Botswana still uses torture instrument abolished by apartheid South Africa

03 Dec 2018

Almost three decades after South Africa’s Acting President, F. W. de Klerk banned the use of sjamboks, Gaborone police welcomed the second rotation of Black Friday by sjamboking the rowdiness out of shoppers at Game City Shopping Centre.

Across the border in South Africa, the use of sjamboks was banned by De Klerk when he replaced P. W. Botha in 1989. Up until that point, the South African Police Service (SAPS) had been happily using sjamboks for riot control – which means on black and coloured people. When riots broke out in early September in 1989 in Cape Town, SAPS responded with sjamboks, typically using excessive force. In a South Africa that was putting behind the dark and shameful practice of apartheid, De Klerk was receptive to calls by clergymen, union leaders and businessmen to restrain the security services. The interest of the latter group was a direct result of threat to boycott white-owned businesses for two weeks. Ten days before that boycott (September 12), De Klerk convened a meeting of the policymaking State Security Council to discuss how to defuse the tension. On the same day, an order banning the use of sjamboks was circulated from police headquarters in Pretoria.

On the other hand, Botswana police continued to use sjamboks and some 10 years later, Botswana trade unionist, Johnson Motshwarakgole, publicly feuded with then Vice President Ian Khama at the manual workers union congress in Lobatse over these instruments of torture. Ahead of a looming strike by public servants, the government had, by Motshwarakgole’s account, bought and stored a scourge of sjamboks at the Thebephatshwa Air Base which were to be used on striking workers. While never disputing that such purchase had been made, Khama said that he disavowed knowledge of the sjamboks plan and challenged Motshwarakgole to prove that he had anything to do with either their purchase or planned use.

Three years ago, when unemployed university graduates descended on the grounds of the National Assembly to protest their joblessness, riot police descended on them with sjamboks. When some Black Friday shoppers got a little too rowdy a week ago, police officers pushed them back with sjamboks and this being a social media era where each moment of history is recorded, there is ample photographic evidence. From what Sunday Standard learns, police stations across the country have been issued sjamboks to break up riots.

Whereas thuggish conduct by the police has attracted public censure, the issue is much more complicated. The Botswana Police Service (BPS) retains a colonial-era style of policing (called the Royal Irish Constabulary) that was solely designed to brutalise British colonial subjects. The use of the sjamboks pales in comparison to firearms. The RIC model authorises riot police to fire not above the heads of the rioters but right at them.  This is exactly what the police did last year when Botho University students went on strike. There is currently an ongoing anti-stocktheft operation in which poor suspects are named and shamed while the well-to-do butchery owners whom they sell the stolen cattle to are not. Ultimately, the issue is not about the conduct of individual police officers but about how BPS operates as an institution. What this means is that if you are a thug and become a police officer, such pathological conduct will be reinforced many times over because BPS itself officially retains thuggish methods of policing.