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Masire: The cattle baron

Early post-colonial administrations of the democratic Botswana state were often labeled governments headed and dominated by cattle barons.

Precisely, the label came to be referred to the just departed former president, Sir Ketumile Masire who ruled the nation between 1980 and 1998 and his predecessor, President Sir Seretse Khama.

The basis for the label was not unfounded though.

The two founding fathers were cattlemen of repute.

Not surprising, the only meaningful economic activity during the early days of the new republic was primarily cattle rearing, inherited from pre and protectorate days.

There was no way any ruler could ignore the cattle economy.

Virtually, all families in the country, directly or indirectly depended on cattle for livelihoods.

As president Masire said in Shakawe in 1995, “Dikgomo di bipile lehuma kana letlhoko la malapa a le mantsi, le aa senang kgomo tota.”

Even the protectorate administrators could not ignore cattle or agriculture economy, hence the investment on the colonial administration on disease control infrastructure from Dibete to the northern part of the country.

Against this background, President Sir Ketumile Masire like his contemporaries demonstrated passion for farming.

Cattle rearing took a centre stage as a mainstay of the people, most of whom still lived in the countryside.

There was a realisation that there were limited alternatives or substitutes to farming before the discovery of diamonds in 1967.

Like the protectorate administration before them, the administrations of Sir Ketumile and Sir Seretse , perceived stock farming as the only viable enterprise, the bulk of the population could depend and use to pay taxes that oiled the wheels of government.

While President Khama is credited for laying solid foundations for cattle farming, including commercialisation through the Tribal Grazing Land Policy of 1975, Sir Ketumile, farmers say, led an expansionist programme that saw the improvement of the quality of animals and other new methods of farming. It was during the presidency of Sir Ketumile that the National Policy on Agricultural Development still seen as relevant was adopted in 1991.

In Ngamiland many still see President Masire as a reason the tsetse fly, an insect that had rendered the Okavango Delta out of bounds for cattle farmers was eradicated.

Tsetse fly caused a cattle disease called nangana and sleeping sickness on people.

It was during President Masire that the fly was completely eradicated a development that led to the opening up of the fringes of the delta to farming and tourism at its core.

Farmers also credit the administration of Sir Ketumile for rolling back the foot and mouth disease and restricted it to within the Buffalo Fence constructed from 1981, just a year after he took over the reigns from Sir Seretse.

During his tenure at the state-house, game ranching took foot in the country and managed to provide sanctuary to thousands game species.

President Masire is also specifically remembered for his role during the outbreak of the cattle lung disease that appeared in Okavango in 1995.

A battle against the cattle lung disease proved to be a battle on two fronts for the President.

First he had to avail resources towards the eradication of the disease and secondly, he had to convince farmers that the destruction of their cattle was the best thing under the circumstances.

Both battles proved difficult.

The disease threatened the mainstay of the people, not only in Ngamiland but could have been disastrous if it crossed either Kuke Cordon Fence or Makalamababedi Disease control fence.  

Cattle displaying clinical symptoms of the incurable cattle lung disease were spotted in Xaudum Valley adjacent the Namibian border, roughly 30 kilometers west of the iconic Okavango Delta.

News quickly made a whirlwind across the country.

Ironically, near the epicenter, the news is received casually by inhabitants of the Okavango area, particularly cattlemen living around the fossil valley of Xaudum that extends to Kgomokgwana area.

Few in Ngamiland appreciated the magnitude of the problem, then causing an earthquake among the veterinary authorities.

Later authorities had to contend with the problem of farmers fleeing with cattle trying to escape the disease and government campaign to destroy them.  

The CBPP was suspected to have entered Botswana through the valley, from Namibia’s livestock disease prone of the north.

Its appearance in Botswana required rapid response from the director in the then Department of Animal Health and Production to save the country’s beef sub-sector.

Several officials descended on the area to announce a number of planned interventions and measures designed to solve the problem.

The disease eradication entailed the destruction of cattle in the Shakawe area.

However, the decision to destroy cattle proved very unpopular among the affected communities.

It set the government on a collusion course with cattle owners.

In the meantime, the disease continued to spread to other areas across the district as some farmers tried to flee from the epicenter.

In no time, the disease swept through the district like a wild fire, crossing to Sepopa, Nokaneng, and Sehithwa each time out pacing the containment fences constructed by government, first in Kgomokgwaana, Ikoga and Setata.

The issue was immediately escalated to the highest office in the land. President Sir Ketumile Masire had to quickly fly to Shakawe and later he found himself face-to-face with angry Ngamilanders.

He had to deliver the news to farmers anyway.

Farmers interviewed by this publication say his job was complicated by officials who failed were tasked with the responsibility of communicating the news to communities.

Being a master strategist, the deputy Chairman of Okavango Sub-District, Mr Samson Mauano explains, President Masire managed to quickly defuse tensions and got a buy in from farmers. Mr Mauano, former councilor for Gani-Nxau-Nxau at the time of the outbreak, and one of the few who noticed suspicious signs of the disease, remembers how the President managed to secure a buy in from the cattlemen.

Mr Mauano talked to BOPA about the meeting President Masire held with political and other community leaders ahead of the epic meeting at Shakawe kgotla.

He said some people had inflamed situation with suggestions that the idea of destroying cattle was nothing but a ploy by government to eradicate cattle from Ngamiland with the intention of repalcing livestock with game.

“Sir Ketumile took it upon himself to confront the people and their fears,” Mauano said.

Adding that, “He started the meeting talking about the importance of cattle and how livestock rearing has up to then, masked the destitution of many rural families, even those that did not own any stock.”

Mr Mauano said President Masire proceeded by discussing the tragedy that had befell the country, including the implications of inaction to the beef cattle in the district and the country as a whole.

By the end of the meeting, Mauano explains, many people had switched positions to government.  

Mauano contended that, although there were still some opposition, majority of the people agreed with government and President Masire was instrumental in swaying them to his side.

“The president managed to pour cold water on claims propagated by some people that there was treatment available in Namibia. He even invited the Namibian minister of Agriculture,” Xaudum Valley farmer said.  

Another renowned cattle farmer in Ngamiland, Reverent Kegaisamang Ramokwena remembers how President Masire used his persuasive skills to convince hostile farming communities to accept the destruction of their cattle as a policy of eradicating the cattle lung disease in Maun area.

He said a subsequent decision to destroy all the cattle including those in ranches of Hainavelt was met with stiff resistance from farmers, but President Masire reasoned with them until they appreciated the magnitude of the problem and the repercussions of lack of decisive action.

He said Sir Ketumile promised to restock the area, a commitment he later fulfilled which humbled his detractors.

At present cattle in Ngamiland are referred to as; “dikgomo tsa ga Masire,” as an appreciation of his leadership during the crisis. Farmers mainly cattle farmers will therefore, always remember President Masire as an architect of the industry and its saviour. ENDS

Source : BOPA

Author : Aupa Mokotedi

Location : MAUN

Event : Sir Ketumile Masire Tribute

Date : Jun 28 Wed,2017

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