Madibelathopho, a force or a nuisance?
“Ba nna dithopho tse le di bone. Gatwe go na le madibela thopho ba ipapanne”, (Guys beware of these elections, there’s a rowdy group known as madibela thopho).
This was a chilling warning by an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) member, when we went to collect accreditation at their Serowe office at 0730.
Prior to this I’d heard about this self-styled guardians of the electoral process from the opposition block, but I had never seen them in action, so I didn’t take the warning seriously.
By noon, I was convinced the warning was unwarranted. The situation on the ground was calm, voting at polling stations from Mmashoro to Dimajwe was progressing smoothly; at least from what I observed.
One thing that was clear from the banter around polling stations, makeshift restaurants and some drinking holes, Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) was running away with the byelections.
Another apparent thing was BPF members expected only one result; any other would not be acceptable, or else “Serowe o ka tuka'” like one gentleman succinctly put it (Serowe would burn).
To this day, I’m convinced that he meant it.
The coldness in his eyes, the clear anger and pain in his voice was enough to ignite a fire. This would turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the full orchestra later that evening.
It didn’t take long for the situation to change. What had been a smooth byelection had now turned into a volatile situation threatening both voters, media and police officers.
We arrived to simmering tensions at Lady Khama, and I experienced first hand the wrath of angry voters.
“Ba search. Ba a rekwa le bo ne batho bao,” (search their car, they are also used in rigging) was an instruction from a self appointed field marshal.
Our car was swarmed by angry looking voters. We were at the mercy of Madibelathopho.
“Ba searche ba The Voice e bile ba maaka,” (Search them, these liars,) was another chilling commandeering voice, as the well drilled troops rummaged through unsold Voice copies in the truck.
The search was complete in less than a minute, and we were allowed in. Madibela thopho were in charge, and they meant business.
The trigger, we were told on arrival at Lady Khama Polling Station that, members of Madibelathopho did not take kindly to the arrival of police officers in a mini bus.
“Ba bata eng. Search them?” (What do they want) bellowed Ratsie, a battle hardened no nonsense Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) foot soldier.
With that, the group shut the gate, leaving a confused group of police officers stranded on the other side of the polling station.
“Who the hell do you think you are to search me!” was a response from a high ranking police officer.
“Especially you! You are not allowed this side. Your juniors are already here observing elections. What do you want here? Go back to the office,” came the field marshal’s command.
It was at this point the police realised that Madibelathopho meant everything they said. With their boss being tossed around like that, it was time for a new strategy. Predictably the police called for reinforcements from the Special Support Group (SSG) who quickly arrived in armored vehicles.
They had their work cut out for them. Madibelathopho stood their ground, and without blinking told the SSG that their armoured vehicles would not be allowed inside the polling station unless they are searched.
“There’s no war. This is a byelection, why are you here,” was a question asked repeatedly by some members of the group.
In my time as a reporter, I’ve never seen the SSG being pushed back, and denied entry.
This is exactly what happened in Serowe. The SSG had to retreat and stay guard outside the polling station.
Madibelathopho looked like a well drilled guard group that expertly used intimidating tactics to beat both the IEC staff, police and media into submission.
To their credit, they also seem to know what they were doing, and that they were within the confines of the law. They behaved like graduates from the teachings of a political master. These were no ordinary opposition cadres, the group was on a mission, and they were well drilled and seem to know their political rights. Credit should go to the police for not using any force, sometimes the best way is to retreat, and let sanity prevail.
However as everything unfolded before my eyes I couldn’t stop but think, Botswana’s elections will never be the same again. Here comes a radicalised voter.