Dr Kenneth Shololo Goabamong Koma (1921 -2006)
Indesputably one of the prominent figures to emerge in the ranks of opposition in Botswana was Goabamong Shololo Kenneth Koma. An accomplished scholar, erudite writer, thinker and philosopher with a resounding political success and influence, Dr Koma demonstrated remarkable political traits, foresight and depth in human sociology; its praxis and not only that; but went on to promulgate scientific solutions in what is normally referred to as dialectical analysis in leftist cycles that would shape opposition politics for decades to follow. Born and raised in Mahalapye, although among the first crop of few educated Batswana by then, having attained his university education at the University of Cape Town in the late 1940s and graduating with a B.A in English and Psychology where he sharpened his teeth for a life in politics. He would later read for his Masters Degree in Czechoslavakia and a PhD at the Africa Institute of the Academy of Science in the USSR (Russia) and would be the first African to be awarded a PhD by the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow (History of the BNF; 43).
Dr Koma who had a contemptuous disdain for elitism and was known for his down to earth humble exterior, affected an ordinary-style of living characteristic of a commoner or a down-trodden compatriot although said to be a distant cousin of the royals. Beneath the façade of complex peculiarities dipped in austerity, lay a treasurer of wisdom and a tacit intellectual capacity for Dr Koma.
“ You must commit class suicide comrades, and deny yourselves the comforts that comes with petty-bourgeois and middle-class you will acquire after completing your studies. Some of you when you touch and taste a few pulas, you will betray the struggle”.
This is what in other walks of life is referred to as not being able to resist the attractions of the trappings of power and opulence that is associated with it. That, those with an unquenchable appetite for the finer things in life (particularly attached to power) cannot cope with the challenges of the politics of liberation and struggling for the betterment of the poor and the down-trodden.
Part of his fabric in life that pervaded every aspect of his life was that, although bereft of elitism and the least sentimental, Goabamong Koma was a cerebral sort with a towering intellect, virulent debater with a doggedness for fierce encounters with those entrenched in the conventional political realms of the dominant ideology of the social institutions of culture/ power like chieftaincy especially when and where it had a skewed or disproportional leveraging on its dominance to influence politics. That antagonistic penchant could be picked on how he accosted the BDP doped by the influence of the Bamangwato royalty that presented itself as a monolithic hegemony and met it with indignation. Never the one to let the flame out, Dr Koma ignited opposition politics to unprecedented levels in so far as challenging the BDP’s lone claim to power by his concerted efforts to organize and unite all progressive forces – a rallying cry mantra that would become the ethos of his party the BNF.
The nibble-witted Koma formed Botswana National Front (BNF) in 1965 understandably after failing to unite the warring factions and feuding of the original petty-bourgeois led Botswana People’s Party (BPP) that culminated into splits premised more on implausibility or incontrovertible differences between Phillip Matante and Motsamai Mpho borne out of deep fissures over the accountability of “the 5 000 pounds that was placed in a bank account for their use by Ghana’s Kwame Nkurumah and Phillip Matante confirmed that he had collected the money”. During the 1950s and 1960s, the achievements and dedication to the liberation struggle by Ghana was pointing the way forward (showing direction) for the Freedom Fighters of Southern Africa.
Rued by BPP’s internecine fights, Koma as an entrenched Marxist theoretician formed and organised BNF with a moral persuasion to first raise consciousness by analyzing and exploiting the clash of living class forces and interests ( that imperialism, class disparity and exploitation were all vices and connected), first from the lower ranks avoiding to assume its direct political stewardship , choosing instead to direct it from behind and concentrating on ideological direction, writing party documents – reputedly chief among them Pamphlet No.1 – a superlative exposition of the BNF’s politics and elaboration of its strategy and tactics or a strident analysis of the historical and contemporary conditions facing the people of Bechuanaland according to “ A History of the Botswana National Front “ as they commemorated its 50th anniversary in 2015.
Koma’s emphatic writings would lay a blueprint foundation for progressive politics and conceive the BNF as a movement within which distinctive forces could pursue their common interests while maintaining their autonomous stature within a framework of a United Front although that was not fully realised.
At another level, Comrade Koma conceived politics above all as a project not just of rallying and organizing the people around a particular banner and programme for electoral process, but as a process of assisting the masses to understand their real interests and aspirations and empowering them (History of the BNF-17).
Something that would precipitate, add enormously and popularize his party as it stroke a chord with diverse classes of the egalitarian and the semi-proletariat Botswana society and steadfastly record notable success especially in the capital town Gaborone and the greater South of Dibete region.
On explaining what character of the struggle they are pursuing, Dr Koma had this to say:
Ours is definitely not a socialist movement, ours is a National Democratic struggle, national because it concerns the whole nation. Democratic because it seeks to put an end to the conditions which have reduced the whole of our nation into oppressed people. Our struggle is therefore anti-imperialist, anti-feudalist and anti-oppression in general.
We are using the term people in its revolutionary sense. We are making a distinction between people on the one hand and the enemies of the people on the other hand. We are drawing a demarcation line between patriots on the hand and purchasable position seekers. The bureaucratic and comprador bourgeoisie colluding with and serving as an intermediary of imperialism are enemies of the people.
It surfaces that, one of the organizational tools the Russian-educated academic embraced was the symbolic import of propaganda and mass agitation something that the conservative ruling BDP found greatly disorienting because it soon exposed it as bunking on a false sense of authority.
As a leading torch bearer of the envisaged formation and character mold around the concept of a United Front and its strategy; and by extension the BNF’s, he enunciated in his meticulous Pamphlet No.1 describing the modern petty-bourgeoisie or ‘ elites by education’ where he provides insight.
From this characterization, it is clear that the section of the Botswana nation which forms the basic force in the United Front should maintain its autonomy within the Botswana National Front.
To elucidate and replenish the above polemical discourse, according to his equally indoctrinated convert, whom in large ways than small had an unyielding impression of his dogma that inextricably bound them together, Dr Elmon Tafa, himself a BNF ideologue and stalwart par excellence in his own right, writes in his contribution to BNF’s 50th celebrations and compilation of ‘ A history of the BNF’ in 2015 :
Dr Koma is referring to the ultimate assumption of the working class ideological leadership of the BNF that the founders of the BNF envisaged. The working class organized into a political party was expected to maintain its organizational and ideological independence both within the BNF and the broad United Front of democratic and patriotic forces.
With a wherewithal to reinforce a uniform code of approach to issues that would negate all forms of individuality, streamline his concepts and embolden his affirmations, Dr Koma would introduce another first in local politics; pioneer Study Groups to which Dr Elmon Tafa avers:
In a bid to build a socialist core to provide ideological leadership of a United Front, the BNF launched study groups in 1975 following the liberation of Mozambique and Angola. Study groups trained also trained ordinary BNF social democrats.
Dr Koma took over the reins of the BNF from Chief Bathoeng Gaseitsewe as party president in 1977 having served in the party Central Committee in different roles among them as Publicity Secretary, External Affairs and National Affairs at different times (as well as simultaneously). He was elected BNF Vice President in 1976 deputising Chief Bathoeng Gaseitsewe. Having initiated political study groups not only to train party activists and socialists, Dr Koma laid a foundation for infiltrating a cultural wall of parochialism, trudge through and loosen the hold or barriers of the semi- feudalist BDP and shook it considerably. That would be a springboard to the political awakening and growth of the party.
Dr Koma’s maiden entrance as a popularly elected member of parliament would come in a momentous victory in 1984 as a representative for Gaborone South constituency – a densely populated low income area which started as a stopover for unskilled South African bound migrant workers (from surrounding southern villages and as far as the north-eastern and western Botswana) in their sojourn to seek employment at the booming Gold Mines in South Africa. The constituency would harbor the lumpen-proletariats, the unemployed, cheap labourers, unskilled to semi-skilled labourers inextricably bound together in the low-income shacks trying to eke a living in the metropolitan Gaborone that would become the moral jigsaw puzzle for the dazzling orator and incisive Dr Koma’s emblem of indomitability and courage. The BNF leader would trounce BDP’s Vice President Peter Mmusi after a controversial recount of the ill-fated Tshiamo Ballot box that was found abandoned and would completely change fortunes for Dr Koma and give the BNF leader a resounding victory that would be a springboard to engulf the capital Gaborone and its periphery environs. From Gaborone South, the influence of Dr Koma would have a spilling effect to the adjacent Gaborone West constituency and Gaborone North. The common denominator for these constituencies is that they were all low-income areas reinforcing the narrative of his appeal to the down-trodden as a vanguard.
But it was Koma’s vitality, mental energy and vivacity complimented by his courage and resourcefulness that proved to be his greatest traits and a magnet to his class of followers . Having attained academic education in the 1960s and armed with a LLB from Nottingham University, certificate in French, an M.A in History, Philosophy and Political Economy from Charles University in Praque, Czechoslavakia, and a Phd in Political Science from the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, the Soviet Union, Koma was a well-polished luminary who would become a role model to a host of upcoming scholars ( Prof Monageng Mogalakwe, Dr Bonang, Dr Cosmos Moenga, Dr Patrick Molusi, Dr Comton, Dr Tutwane ) to mention but a few) and civil and trade union actvists ( Cde Klass Kebotse Motshidisi, Cde Frank Marumo, Cde Motshwarakgole, Cde Ditiro Saleshando, ) progressive lawyers ( Dick Bayford, M. T Motswagole, Key Dingake, Otsweletse Moupo, Patrick Kgoadi, Victor Moupo, Duma Boko, Gabriel Kajabanga ) and young political activists at the University especially between the period 1980s to 1990s. By any measure, this should gauge how impactful the political scientist was. He equally inspired a fine breed of radicals among them Cde Benjamin Segwape, Cde Peba Sethantsho, Cde Nehemiah Modubule, Cde James Olesitse, Cde Billy Makuku, Cde Vain Maimela, Cde Robert Molefhabangwe, Cde James Mathokgwane . Similarly, going through the rank and file of the BNF with a fine comb, one would discern that the north-central region comprising of Mahalapye, Shoshong, Serowe and Palapye churned out some of the finest party activists and organisers intrinsically connected to Dr Koma in Cde O.K Menyatso, Cde Ontumetse Dikobe, Cde Klaas Motshidisi, Cde Peter Mothobi, Cde James Olesitse, Cde Koee, Cde Mogalakwe.
At another level, despite having a well decorated CV at a time there were very few educated Batswana, Koma’s committal to lead an ordinary life and speak a “language” understood and in sync with the poor connected well with the peasantry; fighting poverty and squalor – would pedestal him to an iconic status. Koma, a Marxist by heart and soul, who lived and breathed politics weaved together a symbiotic umbilical cord with the two classes interwoven by the working class that he referred to as “ a basic force” (in the Botswana National Front) and radically altered those he interacted with. Dr Koma would feverishly leave a deepest impression of himself on his converts who in turn multiplied his surge of strength. His Village Ward home in Gaborone Central constituency would be a bee-hive of hot-spot interactions by comrades from all walks of life and corners of the country attracted by an aura of his humorous charm. This would prove to be the most potent tactic for Koma and his BNF whose fortunes reached peak in 1994 to assert itself as a real force on the political spectrum in the political economy of Botswana winning 13 of the 40 parliamentary seats (32.5 %) and a national popular votes of 102,362 (36 %). Although this statistics may not be evident enough of a party challenging for state power, it is cognizant to bear in mind that since independent in 1965 no single opposition party had successfully amassed more than 5 seats in parliament. So by any standard that was a quantum leap and a distinguished success that sent shivers down the feudalist BDP spine that was bequeathed with power by the colonisers whose authority was founded and protected by the colour of their skin. That would set tongues wagging and reshape the political spectrum with front pages on the print media like “ BDP no longer indispensable”. Koma’s BNF demonstrated agility and exposed BDP to the realization that it had a brittle exterior. To demonstrate the extent to which the elections’ result gave goose-bumps to those in the corridors of power including the comprador bourgeoisie elements and their handlers, De Beers sponsored the ruling BDP to commission a consultancy whose objectives was to find out what needs to be done to resuscitate the dwindling fortunes of the BDP against Koma’s marauding BNF. So Koma wittingly put together a formation that gave a feudalist party, laboring under bequeathed power by minority white capital, with a backing of capitalist conglomerates sleepless nights. A consultancy that would be under the tutelage of the renowned South African University of Cape Town Professor Lawrence Schelmer . The essential and fundamental part of his recommendation was that the faction-riddled BDP requires a leader more popular than the party, who is also above party factional divide. A dispensation that prematurely retired Ian Khama Seretse Khama from the army as Commander and ushered him to mainstream politics in 1998 – a dispensation that would come back to haunt BDP in the latter years.
Polished, soft-spoken and most eloquent – evocative of fierce civil right activist in the make of Dr Martin Luther King jr, Dr Koma would enchant, bewilder and agitate the masses and leaving them spellbound speaking to their precarious economic situations and that they themselves hold the key to liberate and emancipate themselves and unlock a new dawn for equitable distribution of resources and real national independence. It would be fair to conclude Dr Koma’s locus of his struggle was far transcending in that he would attach such objective validity of the material conditions in the political economy of Botswana and its people.
It would however, be incomplete to state that Dr Koma’s leadership sometimes punctuated by human fallibility as demonstrated by some feats of irreconcilable differences that unremittedly tested his wealth of accumulated wisdom as a scholar and philosopher in the administration of his party. The ill-fated 1998 BNF split was the most debilitating – 11 of the 13 members of parliament who were elected in the previous 1994 general elections decamped to form the Botswana Congress Party led by the party Vice- President – a Revonia Trialist and former Robern Island prisoner is a case in point. Dingake was himself favoured ahead of loyal party cadres like Mareledi Giddie both as a running mate for Dr Koma in 1994 and also for Gaborone Central candidature. In what would be a bitter-sweet pill for Dr Koma. The mass defections not only reversed the gains of his party but also left a considerable dent, leaving Dr Koma leading a fractured party. Although Koma made spirited efforts to recover the following general elections in 1999 where his party regained four of the lost repository to make it 6 to BCP 1, the damage was too much to contemplate.
In 2001, before his party- the BNF could fully recover from debilitating effects of the 1998 severe strife, it was faced with another challenging task of going for an elective congress. At this point, the indefatigable Dr Koma had indicated that he would not seek a fresh mandate to lead the party. That would trigger disunity in the transition. This was mainly because Dr Koma was an embodiment of the BNF, something that had tremendously gained currency that Koma is BNF and BNF is Koma. Leading to the 2001 Kanye congress. Koma would endorse party chairman Peter Woto to take over against another well-polished emerging stalwart Otsweletse Moupo. Against all odds Moupo won breaking the sacrilegious wishes of the opposition godfather. A dispensation that would trigger turmoil as the Woto camp inspired by the indefatible Dr Koma would have none of it. The intransigent Woto camp would break away and form National Democratic Front led by Dick Bayford. Notable in the Woto lobby group was the flamboyant Duma Boko running for External Affairs portfolio who also lost to the Moupo lobby. Boko would in 2010 lead the BNF elected at the Mochudi congress. Although Dr Koma died an NDF, he was still widely respected and celebrated at his erstwhile party BNF of which he formed and nourished from the scratch. Dr Koma died in 2006 and the BNF saw it fit to unveil his tombstone in Mahalapye in 2012 in recognition to his meticulous and outstanding leadership of the BNF.
*Excerpts from a yet to be published book by Eitlhopha Mokeresete, about the political economy of Botswana entitled The Pulse of the Nation. In the book, the last chapter is The Prospects of Opposition, at which Mokeresete has profiled key opposition figures since opposition of which Dr Koma stands.