A civil conversation

The civil society is often criticised for being mute on issues that affect the public – silence largely attributed to their fear of upsetting government, which is one the major financers of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

However, in this in-depth interview with The Voice’s KABELO ADAMSON, Botswana Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (BOCONGO) Executive Director, Botho Seboko dismisses such rumours.

Seboko goes on to list some of the notable achievements the council has realised since he took over the top position of the umbrella for NGOs in 2017.

The 37-year old Political Science graduate from the University of Botswana, who had a short stint in politics, is adamant the civil society remains relevant in the affairs of the country across all spheres.

Q. Firstly, congratulations on your recent appointment as Commissioner for Botswana National Commission for UNESCO.

A. Thanks! My position here at BOCONGO is multi-faceted.

We have six thematic groups; we have Economic Justice, Inclusive Social Policy, Democracy and Governance, Gender and Human Rights and we also have Arts and the Creative Industry.

All these things make you open to so many functions of government.

As an institution that has a membership of over 200 NGOs, we have an opportunity to be represented in over 40 working committees and technical groups across government.

So the thematic group of Inclusive Social Policy deals with education among others.

There are NGOs which deal with social protection, so, it was exciting on my part for the minister to consider me to be a commissioner in UNESCO, more so that civil society voice will be represented in that space.

We feel this is a great opportunity to advocate for issues relating to education.

Q. Talk us through your career to date?

A. My career began in Maun.

I used to work for Love Botswana Outreach Mission – it’s an NGO.

From there I worked for the city council in Gaborone for a very long time, starting as a Council Recorder, Senior Council Recorder and changed positions to become Council Clerk.

Most people confuse this position with Town Clerk, but Council Clerk deals mostly with councillors.

From there I had a short stint in politics at the Botswana People’s Party (BPP) for almost 12 months where I was the National Organising Secretary and quickly became the Secretary General.

That is when I found a prospect in the civil society, which was my first love and my first job when I applied for BOCONGO.

Q. You are from Kanye yet you ended up joining the BPP, a party perceived to have its roots in the northern part of the country. How did this happen?

A. My understanding as a student of Political Science is that BPP is a political party in Botswana.

The notion that it is northern party shocks me because I think it comes from people who don’t study history.

BPP congresses were held in places like Lobatse, the party had members in Lentsweletau and was very strong in Kgatleng.

So, I don’t understand when people say it is a party for North.

If we are going to say BPP is a party for the north, we might as well tell Batswana which part of the country BNF belongs to and where BDP stands!

Q. Fair point. There was a time when the DISS was said to have infiltrated the BPP – what happened?

A. Well, the central committee of the BPP had at the time invited the people peddling those allegations to come to the central committee and augment such allegations.

Because, remember at that time it was not just BPP, anybody who was against the line of thinking in politics and political parties, the only way to disfranchise them was to label them.

It was not only political parties, even media houses, there were those that were alleged to be eating with the DISS.

And that thing has even not died, it’s still there. We see it on social media that so and so is getting paid at DISS.

It’s immaturity of our politics that when you disagree with a man on principle, you label him so that he is pulled away from common thinking.

Q. You sit on a number of boards, how do you juggle your roles?

A. Interestingly, the statutory boards that we sit on are not like your normal boards.

These are scheduled to meet once a quarter.

So, literally if I sit on four boards, it means I am likely going to have four meetings in three months.

It’s not a hectic schedule!

Q. There has been a concern that NGOs are dying a natural death.

A. Registrar of Societies shows there are about 3, 000 to 4, 000 societies in Botswana.

Out of those obviously the majority, accounting for around 2, 500, are churches.

But the issue is the Act doesn’t impose affiliation on societies.

So you will find that maybe out of 400 or so NGOs that exist in Botswana, BOCONGO will account for only 268.

There are many reasons why NGOs don’t want to affiliate.

For example, here in BOCONGO we have a code of conduct, so if you are an NGO, you look at our code of conduct and realise this is what I can stand, you live on your own and do your thing.

We emphasise audit in BOCONGO and there has to be activity under your NGO.

If you don’t have those things, chances are that you will fear affiliation.

Q. Kindly list some of the milestones that BOCONGO has achieved since your arrival over two years ago.

A. When I came in, the then board was approaching the end of its term.

I came in February (2017) and their term of office was ending in October.

In our first meeting they said to me that they are coming to the end of their term but they had nothing to show for the three years that they have been at the helm.

When I arrived there had been no Executive Director for almost seven months.

They had a strategic plan, which started in 2016, meaning they had lost almost a year of implementation.

The plan noted that BOCONGO was no longer attractive and its objectives were to make the institution attractive again, return it to its role for augmenting government efforts and participating in social policy.

The other objective was to make it attractive to its members and we were having almost 38 members at the time.

Also, we had to restore relations with donor community, making the organisation visible, starting nationally, regionally and continentally as well as professionalising the institution.

When I arrived, there was a massive divorce between BOCONGO constitution and the strategic plan.

We engaged a consultant to look at how we can achieve our strategic plan and they offered advice looking at the talent that we had and which we required.

We invested in infrastructure and made sure the two instruments, the strategic plan and constitution have a harmonious marriage.

Q. Anything else?

A. We have been making advisory notes to government in the national interest.

For example, at the height of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), which had literally put government in a corner, there was need for the voice of the civil society.

My belief and that of the board was that the voice had to come in a structured manner.

That is why BOCONGO invited Head of Programming from the Electoral Institute of Sustainable Democracy from South Africa and got Secretary Generals of local political parties to sit together in a panel and ask, ‘what are we doing with this animal?’ We produced a report, which you can have access to, which we also shared with government.

Even though political parties and some pressure groups would like to get the glory that they are the ones who halted the introduction of the machine, we have a document which we shared with government and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to say this is what people are thinking.

Also, for freedom of information, we did a panel discussion, we invited MISA Botswana and our colleagues in the media.

Likewise, for the death penalty we did a panel discussion on it, all the while producing reports which are accessible to the public.

These are the achievements that we have had.

Q. How are BOCONGO’s current relations with the donor community?

A. When I arrived the European Union (EU) had lost hope in us.

But they have funded us with P1.4 million and this illustrated a great deal of confidence that work will be done.

We have also received funding from the Canadian government on a project which could help communities hold authorities accountable.

Q. What is BOCONGO’s position on the current political climate in Botswana?

A. Like I said earlier, we have always wanted to formulate our opinion on anything in a structured fashion.

I am not BOCONGO – that is why whenever we want to know about the death penalty or EVMs, we engage the public and out of those public interactions we then formulate an opinion.

But what we think now is that this situation is not abnormal, it is a euphoria you get every time towards elections.

However, as the civil society, it is too muddy for us to render an opinion, lest it is misconstrued to mean something else.

This is a sensitive time when any opinion you render can be directed to mean support for somebody so we are staying away from this!

Q. What is your view on the Africa Free Trade agreement?

A. If you look at our trading relations with South Africa (SA) for example, SA becomes a determining player when it comes to the continental free trade because most of our imports are from there.

It doesn’t make sense that South Africa signs then we stay behind.

Whether it’s of benefit to us, I still have my reservations.

Q. BOCONGO was silent following the LEGABIBO court ruling, why?

A. We are very selective as an umbrella body on issues that we render an opinion on and those that we abstain from, purely because of our membership composition.

Like I said, BOCONGO is not this office, it is a conglomeration of NGOs.

So, under BOCONGO, you will find that we have faith-based organisations such as churches.

On the other hand you have those fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians.

Q. Finally, Thanks God it’s Friday, what will you be up to this weekend?

A. I normally set aside my Saturday to be with my friends.

We visit each other because I feel relationships are very important and the week is usually consumed by work.

So at the weekend you reinforce visiting either your parents or your friends.

I have a farm that I sometimes go to but Sundays are for washing my cars.