Opinionista Jay Naidoo 4 April 2014

A leader I would vote for: Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae

Don’t be fooled by appearances. That wry, dry sense of humour belies an incisive, no-nonsense leadership style – a man who is a chemistry of humility and strategic thinking. He is patient; he listens well; when all have spoken he intervenes; and one feels often that this really is the last word on the matter at hand. I cannot remember a conversation that did not end in laughter - often at his expense - as he regaled us with tales of the pomp and ceremony of being a Head of State. The lesson I walked away with was never to take oneself too seriously, to learn to laugh, and that the first battle is always to conquer ego: it is the worst enemy of a good leader.

Jay Naidoo

Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

President Mogae’s insistence on taking a tough stance against corruption is his lasting legacy. With his usual bluntness, he explains: “We need to protect the independence of public institutions. There must be the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and leaders who provide a role model by complying with the law.” Wisely, he adds: “It’s not that everything will be smooth, but that in the event that things go wrong, there are ways open to the aggrieved to find redress within the system.” Prudent advice to our own political class in South Africa.


Photo: President Festus Mogae at 2012 Mo Ibrahim Forum.

Elected president in 1998, and ruling for two terms, President Festus Gontebanye Mogae took over a country which was already one of the continent’s success stories. Its democracy was strong, stable and rooted in the rule of law. Botswana was widely regarded as one of the more effective countries in the world in combating corruption. “We tried to do the right thing – to hold free and fair elections – and to a large extent, in terms of the judgment of the international community, we succeeded,” he says. But the former president is a realist, and his satisfaction is tempered: “Success is relative in a situation like that, and there is a lot of room for improvement.”

As he warned in his final State of the Nation address, “Prudent, transparent and honest use of national resources for your benefit has been my guiding principle and code of conduct.” Botswana demonstrates how a country with natural resources can promote sustainable development with good governance, in a continent where too often mineral wealth has become a curse.

In a profound observation, he puts his finger on our key challenge. “The problem with us in Africa is that individuals in many senses are more important than institutions. One criterion of development is that institutions must be more important than individuals. Political parties must be more important than their leaders. The government system as a whole must be more important than the president or the prime minister. The judicial system must be more important than who is judged.”

An essence of governance theory from a leader who received the 2008 Mo Ibrahim Prize for Excellence in Leadership. The Prize committee stated, “Mogae has ensured Botswana’s continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/Aids pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people.” But that is now declining, thanks to “one of Africa’s most progressive and comprehensive programs for dealing with the disease.” His economic management, they said, produced “remarkable growth,” stymied inflation, attracted investment and allowed him to pursue diversification away from diamonds, while simultaneously using tax revenue to fund investment infrastructure, health and education. All this, while maintaining a “tough stance against corruption.”

During his presidency, Botswana achieved gender parity in tertiary education, investing heavily in health and education to create a career path out of poverty for the next generations.

Upon standing down 18 months before the end of his second term, President Mogae continued his activism on HIV/Aids through the Champions for an HIV-Free Generation – a group of former African presidents and other personalities committed to spearheading the drive to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids across the continent.

He also is a member of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security. Speaking at the launch of its seminal report in 2012, he raised some red flags on the issue of electoral finance. “Political finance has not received the attention and commitment to reform that it deserves. In a world of increasing economic inequalities, greater concentrations of wealth within democracies, and global economic recession, political finance is a challenge that will only grow in salience.”

Vote buying and bribery of candidates by elites is the obvious problem, but poorly regulated political finance can corrode electoral integrity in more subtle ways. Curbing these practices is difficult, since politicians who benefit from loosely regulated financing are unlikely to push for greater transparency. However, donations need to be better regulated and reported, Mr Mogae says. “We should not move towards an American system of financing. We should restrict more severely, enforce more severely, spending limits, so that the well-to-do do not buy elections.”

States should also be seeking to level the playing field among electoral contestants by providing public financial support, he argues: “We should supplement those private donation restrictions with public financing – which admittedly is bound to be limited, because after all there are so many competing development needs in any poor country.” That public support might exist in non-monetary form, like access to free media airtime or the free use of public facilities for campaign activities, he adds.

On a personal level, he married Barbara Gemma Modise in 1968, and despite his success in politics, he laughs as he recounts that his most important achievement in life is his three daughters. I know that there are many other ethical, caring and humble leaders like him in the world. I only hope they will rise to the top. DM



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