Axed prisons boss Silas Motlalekgosi invited us into his home last week.
Earlier this month, Motlalekgosi was retired as head of the Botswana Prisons Service (BPS), made to leave a position he held since 2009 when he was appointed by the then President, Ian Khama.
A former Botswana Defence Force (BDF) officer, this is Motlalekgosi’s story; it is a tale he plans to document in a tell-all autobiography soon.
Let’s journey back to 2009 and your appointment to the top post in the Botswana Prisons Service.
It was very interesting when I entered the prison service, quite a dramatic entry and as I speak to you now, a dramatic exit as well.
Back then I was an officer with the BDF, which I had served for 23 years.
A call was made and I was appointed to the Prisons Service.
By then I was studying my defence management in South Africa when I got the news.
I know many were opposed to my appointment, even some legislatures were opposed to it.
Well the reasons I had, one of them said this to me personally, they said that I was some soldier who was used to killing and that I was going to shoot and kill people in prison, and that I knew nothing about rehabilitation.
There was also a feeling that the public service was being militarized and so I guess people were just not comfortable with that.
And was that the case?
I don’t think it was.
There are certain strategic posts that a leader would want certain people to hold, a certain caliber of people, sometimes a limited people.
Even myself as the Prisons Boss there were certain positions I preferred certain people to hold.
Leadership is very interesting, not only from a military point of view, people want certain people for certain structures.
It was only certain key positions that were people from the BDF and I am one of them and I don’t think I did badly either.
But you knew nothing about the Prison Service when you were appointed?
My appointment was a two-year secondment.
Basically my appointment was to come and have a closer look at the system and rectify where I felt was wrong.
There seemed to be a problem with the prison service and I was given a task to revamp it and re-align it with where the country was going.
My first step was to read extensively about what the Prison Service is.
I realised that the Prison Act was not speaking to our constitution, which is the mother body.
I interrogated the Prison Act and amended a few things.
The structures, the reporting structure, the conditions of service were horrible – in fact, they were pitiful!
For example, I found people with over 25 years of service with no promotion.
Prison Service then attracted the lowest skill service and so I fixed all of that and started the prison journey.
Public perception about the prisons when I started was so bad.
Why do you think that was?
Because of the way the Prison Service was presented.
Back then the only thing that people knew about the service was when there was a prisoner executed or a prison escape or issues of condoms and all those unpleasant things.
But after extensive research, I realised that prison is actually meant to rehabilitate and to achieve that first you need a conducive working environment and the first place to start is the staff.
I started from that and looked at the whole system and I started putting in structures but the biggest challenge was convincing legislatures that this was the way to go.
What changes were you working on that you won’t be able to see through following your sacking?
First of all, I was not dismissed.
I don’t know if it is dismissal because I thought I was retired with immediate effect (laughs).
And I don’t blame you for saying I have been fired, from where I am standing I am as confused as anybody.
I am still waiting for answers as to what is next and what it means.
But I have left office gracefully and with pride.
When I walk in the streets I walk with my head up high.
I mean at least for now I don’t have any bad reputation that has been attached to my name, like corruption and so forth.
So as we stand I don’t know why I am out of office, I don’t know and I need to know also for self-improvement.
It is very scary for one not to understand.
I need closure.
But I have so much respect for President Masisi, I decorated the State House for the first bouquet when President Masisi ascended to the office with my prisoners, but you know we are here now.
Before we get into that, your future plans sir?
Well, I had been able to fight relentlessly for the three projects, which we have just been awarded.
I had bid for the Lobatse Old Mental Hospital.
I wanted to build a Comprehensive Rehabilitation Cell there.
We don’t have that in Botswana, we live in a communal set-up in our prisons, and also because of its close proximity to Lobatse Prisons, I said we could house a certain class of people so that they get treatment before we release them into the mainstream.
Here at Village in Gaborone, we wanted to build headquarters, in the whole SADC our service is the only one that doesn’t have a headquarters of its own, the headquarters are currently on rented land.
I also just got the Sebopa farm up northeast.
Look we have a court in Gumare and Shakawe, when we have prisoners who have to be remanded they travel over 500km to Maun and the road is very bad and so we have been given a very big piece of land there.
I had studied a model in Spain that I was going to build a state-of-the-art facility there and I hope whoever takes over will continue where I left off.
Is there overcrowding in Botswana’s prisons?
Well yes and no.
We are only overcrowded in the serious offense category, like Central Prison.
The last time I checked it had about 300 people but it was built for a carrying capacity of 114 people.
But the rest of the prisons are fine.
Is the communal set-up ideal, especially considering the on-going pandemic?
Perpetration of disease is a serious concern, especially now that we are faced with Covid-19.
The second thing is also command and control.
If something happens and we have to break down walls it becomes a problem.
Even in times of emergency, we will have a problem.
And with the deposition in numbers, it gives so much stress to the prison staff.
No thought was ever given to rehabilitation as the principal for imprisonment.
You had planned to change the name of the Prisons Service, why?
Yes, part of my plan was to recommend to Government to change the name to Correctional Service because we correct people’s minds and behavior.
You also suggested prisoners be made to participate in Agriculture?
I had also wanted to be part of the food security strategy, yes.
I simply told Government that they should buy me machinery, give me idle pieces of land because I know the Ministry of Agriculture has so much idle land.
I wanted to make a center of excellence where we train prisoners for some of these jobs.
It was going to be done in such a way that it was commercialised so that they could get some sort of allowance and we would not be in conflict with the law.
I wanted to keep them busy and skill them so that when they leave prison they should have some sort of skill and have something to do to make a living.
I came with all sorts of reforms, I thought I was the golden boy of the public service.
I don’t know what happened but I did my best!
Do you support the death penalty?
I don’t think anybody has the right to take another person’s life but if they do, well then the law must take its course.
There is no problem with the death penalty; if somebody has killed, why should they live? If due diligence has been followed in terms of the law, then yes they should be executed!
What about instances where people have been convicted and hanged but it later turns out they were innocent?
Well, the way the law works is very funny but as I say here in Botswana I have so much faith in our judicial system that they leave no stone unturned.
In your view, should appointments to certain posts, like the one you held, be made by the sitting President?
Yes, it should be, because you work directly with them.
In our language there is something called the Ordus group, should there be civil unrest the President must have his people to have a conversation with.
And these are the service chiefs.
So yes, the President has to appoint people that he thinks can do the job for him.
Are rape and sodomy a problem in Botswana’s prisons?
Well, there is yes and no to it.
Some people have come out to say they were raped but the thing is we don’t have any proof.
But I always say that if homosexuality is happening in the free society what about in confined spaces.
Your guess is as good as mine.
It is like the issue of condoms.
I’ll ask you, in an all-male or all-female prison, what condoms do you provide.
It is a legal and moral issue. You can give people condoms in prison, but what are we saying if there are all males in there?
So what is your position with regards to condoms in prisons?
My position is and had always been no, I am not going to allow that until it is legally required for me to do that.
Look, stay away from prison if you want to enjoy your freedom.
If you go there I am going to stop you from smoking and won’t give you condoms.
Prisoners are always accusing your staff of abuse, do you think some wardens are guilty of heavy-handedness?
Well yes, we have always had reports of abuse but it always comes when there is maximum force.
Maybe when a prisoner is refusing to do something the officers are legally allowed to use some sort of force but it should be reasonable.
But we have processes to investigate such incidents.
Look, the Prison Service is a very dangerous terrain; we are to rehabilitate people who have offended the society it can’t have challenges.
There is a lot of anger in there!
Tell me about your upcoming suit with the DIS?
Well, it is subject to court proceedings and so I don’t want to get into it.
All I can say is I was promised something in my personal capacity which was not honored and so I have complained about a certain arrangement that was not fulfilled by the DIS.
Just like anyone else, it is my right as a citizen.
I don’t think that can cause war. Let the law take its cause on this one.
On a lighter note, now that you are no longer in uniform what is next for you?
Actually, I am more than relieved.
To be honest I have long wanted to leave.
I remember 23rd October last year I met the PSP and told him my intention to leave.
And so I have been planning my exit for some time.
I wanted a peaceful exit but now.
What does a peaceful exit mean?
Under normal circumstances when a leader leaves there are certain activities that should happen.
That is what I mean.
I deserved a proper exit, not an uprooted one.
Who do you recommend to take over?
No, I am not going to be drawn into that.
They can appoint whoever they see fit!
TGIF, what will you be up to this Friday?
I will be at the farm, most probably.