventually be unopposed. I do not remember Molale saying thank you to me. When it was my turn to face the primary elections, Morolong would descend into Lobatse to vote for another Morolong. Welcome to politics.

To be continued…

*Advocate Sadique Kebonang is a former Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament for Lobatse constituency. This is an extract from his book ‘My life in politics and four President’ that will be published end of this year.

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