President Ian Khama’s assumption of office in 2009 was characterised by the announcement of numerous D's: democracy, dignity, discipline and delivery. Discipline and delivery appeared to be Khama’s top priorities, with the regime promising to be the most productive so far. Yet services and delivery are approaching collapse.
The Khama revolution lacked religion and the fear of God, philosophy and human morality, and the desire to listen to other parties – a cornerstone of peacefully-ordered human behaviour. Batswana are accustomed to being consulted and allowed to debate, even on issues they may not understand. Even the most uninformed are given repeated chances to speak. Batswana believe that bad ideas create room for good ideas to emerge, and that restricted debate and government impositions prevent good ideas from emerging and gaining popularity. Tswana social values are against impositions of any sort and promote the diversity of opinions; dialogue is a central feature of the historical Tswana society. Yet now, there is no dialogue.
From crackdown to rebellion
The introduction of tough, imposed action on many fronts initially instilled fear – rather than discipline and productivity – within the public sector, members of the rival faction within the ruling party, the private media, religious circles, and academics and civil society. The presence of a heavily funded, new intelligence agency at the centre of the state heightened the fear that cell phones were no longer a safe mode of communication and that any mode of communication was no longer private.
The fear of telephone tapping even spread to ruling party MPs of the Barata-Phathi faction, alongside private journalists, lawyers, academics, trade unions and priests. Rumours that listening devices had been inserted in car-lock systems to record people’s conversations emerged. And in June 2011, new allegations started circulating that the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) had been paid a 26% wage increase, while the rest of the public service struggled to negotiate wage increases. These developments exist parallel to and outside the Tswana value systems of 'mmua lebe' (freedom of expression), which may encourage widespread rebellion against the system.
The manner in which people who disagreed with the Khama regime were excluded boiled into anger and then rebellion. Senior civil servants (about 19 in the space of six months), senior ruling party officers, army officers, and academics – such as Zimbabwean media studies lecturer, Ceasar Zvayi – who had lost favour with the regime were declared persona non-grata. Gomolemo Motswaledi, a senior ruling party functionary who had taken President Khama to court over differences over the running of the party, was suspended and his candidature recalled in a manner that bordered on the inhumane. All those who were retired or expelled after him were dispatched in a similar manner. Now they have joined forces with the striking workers to confront the Khama regime, spearheading a strike not seen in Botswana’s history.
Scholars such as Kenneth Good, now deported, and Ian Taylor have written about the rising authoritarianism in the Khama regime. Others have started writing about its entrenchment. They portray the Khama regime as imposing militaristic discipline in the society – intolerant to independent thought, brutal in its dealings with perceived opponents, and immoral in not seeing the human suffering that led up to and accompanies the strike. However, it seems that all these writers were only half right: they were correct in their descriptions of the actions of the Khama regime, but they got it wrong in the presence and determination of the forces of resistance against authoritarianism. While there is no doubt that the Khama regime seeks to entrench authoritarian rule, the forces of resistance are gathering pace to match it.
The politics of resistance
What started as a feared and potentially productive regime has turned out to be opposed and beleaguered. How did this reversal of fortunes happen? Initially, many mistakenly assumed that Botswana’s civil society is too weak and would not stand up to authoritarianism. The Khama regime also seemed to accept these assumptions. However, opposition to the authoritarianism of the regime has swelled within the ruling BDP itself, particularly in the Kanye Congress which elected an overwhelmingly Barata-Phathi Central Committee. This Central Committee sought to check Khama’s powers by questioning his perceived unilateralism and seeking legal opinions against him.
The private media and its organisations, such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Botswana), had already started their own campaign against the Media Act of 2008, refusing to participate in oversight structures set up by the government. The public sector unions started agitating, calling for the speedy implementation of the 2008 Public Service Act in order to prevent the forced retirement which the government had begun implementing against its employees.
The public service trade unions also started to openly identify with the Barata-Phathi faction and with other opposition parties, and became actively involved in the 2010 elections. Their posters of five men, including Vice President Merafhe, which were issued during the elections, highlighted those who they accused of being a danger to democracy. The entry of public sector trade unions into politics emboldened civil society organisations – such as the Botswana Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (BOCONGO), which had already opposed the creation of a larger intelligence organisation – and started organising breakfast talks on the ‘State of the Nation’ address.
By the time the Khama regime had won the 2009 general election, it was already facing serious ideological challenges. Its vision of Botswana, characterised by an entirely militarised state in which retired and serving soldiers controlled all the institutions of the state; a completely loyal citizenry whose private life was strictly controlled by the state and by traditional authorities; a public workforce that was sufficiently intimidated, obedient and weary of protests and demonstrations; and a religious community that praised the political leadership and participated in enforcing state-sponsored morality (rather than religious morality), was facing serious questions. The desire to challenge this vision of Botswana galvanised the resistance movement, which began calling for constitutional reforms.
Botswana runs a hybrid system, combining parliamentary and presidential elements. The question is should the hybrid be reformed in a parliamentary fashion or in a presidential fashion?
Reforming the Botswana hybrid system towards parliamentary democracy would make the executive more accountable to parliament. Currently, the Botswana Constitution regards the president as an MP. However, this parliamentary aspect has been corrupted through presidentially-oriented reforms that enabled the president to avoid having to answer questions, allowed him to miss parliament, and to choose his deputy as leader of the house for that purpose. This reform made the president more detached from parliament, to the extent that the he can go swimming or bike riding while parliament is sitting. If our intention is to strengthen parliamentary democracy, one demand of constitutional reform must be that the president be the leader of the house, and should face a 'question time', where he should be required to answer questions directly.
Our system of drawing the Cabinet from parliament is a parliamentary practice. It is meant to position the Cabinet as the first committee of parliament. If reforms are to be made here, the aim must be to make this intention more visible. An advocate of parliamentary democracy would prefer the president to have a constituency just like any other MP; President Seretse Khama had a constituency and was voted twice in that manner. If Cabinet ministers can play a double role of being minister and MP, so too can the president. If the president lost his constituency, then he could not become president, allowing parliament to directly elect the president.
In contrast, separating the president from parliament through presidential elections and drawing the Cabinet from outside parliament, as some reformers suggest, promotes presidentialism. Moreover, such separation has the potential to create a dictatorship unanswerable to parliament and the ruling party. It would need an elaborate system to contain dictatorial inclinations from any sitting president.
Automatic succession was a presidential-oriented reform that strengthened the executive. It made the president, with the connivance of parliament, the sole authority to determine his or her successor. When parliament approved President Mogae’s choice of vice-president in 2008, it knew that he was appointing his successor. Yet the Botswana parliament used to be the body that elected the successor if the incumbent failed to finish their term. For instance, when President Seretse Khama died in office, Vice-President Masire did not automatically take over. Parliament elected him, and not necessarily because he was the sitting vice-president.
The system was reformed around 1997, taking away from parliament the authority to fill a vacancy and authorising the president to choose his/her own successor. A parliamentary-oriented reform would abolish automatic succession, reinstate parliament’s right to vote for a presidential successor, and help improve parliamentary democracy.
Is Botswana facing a revolution?
At a workshop of the African Consortium on Human Rights in April 2011 in Gaborone, the question was raised as to whether protests in North Africa could spread to Southern Africa. Looking at Swaziland and Zimbabwe as the most likely candidates, the answer given was a categorical no. Southern Africa’s demographic differences from North Africa were stressed. Moreover, in North Africa there was a large educated population that was unemployed and idle, with the potential to sustain long protests. In contrast, Southern Africa possesses a huge peasant population that seems likely to remain docile and unlikely to join serious protests, let alone sustain them.
Following this argument, countries such as Botswana, South Africa and Uganda, with stable politics and growing economies, were not even considered as candidates for North Africa-style uprisings. Yet, on the last day of the workshop, protests started in Uganda. By May, they had started in Botswana. In both cases, it was not the unemployed population, but government employees and others that had started the protests. Analysts had not thought that the employed, and especially government employees, could start and sustain protests that could threaten the existence of sitting regimes. Another surprise was that protests occurred immediately after the elections in Uganda and a few months after the elections in Botswana. This suggests two things: firstly that successful protests can happen when they are least expected; and secondly, that successful protests can occur in ‘functional’ democracies, which are not immune from prolonged protests.
But why did strikes and protests occur in Botswana in the manner they did? Could they have been avoided? Ian Khama's ascendancy to the presidency and his tough actions sparked the resistance that initially divided the nation. The resistance movement at first operated in a fragmented manner, wherein elements of civil society participated in different capacities in the 2009 election. Trade unions took an active part in the elections, politically attacking some members of the ruling party. Other sectors of civil society organised an election observer network which operated in a number of constituencies, determined to protect the country’s democracy.
The politicisation of civil society continued, with teachers challenging the government over the marking of exams and working hours. In 2010, teachers went on a legal strike that almost paralysed the marking process, compelling the government to ask for non-teachers to assist. These activities dented government performance, giving the impression of a government that was poor at negotiating and poor at service delivery.
In 2011, public sector unions under the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSO) went on a nationwide legal strike that severely undercut government service provision. The public sector unions demanded a 16% wage increase, a figure that was deliberately high to provoke a government refusal. When the government offered a conditional 5% and later an unconditional 3%, the stage was set for a coordinated protest that ultimately called for the resignation of President Khama. Several fruitless negotiations had been held between the government and the unions, but an agreement was reached on June 12.
Initially, government schools were kept open even when no classes were taking place, allowing students to organise a parallel rebellion. Students organised many senior and junior secondary schools to go on strike, leading to riots in several villages such as Thamaga, Ramotswa, Molepolole, Mochudi and in the mining town of Selibe Phikwe. As a result, the Minister of Education and Skills Development announced the closure of all government primary and secondary schools. Nurses and doctors received letters of dismissal, prompting those on duty to join the strike and to bring more paralysis to the public sector institutions. Hospitals and clinics went without a lot of their staff, turning patients away and risking lives.
Khama’s disdain for dialogue fuelled the protests. His refusal to meet former presidents, priests, BDP back benchers, opposition leaders and unions, and his refusal to offer a reasonable salary package ot to reinstate dismissed workers and to re-consider the no-work-no-pay rule, has prolonged the strike and created enormous human suffering. Instead, he visited distant rural areas where he told them that the government had no money and was not going to make any salary adjustments to people who are living well. Towards the end of May 2011, Khama presented a speech to the High Level Consultative Forum, where he categorically stated that government debt, at 7 billion Pula ($1 billion), was too large and that he had no intention of worsening it with a 16% wage increase.
After the first month of the strike, the resistance movement started making more explicitly political demands. Isolated voices within the resistance movement started calling for Khama’s resignation or impeachment. Others within the resistance movement started suggesting that Khama was no longer fit to rule, and suggested that an inquiry be launched. Yet some say the unions must end the strike in the interest of greater society, fearing that Khama’s determination to win is so great that he would rather see the nation destroyed than give in. While the unions recently called off their strikes, not all of their staff have returned to work, suggesting a fragmented opposition.
Radicalising the resistance
The poverty of philosophy within the Khama regime is generating enormous resistance due to its exclusionary nature. Calls for the constitutional reforms that never materialised and the strike that lasted over a month are radicalising the resistance movement. These failures risk a full-blown rebellion against President Khama. Naked authoritarianism and a disdain for religion and dialogue will always face stiff resistance from a society that has lived in freedom for so long. Botswana could be entering a revolutionary moment.