Thursday, December 5, 2019

Botswana embracing insults as part of normal electoral politics

If you lack substance but can entertain a crowd at an open-air political rally (“freedom square”), then you are the real star at what has come be known as a “star rally.” You get to feature on the speaker roster because the organisers know that you will rouse the crowd, not enlighten it. The crowd itself doesn’t want to be enlightened – it wants to be entertained – and is thus more receptive to entertainers than enlighteners, whom they see as boring.

This is a global phenomenon. In the United States, some strategists of the Democratic Party have come out to say that the only way their candidates can win against the character who is now president is to borrow a leaf from his playbook. One strategist explicitly stated that the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate should “not quote Shakespeare” but explicitly insult Donald Trump because that is what most voters want. Indeed, insults are one of the main reasons why Trump is US president. 

Prioritising entertainment over enlightenment has resulted in a situation where speakers feel the need (indeed pressure) to say the damnedest things. In a saner Botswana, these things would be said by middle-level party leaders down; this election cycle it is party leaders themselves who are saying such kind of things. With the exception of Ndaba Gaolathe, president of the Alliance for Progressives, party leaders across the board, all vying for the state presidency, have said the most unpresidential things. Naturally, the lower strata of leadership and ordinary party members are taking cue from the leaders: a fortnight ago, Gaborone mayor, Kagiso Thutlwe, amplified a personal attack on members of the first family. The attack, which targets a minor, was first made by Umbrella for Democratic Change president, Duma Boko.

In a glorious past that will probably never return, there was a standard of decorum that recognised that attacks on a candidate’s family members were a no-no. That ended in 2014 election cycle when former president Ian Khama and the Botswana Democratic Party’s Campaign Manager for the 2014 elections, Alec Seametso, brought the family of Maun West MP, Tawana Moremi, into the plot outline of an unusually harsh freedom-square tirade. The most shameful thing about this escalation is that the emotional impact of these attacks on family members (some of them children) is not considered. A normal society would be collectively scandalized and explicitly discourage this conduct. That that has yet to happen is revealing about what kind of society Botswana is becoming.

There is a supply-demand dynamic at play: there is a demand for the supply of ugly words at a freedom-square. If no such demand existed, there would be no supply and where supply occurred without demand, the supply would immediately stop. The ugly words are meant for the ears of supporters and if those supporters covered their ears, the speakers would get the message loud and clear and be motivated to wash out their mouths. The cheers encourage the speakers to ramp up supply.

In properly functioning societies, there is respect for leadership, especially for the highest office in the land. While fair-minded criticism of those holding this office is permissible, insulting them is not. There is nothing out of order with criticising President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s administration and he expects criticism. On the other hand, it is out of order to say “Masisi o a re tlwaela”, meaning “Masisi is getting familiar with us” – that familiarity being defined by rudeness. This was said by a UDC parliamentary candidate, Sam Digwa, at a Serowe meeting called by Khama in his capacity as Bangwato Paramount Chief. Digwa was not called to order, effectively cuing others to repeat the insult. The message that sent is that there is nothing wrong with insulting a president and the challenge for whoever becomes president after the October elections is that he would also bear the brunt of such insults. One can almost bet that that president will be forced to protect both personal and presidential dignity by responding dictatorially to this unusual challenge.

In one way or the other, the culpability of leaders on the coarsening of public discourse also reflects on society: it is that society produced such leaders. Through active engagement with the political process, some directly elected those leaders and through active disengagement with the process, others created a situation that led to the election of such leaders. Contrary to received wisdom, choosing to disengage with party politics doesn’t make one apolitical: such choice is a political decision that affects political outcomes in profound ways.

Around the time that the Ancient Greek were debating democracy at public squares, Plato, a rock star-philosopher who founded the first university in the western world, was hugely skeptical of this form of government. Plato, who could use the sharpest tools from social sciences to whittle democracy down to its bare essence, worried that in a democracy everybody can vote. Part of the choreography of the campaign season is to launch election manifestoes which, in a nation of non-readers, are a waste of resources. The nature of electoral democracy is that people who go to the freedom-square for entertainment and shun enlightenment in manifestoes and other sources, qualify to vote and in the process, imbue often unqualified elected officials with immense political power. Worse still, the informed and uninformed have equal voting power and it is possible the latter are in the majority.

The campaign season excites artificial interest in the political process but after the election, such interest completely disappears. Elected officials end up either in the National Assembly chamber or those of local governments where they debate public policy but the public galleries are always empty. Elsewhere, the civil society keeps elected officials on their toes but that doesn’t happen in Botswana, largely because the civil society here is an extension of the ruling party. In this particular respect, elections are just opportunity to make hiring decisions on people whose job performance is subsequently and willfully not monitored.

To their credit, ideological marketeers in the west have done an excellent job of popularising electoral democracy. The fact of the matter though is that as Plato feared, democracy is extremely dangerous mob rule and the myth about its infallibility has delayed the development of what would be a more effective system of government.

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