Botswana: How Masisi outsmarted Khama to take the reins
Mokgweetsi Masisi’s decisive victory in the recent Botswana elections over a coalition backed by his former boss, Ian Khama, is the culmination of an astonishing 10 year political career.
Morphing from an obscure first-time MP in 2009 to a surprise vice presidential appointment in 2014, and then president in 2018, the man affectionately known as “Sisiboy” (a play on his surname) has wrested control of Botswana from the powerful Khama family. This he has achieved using tireless campaigning and “the rebirth of the Botswana Democratic Party” (BDP).
The Khama lineage has dominated Botswana’s politics since the 1870s, right through the modern presidencies of Sir Seretse Khama (1966-1980) and Ian Khama (2008-2018). But they are now a discredited, spent force with Ian Khama’s new party having won only 5% of the vote.
The prosecution of Khama’s security chief, Isaac Kgosi, and presidential secretary, Carter Morupisi, following his assumption of power in 2018, showed that Masisi was no longer willing to tolerate the widespread corruption that flourished under his predecessor. Investigators continue to uncover allegations of shocking malfeasance.
Masisi, 58, is on a mission to restore Botswana’s reputation as a beacon of clean governance on the continent, and is pouring resources and energy into that effort.
His ascent and success have surprised everybody. Even Khama admitted
I have come to realise that I have maybe misjudged him.
The early days
My own acquaintance with Masisi goes back to childhood, when we attended the same schools and played tennis at the same club. The last time I saw him was at a now defunct laundromat in northern Gaborone, in 1994. He was his usual friendly, well-mannered self, inquisitive and loquacious. Recently returned from completing his master’s degree in education at Florida State University, he was one of the co-owners of this faltering business.
Prior to going to Florida State, Masisi had worked on revamping Botswana’s social studies curriculum for its secondary schools, which he continued to do in the 1990s under the sponsorship of UNICEF. Knowing that the curriculum was a disaster (having no Botswana history at all and being full of outdated colonial and Bantu Education myths), I doubted he could make meaningful changes. Whether he ever did or not, his early career in pedagogy undoubtedly led him to confront government dysfunction head on.
Gaborone in the 1970s and 80s was a small, intimate place, and Masisi grew up there surrounded by the families of the Botswana bureaucratic and business elite. Despite this somewhat privileged milieu and education, nothing about him then suggested that he would go on to become such an influential national politician.
Although his father, Edison, was a senior cabinet member, Masisi did not display the charisma of a Sir Seretse Khama, the first president of independent Botswana. Neither did he show the technocratic brilliance of a Quett Masire, who succeeded Seretse Khama as president in 1980; nor the emotional oratory of a Daniel Kwelagobe, the BDP chairman. Although Masisi today compares favourably to any of these political legends, none of this seemed evident in his youth.
He has always been easy to underestimate. Although a prefect at Gaborone’s Thornhill and Maru A Pula private schools, he was not a standout personality. Strong in humanities rather than the sciences, he was a middling student. Similar things could be said about his teenage sports career, during which he never showed the same tenacity and killer instinct on the tennis court that he has shown in politics.
Masisi’s greatest moment in his young life was when, at 20, he was cast as the umfundisi (priest) in a 1983 Gaborone theatrical adaptation of Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country”. Playing a much older man with grey hair, a shuffling gait, and a quavering voice, Masisi turned in a powerful performance that brought him a standing ovation from Paton himself and President Masire.
While his acting career ended after a role in a highly forgettable straight-to-video feature, his portrayal of the priest nevertheless presaged key themes of his future political life.
After leaving UNICEF in 2003 Masisi entered politics, but failed to win his father’s old seat in Moshupa, the family home 41km northwest of Gaborone. He then endured a period of “failure, illness, unemployment, being seen as unfit for certain things, scorn and ridicule”. He relied on his newly-wed wife Neo’s salary for a time. He nevertheless persevered and built up a following, while also welcoming the birth of his daughter, Atsile.
Masisi managed to win the governing BDP’s primary and general election, landing in parliament in 2009. Within two years he was in the cabinet. In 2014, President Ian Khama, looking for an inexperienced and pliable deputy, appointed him vice-president.
Like the priest in Paton’s story who went to Johannesburg seeking his sister and son only to find a degraded and desperate situation, so Masisi found the central government and cabinet unrecognisable from the institutions that his late father had served so well in the past. With the BDP having been taken over by a coalition of Khama lackeys and “tenderpreneurs” – business people who enrich themselves, often dubiously, through government tenders – even the party’s founder, former President Masire, disowned it for lacking the values and discipline of the original.
Masisi’s role as vice-president was to serve as a short-term stopgap for Ian Khama’s Fredo-like brother, Tshekedi. His looming appointment as Khama’s successor was highly unpopular inside and outside the party.
Ever since 1998, the BDP has transferred power from the president to the vice-president a year before the next general election. Masire did this for Mogae in 1998, who then did the same thing for Ian Khama in 2008.
Outmanoeuvring the Khamas
It is clear that former President Khama (66), like many others, underestimated his young vice-president. Masisi took advice in secret late-night sessions with former presidents Masire and Mogae as well as other veterans who despised “the New BDP” that Khama led.
I was the most abused vice-president.
Once Khama handed power to Masisi in April 2018, “Sisiboy” moved quickly onto the attack, arresting the despised Isaac Kgosi and installing his own supporters in key positions. Once the Khama brothers defected to the opposition ahead of the 2019 election, they and their supporters were thoroughly outworked by Masisi’s relentless campaign organisation.
The full story of how the underling Masisi prosecuted his silent war with Khama is one we must wait for. Ultimately, it is his energetic campaigning and his desire to bring back the forgotten ethos and policies of the early BDP – of Seretse Khama and Masire – that won over the voters despite the defection of the Khamas.
Masisi now vows to reinvigorate Botswana’s stalled economy. In this regard his supporters expect him to show no less stamina than he did in the election.