Remarks by Stephen R. Lewis Jr. on the Occasion of President Masire’s 90th Birthday

Gaborone International Conference Center
July 25, 2015

Mr. President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

First I, want to say thank you to President Masire and his family for asking me to say a few words today. It is both an honor and a pleasure to be here and to have been asked to speak. Next, I bring warmest birthday wishes to you from my wife Judy, and my children Virginia, Deborah and Mark, all of whom are quite envious that I get to be with you today.

In the early 1970s, Bob Edwards and David Anderson, two friends of mine whom some of you here today will remember, urged me to work in Botswana. “You would love it,” they both said. And 40 years ago this month I came to work for a month for then-Vice President Masire in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning; and they were correct. I loved working in Botswana and with Batswana.  

Professionally the engagement and the challenges came immediately, and the good friendships with colleagues and others in Botswana followed quickly.  

The qualities of Botswana’s leadership were obvious, and I kept learning more and more about why that was the case, especially during my work with President Masire on his memoirs. Among the characteristics I admired was one expressed simply by Dr. Chiepe in response to a question from a visiting group of Americans. They asked her to what she attributed Botswana’s extraordinary record of both political and economic success. Her answer was a single word: “Teamwork.”

These days, in discussions in the United States about corporate, university, and public sector behavior, a favorite phrase about leadership is: “the tone at the top.” Those at the head of any organization set the standards—for integrity, transparency and candor, for the willingness to be open-minded to new and better ideas, and for resilience in the face of difficulties. I worked in Botswana when both Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Ketumile Masire served as Presidents, and they encouraged others to ask questions, to suggest new ways of doing things, to develop themselves and to flourish. They knew that as individuals developed and became successful it was likely to be beneficial to the whole country. They did not see the success of others as a threat to themselves, but as a benefit to the whole nation.

The traditions of consultation in the kgotla were practiced at virtually every meeting, as these two leaders encouraged questions and dissenting views. I can hear President Masire in Economic Committee of Cabinet, looking down the table at Minister Kwelegobe asking, “What is it, Dan, my fine young boy?” and inviting him to present a different view.

It became quickly obvious to me that the principal leaders in government believed that it was not a question of who said something, or asked a question, but what they said, that was important. Young or old, senior or junior, politician or official, citizen or expatriate, the substance, not the speaker, was valued. I am convinced this is one of the reasons why Botswana worked so well for so long.

The leadership of Sir Seretse and Sir Ketumile was based on fundamental principles, but both men were pragmatic as they considered specific courses of action. Long before Deng Zhao Peng had used the phrase “It doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice,” Botswana’s leadership had made it clear that it was not wedded to any “ism;” what would work best for the development of Botswana and its people was the most important consideration.

There was also a productive mixture of attention to high level policy and to the details of how things actually worked. Sir Ketumile as both Minister of Finance and Development Planning and later as President, brought that attention to detail to the task of leadership. Whether it was the minutia of the Customs Union’s revenue sharing formula, or the mechanics of setting the exchange rate for the Pula, or the details of how various proposals in the financial restructuring of BCL would affect government or the average Motswana, Sir Ketumile followed the details of important issues diligently.

Peter Freeman, for many years a consultant in mineral resources, tells of how he was asked to explain in informal Cabinet how the sales of diamonds were divided. Peter started with $100 of sales, explained how $X were spent on the mining operation, $Y went to government as royalty, $Z went in income tax, and so forth. When he finished, he realized that he had only accounted for $99 dollars, but he did not think many in the room had followed so closely that they would notice. After Peter had finished, President Masire thanked him, and then said that from his previous experience there was likely to be one cow that failed to return to the kraal. It was a nice mixture of the attention to detail and the sense of humor that all of us recognize in Sir Ketumile.

Sir Ketumile, in my experience, has always been looking for solutions. One night in 1978 I was working late in the old Ministry of Finance building, and I heard him come in after some political meeting. I went into the hall and after greeting him I said, “Sir, I think we are trying to do too much at once.” “Well, well, Steve,” he said, “if you can define the problem properly, then you will be able to find the solution.” It was never enough to bring him a problem, I learned, unless you were prepared to suggest some alternative solutions. As a result, the Botswana government was seldom one that went off “half-cocked.”

I found there was in interesting paradox in Botswana in the ‘70s and ’80s: In some respects the leaders were patient indeed, while in others they seemed to be quite impatient to move ahead. President Masire’s patience showed through many times in the years I worked with him, whether dealing with the liberation movements in Southern Africa, or facilitating the dialogue in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in dealing with DeBeers. In the latter case, we were at loggerheads with DeBeers in the negotiations about the development of Jwaneng. The then-Vice President remarked that those diamonds had been under the ground for some millions of years, it would not hurt if they had to remain there for a few more if we could not negotiate what we regarded as a satisfactory deal with DeBeers.

But, there were times when Sir Ketumile was impatient and wanted to move as quickly as prudently possible where Botswana’s development was concerned. Mike Stevens, who was Director of Economic Affairs between Festus Mogae and Ken Matambo, tells of meeting with Quill Hermans and the Vice President with the first set of possible projections after the achievement of financial independence, and the prospect of the first revenues from Orapa. They presented low, medium and high forecasts of revenue, and associated projections of government development expenditure. The Vice President immediately focused on the high forecast, which led to the Accelerated Rural Development Programme and greatly increased development expenditures—and the rest, as they say, is history. Mike has told me that as they left the Vice President’s office, Quill turned to him and said, “What do you expect, he always goes for broke!”

However, in my experience, Sir Ketumile took carefully calculated risks. Those of us who worked for him were expected to develop a series of good solutions, not the quickest solutions. It was better to have it done right than have it done soon—though sooner was better than later!

Humanity, and humility, define our friend President Masire. Though he has plenty of justification for putting on airs, he does not do so. I am sure all of us here today have examples of both his humanity and his humility. One I enjoy took place when I was on a short consultancy in the 1980s, and he called the Freemans’ home, since he thought they would know how to find me. Sylvia did not recognize his voice, and told him she believed I was at the Ministry of Finance—could she provide him with the telephone number. He thanked her but said he had the number. “Could I tell Professor Lewis who called?” she asked. “Yes, of course, my name is Quett Masire.” How many other Heads of State would be so modest?

An aspect of his humanity and his devotion to friendship is the fact that he always asks about the details of the lives of my children, whenever we meet. So, Sir, from my family, and from your friends and admirers from across the oceans, I say: congratulations, best wishes for many more years, and my own deepest thanks for our forty years of colleagueship and friendship.

– Stephen R. Lewis, Jr.

 Postscript: Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, Botswana’s second president, passed away on June 22nd, 2017, a month short of his 92nd birthday. He remained active until a few weeks before his death.