On April 1st, 1998 the winds of change blew peacefully through the country as Festus Gontebanye Mogae ascended to the highest office in the land, becoming the third President of Botswana.
Over the course of the next ten years, the wily economist would oversee the nation’s transformation from a country ravaged by the HIV/AIDS pandemic into one of the success stories of Africa.
Amongst his many accolades, Mogae, who was the first Motswana to graduate from the prestigious university college of Oxford, was awarded the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in 2008, which came with a hefty annual prize of US$200,000 (P2 million) for life.
Although he turns 80 in August, Mogae’s sharp wit and searing intellect continues to burn bright.
In this no-holds barred interview with The Voice’s SHARON MATHALA, the former President opens up on the current political mayhem surrounding the ruling party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), as well as the much publicized fall out between his successor President Ian Khama and President Mokgweetsi Masisi.
Q. We are entering an election year – Botswana’s 12th. Do you believe the country will maintain its reputation of having free and fair elections?
A. I hope so and I believe the Government of Masisi will be fair. But you know free and fair is the conduct of the election, it is the responsibility of the election officers under the control of the Government.
It is for the Government to do the right thing.
Q. Speaking of President Masisi, His Excellency is on the verge of completing a year in office. In that time, he has made a number of significant changes to his administration – your thoughts on these changes?
A. Rightfully so. For instance, ministerial positions are not anybody’s inheritance.
Ministers are shuffled from time to time.
I did it; any President is entitled to.
Ian Khama himself made changes to what I had done.
He is entitled to do that as President.
I am in full support of Masisi in changing what he does not agree with.
We are going to judge him for what he does and doesn’t do, what he likes and what he doesn’t like.
Q. You were part of the task team sent to mediate between former President Ian Khama and President Masisi. Did you manage to achieve your goal? Can you tell us what happened?
A. No we were not able to.
We made some recommendations that former President Khama did not accept.
We recommended amongst other things that they should speak to each other.
They told us that it depends on the other, meaning that otherwise they are willing to talk but it never happened.
So our mission was disbanded.
Q. What sort of recommendations did you make?
A. One specific one was that President Ian Khama wanted to maintain his charity dealings, that is why the whole issue with his means of travel came up.
But we told him that was a Presidential initiative and it did not belong to one person and that if he wants to continue with his charitable work he would have to call it Khama Foundation or something.
It cannot be his and be called a national project because he created it as a President using public resources, the initiative therefore must remain with the Presidency!
Q. There is talk of factions developing within the BDP. Indeed there are reports of a ‘New Jerusalem’ faction allegedly created with the sole purpose of toppling Masisi. What do you think the BDP should do to avoid further divisions as we go into the general elections?
A. Factions are unavoidable under the present circumstances. Factions are not new.
Even during my time there were two major factions, strong factions for that matter.
I was caught in between because I had to choose someone who was acceptable to both factions least I be seen as favoring t one faction over the other.
That’s why I approached Ian, he was supposed to be the unifying factor!
Q. And was he? Do you regret approaching him?
A. Yes. Yes I regret it.
I appointed him to unite the party and the nation.
I thought he was like his father; it turned out he was not!
Q. Did you know him prior to appointing him? Not just as Sir Seretse Khama’s son but in a personal capacity?
A. No I did not, I just knew him from a distance.
We are different generations; he was a very young man.
Even when I was working closely with his father, I never really interacted with him that much.
Q. Do you feel Ian’s apparent desire to actively participate in the dealings of his party, is causing divisions within the BDP?
A. It is inappropriate, certainly.
He is continuing to do what he did when he was my Vice President, being a divisive factor instead of a unifying factor.
His father was a symbol of unity and when the party was divided in my time I tried to unite it by bringing him in.
He was acceptable to both factions at the time.
Q. Do you think President Masisi will be able to bring the party together?
A. Yes, I think he will in the end.
He is sensible enough.
I think he realises that it is the duty of every President to bring the country together so it can focus on development.
Q. Some argue that these division show that the BDP has run its course.
A. Maybe yes, maybe not.
It depends what else the BDP will do.
Our democracy will finally be authenticated when the President of Botswana does not come from the BDP or from ‘Ga Mmangwato’ because they will be a change of Government.
There are factions from time to time but after a while we put them aside and focus on the development of the country.
We as the BDP, if we continue to be divided, the easier it will be for us to be defeated!
Q. If you were to advise President Masisi on one thing, looking at what has been happening, what would that be?
A. I would say he should continue doing what he is doing.
We have elections coing up, he should keep his eye on the ball.
When people discredit him he should hit back.
Q. There is a pending declaration of assets bill, what is your stance on it?
A. That is a genuine anti corruption move of major proportions.
Because you can say we will fight corruption and speak against it, speaking against it is good yes but you need something tangible, and I think the declaration of assets is something tangible.
Q. Speaking of assets, you are one of the major investors with leading retail store Choppies. Late last year, Choppies was involved in major scandals both here and in Zimbabwe – from your end, can you tell us what happened?
A. My partners met up with the son of the former Zimbabwean Ambassador and they had him introduce them to their country.
The Mphoko’s had no money so these people gave them a free ride, that Choppies will come into Zimbabwe and that the Mphoko’s will hold 7% of the dividends.
When I joined them and I found that out, I took those papers and I went to Mugabe to tell him that this has happened.
I reported to my partners what I had done and told them to regularize the situation but they did not.
Q. Choppies is a huge institution yet it exploit its employees, paying them very little – your thoughts?
A. Yes I agree and it is up to the unions. I agree with you.
Q. What are your views on the minimum wage debate?
A. Minimum wages have good intentions but they always have pros and cons.
Sometimes it can be unrealistically high and kill other weaker industries.
So more profitable industries can afford them.
The principle of minimum wage is right but it is tricky.
Q. On a lighter note, how do you keep busy these days?
A. I travel well, not at Government expense.
I am a member of a number of foundations and I spend a lot of time flying all over the world.
I travel irst class and business class but even if I were to travel tourism I would still do it because I like travelling and meeting people.
Q. There was a time you had a health scare, what happened?
A. I had attended a forum in West Africa when I started experiencing pain in my leg.
I went to hospital and was given medication.
When I came back to Botswana the pains got so severe that I had to go to hospital in South Africa where they realised after scans that some discs on my back had shifted and were pressing on my sciatica nerve but they said with phisio therapy It would get better but it did not so I had surgeryt, that is why you see me walking around with a stick.