South Africa

OBITUARY: Archibald Mogwe: Diplomat, negotiator, OBE – a useful life well lived

Archibald Mogwe died last week in Botswana at the age of 99. (Photo: Supplied)

Africa has lost another of its exemplary elders. Archibald Mogwe, who died last week in Botswana at the age of 99, may not be a household name in South Africa, but his passing — after a 50-year career toiling for peace, prosperity and sovereignty on a continent that has struggled to achieve all three — should not go unremarked.

I first met Rre [Mr] Mogwe in 1976 when I was in Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer. By then he had already made his mark as the first Permanent Secretary to the Office of President Sir Seretse Khama and had been part of negotiations with De Beers to ensure that the people of Botswana benefited fairly from the nation’s newly discovered diamond wealth. 

He had also been awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) on the eve of independence in 1966 for his service as an education officer in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, an honour he seldom mentioned.

His greatest challenge, though, came in 1974 when he was elected to parliament and appointed Botswana’s minister of foreign affairs at a time when the wars of decolonisation were raging on his country’s borders and he was charged with keeping his nation out of the maelstrom. 

Not having an army and not wanting to become southern Africa’s version of Poland, Botswana was caught between an apartheid regime with no qualms about violating borders to target uMkhonto weSizwe and frontline states pressing Gaborone to take more risks in support of the anti-apartheid struggle.

His negotiating skills as Botswana’s head diplomat would be sorely tested, but his experience as an educator in South Africa stood him in good stead. A star student at a local mission school near his village of Kanye, he won a scholarship to Tiger Kloof school in Vryburg where he became acquainted with future ANC leadership. 

Mark Chona, Zambia’s intelligence chief from 1968 to 1980, told me how Archie would engage in Lusaka with President Kenneth Kaunda, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and Oliver Tambo, the African National Congress (ANC) president, and would then meet secretly with South African Foreign Minister Roelof “Pik” Botha. 

Archie’s proficiency in Afrikaans, and his taste for Klipdrift brandy and Rembrandt Van Rijn cigarettes, helped keep Botswana out of the crossfire — mostly — without abandoning the cause of South African freedom. 

Nonetheless, even if  Botha had wanted to, he could not control the SADF’s armed incursions into Gaborone in the mid-1980s against the ANC, which necessitated the creation of the Botswana Defence Force, a highly regarded force that has been active in peacekeeping across Africa. 

In 1985, Rre Mogwe was appointed Minister for Mineral Resources and Water Affairs, overseeing Botswana’s burgeoning diamond wealth and the economic and social development it fostered. That did not prevent him from acting as a valuable back channel for negotiations between South Africa and Angola that eventually led to peace and Namibia’s independence. 

Such shuttle diplomacy had its risks. In 1988, President Ketumile Masire was on a diplomatic mission to Luanda when his plane was shot down by the Angolan army, forcing a harrowing landing near Cuito Cuanavale. Fortunately, everyone survived, but relations with Angola remained frosty for years. 

Mogwe went on in 1995 to become Botswana’s ambassador to the United States where he once again played a pivotal role behind the scenes. During congressional deliberations on the landmark African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), the legislation was imperilled by post-apartheid South Africa’s doctrinaire rejection of generous, non-reciprocal access to the world’s largest market.

When Rre Mogwe learnt of this, he cornered then-ambassador Franklin Sonn who, knowing Archie’s reputation and relationship with the ANC leadership, had no choice but to listen to him. South Africa withdrew its objection and has gone on to become Africa’s largest beneficiary of Agoa.

Upon returning home to Gaborone, Rre Mogwe had one more role to play in support of president Masire, who had been appointed by the then Organisation of African Unity as facilitator to the inter-Congolese dialogue in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

He traversed the country with Masire and they almost paid for the efforts with their lives when their plane was attacked by a DRC rebel faction. 

While the conflict there seemed intractable, Botswana, with Mogwe in a crucial adviser and negotiator role, helped broker a deal that was closed after months of negotiations at Sun City with the support of Thabo Mbeki. 

A lifelong learner, he accumulated an appreciable amount of Amharic during his time shuttling in and out of Addis Ababa as an envoy. 

In 2005, Rre Mogwe retired to his farm with his second wife, a nurse and educator (his first wife, a teacher and mother of his children, died in 1992), not far from his home village of Kanye.  

There, as a monnamogolo or ou man, he held court, regaling visitors with stories from his very active life, tending his cattle, and watching the sun set over the Kalahari Desert as he had as a boy nearly a century before. 

Tsamaya sentle, Ntate Archie. DM

Tony Carroll is adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and director of Acorus Capital.

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