Earnest rise to the top

Former TV man eyes political office

At the height of the infamous industrial strike in 2011, Ernest Phiri, a newsreader and Editor at Botswana Television attracted the wrath of civil servants and their sympathisers.

His ‘tlholang le bereka ka mashetla’ tagline did not sit well with the angry civil service

The newsreader was labeled a sycophant and a sellout for the manner in which he covered the workers’ strike and his refusal to join his colleagues in the trenches.

Seven years later Phiri has risen through the ranks and has changed jobs several times until he landed at Morupule Coal Mine as Head of Communications.

Asked about his time at BTV, Phiri says he was doing his job to the best of his ability and given a chance he’d do it again.

In this interview, the Palapye born Phiri sheds light on his rise in the civil service and his political ambitions.

Q. You were once a popular figure on Botswana television. Kindly take us through your journey at the national broadcaster.

A. I started as a freelancer in 2004 presenting a sports prgramme called ‘Tshamekang’.

At the time I was a Commerce teacher at St Joseph Senior School. I eventually became a full-time employee in 2006 after the World Cup in Germany, which I also presented.

I rose through the ranks within the station becoming a photojournalist, news reporter and later elevated to the position of editor, producer and anchor.

I was at the station until 2012 and then left.

Q. Why did you leave the station?

A. I sent in a request to go into something different.

I was then appointed Assistant District Commissioner in Lobatse in 2013.

Q. What would you say was the most memorable day during your Btv days?

A. I went to cover President Khama at a SADC meeting in Namibia.

Remember most of the Btv staff was on strike so I doubled up as an editor and a reporter.

At the end of the meeting, just before the President boarded his plane he turned back and walked towards and said thank you to my face.

I didn’t expect that, but later when I reflected on it I realised that the president was happy that there was someone on duty to cover his international trip.

Q.What influenced your ‘bereka ka mashetla’ (work hard) tagline at a time the civil service was on strike?

A. I wanted to motivate the workforce.

My belief is that workers should never disrupt the civil service by abandoning their responsibilities.

There’s always a better way to get employer’s attention, we should always think about the people we serve, they come first.

The president appealed to us to stay in the offices and serve the public and I heeded his call, I chose to work even though I was a union member in good standing.

I know people were not happy, some even claimed I sounded excited when announcing the expulsion of nurses and other essential staff that went on strike.

I’ll never celebrate anybody’s downfall, if my tone changed that evening; know that I was just doing my job to the best of my ability.

Q. You also didn’t stay that long in Lobatse.

A. Yes, in 2014 I applied to become Private Secretary to Assistant Minister of Investment and Trade Sadique Kebonang.

I believed I was suitable for the job because I had been in the civil service for quite sometime.

I joined him at the start of 2015 and at the beginning of 2016 I applied for the Chief Public Relations Officer post in the same ministry.

So I ended up heading the Public Relations in that ministry for a couple of months.

Q. This was indeed a remarkable rise to the top. Later you were back in the District Commissioner’s office in Palapye. How did that happen?

A. Yes like every civil servant my elevation was based solely on performance.

I was deployed to Palapye as Deputy District Commissioner, and that was also based on my sterling performance.

Q. What exactly did you do as Deputy DC?

A. Well, first my job was to assist the District Commissioner.

In Palapye I was overseeing 27 villages.

There were two programmes that I made it a personal mission to ensure their success.

These were projects under ESP and Poverty Eradication.

I never delegated when it came to these two because I enjoyed serving people and witnessing real change impacting lives of ordinary people.

Q. Why then did you leave the civil service to join the mining industry?

A. It was purely for purposes of growth and I have to say the knowledge I’m gaining from Morupule mine is immense.

I needed a new environment and I saw an advert in one of the local newspapers advertising a PR post at Morupule Coal mine.

I applied and was called for an interview.

In any case the mine is wholly owned by government so never say never, one day you may see my face on Btv, but at this moment I’m very happy at Morupule Coal Mine.

Q. What is your mandate at MCM?

A. I head communications and I’m the mines’s spokesperson.

My task is to promote the MCM brand and deal with both internal and external communication.

I also do stakeholder engagements.

These include Corporate Social Investment, which is one of the things that make this job exciting and worthwhile.

Q. Recently your name has been touted as one of the people interested in political office. Your comment?

A. I have an appetite for politics that has never been a secret.

But at the moment I’m in a position to say where and when I’ll put up my name for possible consideration.

We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

All that you need to know is that I come from a family of Botswana Democratic Party supporters and I’m a BDP card-carrying member?

Q. Could your rise to the top have anything to do with allegiance to the ruling party?

A. Not a chance. When I was a civil servant I did not serve along party lines.

I’ve been in government for 14 years and have never seen anyone being discriminated against for belonging to a different political party.

Q. You are also counted amongst the country’s eligible bachelors. Is there anyone special in your life?

A. There’s someone in my life.

Q. Any plans to get married?

A. Getting married is also in the pipeline.

Q. Besides responding to questionnaires and promoting the MCM brand what else do you do during your spare time?

A. I always find time to cycle.

We have a cycling club here in Palapye.

If I’m not on my bike I also engage in social football on Sundays.

One thing that I do regularly is reading.

I never miss a single copy of local newspapers.

I also watch Btv news and ENCA everyday, these are my two favourite television channels.

Q. ThankGod it’s Friday. What do you have planned for the weekend?

A. I’ll probably be indoors. If not I’ll check on my family and maybe catch up with a few of my friends.

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