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Southern Africa Report Archive

Larry Swatuk presents an account that registers the self-destructive path taken by opposition leaders in Botswana who once seemed to offer the rudiments of a progressive alternative to those ensconced in power in that country. (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Botswana: The opposition implodes
Larry A Swatuk

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Page 27



Larry Swatuk lectures in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Botswana.

1999 may well be dubbed "the year of the election" in Southern Africa: approximately half of SADC's member states are slated to go to the polls some time this year: among them, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In every case, the incumbent looks to be an easy winner; and, in every case, the return of incumbents seems due more to the lack of a viable opposition and less to any tangible voter satisfaction with government, or, for that matter, with anything government has done to merit electoral victory.

This is particularly so in Botswana. In "Botswana: What Clinton Didn't See" (SAR Vol. 13 No. 3), I highlighted a panoply of problems besetting the country and suggested that perhaps the only thing that would shake Botswana out of its diamond-induced stupor would be a BNF victory in 1999. Given the rather surprising turn of events during the past ten months, however, fewer statements appear more fanciful. Any opposition victory appears more unlikely today.

Changing fortunes

Make no mistake, the BDP remains a party that governs by auto-pilot; despite half-hearted claims that "Botswana must go hi-tech," and promises that more creative policies are in the hopper, it is clear that government remains content with a diamond-driven economy supplemented by Lome-guaranteed beef exports. In power for 33 years, complacency on the part of government and apathy on the part of the electorate characterize the general political mood.

As is the case with many oligarchies through history, in-fighting borne of stasis in its hierarchy threatened to unravel the BDP through most of 1997 and the first part of 1998. Two events seem to have served to restore the status quo, however. On the first of April, Lieutenant General Ian Khama became a card-carrying member of the BDP. And, as one report put it, "Before sunset, he was appointed minister of presidential affairs and public administration." A few months later the Botswana National Front split into two factions following violence at its annual party congress. Botswana's "opposition" has since played a round of musical chairs, the result being one new political party - the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) - and a five party alliance called BAM (the Botswana Alliance Movement) which has come together in order to contest elections slated for sometime around October 1999.

The "new" BDP?

The BDP commissioned a well-known South African professor, Lawrence Schlemmer, to undertake a study exploring ways to reinvigorate the ruling party and make it more relevant for the post-Masire era. Schlemmer's recommendations boiled down to this: if the party wants to retain power, it should reflect the demographics and interests of Botswana society. It should seek therefore to recruit younger people in general, more women in particular, and to focus its attention on issues of human welfare, not simply macro-economic stability and healthy rates of GNP growth.

The act of commissioning such a study reflected real BDP fears that they faced for the first time the possibility of electoral defeat. The BDP's secretary general, Daniel Kwelagobe, admitted as much at the party's National Council meeting last November: "A united and cohesive opposition would have proven formidable in the general elections on account of the constant growth in popularity it had been experiencing." This possibility must also be set within the context of what President Mogae termed "the dark chapter of factions and in-fighting," characterised most clearly by the party's inability to elect a central committee at its last congress. As a compromise, a list was drawn up from the two feuding factions.

Far from recruiting youth and women into positions of power, however, the recent BDP primaries reflected a return to the status quo. And as for the end of factional in-fighting, the 1999 party congress set for July will tell that tale. Mogae's decision to bring Ian Khama into the picture seems a brilliant move in this regard. It is now clear that Khama was brought in from outside the BDP to put an end to feuding between the Kwelagobe and Merafhe factions. Yet, Mogae himself - sometimes referred to as the "reluctant politician" - is untested. He was "catapulted" into power by an out-going Masire concerned to avoid further splits within the party; for this reason, the extent of his support within the party REMAINS unclear.

The magic of "Khama"

What is clear is that part of the BDP's strategy for winning 1999 now involves trading on the revered name of "Khama." Seretse Khama was Botswana's first President and Head of State. His oldest son, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, is paramount chief of the Bangwato, the traditionally dominant group among Botswana's constitutionally-recognised "eight tribes." Ian Khama was, until recently, commander of Botswana's Defence Forces (BDF), and a Brigadier at the tender age of 36. Upon Mogae's elevation to the presidency, Botswana's new President and Head of State made Khama Minister of Presidential Affairs - thereby sidelining Mogae's old rival Ponatshego Kedikilwe - and nominated him for the position of Vice President.

As Vice President and Minister for Presidential Affairs (which includes responsibility for the BDF, the police, communications and the media, and the civil service), Khama assumes a dominant role in the country's political life. Granted, the BDP historically has been strongest in the north; it should be remembered that while Vice President in 1969, Quett Masire was defeated in Kanye South and had to be re-appointed by Seretse Khama as one of four Specially Elected Members. In order to qualify for the Vice Presidency, one must be an elected member of parliament. To this end, long-serving MP for Serowe North, Roy Blackbeard, agreed to give up what has long been regarded as a BDP "safe-seat" so that Khama could contest the riding in a by-election. Though Khama won the riding uncontested, the BDP made much of its victory and are sure to trade heavily on the family name in future.

Speculation is rife regarding how the Mogae-Khama team will approach the July party congress. For the first time, the party will elect a Presidential Candidate, for which Mogae appears a shoe-in. However, some observers feel that the party's current chair, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, may also stand as a candidate thereby reigniting a long smoldering rivalry. If he does not, the question then becomes, to what extent will Khama become involved in party politics? For many feel that Khama may challenge Kedikilwe for the position of party chair. With regard to party secretary general, it seems likely that Daniel Kwelagobe will relinquish the position due to ill health. Gaotlehaetse Matlhabaphiri is favoured as his replacement, though some feel that a favoured-son of Khama, Jacob Nkate, may challenge for the position. Nkate is the lone relatively young face in an aging and familiar crowd.

All this jockeying for position seems a long way from the interests of the electorate. With the implosion of the opposition, however, the BDP seems to be saying that until it gets its house in order the interests of Batswana can wait.

Boom goes the BNF

Recognising its growing strength as a catch-all party of aggrieved Batswana, one faction within the BNF central committee sought to remodel itself for the coming elections. Seeking to capitalize on the fact that Batswana between the ages of 18 - 21 were for the first time eligible to vote, many BNF members felt it was time for a leadership change. Kenneth Koma, BNF founding member and long-time party leader, had already outlasted two Botswana presidents; with Mogae's arrival, the April 1998 BNF party congress seemed a propitious time for Koma to go. Sensing at the time the very real possibility of victory in the 1999 elections, the BNF central committee - ultimately minus Koma and the party treasurer - hoped to make the party more relevant to and reflective of the interests of the electorate. Sensing a "palace coup," Koma trucked in a contingent of stone throwing, stick wielding and chair smashing youths who completely disrupted proceedings. With the meeting in total disarray, Koma declared a state of emergency which he later defended as clearly mandated in the party's constitution. In order to "restore order," and without a trace of irony, Koma suspended the entire central committee, save for the party treasurer.

There ensued a short period in which the BNF was split into two warring "factions": on one side stood the central committee, which included the bulk of BNF members of parliament (eleven of thirteen); on the other side stood Koma and the party treasurer. Differences, ultimately, were irreconcilable: the sidelined central committee decided to form a new political party - the Botswana Congress Party - and leave the Koma-headed BNF to sort itself out. Beyond the desire for a refurbished image, however, were differences of substance. Michael Dingake, leader of the BCP, noted that the language of socialist revolutionary struggle so closely associated with the BNF had run its course and reflected neither the interests nor beliefs of the party membership. Asked in a questionnaire distributed by the Midweek Sun to compare BNF and BCP ideologies, Dingake said:

The BNF ideology as insinuated by the so-called Left is that the relatively better off Batswana are despicable, wicked and what-have-you. [In contrast, the BCP position] is honest, simple and clear. We are all Batswana and entitled to be rich in a rich country. The wealthy who have already made it by hard work and thrift deserve to be applauded and emulated.

Judging from the contents of the BCP's Democratic Development Programme, the new party seems to be one centred on Keynesian economic thinking. Again, according to Dingake,

The poor as far as the BCP is concerned must be assisted by creating opportunities for them to go up the ladder of economic progress ... The weaknesses of the BDP have been arrogance, lack of vision, lack of innovativeness, insensitivity, patronage and mistaking infrastructural development as the essence of human development. The approach of the BCP will be to avoid the pitfalls.

The BCP has identified the following issues for emphasis in the run-up to the election: poverty, HIV/AIDS, the widening income gap, rising unemployment, continuing discrimination against "minor" tribes, crime, and capacity building - issues also highlighted for "action" by both the ruling BDP and BAM.

BAM goes the opposition

While the BCP hit the ground running, the BNF took several months longer to regroup. Conscious of the party's much diminished stature, Koma took what was perhaps the only step possible: he entered into alliance with four other marginal parties, the Independence Freedom Party (IFP), the Botswana People's Party (BPP), the United Action Party (Bosele), and the Botswana Progressive Union (BPU). At the end of January 1999, the leaders of these five political parties met in Palapye and signed an alliance protocol. They also issued a joint communique which stated in part:

We the opposition parties of Botswana have after sober and deep reflection on the current political situation in Botswana resolved to cooperate in order to take over political power and transform our society for the better.

The following weekend BAM held its inaugural rally at Ramotswa, located a short distance outside Gaborone. At the meeting the BCP was lampooned as the "Botswana Criminal Party" by one BAM activist. Such unoriginal verbal "stone throwing" constituted much of the weekend rally's activities. BAM was officially launched at the National Stadium on 12 February with more style and amid much hoopla. And while Koma stated that "Batswana have grown to the realization that narrow party allegiance, at the expense of issues and principles, is not a sustainable practice," one wonders how far this alliance extends beyond a mere marriage of convenience.

Beyond slinging mud and rhetoric, BAM's strategy seems to be that of mapping party-specific regional and local strengths and weaknesses so as not to split votes and allow the BDP to squeeze up the middle. For instance, this has led Patrick van Rensburg to wonder, "Is this an alliance in which [IFP leader] Motsamai Mpho figures that with his 3,142 vote-base, he might get 1,700 `old' BNF votes, out of its 2,912, to beat [BDP incumbent] Bahiti Temane's 4,804 in Maun/Chobe?" An intriguing question, to be sure. However, no one can judge the impact of the BNF/BCP split in such closely contested ridings, of which there are several. In 1994, the BNF polled 102,862 votes overall, as opposed to the BDP's 151,031. In comparison, the BPP polled 11,586, the IFP 7,653 and the BPU among others 4,087. Clearly, the other alliance members are marginal political forces in comparison to the BNF and its petulant offspring, the BCP.

The view from the peanut gallery

At the end of the day, and despite all the talk of invigoration and change, the emergent picture of Botswana's political landscape looks painfully familiar. The BDP appears poised to sleep walk its way to victory once again. The opposition remains split, even more so than it has been for many years; and this time over issues of substance in addition to those of regional and ethnic differences. And with all of this in-fighting, it is not always clear what is left of the Left.

As for the electorate, it is as much confused as it is apathetic. The feared earthquake of the "youth vote" will not happen, at least this time round: more than 60 per cent of those eligible to vote in the forthcoming election have failed to register, with the majority of these being those under 21. So alarming is this trend that the Independent Electoral Commission has decided to stage a supplementary round of voter registration. Indeed, in a country where approximately 42 per cent of the population is aged 15 and under; and only 2.4 per cent above the age of 65, the potential impact to be made by youth on the status quo would seem significant. Yet, to date less than 10,000 of those aged 18 - 21 have registered to vote.

To be sure, it is early days; one hopes that as the opposition gets itself on track, and that as real issues gain more media and party political attention, that those Batswana registered to vote will help ensure that this year's election amounts to something more than "more of the same." Yet given recent trends, and in yet another year of relatively good rains, the drought for Botswana's political opposition appears likely to continue.

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