Malema, the ANC and Botswana

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi analyses the reasons for the fraught relationship between SA and its neighbour

In his article entitled "Yes - he is infected tissue on the body of the ANC" (The Star January 23) Jabulani Sikhakhane, the Independent Newspapers's Political Editor, characterises Julius Malema as "an ANC tonsil". Enchanted and emboldened by the "tonsil analogy" used by his yet again anonymous "a Member of the ANC national executive commiittee", Jabulani writes:

"Tonsils, the two lumps of tissue in the back of the throat, are part of one's immune system, serving a very useful purpose in the human body. But they can cause more problems than they solve. This is when they are infected by a virus or a bacteria, causing a sore throat, pain and difficulty in swallowing, fever and headache."

And what is the remedy that Jabulani Sikhakhane recommends?

"If tonsillitis is your regular visitor; doctors suggest that you have tonsils removed, a surgical procedure that dates to ancient Rome. You do not need tonsils. The same can be said of Malema."

Because Sikhakhane is neither a medical doctor nor a seasoned ANC politician he gets his analogy, the symptoms of the disease he seeks to diagnose, and the surgical procedure necessary to deal with the ailment horribly wrong, although his analogy remains very entertaining and lurid.

Mr Sikhakhane, with all due respect, Julius Malema is not "an ANC tonsil". Far from it. He is the ANC brain tumour that has rapidly spread to attack all the ANC brain cells. 

A little homework for you Jabulani: What surgical operation would you recommend the ANC carry out to then deal with this very central and strategic "infected tissue on the body of the ANC", i.e. the brain tumour?

But you might have been absolutely right if you had had the foresight and insight to reserve your fascinating analogy to our neighbouring country of Botswana, in terms of its place in SA's foreign policy. In such a case, there could hardly have been a more apt analogy.

Consider the following for a second: Of all the 194 countries of the world, 54 African countries, of all the SADC countries, and all the 6 countries with which SA shares a contiguous border, Botswana is the only one that has gotten deeply enmeshed in this year's ANC succession and factional battles, and thus has become our premier foreign policy issue cum a pressing domestic and ANC intra party-political issue.

This unenviable position of Botswana in our national affairs was occasioned by the ANCYL's call for - what elements in the ruling ANC self-consciously chose to describe as - an effort at "regime change" in Botswana by the ANCYL and Julius Malema.

The ANCYL's call for "regime change" in Botswana constituted part of the disciplinary charges that the ANC's Top Six proffered against Julius Malema and five of his top lieutenants at the ANCYL.

One can safely assume that the Botswana President and his Cabinet, as well as their strategic security planners, are following the unfolding and bitter intra-party ANC succession and factional battles with huge and abiding interest.

What is not clear though is whether the Botswana Government is actively rooting for a particular side in the internal ANC fights this ANC Centenary year. But the outcome of the December 2012 ANC Centenary elective conference in Mangaung has potentially dire security implications for Botswana, depending on which ANC faction emerges triumphant.

Botswana will be ill-advised if it treated this national security challenges arising out of developments South of the border with complacency and indifference.

How rapidly Botswana's security environment could deteriorate is pure conjure at the moment. But how did the state of the current Botswana-South Africa bilateral relationship come to this pass? After all, Botswana is arguably Africa's oldest, most stable, most peaceful and most tested democracy. 

What is even more puzzling is that not even the Kingdom of Swaziland, an absolute monarchy, nor for that matter Zimbabwe, that much troubled neighbour to our north, has won the dubious distinction of becoming a major foreign policy issue in this year's internal ANC succession and factional fights.

So how does it come that powerful stakeholders in two of Africa's most stable and prosperous democracies talk pass each other so much, or so gravely suspect each other's motives? Is it really that true and ineluctable any more that two democracies never gone to war?

Answers to some of these questions are hidden in the mist of our two countries' history, but also under the layers of fog of how our two countries conduct their respective foreign policies, and the signals such conduct of foreign policy by either country sends out to the other country.

Even long before its formal independence, and the discovery of huge mineral deposits underneath its land, Botswana had always occupied a special place in the imagination of all the races and ethnic groups that would later constitute South Africa.

In his great novel, "Mhudi", the ANC's first Secretary General, Sol Plaatjie describes the effects of the Mfecane of the 1830s on the Bechuanas, He tells a gripping tale of how the Matebeles conquered Bechuanaland, "driving terror into man and beast with whom they came into contact". To the conquered Bechuanas, "Matebele seem to be fiercer than beasts of prey", so says Mhudi to Ra-Thaga, the two main characters in this novel.

Again in his classic, "The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje: an African at Mafeking", the first ANC Secretary General gives a heart-breaking and detailed account of the effects of what Franz Fanon once described as a "dissolute praxis", i.e. the resort to maximum force and violence during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1903), to attain colonial objectives. The siege of Mafeking had devastating consequences on the psyche of Bechuanas, who were for the first time exposed to unrestrained large-scale violence of a modern conventional warfare.

Later in the 1940s and 1950s Bechuanaland was again caught in the cross-hairs, when South Africa's racist and apartheid rulers bitterly opposed Seretse Kgama's marriage to Ruth, the English lady, and put tremendous pressure on successive UK Colonial Secretaries - themselves no starry-eyed supporters of multi-racial marriages -  to deny Seretse Khama his right to assume the chieftaincy of Bechuanaland's Bangwato, if he went ahead with the marriage. 

In their biography, "Ruth and Seretse", Wilf and Trish Mbanga tell how Tshekedi and other opponents of Seretse Khama opposed Seretse's marriage to Ruth, because "they could not accept a white Queen because that would mean that the kgosi would be Coloured - and that would be totally unacceptable". (Page 120). That was the sort of egregious canard the white supremacist and apartheid rulers of the Union of South Africa liked to peddle around at the time.

The relationship between RSA and Bechuanaland remained fraught following the banning of the ANC and the PAC in 1960, as black South Africans began to flood into Bechuanaland on their way into exile in other independent African countries, following a wave of African post-colonial independence.

The frightening and fraught mood in Bechuanaland in the early 1960s for new arriving SA political exiles, was highlighted by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob in her book, "The Nelson Mandela Story", thus:

"In her book The World that was Ours, Hilda Bernstein described the menacing atmosphere in Lobatse and wrote in harrowing detail about the dangerous encounters she and her husband Rusty had there when they escaped from South Africa after the Rivonia Trial. Mandela's anxiety was well founded. He had barely arrived on 12 January or (sic) the British High Commission reported to London that he was there - and even that he had approximately £600 in his possession." (Page 144).

It nevertheless seems things did not improve much for Botswana after it gained independence in the mid 1960s, neither between Botswana and the exiled ANC, then pursuing armed struggle against Pretoria, nor between Botswana and the racist apartheid regime, which suspected Botswana of being sympathetic to, and soft on, exiled cadres of SA liberation movements, which were using newly independent Botswana as a transit state.

In his acclaimed, and much celebrated, autobiography, "Very Brave or Very Foolish? - Memoirs of an African Democrat" (2006), Botswana's former President Quett Ketumile Joni Masire - who served Sir Seretse Khama as Deputy President after Botswana gained independence - makes the following startling and truly remarkable  revelation about a confrontation between himself and former exiled ANC President, OR Tambo:

"Oliver Tambo was a real statesman as the leader of the ANC. We had a problem only once, when he was overly aggressive at a 1975 meeting in Mauritius and threatened us with military retaliation unless we cooperated more fully. (I remember the meeting very well, since that was when the hijacked Israeli plane was being held at the Entebbe airport, and Idi Amin told us he had to rush back to help settle things. The next day the Israelis came to Entebbe and definitely settled them). Mr Tambo said we were not allowing their people to go through Botswana because we were afraid of the South African government, and if we only were listening to those we feared, then the ANC, too, could instil fear in us. They could send people who could cause havoc in Botswana. But he settled down, and both before and after we had very good relations." (Ibid, pages 271-272)

Firstly, assuming Quett Masire's account of this incident is correct, and since there is no known alternative OR Tambo or exiled ANC version to the contrary, it is clear that Julius Malema is not the first major ANC leader to threaten Botswana with dire consequences. Masire's statement also means that like Malema did recently, OR Tambo viewed independent Botswana in 1975 as having aligned itself with very dangerous forces that were inimical to the core interests, values and mission of the ANC.

But Botswana's rib cage was being pummelled harder from its right side as well from the moment it gained formal independence. Masire writes the following about the enormous, unrelenting and even totally destructive pressure and brute power which successive apartheid governments brought to bear on Botswana from the moment it gained independence:

"In fact, there had been pressures on us from day one. South African journalists had once come to interview us about joining South Africa. The South African government talked of how there could be a greater Tswana nation if we were to unite with Bophuthatswana. After it became clear we would not accept incorporation into South Africa, they would tell us how secure we could be if we were to tie our security to South Africa in an agreement of "non-aggression" such as Nkomati Accord. Though it peaked like heartbeat at times, the pressure to do their bidding was constantly on us." (Page 270, Ibid).

And finally, the apartheid regime's strained patience with Botswana snapped violently and destructively. This is how Masire puts it in his book;

"South Africa ultimately made two vicious raids on Gaborone to send a message about the consequences of not cooperating. These overt attacks by the South African Defence Force took place on 14 June 1985 and 19 May 1986. They killed a number of people and destroyed alleged ANC houses in Gaborone...The last and most direct approach came when P. W. Botha was still president. He sent Mr Van Heerden, his director-general for foreign affairs, to tell me: "To the line or else"." (Pages 270-271, Ibid).

And what has been the nature and texture of post-apartheid SA-Botswana relationship?

The apotheosis of this relationship was achieved under President Nelson Mandela, when South Africa and Botswana collaborated to restore democracy in Lesotho in the mid-1990s, But the relationship has clearly failed to achieve the diplomatic idyll that was promised to Quett Masire before the end of apartheid by Thabo Mbeki, then ANC's Secretary for International Relations, whom Masire described as "...foreign affairs man...very articulate and skilful".

Masire says of him and Mbeki: "One time in Addis, we spent half the night talking about southern Africa. He said that it was not only South Africa itself that was being ruined by the policies of the National Party, but other countries in the region as well. When South Africa was liberated, it would be good not just for their people but for the whole region. Further, reconstruction and restitution for the effects of apartheid should be directed to all of southern Africa - all positions we had long espoused." (Page 271, Ibid).

It is clear that this zenith in SA-Botswana relationship, as articulated to Masire by Mbeki in their Addis chat, has not materialised. Far from it. If anything, after the Nelson Mandela Presidency, the SA-Botswana relationship has hit a number of humps on the road, and sometimes has been bedevilled by acute strategic differences and miscommunication. 

These include;

- Initial sharp differences between the two neighbours on how to handle the Zimbabwean crisis from 2000, with Botswana for long taking a hard line against Robert Mugabe's rule, and ostensibly siding with opposition MDC.

- Sharp differences between the two neighbours on the reform of SACU revenue sharing formula.

- Sharp differences in the two neighbours' approaches to the EU's ACP reform and attendant EDCs.

- Sharp differences between the two neighbours on the ICC's handling of some of the African cases, e.g. Sudanese President Al Bashir.

- Lately, and probably most embarrassingly, Botswana's whimsical and pre-emptive decision to support the West's regime change in Libya, and to prematurely confer diplomatic recognition on Libya's NTC.

- And now the two close neighbours contradictory stance on the unfolding tragic events in Syria.

The ANCYL and Julius Malema's call for "regime change" in Botswana recently plunged the bilateral relationship to its lowest nadir since the end of apartheid.

How do two African neighbouring democracies see the world so differently? How can two friendly and very close neighbours stake out so divergent positions on the international scene? What may end up, long term, becoming the unintended consequence, and very unpleasant result, of these growing sore pimples on the face of SA-Botswana diplomatic relationship? Have the sore pimples in this bilateral relationship cumulatively morphed to cause Botswana to become a sore tonsil for South Africa's diplomacy?

Is there a farsighted diplomatic leader in either neighbouring country, who can "reset" the entire SA-Botswana bilateral relationship, so that this relationship does not again in the future become hostage to future ruling ANC succession battles and factional fights, as seems the case this year?

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director of the Center of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA). He is also a businessman and former diplomat.

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