During his over six decades of distinguished public service the Former President Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, NYB, G.C.M.G., was a chief architect of Botswana’s Democratic Development. As Vice President and Minister of Finance and Development Planning, as well as President, Sir Ketumile contributed immensely to Botswana’s emergence from being ranked as one of the world’s ten least developed nations to middle income status. During the same period Botswana also made enormous strides in the provision of education, health and social welfare.
Quett Ketumile Joni Masire was born in Kanye on the 23 of July 1925 as the first of Joni Masire and his wife Gabaipone, who was of the Kgopo family.
Like most of his male peers he spent much of his early childhood as a herd boy. At the age of thirteen he was able to attend Rachele Primary School, where he displayed a remarkable academic aptitude. As one of the first local students to earn a Government bursary, he was able to continue his studies in South Africa at Tiger Kloof (Old Moeding) secondary school in 1944.
In 1946, following the death of his parents, Quett as the first born was confronted with the need to provide for his siblings. This development caused him to forfeit his opportunity to attend University on a further bursary. Instead he acquired a teacher’s certificate.
In 1950 Masire became the first teacher as well as head-teacher of the new Kanye Junior Secondary School (now Seepapitso Senior Secondary School). In the early years he taught eight subjects – Setswana, English, History, Philosophy and Hygiene, Geography, Mathematics, General Science and Music. In an interview he would later recall:
“I wanted to teach. I wanted to communicate information to the people. So I worked as a teacher for six years. I enjoyed teaching everything because I was good at all save for music, because I could not sing.”
Under Masire’s initial guidance, the school grew steadily in terms of both students and staff, causing it to move to its present site. During this period Masire was also active in wider community affairs, serving as the Secretary of the Bangwaketse Teachers Association and Chairman of the Bangwaketse School Sports Association. Masire’s passion for teaching continued into his later life, in 1967, when he was already Vice President and Minister of Finance he helped found and taught night classes at the Capital Continuing Classes.
While still working in education, Masire had maintained his lifelong passion for agriculture, often visiting the then Government’s experimental plots, as well as the then white owned local commercial farms, to expose himself to new ideas. At the end of 1955, having saved enough money to buy his own tractor he left the teaching to become a fulltime farmer. He would later recall that he had substituted one form of teaching for another: “I wanted to go and teach people innovative methods of farming. People were surprised that a person could leave a respectable profession such as teaching to do something ordinary and common as farming.”
His modern methods of cultivation were initially derided by some. But, big yields silenced the naysayers. In 1957 he became the first indigenous African in the Bechuanaland Protectorate to be awarded a Master Farmer’s Certificate. Throughout the 1950s Masire was regularly appointed or elected to various Bangwaketse development committees.
On the 2nd of January 1958 Masire was wedded to Glady’s Olebile Mogwera. Their marriage was subsequently blessed with six children: three daughters, Gaone their first born, Mmasekgoa and Matshidiso and three sons, Mpho, Mmetla and Moabi.
During the same year, Masire began to acquire a national reputation as the Botswana editor of the Naledi ya Batswana/African Echo newspaper. It was in this role that he became politically engaged and first met Seretse Khama. In 1961 Masire was elected to both the reformed African Council and the higher Legislative Council, being the only commoner from the southern Protectorate to be elected to the latter body. Among Masire’s notable Legislative Council contributions was his successful advocacy for the formation of the Botswana Meat Commission as a statutory corporation.
Late in 1961 Masire was approached by Seretse Khama and others to play the leading role in organising what would become the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Drawing on his many newspaper and educational contacts, Masire quickly established an organisational network that became the basis for the party’s landslide 81% of the vote in the 1965 general election. He also established and edited Therisanyo, a party periodical that appeared regularly from 1963 to 1967.
From the beginning the new political government was to a great extent a partnership between Seretse’s vision and charisma and Masire’s energy and organisational ability.
As the nation’s first Minister of Finance (later Finance and Development Planning) as well as Vice-President, Masire championed a series of robust interventions to elevate Botswana out of its then prevailing status as one of the world’s least developed countries, which in 1966 had an annual per-capita income of only about US$ 60.
His development programme included channelling foreign aid, loans, and mining revenues into the development of educational, health, power, transport and communications infrastructure, while encouraging small-scale services and industries. Efforts were also made towards promoting commercial agriculture. Important milestones championed by Masire’s Ministry between 1966 and 1980 included the establishment of the National Development Bank, Botswana Power Corporation and Botswana Development Corporation; the introduction of the Pula as a local currency in place of the Rand, and the favourable renegotiation of Botswana’s share of revenues from the Southern African Customs Union.
In the early years of independence Masire’s dynamic approach was unpopular with some conservative bureaucrats, while others resented his pre-eminent influence over national policy planning. But, Seretse maintained his faith in his deputy. In 1969 Masire suffered a setback when he lost his Kanye Parliamentary seat to Kgosi Bathoen II, who had left bogosi to lead the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF). Thereafter, Masire retained the office of Vice-President as specially elected Member of Parliament until 1974 when he was elected in the Gangwaketse West constituency.
By the end of the 1970s the success of Masire’s development portfolio had gained him increasing international as well as domestic respect and political clout. Masire succeeded to the Presidency in 1980 with the overwhelming support of his party’s Parliamentary caucus, presiding over the late Sir Seretse’s unfinished term until 1984, when he led his party to victory in his own right. By then he had seen the country through severe drought and an early 1980s slump in diamond sales. Having previously played a leading role in the formation of Debswana as a 50/50 partnership between the Government of Botswana and De Beers, as well as the formation of the Botswana Diamond Valuing Company, in 1982 Masire overcame objection to oversee the conversion of a portion of Botswana diamond stockpiles into a 15% stake in De Beers itself.
Masire’s tenure was thereafter characterized by continued high rates of economic growth and social development, marked by Botswana’s rise to middle income status. Indeed, from 1966 to 1998 Botswana enjoyed the highest annual economic growth rate in the world. The resulting rising revenues allowed for further investment in infrastructure and public services, as well as human resource development, with education and health consistently taking the lion’s share of the budget.
Sir Ketumile’s legacy goes beyond our borders as during his time as both Vice President and President he also played a key role as one of the leaders of the Frontline states in the liberation of our region from colonialism and Apartheid.
In the early years of independence Masire had been deputised by Khama to engage the exiled leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements to establish a modus operandi for their discreet movement through Botswana. In response to the ANC’s request to establish bases in the then newly independent Botswana, Masire presented the movement with an alternative that: “If you can come through in a way that we cannot see you, then we will not have seen you.”
Masire would later observe that it was thus agreed that: Our official policy was that we did not allow the liberation movements to use Botswana as a springboard to launch military attacks on neighbouring countries. If the ANC managed to infiltrate arms and guerrillas through Botswana, we would claim not to have seen them pass through our country.”
In 1980 Masire chaired the first meeting held in Arusha to form the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference (SADCC, later SADC), which succeeded in drafting the nascent organisation’s constitution.
After leaving office, Sir Ketumile divided his time between his passion for farming and frequent service as both a domestic and global statesman, often working through his Sir Ketumile Masire Foundation.
Internationally, he chaired the Panel of Eminent Persons that investigated the 1994 Rwandan genocide, was the facilitator of the inter-Congolese Dialogue and the SADC mediator for Lesotho, and most recently Mozambique. Up until the time of his death he remained a respected voice for peace and good governance on the African continent and beyond.
Beyond his many contributions to his country and region, Rre Rra Gaone will be remembered for his character, his humility, wit and decency, which personified the values of Botho. He always remained accessible and engaged with individuals from all walks of life. In this respect while he has left us with a larger than life legacy, he was very much part of the lives of all Batswana.
Lady Olebile Masire passed away on 17 May 2013, Sir Ketumile Masire is survived by four siblings, six children, and twelve grandchildren.