Making a mark in Botswana
On the surface, Botswana’s election brought little in the way of change, with the ruling party continuing its five-decade grip on power. But political wrangling may have left an indelible mark on the country
Shortly after his Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was declared the overwhelming winner of the October 23 election, President Mokgweetsi Masisi told journalists: "Botswana is still Botswana, and Batswana are still Batswana."
It was an important point to underscore, he said, given suggestions "that we may have changed".
It’s true that some things haven’t changed: the BDP remains in power, which it has held, uninterrupted, for more than five decades. But the unprecedented political wranglings ahead of the polls may have changed SA’s diamond-rich neighbour forever.
For now, radical policy shifts are unlikely, says political commentator and columnist Ndulamo Anthony Morima. But Masisi "is open to the idea" of changing the law to bring more transparency to the funding of political parties and to provide for more tribal representation in the Ntlo Ya Dikgosi (House of Chiefs).
That would result in some change, says Morima — but, if he fails to deliver, "everything will remain the same".
Outside of government, the hostility between former president Ian Khama and his successor dominated news in the run-up to the election — and that’s unlikely to dissipate soon.
The tensions were such that Khama left the party founded by his father, Seretse Khama, to join the new Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF).
Three months ago, Khama and BPF leader Biggie Butale said they would go "into exile", should the BDP win. But it’s more likely they will stay to fight on.
The opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), which was in a coalition with the BPF, has questioned the integrity of the election and hinted it is preparing for a legal battle.
"There were glaring discrepancies and irregularities that, in our considered view, have brought about fraudulent results and [that] we find ourselves at pains to accept as true, correct and fair," the party said.
Despite a well-funded opposition campaign, Butale and UDC leader Duma Boko failed to secure their constituencies. The UDC lost two seats, winning only 15 of 57, while the BPF won just three.
The ruling BDP gained a seat to secure 38, making it the winner in the first-past-the-post constituency system. But it did so with only 48.7% of the popular vote.
Presidential succession has been smooth since Botswana attained independence in 1966. Ketumile Masire stepped down in 1998 after 18 years as head of state, because the new constitution limited the president’s tenure to two five-year terms.
His timing meant each of the last three presidents relinquished power 18 months before elections — allowing a handover of the presidency within the party, which worked in the BDP’s favour.
Last week, for the first time, the BDP made a clean sweep in Gaborone and surrounds. This could be because Masisi grew up there, but it’s also attributed to his reforms and a shunning of Khama’s legacy.
Masisi has relaxed restrictions on alcohol consumption, improved the strained relations between the government and the civil servants’ trade unions and the media, lifted the ban on elephant hunting and ensured that the Declaration of Assets & Liabilities Bill, aimed at countering corruption, was passed.
"Some are saying the former president thought the current president would be his stooge and do what he wants, but the current president defied him and wanted to set his own track record," Morima says.
He adds that the BDP largely retained support in the rural areas, where many are reliant on government social programmes and welfare benefits.
The opposition hasn’t been helped by divisions in its ranks — though it did manage to win Khama’s Serowe constituency from the BDP (following the advice of its paramount chief, Khama himself).
Foreign interference was also an issue ahead of the polls, with SA tycoon Zunaid Moti funding the opposition, and businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe apparently backing Khama. (She is the sister of Patrice Motsepe and sister-in-law to President Cyril Ramaphosa.)
Morima believes these issues were dealt with earlier this year, when Ramaphosa sent former international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu to smooth things over. However, the SA government seemed to be in no great rush to congratulate Masisi, releasing a statement of congratulations only on Monday night. (The official results were announced on Friday.)
Political analyst Xolani Dube, of the Xubera Institute of Research & Development, says SA should renew relations with Masisi "and accord him the status he deserves as president".
"[He] has changed a lot … he sees himself as the future," Dube says, adding that Masisi may govern more firmly now that he is no longer in Khama’s shadow.
But Masisi will have to effect other changes too. Unemployment, for example, has been static over the past 18 months, at about 18%.
On Saturday he announced plans to allow citizen-owned companies "to access the resources of procurement from government". He also promised that the government will be "shrewder in capacitating small business" and that education and training would be strengthened.
Ultimately, it is improved lives rather than power wrangles that will count in Masisi’s favour come the next election, in 2024.
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