Khama’s presidency has been a phenomenon. There has never been anything like it and it is doubtful anything quite like it will ever come again; at least not with the audacity, sheer dominance, expansiveness, self-confidence and, ultimately, such express impunity. By the end of his decade-long tenure, now 12 months away, President Khama would have ransacked his way through the body politic and overseen an unprecedented shifting of public assets into private hands through a sophisticated system of denationalization, if everything goes according to plan. He would also have extended the role of the presidency over the judiciary and parliament, decimated one of Africa’s longest ruling parties and demobilized an economy that should have otherwise thrived.
But Khama’s decisions make no sense until one understands the psychology and the self-identity of the man as well as the society that raised him as a boy and how it aided and abetted his choices as a leader. Arrogant, entitled, Eurocentric and Afro-skeptic, Ian Khama is both a product, and indeed a victim, of our colonial, racist, tribalist, feudal and classist history.
His formative stages having to constantly shift from the identity of a Mongwato prince and glamorous half-white boy among Bangwato children, to a reject of the purveyors of white racial purity seen tainted by his African side created a child who, confused, would grow into an adult with a yearning for Eurocentric acceptance and camaraderie. Ultimately he became a leader and a national leader with an overreliance on white ability while rejecting African expertise and counsel the way a king would reject his misguided subjects.
THE SEARCH FOR MOHUMAGADI
Khama loves jokes. Those close to him say he enjoys friendly banter, perhaps a legacy of his British upbringing and to some extent a legacy of a Setswana culture whose humour is loaded with self-deprecation. Ever a psychoanalyst’s gift, it is through that dark humour, that the inner Khama emerges. It is when he is telling those jokes, mocking his buddies, being mocked by those given such hallowed rights but careful enough to exercise them correctly that Khama reveals his psychological story. He may tell jokes but often in Khama’s humour, you may laugh with him but it always at yourself.
Take the infamous Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Women’s Wing saga where in 2010 in Mahalapye, Khama extolled the virtues of a “tall and slender” woman. The matter of Khama’s serial bachelorhood had been raised during the recital of a praise poem for him by party elder and veteran, a Mokhurutshe and Sir Seretse Khama’s right hand man, Kebatlamang Morake. It is instructive to understand the power relations between Khama and Morake; the latter would be instinctively aware of these power dynamics. Experts of African poetry say that in feudal Africa, there were a few opportunities for subjects to criticise their rulers openly- but poetry was a viable avenue. Morake on the face of it is Khama’s elder, having been a contemporary of Khama’s father but ultimately, he is his junior on many levels even his subject on a purely tribal level. Morake would know this, hence his choice of medium. Of course, Khama is also Morake’s senior within the party being its president and that of the country. Veteran Mmegi reporter Ryder Gabathuse chronicles this episode in beautiful detail. According to his report, an outpouring of condemnation ensues about Khama’s bachelorhood. The late Mompati Merafhe who was one of the people with a close relationship with Khama, and Kwelagobe- himself a party doyen at the time- add their views in jest, ‘complaining’ about the same issue.
Khama is a butt of jokes but not for long, he retorts “For your information, I want a woman who is tall, slim and good looking”. And then he turns to the woman who is often a butt of his jokes, Botlhogile Tshireletso. “Ga ke battle yoo tshwanang le yo. Yo o ka palelwa ke go feta fa kgorong ya ntlo, a thuba di-furniture ka bokima a bo a roba di shock absorber tsa dikoloi (I don’t want one like this one. She may fail to pass through the door, breaking furniture with her heavy weight and even break the vehicles’ shock absorbers)” he says to roaring laughter. Cape Town based British journalist Aislinn Laing (formerly Simpson) narrating this story in the British publication The Telegraph, describes Mma Tshireletso as “corpulent”. Just to be clear about the power relations, Khama adds “”You are guilty of ridiculing the President. The best that you should do is to go all out and look for the woman that you prefer for me as I hardly have time to hunt for a woman who will become my wife”.
BDP Women’s Wing chairperson and a member of the party’s central committee, Angelinah Sengalo reportedly complains that the hunt for Khama’s wife-to-be could not be left in the hands of men. Sengalo has an idea, the type of woman Khama would be attracted to would be Emma Wareus, herself of bi-racial descent. “As the party’s Women’s Wing, we shall immediately play a leading role in taking Emma Wareus on board as our choice for First Lady. There’s just no way that our male counterparts could be allowed any free role in the hunt for Khama’s choice,” she elaborates.
The entire hall of the BDP Women Wing, one of Africa’s longest ruling parties, roars in laughter. It is all jokes of course but the joke is not on Khama. After all it is Black African women like Tshireletso who the infrastructure of a racist beauty definition has victimized as in the painful experiences of figures throughout history from South African Sarah Baartman in 19th century Europe to the American tennis living legend Serena Williams in the 21st century.
A Mongwato male of royal blood, Kgosi nor less, and son of the first president, Khama in this instance was enjoying the benefits of a sexist, racist and tribalist system which has sustained the society from which he earned limitless benefits.
Being Khama was not easy though, one moment you are the adored half-white child (called – Lekhalathe), a prince and heir to the throne of one of the country’s main tribes and the next you are nothing but an abomination to British racial purity.
Khama did not and still does not possess the intellectual rigour to interrogate what is happening to him and indeed what he is doing to others. Obama in his book “Dreams From My Father”, attempts to tussle with his own bi-racial background and in some way, chart his own place in a complex world in which race is a major dynamic.
RACISM IN 50S BRITAIN
Khama was born in 1953 in what was then still racist England. In his family background his maternal grandfather George Williams was prejudiced against Seretse Khama, more virulently when he met and married Ruth and more understatedly when they came back from what was then Bechuanaland.
Born at this tumultuous stage, Ian Khama’s name would also reflect not just his background but perhaps these multiple agendas laying claim on him. “The boy was named ‘Seretse’ after his father, ‘Ian’, as a name from the Williams family which also had the virtue of being Scottish and ‘Khama’ after his grandfather” however, “the last name was added as another first name, at the specific request of Bangwato elders who cabled from Serowe,” explain Seretse’s biographers Neil Parsons, Thomas Tlou and Willie Hendersen in their book Seretse Khama.
It was then that Ian was plastered with this “somewhat repetitive-sounding name, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, the second ‘Khama’ being the surname”.
When Seretse and his wife Ruth left Serowe for Britain after the acrimonious fight with Tshekedi Khama, they landed right into a racist country. The position of people of African origin in 50s England was that of not just colonial subjects but an inferior race. “Before black workers had begun to arrive here in significant numbers, black immigration was already being racialised. To use Hall’s phrase, ‘race’ was becoming a lens through which people experienced and made sense of their everyday lives. This development was to displace the responsibility for Notting Hill 1958, Brixton 1981 and Handsworth 1985 (white riots) on to the black population and in so doing render the role of the state invisible,” write scholars Bob Carter, Clive Harris & Shirley Josh in their paper, the product of a study on how the British state apparatus racialised immigration from former colonies. They argue that there was a state of fear of black people to an extent that a concerted effort was put in place to discourage more from coming to England.
Three years later Khama and his family flew out of England to Botswana again when Ian was but pre-school age.
THE CREATION OF THE WHITES OF SEROWE
It is important to understand the racial stratification that characterized colonial Botswana as a product of the near full century of British rule. By the time Seretse and Ruth arrive in the country with a young Ian and older sister Jacqueline, the Ngwato area was a colonial enclave. The dismantling of Ngwato society was kick-started by Kgosi Khama III with the approval of the British colonial apparatus. Khama III was perhaps, of all kings of his time, the one most open to the British imperial project. He ascended to the throne in 1875, and he, seen by the colonial system as a weapon with which to destroy African identity and nationalism, went about doing exactly that in the Ngwato area himself. He did fight occasionally with the colonialists over power but overall Khama III’s program was aligned to the demands of the colonial system. “By the time of Tshekedi’s birth the Ngwato state was formally a Christian one presided over by a monarch who enjoyed an international reputation as `one of those miracles of modern mission work.’
Contemporary photographs of Serowe, the new capital to which the Bangwato moved in 1902 and in which Tshekedi was born, show a society that had adopted European dress almost to a man, the richer of them wearing dark suits with their women in bustles and black bombazines. The ruling classes sent their children to the local mission school while the wealthier among them arranged for the further education of their sons in South African mission schools. Sekgoma II “ For instance, had been sent by his father to Lovedale, the Church of Scotland school for Africans in the Eastern Cape to which Tshekedi was to be sent later” writes historian Michael Crowder in his unfinished manuscript Black Prince: A Biography of Tshekedi Khama 1905-1959. The colonial system was not founded by Khama III, after all the British designated Botswana a protectorate as early as 1885 but he was its strong disciple, having established strategic alliances with the British during his earlier battles with the Ndebeles, Boers and German occupiers of modern day Namibia. In his departure, therefore, Khama III left to Sekgoma II and later Tshekedi a tribe in which both British administrator and citizen were superior and in turn white supremacy was entrenched. Britishness was admired and the small community of British settlers enjoyed a status higher than most Ngwato royals. This is the therefore the complications that Tshekedi, a much more nationalist leader would have with the colonial project. By the time he attempted to fight the colonial system it was too late, events had moved.
In spite of age and readiness to attend nursery school, there was none to attend in Serowe, so he stayed home while his older sister Jacqueline attended an all-white school. He was attended to by royal servants and helpers, a prince.
Being uprooted from an urban lifestyle in modern England to a much more traditional Setswana setting in Serowe brought forth challenges especially for Ruth: it was the beginning of Ian’s closeted childhood. He was prevented from mixing with ordinary Bangwato children. Ruth did not want her children accepting food from other children and she insisted on Ian Khama and his sister speaking English not Setswana. Ruth wanted to raise her children British and wanted them to grow into full Brits but was on the other hand struggling to be accepted by the British community due to her marriage to Seretse Khama and bearing mixed-race children. Her rejection by the white community in 50s-Serowe made it clear to her that it was “shameful” for a British woman to have any relations with a black African, even a royal. In a way, therefore, Ruth was tainted and thus lowered in stature from the pure white level.
Still she was a Muhamagadi among Bangwato and was held by them as a white woman. Ian Khama however was too young to know these things although he would later encounter them. When he was old enough, he was sent to a white Rhodesian school called Whitestone School in Bulawayo.
Ian Khama and his mother had a close relationship and perhaps her British aspiration could reasonably be expected to have influenced the young boy’s early and late self-identity. At the same time, he also faced rejection for his racial impurity as a mixed child by the very same people he aspired to be belong to. Khama tells the story of how he was turned by a white dentist in South Rhodesia when Ruth had brought him for a check-up. The dentist is said to have told the woman, a fellow Brit, that he does not assist black clients.
The constant fear of rejection by whites and the limitless interest in finding credibility among people of European origin on one side and a certain monarchist disposition to black people would characterize Ian Khama’s leadership years later. This would define Khama’s view of black people, generally, as subjects. Everything from his arbitrary decision to ban hunting; pardoning Kalafatis killers; the anti-poaching shoot-to-kill policy; rejecting negotiations with workers during the Public-Sector strike of 2011; his decimation of criticism within parliament; dismissal of the BDP faction that led to the BMD and absence from AU and SADC summits shows Khama as a man unprepared to engage African minds in a meaningful way. This also extended into his interest in philanthropic programmes aimed at “uplifting” black people; but it would also explain his xenophobic disposition as exemplified by the banishment of foreigners both black and white, the reaction equivalent of a King ejecting intruders into his territory. On the other hand, Khama placates people of European origin- seeking to win their approval, attending tourist shows such as Desert Race at which males of European origin are central figures, attending Conservation International gatherings, root-top diplomacy on African issues, extending exceptions to civil servants of European origin such as the Blackbeards and MDCB MD Paul Smith.