South Africa


Gaborone’s AfriForum gamble – a political drama with many more twists and turns to come

Gaborone’s AfriForum gamble – a political drama with many more twists and turns to come
Former Botswana president Ian Khama and businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Mario Ruiz | Gallo Images / Business Day / Trevor Samson)

The intriguing saga playing itself out in Gaborone and Pretoria over Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe’s alleged conspiracy with former Botswana president, Ian Khama, has now sucked in advocate Gerrie Nel and AfriForum. It’s shaping up to be a blockbuster.

Just over two weeks ago, I was seated at my home workstation when I scrolled through Twitter and saw the words “Botswana” and “AfriForum” entwined in the same 280 characters that one tweet allows. Out of curiosity, and with some bemusement, I clicked the accompanying link to a news article that read, “Botswana enlists AfriForum’s services in fraud case involving Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe.”

As it turns out, what is already a legal debacle with all the makings of a Netflix top 10 – a big budget ($10-billion); a star-studded cast (an ex-president, a foreign businesswoman, a mid-level spy codenamed “Butterfly”) and a hefty dose of political intrigue (coup attempts, espionage and offshore cash) – has aired its second season. This time, taking a “right-wing” turn with the co-starring of a politically questionable organisation.

The plot: Billions and a Butterfly

Botswana’s Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) has sought the services of Advocate Gerrie Nel who heads AfriForum’s private prosecutions unit to assist in a multi-billion dollar money-laundering case dating back to Botswana’s 2019 elections.

It’s alleged that influential South African businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe, and former Botswana president Ian Khama, conspired in a failed plot to overthrow the incumbent Botswana president, Mokgweetsi Masisi and install former presidential hopeful and long-time senior cabinet minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. 

In turn, Venson-Moitoi would allow the former military man to maintain his grip on power and influence. As the theory goes, this was to last until such time as Khama’s younger brother, who at the time was a minister, ascended to the number one seat.

For her efforts, Motsepe-Radebe would get free access to her neighbouring country’s lucrative and largely untapped business opportunities. According to state prosecutors, the entire plot was to be bankrolled by billions stolen from the country’s central reserve (the Bank of Botswana) with the aid of a corrupt mid-level spy, codenamed “Butterfly”, as intermediary. 

Butterfly, whose real name is Wilhelmina Maswabi, lost her anonymity during her bail hearing prior to being detained for almost two months on charges of financing terrorism, possession of unexplained property and false declaration of passports. Her case will be heard again on 17 August.

Since then, both Ian Khama and Motsepe-Radebe have taken to the media to denounce claims of any wrongdoing. Khama, whose presidency was punctuated by persecution of the media, even did a short whirlwind tour with South Africa’s radio and television broadcasters. Claiming that the state’s case was evidence of Masisi being “drunk on power”, Khama scoffed at the merits and legitimacy of the government’s claim.

In the same media interview, Khama, who, together with his brother and close cronies defected to form a new party, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), made his disdain for Masisi’s leadership clear. In no uncertain terms, Khama stated that he voted for the BPF in “both parliament and council” level elections.

Motsepe-Radebe also took to the airwaves in similar fashion. In November 2019, after her accounts received a clean “audit” from Absa and Standard Bank, the businesswoman stated that the case was nothing more than “wild claims” amounting to a “state-sponsored smear campaign”. This tone changed noticeably during her latest media appearance on 24 June. 

On popular South African talk radio, 702, a less-certain sounding Motsepe-Radebe pleaded with Gerrie Nel not to take the case, likening her experience in the debacle to gender-based violence. Despite her best efforts, Nel accepted the case.

Of course, Nel is no stranger to blockbuster legal battles. For most of us outside the legal fraternity, we first watched him as he meticulously sparred with Barry Roux as state prosecutor in the televised legal bout that was the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. It was shortly after this trial that Nel resigned from South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and joined controversial AfriForum.

Stardom and storyline aside, hearing that the Botswana government was now in concert with AfriForum made me bury my face in my hands. My immediate thoughts were: this will be a diplomatic scandal with Botswana’s biggest regional partner. A scandal mid-pandemic and a scandal of their own making.

The co-star: rightwing rhetoric

The place which AfriForum holds in the eyes of the South African government and “progressive” political circles is an unenviable one. The organisation, whose website describes it as an “Afrikaner interest organisation… [that] works to ensure that the basic prerequisites for the continued existence of Afrikaners are met”, is at best seen as a lobby group advancing the rights of a minority group via racially charged rhetoric.

At worst, AfriForum is seen as an organisation hell-bent on undermining both the South African government and society by sowing racial disunity and corroding gains made in post-apartheid democracy. In fact, in 2018, AfriForum CEO, Kallie Kriel, claimed apartheid was not a crime against humanity . He justified this by *saying, in essence, that not enough had people died to meet the term’s criteria. Kriel’s comments were made despite the United Nations General Assembly recognising apartheid as a crime against humanity as early as 1973. 

More recently, in 2019, deputy CEO, Ernst Roets, tweeted a picture of the apartheid flag shortly after the Equality Court ruled that given South Africa’s history, its display amounts to hate speech.

The famous “farm murder” trope is an example of AfriForum’s finest work. Drawing from its claim that it protects the existence of Afrikaners, this trope stokes fear and anxiety among its constituents that entrenches a distrust of state institutions under ANC rule. Why I term this as “fine work” is because of the elevated status that farm murders have typically received vis-à-vis other murders in public and political discourse.

So aggrandised is this trope that in 2018, Kriel and Roets were interviewed on Fox News in a segment titled: “White farmers are being brutally murdered in South Africa for their land.” If farm murder rhetoric fanned racial tensions, doing so at a time when land expropriation was high on government’s agenda only served to add fuel to the flames.  

However, even AfriForum’s own data barely supports the fears it mongers. Based on their stats, in 2019, there were a total of 57 farm murders across South Africa. While every murder is one too many, such focus on farm murders at the exclusion of others becomes curious when compared to national crime statistics. For the same period, official police statistics show that South Africa suffered over 21,000 murders. In essence, for every one farmer murdered, there were roughly 368 other South Africans killed. Looked at differently, one more person was murdered on a daily basis (an average of 58 murders per day) than farmers were killed over the course of the entire year.

Proportionally, the farm murder trope barely stacks up when compared to gender-based killings – the only spate of murders to receive similar public attention. In 2017/18, the murder rate for women over the age of 18 was 15.2 per 100,000. By comparison, the murder rate calculated from AfriForum’s 2018 data and an estimated farmer population of 760,000 (based on agriculture employment stats), is under half that, at 7.1 per 100,000. Given that many under-aged girls are victims of femicide and many farmers are only farmers by “lifestyle” and not labour, we can assume the discrepancy is even wider.

Regardless, whether you believe the data or the dogma, AfriForum’s ability to successfully agitate towards a desired outcome is undeniably impressive. So successful is its advocacy that in the 2019 elections, AfriForum’s brethren at the ballot, Freedom Front Plus (FF+), grew by six parliamentary seats to make it the fifth most popular party. By comparison, the ANC and the DA both shrunk by a combined 24 seats. FF+’s results were an impressive feat for what was a party teetering on obsolescence.

The script: Gaborone’s gamble

With all this in mind, the Botswana government still decided to choose what, on the face of it, appears to be a short path to a diplomatic dead-end. Why would this be the approach?

As a nation with a sophisticated intelligence network and a highly skilled diplomatic corps of its own, Botswana’s choice is certainly not born out of ignorance. There is no doubt that Gaborone is well aware of the acrimonious relationship between AfriForum and Pretoria.  

When I finally came to raise my head from my hands, I thought perhaps it’s because they know this, that they chose this path. Perhaps it was calculated. Perhaps this is a careful dance of brinkmanship and two-level game theory that has weighed up the diplomatic cost against the domestic gains, and the latter deemed it worthwhile. Perhaps the stakes are so high domestically that the regional cost is negligible – or, at worst, bad, but reconcilable.

With this thinking, what on the surface looks like a terrible blunder may, in fact, be a tactical blindside. Foreign policy is inextricably tied to domestic politics, and the contours of the latter impose constraints on the former. This way, negotiations between countries become a game of tapping into each other’s domestic constraints to gain leverage at the international level.

Part 1: International negotiation

According to the head of Botswana’s DPP, Stephen Tiroyakgosi, his government had grown increasingly impatient following a request to South Africa’s foreign office (Dirco) for “mutual legal assistance”, which went cold. Made in late September 2019, the request had apparently been diverted to the Department of Justice over nine months ago where, given the delay, it appears to have been “sat on”. This suspicion is strengthened when this case is contrasted with others in Botswana involving less influential individuals.

One example is the DPP’s case against Tim Marsland, the South African founder of Capital Management Botswana, an asset management firm that allegedly siphoned between $13-million and $35-million from Botswana’s civil service pensioners. Facing 30 criminal charges in Botswana (24 of which are for money laundering) Marsland, who failed to present himself to Botswana authorities upon request, is currently detained in a Johannesburg jail where he has remained since his July 2019 arrest.

The arrest, as if a scene in a film, took place at the busy OR Tambo International Airport following a successful Interpol operation. Of course, this is not to argue for detention for any of the accused in the “Butterfly” case. The two cases, each with their legal and procedural distinctions, no doubt differ in detail. This is, rather, to draw a comparison between the speed, efficacy and international cooperation seen in the two cases.

If we understand the pace and progress of a legal case in Botswana, with a high-profile South African citizen at its centre, as a negotiation between two governments, the decision to engage AfriForum begins to appear like Masisi tugging at a domestic political lever to expedite the inter-state legal debacle. 

With a “stalled negotiation” between the two countries, Botswana’s blindside sought to break the deadlock.

Part 2: Domestic politics

By enlisting masterful agitators politically at odds with the South African government, Botswana knew there would be a reaction. Good or bad, this reaction would re-establish traction and the legal debacle would rise on South Africa’s list of priorities. Already, AfriForum has come to the table, describing Dirco’s delays as obstructive and a clear “unwillingness to assist” their client.

Timing is everything in a negotiation and by Gaborone’s calculations, South Africa’s domestic constraints in light of the pandemic place it somewhere between vulnerable and flatfooted to such a surprise move. 

With nearly a quarter of a million confirmed Covid-19 cases, fatalities edging towards the 5,000 mark (with many more anticipated), and signs of a health system taking strain, South Africa is besieged with managing the largest outbreak on the continent. As if that’s not enough, a secondary wave of unrest has ticked up following a spike in gender-based violence under lockdown.

For their part, segments of the business community have also added to the fray. Taking issue with lockdown regulations, lobby groups have hurled legal battles at government’s Covid-19 response. So seemingly disoriented is their disaster management, that government strayed from their widely regarded and neatly coordinated exit strategy with the introduction of “Advanced Level 3”.

With all this at play, there are signs of growing dissatisfaction and distrust in the government’s crisis management. Opposition parties, media, civil society and even government’s own “inner circle” scientists have slammed the pandemic response in recent weeks. Working towards restoring the pre-lockdown cohesion that he painstakingly garnered, on 2 July President Cyril Ramaphosa hosted a first of its kind virtual Q&A engagement session on live television with his constituents.

Fully aware of these shifting dynamics, Botswana indirectly legitimised a known government “adversary” with the potential to further erode the strained ties between the South African state and society. If news of Botswana’s arrangement with AfriForum is a “bump in the road”, the fact that South Africa’s local elections are only a year from now significantly raises political stakes.

By contrast, Botswana’s domestic environment has the government on the front foot. Other than a temporary fuel crisis caused by lockdown-induced border gate bottlenecks, the country is relatively unaffected by the pandemic. Managing some of the lowest Covid-19 numbers in the region, the government has more political room to wrestle with its rivals.

Top of the rival pile is Khama, Masisi’s old boss whose public posturing continues to undermine his rule and whose new party threatened the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) dominance. For a former BDP president to defect so far outside the tent is an offence so grave that seeking recourse is etched near the top of the incumbent’s agenda. In this light, the money-laundering case seems to be the biggest whip at Masisi’s disposal.

In addition, successfully cracking this whip gains Masisi the secondary benefit of improving Botswana’s global image. In May 2020, contrary to what most onlookers have become accustomed to, Botswana joined the likes of Zimbabwe and Uganda on a European Union blacklist due to shortfalls in its anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorism financing interventions. Seen as a high-risk country by the Financial Action Task Force, Botswana seeks to make clear its clawback efforts. 

With key wins at stake domestically (consolidating power and earning political capital via improved global reputation), by Gaborone’s calculation, sacrificing some diplomatic mileage with its neighbour is well worth the effort.

The cliffhanger: Going forward

While there may be some strategy behind the stand-off, given the weight of South Africa’s significance in the region, Botswana’s blindside is still undeniably a gamble. With an unstated principle of solidarity among governing parties written into South Africa’s approach to regional engagements, this move no doubt provoked Pretoria. 

On hearing the news of the AfriForum arrangement, President Ramaphosa geared up to send Minister of State Security, Ayanda Dlodlo, as an envoy to Botswana to address the situation. According to onlookers and analysts, this trip was meant to be an act of admonishment rather than an attempt at alliance building. Whatever the motivation, the trip was cancelled at the 11th hour. It is likely, given the sensitivity of the matter, that both capitals agreed to instead manage this with a presidential tête-à-tête in the coming weeks, as a first step towards a short-term resolution.

In the longer term, more work will be needed to repair the fallout. Botswana is currently undergoing an ambassadorial revamp, with the deployment of new ambassadors across its foreign embassies. As part of this revamp, Masisi will place one of his most skilled and trusted representatives in Pretoria who, unfortunately, will have the messy job of mending the diplomatic damage.

As for the legal saga, it is only when the courtroom finale is aired that we will know whether the claims made are factual or fictitious. What we know, for now, is that this political drama is certainly fascinating. DM

Kopo Mapila is a former public sector policy analyst working in the private sector. He holds a Master of Public Policy degree (University of Oxford) and opinions which he shares strictly in his personal capacity.

A sentence as *indicated was amended at 12.30pm on September 3, 2020. 


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