By turning to South Africa’s Afrikaner rights movement for assistance, Botswana has reached a point of no return in its diplomatic decline with the government of the southern neighbour. It is the lowest point in the history of the two countries’ diplomatic relations and in a way a vote of no confidence in both leaders’ statecraft, writes TSHIRELETSO MOTLOGELWA
The historical diplomatic relationship between Botswana and South Africa is at its worst health in decades. If anyone needed the evidence, it was right there on Wednesday when DPP Director Stephen Tiroyakgosi revealed, under media questioning that their South Africa colleague had “snowballed” their request for assistance in the “Butterfly” case. A point that the Afrikaner rights activist and powerful lawyer, Gerrie Nel, was happy to repeat was that the Botswana Government had failed to get South African government cooperation, and they were now turning, for their final push, to the Afrikaner rights lobby figurehead himself.
Here, the head of a prosecuting authority in one country was turning to an Afrikaner rights pressure group to get a shot at forcing the government of his country’s closest neighbour to assist in perhaps the most important of corruption investigation in its history. In a way, watching Nel and Tiroyakgosi doing that marked the lowest point in Botswana-South Africa diplomatic relations, therefore the biggest failure in the leadership of both President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his counterpart across the border.
Thirty years ago, nearly to the week, in June 1990, the soon-to-be President Nelson Mandela, during then apartheid South Africa’s painful transition from the racist apartheid programme to democratic rule, landed in Gaborone. It was a very important trip through which the liberation icon sought to sustain international pressure on the crumbling apartheid regime so as to keep it moving the country towards democratic rule to which it was taking slow, tentative steps. Botswana was the first country to visit on this trip, which would take six weeks and include many African countries, as well as Western capitals. Six years later after successful elections and Mandela, this time as President, welcomed the then close ally President Ketumile Masire to Cape Town where the latter addressed the all important Constitutional Assembly. Later that day Mandela thanked Masire as an elder statesman of the continent and Botswana as a close ally of the subcontinent’s youngest democratic government and biggest economy.
“Our country has much to learn from Botswana – both from your towering successes and your efforts to deal with the difficulties. All these attributes have made Botswana, and you, Mr. President, a natural and capable leader of the region`s collective efforts towards growth and development, within the framework of SADC. We also value your leadership in the region`s efforts to promote peace and stability on our sub-continent and further afield,” stated Mandela. It would not be incorrect to conclude that the two statesmen would collapse in shock were they to rise from the grave today and find Tiroyakgosi and Nel in that press conference.
It is a long distance from that heyday of the Botswana-South Africa diplomatic relations, and in a way marks the lowest point in this relationship. To understand the extent of this mire, one has to look at how important this matter ought to be for both countries. It strikes at the very heart of the viability of both states’ capacity to sustain the credibility of each other’s institutions.
States engage with each other through diplomatic means and colleagues can cooperate between borders. But at the very top of that pyramid are the two heads of state, in this case the Presidents. In simple terms, if a police officer at Old Naledi wants a suspect in Katlhehong, there is a Botswana Police Service structure through which he/she can rely on to engage the police in South Africa. Failing that, they may engage the commissioners themselves or escalate to ministers responsible for foreign affairs. At the very top of that is the presidency, Masisi and Ramaphosa would have to engage the matter and seek to have the police officer assisted somehow.
This cooperation at top level infers a certain depth or relations, for example, that the parties trust each other’s processes and seek to affirm them by assisting them. In others, by assisting his counterpart in Botswana, the South African Police Commissioner affirms the legal standing and institutional sustainability of Botswana institutions and vice versa. Implicit is that either officer believes that his own country’s interests are served by providing this assistance to his colleague over the border. This is important for allies like Botswana and South Africa. Indirectly it is a vote of confidence in each other’s state and its operations. Theoretically there is a separation of powers in each nation, but the reality of diplomatic work is that diplomacy lies at the centre of the international world.
Which brings us to Ramaphosa. The South African, himself experienced in the arduous negotiations for South Afric’s liberation and trade union work, surely ought to have known these basic facts of high-level political leadership. Tiroyakgosi should have never found himself having to decide how to approach a crisis of cooperation from the South African Government. A legal matter should have never been left to degenerate into a diplomatic mess. The “Butterfly” case is not a small case, and even in South Africa it would have registered as important. Afterall, Ramaphosa has the largest compliment of intelligence officers on the subcontinent. The allegations are staggering. If indeed multibillions of pula have been siphoned off Botswana and into South Africa. Ramaphosa ought to know about it even before Masisi mentions it. We have to work from the assumption that Ramaphosa is as informed about these allegations and indeed the potential facts as Masisi, whether the latter is sharing these with him or not. If Tiroyakgosi seeks assistance from South Africans in investigations, Ramaphosa would have known what that inquiry is about.
But say Ramaphosa did not know, Masisi ought to have made sure he got to know. One is inclined to conclude that both men knew. And if they did, the crisis is worse than it looks. It suggests Ramaphosa does not trust Masisi, or worse, does not view him as a partner. And vice versa.
The “Butterfly” case implicates South African political and business royalty Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe, and most importantly sister-in-law to Ramaphosa himself. Motsepe-Radebe has vehemently denied allegations that she had any involvement in the saga, even threatening legal against media reporting on the connections. Media reports indicate this may be one of the reasons for a lack of enthusiasm from the South African government. “Our clients formed the impression that the delay is deliberate and that it is because of the individuals involved. Our brief is to ensure that it happens. Our clients have instructed us because they have been snowballed and cannot continue with the investigation. The legal process is to engage with the Departments of International relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). We will go as far as we can to ensure that they respond. Whatever steps necessary, even if we have to approach to ensure a response we will do that,” Nel stated.
Now, Nel must be pinching himself. Suddenly he is given a blank cheque to pluck the wings of his political opponents, the black South African government. He can be expected to be relentless, his core objective being to prove the ineptitude of a black government. Nel knows the NPA inside out and has connections and sources in South Africa’s corporate world. In short, in Nel, Tiroyakgosi has found a bulldog. But there is a catch, Afroforum is a political organism and Nel’s work will be viewed through a political prism. And it is in that light that Botswana’s role in it will be seen by the majority of South Africans. If this thing goes all the way to the top of the South African judicial hierarchy, it will be slow and painful for everyone except Nel.
Therefore, at the end of this diplomatic saga, President Masisi and his foreign affairs minister Unity Dow will have to pick up the pieces and attempt to rebuild diplomatic bridges. It will be a long arduous journey, which would have started when Masisi and Ramaphosa failed to handle this one of the most important of southern African’s diplomatic relationships.