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Remarks at the Retirement of Botswana's President Masire

Remarks by Stephen R. Lewis, Jr. at the Retirement of His Excellency The President of the Republic of Botswana Sir Ketumile Masire
31 March, 1998

Your Excellency The President and Lady Masire
And friends, all.

It is indeed an enormous pleasure and privilege to be here this evening to say a few words on behalf of the friends around the world of an extraordinary citizen, leader, and human being, His Excellency President Masire. So, this is primarily a personal statement, from one friend to another. We first met nearly twenty-three years ago, on my first month-long assignment in the Ministry of Finance. It was well before Botswana had been "discovered" as a success story. Ministers still drove their own cars, Gaborone was a town of bakkies, not Benzes, and the Mall on Saturday morning was where everyone could be seen -- if they were not at their cattle posts. Some things change, some stay the same.

The tone of any organization is set by the attitudes of those at the top. President Masire and his colleague, the late Sir Seretse Khama, set an example for everyone in Government in their openness to ideas, insistence on honest reporting of events, willingness to listen to the bad news as well as the good, a desire to look well into the future planning for the present, and the adherence to important principles. Without those attitudes, Botswana would not have experienced its world-record economic growth over the past thirty years, nor would it have established among the most effective democracies in the world.

I was surprised how readily I was accepted as someone who might contribute to discussions within the Ministry, and later, within Government more broadly. I learned of the Botswana tradition of hospitality to outsiders, as well as the long-established practice of using some foreigners in helping to deal with the problems caused by other foreigners -- of which the establishment of the Protectorate was perhaps the most dramatic example. I discovered it was what one had to say, not who was saying it, that was of importance in contributing to work in Botswana's Government. Believe me, the experience is quite rare, and it takes extraordinary self-confidence to run an organization, or a country, on that basis. The example has come from Botswana's senior leaders.

Our friend, now in his last hours as President, always made it clear in a quiet way that the politicians, representing the people of Botswana, were the ultimate authority. But in over twenty years of experience, I never heard him "Pull Rank" -- there was always a reasoned response to an argument. I well recall a day when a dozen of us spent hours briefing him on the analysis of an important issue. He listened, made the occasional note, and asked questions. After an extended time he said, "Well, I am going to do what you suggest, but not for the reasons you gave me." The he told us what he thought was wrong with our position, and why our conclusion was the right one, but for the wrong reasons.

In that brief time, he set an example for how a leader should treat those who work for him -- or, Dr. Chiepe, for her. We were rigorously questioned, we were treated with respect as analysts and as individuals, and we were given the courtesy of being told what he would do, and why he would do it. There was no arbitrariness, there was no unnecessary show of authority, there was a willingness to ask any question he needed in order to reach his own conclusion.

I have two faculty colleagues at Carleton College who give the following advice to their students. First, there is no such thing as a stupid question: if one does not understand, one should always ask. Second, it is well known that no one ever learned anything with his or her mouth open: listen, don't talk. Our friend the President has followed that advice, and as a consequence he has been a delight to work for. Not easy, you understand. He is exceptionally good at asking the questions I hoped he would not!

It would be easy for me to go on at some length with anecdotes about President Masire -- such as his apparent willingness to work at any hour, or to go to any place, if he thought it could advance the cause of Botswana; or his ability to remember the details of virtually every briefing, including all the numbers. But instead, let me say briefly what it has meant to be his friend, not just his junior colleague.

What do we expect of a friend? Our true friends know something about our core being and beliefs; they want to remember things that are of importance to us; they share our joys and our sorrows; they follow our ups and downs, whether in our careers or our family lives; they have time for us, even in their own busy lives; they accept us for who we are, even while they are realistic about our faults and foibles. My son, Mark, has on his desk a signed photograph of President Masire, which is a bit unusual in Washington D.C. He has known Mark since he was a student at Northside, and later at Maru a Pula. Without fail in our first conversation after a long absence the President will ask "And how's my friend Mark?" My three children, Virginia, Deborah and Mark, would travel, and have traveled, long distances for a chance to be with him for a few minutes -- and they are very jealous of the fact that my wife Judy and I are here tonight. They have responded, as have so many people, to the genuine warmth and sincere interest President Masire exudes as a central part of who he is -- a characteristic he shares with Lady Masire.

All of us will have some changes in our lives as the result of the President's decision to retire from office. Those of us who know him as our friend will be the principal beneficiaries of this change, since he is likely to take more time for friends and family without the responsibilities of public office. Those in politics, government, and public life will find it a different world. It is said one should judge the performance of a leader in large measure on the subsequent performance of the people he or she helped to nurture. On that basis, Your Excellency, we shall have to wait some years to judge how well you have done! But as I look at those in Government, including His Honor the Vice President, or many Ministers and senior civil servants with whom I have worked, or the Chief Justice, I see a group of people who have watched two Presidents, Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Ketumile Masire, demonstrate the qualities required to be truly democratic leaders committed to the development of their people and their country. The new leaders are different people, and they will forge their own way of moving ahead and will put their own stamp on things. But they have been provided with two marvelous gifts: first, a record of unmatched success in the economic development of a democratic country, and second, in the person of President Masire, the example of a leader whose high intelligence is matched by his exceptional humanity.

It is perhaps appropriate to end with the mention of one last attribute of our friend and leader: his sense of humor and his irrepressible laughter. In all the difficulties he has faced, and through which he has led Botswana, I have never known him to lose his wonderfully ironic wit, which has carried him and his friends through many difficult days. I commend to the new Government, and to the Opposition, the regular exercise of laughter as an essential element of dealing with the world's problems. That too, is a legacy of President Masire.

Sir, my thanks to you for your leadership, and for your friendship. I know I speak for your friends both in Botswana and throughout the world in wishing you and Lady Masire a long, exciting, and well-deserved retirement from elective public life.