Wives of leading politicians took their rightful position at the side of their husbands in the just-ended stiff General Election in a way never seen before. Some quite clearly boosted the profiles of their men, observes STAFF WRITER DITIRO MOTLHABANE.
It has been uncommon in Botswana for politicians to have their spouses tag along to political rallies where bare knuckled no-holds-barred verbal assaults are the order of the day. It was rare for men, who continue to dominate political space to date, to enjoin their wives on the campaign trail. But all that changed in the campaigns ahead of the 2019 General Elections!
During the 2014 General Elections opposition leaders Duma Boko of Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) tried to have their spouses during their campaigns but that was in small measure.
Soon after his inauguration on April 01, 2018, President Mokgweetsi Masisi branded himself as a family oriented man, with his wife Neo a constant presence in his entourage. They walked hand in hand most of the time, their daughter Atsile frequently on tow. Neo became intertwined with the image of President of Botswana Democratic Party [BDP] - her husband, Mokgweetsi, even upgrading her wardrobe to include more red outfits to gel with Domkrag crowds as they together criss-crossed the country side by side canvassing for votes.
Soon it was not only him - opposition leaders took the cue. Spouses were no more left to nurse children at home. They joined their husbands in their political campaigns. The Umbrella for Democratic Change [UDC], its President Duma Boko was always accompanied by his wife Kaone, while UDC vice president Dumelang Saleshando and his wife Dineo were inseparable. Botswana Patriotic Front president [BPF] Biggie Butale was frequently seen with his wife Galaletsang, while Serowe West MP Tshekedi Khama also paraded his wife Thea in last minute campaigns where she mumbled a few incoherent Setswana words pledging support for her husband and the Bangwato tribe to wild ululations.
The Alliance for Progressives [AP] leadership was also not to be outdone by their opponents. Its Vice president, Francistown South MP Wynter Mmolotsi made it a point to always bring his wife Mmapula for moral support while his comrade, Molepolole South MP candidate Shima Monageng always had his wife MmaBushi close to him during campaigns and official functions.
Even newly-weds, in the likes of Eric Molale, Kitso Mokaila, Fidelis Molao brought their spouses to most of the official functions they attended. Some of the notable exceptions were president of Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) Sidney Pilane, BPF patron Ian Khama and Alliance for Progressives President Ndaba Gaolathe.
Notably, Khama and Gaolathe are bachelors.
Political spouses play a very critical role during campaigns as they assume the role of number one supporter, cheerleaders-in-chief and provide the greatest moral support. They have to bear the sole responsibility of nursing, comforting and caring for a husband who spends hours on the campaign trail suffering abuse from all angles while his body is battered and bruised by unforgiving weather. To cap it all, the wives of politicians are made to watch helplessly as their husbands deploy all their financial resources to fund democracy by sponsoring campaigns from family savings.
Masisi and MmaAtsile
Despite both not being among the most talented dancers the country has ever produced, on many occasions Masisi would set the dance floor ablaze co-starring with MmaAtsile in freestyle contemporary unrehearsed dance moves.
Masisi's charm in campaigns towards 2019 was enhanced by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of family. The couple even broke Tswana tradition and norm, by always publicly expressing affection for each other, holding hands and kissing in public - acts which are commonly reserved for exchange of vows on wedding days when the pastor tells the groom "you may kiss the bride".
Masisi used different platforms to encourage men to marry their partners to raise families together. Although this was construed in some quarters as a veiled criticism of former president Ian Khama's bachelor status - who has remained single to date - Masisi denies that. Such speculation was fuelled by the timing, which coincided with a time when disagreement between the two exploded into the public scene, marking the beginning of an acrimonious fallout. Masisi insists that he was simply promoting Setswana culture, which attaches a lot of value and meaning to family.
Boko and MmaMoono
With her telegenic charm, MmaMoono played a pivotal role in UDC campaigns, sanitising and sprucing up Boko's image, thus giving potential voters hope that they will have a mother of the nation should they vote for the party led by her husband. Clearly she was behind Boko's wardrobe as he was always immaculately dressed during political rallies and when appearing in public fora. She ensured that his general attire and suits were always appealing to the audience he was addressing.
At the massive UDC gathering to launch Boko in Gaborone West, he paraded his whole family before the masses. More like Masisi, Boko touched many by presenting himself as a family oriented man who took care of his responsibilities. In the past Boko was accused by his detractors of neglecting his children, but during the emotionally charged final launch he presented all his children before all and sundry, including those he sired out of wedlock.
The up side
Any association with power by a politician seeking the presidency naturally rubs off onto the spouse, the wife. If they triumph the spouse becomes the First Lady, a position that Parliament could soon pass statute to give it official recognition. Even without that, the First lady has always had responsibilities and civic duties she performs to support her husband's presidency.
Already Neo, who resigned her day job when Mokgweetsi became president, has been appointed as an Ambassador for numerous international organisations.
The glitz and glamour, the dresses designed to appeal to specific audiences depending on the venue and occasion, are a plus to already being a powerful public figure by extension. Already there are some suggestions that Neo was influential in the nomination of specially elected Members of Parliament, an allegation that is yet to be proved to be correct. But what remains true is that being the first woman Mokgweetsi sees before going to bed and the first he sees in the morning when he wakes up, Neo has a hand in every decision Mokgweetsi makes, be it personal or official. It is not farfetched to speculate that even the recently announced cabinet was picked by her, if not vetted by her before Parliament approval. And that is the power of the spouse!
The down side
One of the reasons that in the past most politicians were reluctant to have their wives accompany them during political rallies or engagement is due to the attention given to their private lives. It is not an easy job for someone who is not used to public scrutiny.
Another downside for the spouses is that they spent long hours on the campaign trail while at the same trying to make sure that the family remains intact. She has to strike a balance between supporting the husband as well as managing real life issues at home, tending to the kids and other stuff.
Another painful reality is that the spouse is more often than not caught on the receiving end for their looks, what their partners have uttered or what they have not said. The wife of a politician often has to tag reluctantly along , going through the ups and downs and playing a role in creating memorable moments during the campaigns, like kissing the husband as he shout the party slogan.
In some cases a spouse can become political liability to the detriment of her other half's aspirations when she chooses to enter the fray uninvited. A typically example is Thea Khama whose controversial social media posts and tweets trying to defend her husband Tshekedi Khama might have played a role in him being dropped as Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism. She was meddling too much in issues out of her reach and comprehension.
During a political rally in Masunga, UDC leader Boko shocked many when he alleged that Masisi was not the biological father of her child. This might have hurt both the child and the first lady. The onslaught continued when the former Mayor of Gaborone Kagiso Thutwe said unpalatable words against Masisi. This was said in retaliation to widespread allegations peddled by mainly BDP activists who portrayed UDC president Boko as an irresponsible father who was failing to raise his own kids.
Her family was also not sparred when Ponatshego Tshiping, an elderly BDP woman activist insulted her husband during a political rally in Gaborone. Tshiping accused Boko of fathering many children in Moshupa and burdening the council with supporting them. Though not directed to Kaone, such insults from another woman must have pierced through her soul like a spear.
For most of the campaigns towards 2019, Boko's wife has had to endure numerous attack directed at her husband from different quarters. At some point she had to bear (alongside with her kids) the embarrassment of being woken up from their home in Tlokweng, searched by Botswana Unified Revenue Service (BURS) agents and their vehicles impounded by the state. All this was streamed live on social media platforms for the world to see.
In another incident, Boko's wife was sued alongside her husband in the infamous principal residence case, where one John Siele wanted to have the couple scrapped off the voters' roll because they registered for elections using an address in Gaborone West Phase II which is not their principal residence. The case was dismissed with costs by the High Court.
Having been on the campaign trail with her husband in the past, Dineo must have developed a political crocodile skin and some shock absorbers to deal with unruly political opponents.
At the height of campaigns for 2019 she was accused of having extra marital affairs with some opposition activists but this didn't deter her from standing by her husband whose political survival was hinged on winning Maun West constituency. To his credit, Saleshando immediately came to the defence of his wife dismissing all allegations as mere political smear campaign against him. Dineo has taken to the pavement to stump for Saleshando, even helping in the campaign trail by distributing sanitary pads. It worked, and the couple triumphed!