University of Botswana academics, Prof Christian John Makgala (Department of History) and Mokganedi Zara Botlhomilwe (Department of Sociology), have unravelled the fallacy peddled by politicians seeking public office, that they want to represent the interests of electorates in different constituencies.
Through a research paper published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, the duo analyse ‘Elite interests and political participation in Botswana, in the period 1966–2014’ and conclude thus: “In the past, seeking parliamentary or council position may have been seen as a patriotic duty for selfless politicians, with this even leading to some falling on hard times economically. However, as time went on, and the country’s economy grew significantly, a culture of con- spicuous consumption led to some politicians seeking parliamentary, cabinet and council positions as an avenue to wealth accumulation and fame”.
Such conclusion is buttressed by the former minister for education and later speaker of parliament, Ray Molomo, who observes in his book that: “There is an urgent and dire need for more vibrant and enterprising members of Parliament and representatives of the electorate, whose primary function would be to strengthen the institution rather than to curry favour with the executive as a ploy to earn a cabinet position.”
Considering Marxist critiques and using power elite frameworks, the research paper demonstrates the development and dynamics of Botswana’s elite in the political scene. With the passage of time, the country’s market-oriented economy led to some opposition politicians, whose parties traditionally preached pro-poor and left-oriented economic politics, engaging in joint business ventures with ruling party associates. There is nothing inherently wrong with joint business ventures across party lines, as long as they are above board. The concern is the irony whereby ordinary party members are sold the rhetoric of different economic ideas while the leadership privately harvests from the government’s economic practices which they openly condemn in public.
Some politicians have, over the years, resorted to tribalism in a bid to outmanoeuvre their competitors or to justify their defeat in elections. However, the uselessness of this strategy has seen politicians preferring defection to other parties to further their careers instead.
Botswana’s tiny economy is overwhelmingly government-driven and political participation, particularly on the side of the ruling party, is critical for one’s economic survival and prosperity. This has led to enduring intrigue and conflict among the country’s political power elite. Opposition party activists traditionally have embraced leftist policies and claimed to be representing the country’s poor and downtrodden while castigating the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (in power since 1966) of being pro-rich and politically connected business. Ironically, some members of the opposition elite also engage in business ventures with their ruling party counterparts. The scramble for economic opportunities has fuelled debilitating factionalism within both the ruling and opposition parties over the years. In some instances tribalism was mobilised in intra- and inter-party elections for positions of influence even though voters are more interested in service delivery than traditional ethnic issues.
The question: ‘Whose interests do Botswana’s politicians represent?’ was first raised by sociologist Patrick Molutsi almost three decades ago in his pioneering book with John Holm: ‘Whose Interests Do Botswana’s Politicians Represent?’
Post-colonial political elite
The country’s first political party of note was the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP), formed in 1960 by Phillip Matante, Kgalemang Motsete and Motsamai Mpho as key office holders. This triumvirate were from traditionally marginalised tribes, and had been migrant workers in South Africa where the struggle against apartheid influenced their political activism in Botswana. The BPP was militantly anti-establishment as it openly condemned colonial rule and its attendant racial discrimination, chiefly rule in the tribal areas and poor working conditions for the proletariat, gaining its greatest support in townships along the railway line in the eastern part of the country. In 1962, the more moderate BDP was formed, headed by the hugely popular Seretse Khama, uncrowned chief of the influential Bangwato. The party was seen as an antidote to the radical BPP, and as such had been encouraged into formation by British colonial administrators and a few commercial white settlers and was very much supported by them.
The BDP was able to recruit into its rank former school teachers, tribal administration cadres and well-off peasants in significant numbers throughout the country. Seretse Khama’s later vice president, Quett Masire (1966–1980), was also a former school teacher, as well as being a journalist and a successful farmer. He was a con- summate secretary general for the party and effectively recruited members throughout the country. The BDP appealed to conservative elements such as tribal royals and Euro- pean settlers in most parts of the country and it grew rapidly, while the BPP was soon faced with crippling internal fighting and splits. Generally, the BDP also commanded strong support in the majority Tswana tribal areas. Therefore, the well-organised and resourced BDP easily and overwhelmingly won the country’s first elections in 1965 and formed a government, with independence granted on 30 September 1966, when Seretse Khama became the country’s first president. In 1965 Kenneth Koma (a distant rela- tive of Khama’s) had returned from the Soviet Union with a doctorate and socialist ideas. He tried unsuccessfully to unite the warring BPP factions and splinter groups, and ended up forming the BNF instead.
Interestingly, while Seretse’s government had come into office on the back of conser- vatism, it was determined to deprive traditional chiefs of the powers they had enjoyed during the colonial period. Realising the influence that chiefs still had among their people, government decreed that any chief who wanted to join politics should first resign his chiefly office. This development led to the resignation of Chief Bathoen II of the Bangwaketse, who joined the BNF in 1969, controversially becoming its president in 1970. This was an interesting expediency as the socialist Koma teamed up with the tradi- tionalist Bathoen in a bid to topple the BDP from power. Instead, this led to defections from the BNF by activists from subject tribes as they believed that the arrangement was motivated by either tribalism or the traditional Tswana tribal elite domination – rep- resented by Koma and Bathoen. The previous BNF president, Daniel Kwele, of the Kalanga tribe, was at the forefront of these accusations. This would become a common feature of BNF politics, with the party becoming the country’s main opposition party fol- lowing the 1979 general election.
During the 1970s, the BDP was also able to recruit competent senior civil servants who resigned from the civil service and became BDP parliamentarians either through special election, or through the ballot box during elections. For instance, before the 1974 general election, Seretse appealed to Archie Mogwe and Gaositwe Chiepe to resign from the civil service, and after the election, the two were nominated as specially elected members of parliament and cabinet ministers. It was not until 1977 that Botswana established a small army as a response to cross-border raids and other forms of international harassment by the white minority regimes in Rho- desia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa. By now, the country’s economy had begun to take shape, becoming more robust from the 1980s onwards. By the late 1980s, the linkages between military, business and BDP politics, along the lines of Mills’ power elite, had clearly begun to emerge.
Molutsi observed that in Botswana, unlike other post-independent countries in Africa, the political elite had been relatively accoun- table in providing services to the people, including welfare programmes, despite inter and intra-political elite competition. Since Molutsi made his conclusion, compe- tition within and between parties has intensified many fold, and it has not always been healthy competition, as we show below. The growth of Botswana’s economy has fuelled a new culture of consumerism focused on the need for wealth accumulation. This has meant that for many politicians, working in the interests of the electorate has become sec- ondary, with the pursuit of personal advantage appearing to be the primary motive. It should also be added that socio-economic survival instincts and weak or non-existent commitment to ideology in the public discourse have enabled this phenomenon to become widespread.
The allure of political office
Haseler’s observation that shameless determination for financial gain engendered by new capitalism is in line with developments in Botswana in recent years. The call for more conducive working conditions and increased remuneration by elected politicians is not necessarily new in Botswana, though in the past it was not done with the open aggressiveness that has been witnessed in recent years. Before the country’s diamond boom, which began in the 1980s, parliamentarians were poorly remunerated. A good number of them do seem to have taken to the political career as a ‘calling’ to ‘the political and public life’. In fact, politics impoverished some of Botswana’s early national leaders. The situation has always been more deplorable for opposition leaders and activists whose parties were too poor to help fund activists’ campaigns.
In recent years, it seems the aim of most with parliamentary ambition is to make it into the much coveted cabinet with its impressive conditions of service and perks. The perceived main advantage of being in cabinet is access to critical inside information concerning lucrative government tenders. Popular belief is that one would make available such information to businesses owned by family members, relatives, acquaintances and other tenderpreneurs to assist them in winning tenders, and in the process get rewarded handsomely with kickbacks. Within the past five years, two senior cabinet ministers have been hauled before the courts on such charges, but were found not guilty.
Corruption in Botswana appears to be directly connected to the country’s political and economic systems in line with Girling’s assertion that ‘The capitalism-democracy- society nexus is the structural condition of corruption’. Botswana’s economic situation can be divided into two phases; the first is the period of poverty between 1966 and 1980, during Seretse’s presidency; the second is the period of prosperity, spanning 1980 and 1998 during the presidency of Quett Masire, Festus Mogae (1998–2008) and Ian Khama (2008-). The earlier period was characterised by stringent parsimony and there is little evi- dence of rampant corruption by government officials. The second period saw unprece- dented corruption, mismanagement and extravagance on the part of some government officials and elected political leaders. Lack of evidence of corruption and abuse of office by holders in the first period can be attributed to Seretse’s leadership style, the country’s poverty at the time and the absence of an enquiring private media. On the other hand, Seretse’s demise seems to have coincided with a period of prosperity when the state coffers had become plunderable, hence corruption, extravagance and increased inequality. The acknowledgement of the existence of chronic and potentially crippling corruption and white-collar crime in Botswana prompted government to estab- lish the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime and the Office of the Ombudsman in the mid-1990s.
While elite corruption persists in Botswana, at a much reduced scale when compared to other African countries, a 2014 Afrobarometer survey demonstrated a sudden upsurge in Batswana’s perception of corruption in government. Eighty-one per cent of Batswana sur- veyed believed that ‘some’, ‘most’ or ‘all’ government officials were involved in corruption. The study, which was widely publicised in the private press, further noted that 77% of citizens perceived parliamentarians and councillors as involved in corruption, with 70% of the informants attributing corruption to the president and officials in the Office of the President.