The recent unfolding events of South Africa’s state capture commission surrounding former President Jacob Zuma provokes deep-seated questions as usual about Botswana’s young but old democracy.
The uncomfortable corner the ANC finds itself in reminds me of the same corner the BDP hovered over when its former Number 1 went ‘haywire’. These events evoke a sense of nostalgia for change in African politics, and for me as a politically homeless voter and a student of politics, the prospect of transformation is not just for the country, but also for political its parties.
My curiosity is stimulated primarily, by the ‘improbable’ (in the short term) but the not impossible eventuality of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) losing elections. What would it mean for the party that has not known nor constructively imagined life outside of State House Drive? What would it mean for the crop of opposition parties that have been throwing stumps from across the aisle their whole lives? I think the verdict has long been out about the health of the ruling party and its below par performances over the years. I view the BDP’s fate as self-inflicted. But in essence, I also view its unfortunate blunders as carefully constructed lessons and signs (from our ancestors perhaps) for the much-needed substantive introspection the country needs.
The BDP’s factional battles and ugly breakups have shifted Botswana’s political landscape over the past five decades. For my generation, the most significant is the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). Electoral loss and regime change would mean a lot for the BDP, how it sees itself and would most likely compel the honest introspection the party has long needed (given they don’t succumb to the ‘Trumpian’ approach of playing victim after electoral loss). I echo Kgalema Motlanthe’s infamous words in 2017 when he said that perhaps if the ANC lost elections, it would be both a good thing for the party and the country and that it would be a legitimate way to shed off some of its corrupt culture in its newly found status out of political power. Similarly, a devastating electoral loss would give the BDP the clarity and reset they desperately need. The party repeatedly fails to heed the call to radically transform itself and subsequently, the country. I would attribute this failure to listen to its repeated electoral victories, which have created a sense of disillusionment and detached awareness about itself as a party, as a government and more aptly, an identity crisis about its role as a party governing in the post-Washington consensus world (a worthy debate for another day).
I understand the long-held consensus amongst active citizens in the country that the party’s prolonged hold on power has eroded its perspective on things. Internally it experiences inertia of some sort, a paralysis if you will that cripples it from holding its leadership accountable by any meaningful standards. A case in point, and even fresher in our memories, are the events that led to the formation of the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF). I would argue that the BDP’s persistent failure to hold the Ian Khama administration accountable emboldened him enough to take advantage of the vacuum that existed. He used any and every platform available to advance his interests. As a result, the same culture of the party leadership that can never be held accountable for ethical and moral transgressions persists.
In the same thinking, regime change would have monumental implications for the current crop of opposition parties, not just in Botswana, but in the African continent. The trauma and reputation of ‘liberation’ movements or ‘post-independence’ parties is no longer a fond conversation to have over a cup of coffee while basking in our political freedom from colonialism. An opposition party at the Office of the President would not only be historic, but it would also be a much welcome indictment and scrutiny on their readiness for public office.
As much as the advancement of the opposition to the presidency would give BDP the time out they need, it would equally be a ‘textbook boost’ to the quality of Botswana’s democracy. It would give the country’s system a chance to reset as well, fight the public sector complacency, the systemic corruption and uninspiring economic performance. But I would also be the first to caution that the current crop of opposition cadres are not a magic wand to the republic’s problems. Many argue that the opposition are ill-prepared for public office. I partially concur, but if that were the legitimate measure of governance, then we should think about all the ill-preparedness of the past five decades and how we’ve done as best as we could under the circumstances. There is no template for good governance. The only danger to be foreseen would be if a party like the BPF, for example, that was founded with unclear policy direction was to find itself at the State House and continue on with their business as usual approach of using disgruntlement from their BDP days as a political strategy.
It is compelling to believe the BDP, like many incumbents who have grown comfortable, is almost irredeemable. As a non-partisan, public interest question and in advancing the growth of Botswana’s democracy, we should allow the BDP to self-destruct. Would electoral loss give them the reset and clarity of thought they need? I’m convinced it would, BUT only if the party did the actual work of pruning away the incompetence within their structures, committing to putting country above party, rebuilding their image and reputation by killing patronage-based succession, recommitting to radical policy speak, and finally, working with whoever is in power to build a robust constitution and strong institutions. I think it would be refreshing, both humorously and literally, to see if the BDP would be an effective opposition without all the flare and flash of incumbency.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist working at the nexus of think tanks, research and international development. He writes on politics, foreign policy and economic development.