Many would remember Festina Bakwena as the face of government when the country experienced its first civil servants strike in 2011.
And to most workers, she was the stubborn, heartless employer or mohiri, (as she was commonly dubbed during the strike.) who refused to give them a salary increase.
In this one- on -one with The Voice, the former Director of Public Service Management and now Ombudsman talks about the strike and how it brought out another side of her.
She also responds to some of the concerns that were raised when she was appointed to her current office.
THE WOMAN THAT MANY WOULD LOVE TO HATE
Who is Festina Bakwena?
I am a mother, a wife, a grandmother, an aunt amongst many other titles in an extended family. I am the current Ombudsman of Botswana, a position I was appointed to at the end of my contract as the Director of Public Service Management.
I have been a civil servant for almost 38 years having held various positions at the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Communication, Science and Technology and the Office of the President, under former president Rre Masire and Rre Mogae. I am an educator by training and I started my career as a secondary school teacher.
Many people questioned and may still be questioning your appointment as the Ombudsman since you don’t have legal background, how exactly did you land this job? And before you answer that are you ok with being called the Ombudsman or I should say Omdudswoman?
(Laughs) It’s ok, that’s a title that cannot be changed because the position is being held by a woman.
Ok, now back to our question?
Oh yes, even people who are close to me questioned if I would be able to handle the job as I am not a lawyer by profession but what we need to appreciate and understand is that being a lawyer is not a requirement for one to be an Ombusdman.
Many people think so because my predecessors were both former lawyers but that is not the case. I have vast experience in civil service management which is a distinct advantage to this office.
Still on your appointment, there are some sections of society which believe you were transferred from DPSM to a lesser influential office because of the way you handled the strike,
your reaction to that?
I have heard that some say I bungled in the way I handled the strike hence the transfer but the truth of the matter is that I was working at DPSM under a contract and when my contract ended I was appointed Ombudsman. To me this shows that the President sees my capabilities because if that wasn’t the case I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
Talking of President Khama, some think that you are one of his people, meaning that you are somehow close to him hence you are still in the public service. How far true is that?
If you mean I am his friend, no I am not, he is my President just like he’s any other Motswana’s president.
But how did you react to your appointment as the Ombudsman, did you see it coming?
I didn’t see it coming but I must say I was humbled by the appointment because like I have said it demonstrated an immense trust by the leadership of this country, especially President Khama. I must tell you that I have long wanted to retire from the public service but I keep on postponing for the love of serving my country.
And I am sure you are happy that you scored a first by becoming the first woman to hold this position
Of course I am.
How is your typical day like in the office?
I am still familiarizing myself with the office as I am only in my first month of office.
Now let’s talk about last year’s strike which was the first in Botswana and dragged on for more than two months. You were the civil servants’ boss at the time, how was the pressure of handling it?
The strike made me understand who I really am, how far I can go and that I have the strength which I never knew I had because I was really put under a serious test. During the strike it was times of long days and shorter nights but what I can tell you is that when I slept, I slept soundly.
Was there a time when you wished you were not the Director then?
The strike was hectic yes but I don’t remember a time when I wished I was not the director, I knew I was doing my job to the best of my ability.
What about your security, did you feel under threat because people thought it was you who was refusing to give civil servants the increment that they were demanding?
Not even in one day. This is one thing that I should commend Batswana for being a loving and peaceful people and besides they knew the truth that I was not refusing with the money. People know that awarding salary increases to civil servants is not a one person decision and besides there are factors to be looked at before such a decision can be made.
After singing the gospel that the government has no money, you eventually benefited from the three percent salary increase, didn’t you feel guilty when you got the money?
I wished I could not benefit but there was nothing I could do, the public service is so big that there was no way I could say no, I don’t want the money but yes like I am saying if I had my way, I wouldn’t have benefitted from the increase.
How is your relationship with public service union leaders?
Very cordial, some of them were and are still personal friends, the strike never strained our relations because even during that period we used to communicate anytime of the day and anyday of the week.
If you could turn back the hands of time, what is one thing that you would do that you never did then?
I have no regrets, I have lived my life to the fullest.
One day you will eventually retire from the civil service, what will you do, venture into politics as is normally the norm?
We ( University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) chapter have registered an association which will deal with the children and child development issues. If it will take one to be a politician to make this succeed then so be it.
You are 64 years old but you seem to be going stronger, what’s the secret?
Its exercising, I am on a treadmill every morning and when the weather is friendly I take walks.
Are you exercising because you are trying to beat ageing or you have always been a fitness fanatic?
I started exercising long back, it doesn’t work when you wait till late.
What about food, are you particular about what you eat?
No fatty foods for me and I love organic foods such as bogobe served with morogo
And how do you spend your weekends?
I love going to the cattle post when I have spare time because I am a cattle farmer. I also love tending to my gardens both in Gaborone and in Molepolole though the Molepolole one seems to be getting more of my attention.
Full names: Festina Shale Bakwena
Date of Birth: 05/12/1948
Place of birth: Molepolole
Marital status: Married with two children (one is late) and two grandchildren
Car driving: Mercedes Benz 320
Holiday destination: I love the wilderness and anywhere there is tranquility
Type of music: Jazz
Book last read: God is my CEO by Larry Julian