By Bakang Ntshingane
In 2014, Professor Vusi Gumede gave his inaugural professorial lecture at the University of South Africa (UNISA) on: “Exploring the Role of Thought Leadership, Thought Liberation and Critical Consciousness for Africa’s Development.” Prof. Vusi Gumede has served as Chief Policy Analyst in the Thabo Mbeki presidency and now serves as Executive Director of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, among other portfolios.
This contribution to discourse on Botswana’s national vision is not to overload our debate space with the already dominant discussion on ‘what happened to Vision 2016?’ Naturally, we’ve had more than enough contributions on that. I therefore aim to direct the conversation towards a more nuanced debate on critical transformation against the backdrop of a national consensus that our country’s fabric of leadership needs to be further interrogated.
Botswana has always been a captivating subject of academic and international scrutiny for its sterling rise as an economic and political ‘miracle’, in a qualified way and justifiably so. In 2016, Botswana is still an interesting subject of study, but is arguably declining as an area of interest and study for academic and policy analysts alike (mainly because the social sciences tend to naturally have a short concentration span). This is attributable mainly to the lack of nuance in its growth narrative, and translates into an indirect indictment of our over reliance on minerals. Like all democratic states, Botswana’s growth has naturally had challenges and has transitioned from being the ‘miracle of Africa’ to another interesting phenomenon; a ‘stagnant miracle.’
But this isn’t to put Botswana on an unfair pedestal or expectation. I will attempt to argue that Botswana is no different from any state in the world in how it progresses and deals with emerging global challenges. Most conversations will easily point to the political realm as a source of the country’s problems. But, although politics forms the center of most if not all of a country’s life cycle, Presidents or politicians aren’t the cause, they are simply symptoms of a feeble civil society, a disengaged private sector and citizens who allow politicians to live in their own bubbles, unaccountable! Botswana’s imminent challenge is that of leadership and organizational culture. The country still has massive resources and a supreme potential to transform the lives of its people.
Sometimes we are hesitant to engage and debate because an issue is too ‘political’. By that concession, we give political leadership an undeserved leeway to continue messing up because we’ve given them the impression that they live and breathe in their own bubbles and we want nothing to do with their world.
This contribution responds to a dire need to rediscover and ground ourselves in our own national and African context. Leadership seems to be interpreted as a disconnected institution from the people it leads. We must be in a position to proactively respond to our own problems with our own unique identity grounded solutions. Botswana’s transformation as a country with even stronger institutions must be grounded in its endeavor to achieve full decolonization, followed by a commitment to redefine its African identity and commitment to Pan-Africanism. Secondly, a fully committed Botswana to Africa must be followed by a radical transition to thought leadership and critical consciousness of those in power and the normal man on the street. This isn’t a textbook argument that seeks to place Botswana on an unrealistic path, burdened by a mythical, foreign idea of transformation.
Sir Seretse Khama had a similar vision for Botswana and the rest of Africa. He was an African philosopher King in his own right. His famous dictum ‘…a nation without a past is a lost nation…’ reflected on Botswana then as a true African state, birthed in the core nucleus of the continent’s legacy. Seretse spoke passionately about appreciating African heritage, because although he was an acculturated Englishman with an Oxford background, he was an instinctive pan-African intellectually.
Seretse encouraged Batswana to embrace and celebrate the African identity. In a lyrical speech of Chancellor at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in 1970, he told the gathering:
“We were taught, sometimes in a very positive way, to despise ourselves and our ways of life. We were made to believe that we had no past to speak of, no history to boast of. The past, so far as we were concerned, was just a blank and nothing more. Only the present mattered and we had very little control over it. It seemed we were in for a definite period of foreign tutelage, without any hope of our ever again becoming our own masters. The end result of all this was that our self-pride and our self-confidence were badly undermined. It should now be our intention to try to retrieve what we can of our past. We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.”
The current crisis of leadership has undoubtedly reduced Botswana to the periphery of African and international discourse. It isn’t unique to one part of the world as we are constantly reminded. The African crisis, ranging from development to peace and security, is too drastic for any one leader or government to make a difference. A divided Africa still remains vulnerable to further exploitation. Integration remains inevitable now more than ever, which explains increasing calls for a Visa Free Africa, witnessed by a petition presented to African heads of state at the recent World Economic Forum on Africa.
Although African states have differed on a number of platforms with regards to different contentious issues such as the ICC, African states, Botswana included must realize their true power before it is too late. Acting together with a common purpose must be a central concern of African states to enhance the continent’s agency in world affairs as they did with utmost determination during what Prof. Chris Landsberg termed the “Golden Decade” of Afro-centric diplomacy, (1998 to 2008). During this period, states, individual leaders and governments, collectively acted together. They were steadfast in their resolve to set their own agenda and to speak for Africa, lest outside powers appropriated this role for themselves and to suit their, and not Africa’s, interests.
However compelling the above argument may be, African agency in international affairs cannot be attempted within a vacuum. It requires a particular fabric of leadership. It requires powerful, transformed and stable African states. This recalibration of our efforts must be driven by a ‘thought leadership’ orientation. As Prof Vusi Gumede has argued, “Thought leadership connotes a leadership orientation underpinned by unconventional ideology, historically nuanced, culturally sensitive, influentially and contextually grounded.” Prof. Gumede posits that a thought leader must be unconventional in his thinking, possess the right kind of knowledge to challenge existing paradigms and inspire new thinking. Thought leaders need to do more than just influencing policy and people, and this is an area I believe Botswana’s leaders must work more on.
But thought leaders must also be liberated in their thinking in order for them to deliver the kind of thinking that society needs to transform. Botswana must aim to transform into a critically conscious society in order for it to contribute to a critically conscious Africa. This will involve a deliberate shift away from the type of thinking that allows political apathy, satisfaction with poor service delivery, gullibility to vague political leaders and below average civil society institutions including the media. For all of this to happen, there needs to be a paradigm shift in many facets, including our education. We need to craft an education system that is grounded in African content, and an appreciation of Africa’s many great thinkers. For example, Botswana’s education system, places an unwarranted amount of focus on the math and science, and inherently participates in an erasure of the much-needed focus on Botswana and African history.
Science and Mathematics are great, but history and the social sciences are equally important. We need to acknowledge and be conversant of the many great thinkers in pre-colonial and post-colonial Africa. These include (nationalist) leaders such as Edward Blyden, African Horton, Kwameh Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Amilcar Cabral, Thabo Mbeki, Sir Seretse Khama and many others. We need to engage in a deep interrogation and inquiry of our history and acknowledge African intellectuals whose works have had profound effects on Africa. These include, Bessie Head, Unity Dow, Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, Cheik Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Claude Ake, Thandika Mkandawire, Adebayo Adedeji, Mahmood Mamdani, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ali Mazrui, among others.
Africa is reaching a shifting point that will define the future. As many people have conceded, the 21st century wasn’t the century of Africa, but the 22nd century must be declared ‘the African century.’ We need thought leaders who are willing to critically interrogate history, and rightfully mount a defence of Africa’s place in the world as the continent that birthed civilization. The lack of debate and inquiry on issues of the African diaspora is a worrying trend. Botswana needs leaders that can stimulate and lead these conversations, and thereby, give birth to a movement of thought leaders towards a critical transformation of the country.
Bakang Ntshingane is a Political Science graduate and an alumni of the YALI Regional Leadership Center of Southern Africa.