For at least the past year, Botswana’s ruling elite has been at war with itself.
Ian Khama’s hand-picked successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, has been doing everything in his power to trample over his predecessor’s legacy, including forging closer relations with China and lifting Khama’s much-vaunted ban on elephant hunting. Key Khama allies, such as former spy chief Isaac Kgosi, have suddenly found themselves the subject of corruption investigations.
Khama, for his part, has been hurling increasingly vitriolic insults in Masisi’s direction — the new president is “autocratic” and “intolerant” and “immature and arrogant” — and has taken the dramatic step of cutting ties with the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, the party founded by his father Sir Seretse Khama. Khama has now launched a new party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, which will contest the general election in October.
Earlier this year, an unlikely figure suddenly appeared at the centre of this bitter dispute: Bridgette Radebe, the South African mining boss. In addition to her business credentials, Radebe is married to Jeff Radebe, the former Cabinet minister; and her siblings include Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s richest man, and Tsepho Motsepe, wife of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
In a series of exclusives published in Botswana’s Sunday Standard newspaper, Radebe was alleged to be at the centre of a campaign to unseat Masisi.
The headlines painted a picture of a transnational conspiracy: apparently, she was backing former foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi’s bid to become president of the ruling party, to the tune of tens of millions of pula, along with Patrice Motsepe; she held a secret meeting in Victoria Falls to discuss strategy with Khama, which was so suspicious to Zimbabwean authorities that she was briefly detained and interrogated by the Central Intelligence Organisation; she was overheard in secret recordings advising Venson-Moitoi’s son on how to move funds across the border, and on media strategy for the campaign; and she used a Gaborone-based consulting firm, Avante Security Services, to launder 10 million pula (R13.8-million) to Venson-Moitoi’s supporters.
These allegations were serious enough for Botswana’s immigration authority to slap travel restrictions on Radebe, who must now obtain a visa before visiting the country. And it drew stinging criticism at home from minor opposition party Black First Land First, whose leader Andile Mngxitama said: “We say to Bridgette Radebe, and her brother Patrice Motsepe, and the president of the country who is also a brother in law through marriage, hands off Botswana … Bridgette Radebe is involved in coup-making … these people are regime change agents.”
For South African analysts, these claims came as something of a surprise. Despite her political connections, Radebe herself is not known for involving herself in the nitty-gritty of South African politics, focusing instead on her extensive commercial interests. Why then would she get involved in Botswana’s messy leadership dispute? And why now?
The answer, according to Radebe, is that she was not involved at all — and that the Sunday Standard’s reports were fabricated. In her first interview since the scandal broke, she told the Mail & Guardian that she is baffled by the spate of allegations against her, and is determined to clear her name. “I really need help,” she said.
Radebe’s connections to Botswana stretch back decades. During apartheid, when South African universities were making it difficult, if not impossible, for women like her to complete their education, she found an academic home at the University of Gaborone. The friends she made there were drawn from the highest echelons of Batswana society. They included Khama and Venson-Moitoi, who was and remains “like a sister to me”.
These friendships have endured, and mean that Radebe visits Botswana regularly. Khama and Radebe are even represented by the same public relations firm.
Yet these links also prevented her from doing business in Botswana, Radebe claims. “I have never in my life ever tried to get business in anything that either my husband or my family members are involved in,” she said. “That is why I could never apply in Botswana while my friends and family friends were in the ruling party. I could have compromised them.”
(There are flaws in this logic, given that Radebe’s familial connections with South Africa’s most powerful politicians have not prevented her from accumulating a fortune in excess of R1-billion. She maintains, however, that she has not crossed any ethical or legal lines).
In this context, there is no doubt about where her sympathies lie. She is strongly supportive of both Khama and Venson-Moitoi, and critical of the current administration. “To what extent is the Botswana nation compromised?” she muses. “What is becoming of such a unique, credible country? With so much dignity, and so much respect?”
But these sympathies did not translate into material support, she said. “For the record, I was never imprisoned as they said in the papers. They never confiscated anything. I never gave president Khama any money to smuggle. Nor Venson-Moitoi. All those things never happened.”
While she admits she did give campaign advice to Venson-Moitoi’s son, Kabelo Binns — the substance of which was in the leaked recordings — she said that this was nothing more than friendly conversation between old family friends. And besides, the advice — or the substantial funding, if the Sunday Standard is to be believed — did not work: Venson-Moitoi scrapped her campaign even before the ruling party congress began, whereas Khama’s new party is not expected to make an impact beyond his stronghold in Serowe in central Botswana, where he is the paramount chief.
When Radebe saw the first Sunday Standard report, about that alleged meeting and the subsequent interrogation in Victoria Falls, she said she laughed at the absurdity of the story. “I thought this was crazy. I wasn’t angry, I was just thinking this is madness, what the hell is this?”
Her next thought was that she should probably sue. “There is this thing, even if you go and sue in Botswana, would you get justice done? Would judges have the confidence to do the right thing, or are they compromised?”
Her brother is taking that risk. Motsepe has slapped the Sunday Standard with a 5-million pula (R6.9-million) defamation suit. So far, Radebe has decided not to go down that road.
She remains frustrated, however, that her name has been dragged into Botswana’s political quagmire; and is insistent that a few phone calls will clear things up.
No one seems to be rushing to her aid, however. Botswana’s presidency said that it would not comment. Ambassador Stuart Comberbach, a high-ranking Zimbabwean diplomat, did not respond to a request for comment, despite being recommended by Radebe herself. Khama did not respond to questions.
Only Avante Security Services was prepared to say something on the record: it denied the claims that it had funnelled funds into Venson-Moitoi’s campaign.
Nor are Radebe’s powerful relatives in the South African government mobilising on her behalf — although she says she would not welcome any special treatment (“The last thing I’ll do is go to the presidency to ask for any help”).
In fact, by her account, not a single official has been in touch with her on this subject, even though Ramaphosa is reported to have dispatched the international relations minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, to Gaborone to mend fences with Masisi. “I’ve phoned, I’ve sent SMSes, I’ve never heard from any of them. Khama has also never been approached,” said Radebe.
In the absence of official comment from anyone else involved in this strange saga, the last word — for now, at least — falls to Radebe. “I just pray for the people in Botswana — there’s an election in two months — that they will get their problems sorted.”