The difference between setho & botho

11 Nov 2015

This article is motivated by a question recently received from my former boss, Prof Frank Youngman. The question was: “What is the difference between botho and setho?” One way of answering the question is to consult a dictionary. And here is what Kgasa and Tsonope (1995:30) say about botho: “mokgwa o o siameng wa motho” [the good manners of a person] and my dictionary (Otlogetswe, 2012:62) defines botho as “mokgwa kana maitsholo a motho a itshwarang ka one Bana ba gagwe bana le botho jo bo eletsegang” [habits or behaviour that one displays] and the second meaning that I proffer is: “maitseo a mantle a motho a nang le one Ke mosadi yo o botho e le ruri” [the good manners that one has]. What about setho? Kgasa & Tsonope (1995:258) “mokgwa o o rategang wa motho” [desirable human traits/manners]. Tlhalosi (p.553) offers two meanings of setho 1. mokgwa o batho ba dirang dilo ka one 2. maitseo a a eletseganga a go dirisana le ba bangwe [1. A manner in which people do things 2. positive manners of working with others].

The question as posed by Prof. Youngman requires a lexicological response and not a lexicographic one. Put differently, it won’t be sufficiently answered by a dictionary definition because dictionary definitions by their nature are brief and sometimes unhelpful. So much of my discussion that follows that follows is based on my corpus linguistic influence. It is an analysis based on the consideration of a Setswana language database of about 20 million words. In the database, the word setho occurs 1197 times while botho has a frequency of 2182. This means that Batswana talk about botho more than they do about setho. This is not surprising and it will become apparent why in the development of this column. Let us start with what botho is. The dictionary definitions are right that botho refers to a composite of manners that are considered desirable by members of the community. This includes phatic communion acts such as saying Hello to the people you meet, being polite or being helpful in the community or at home. Ke botho! If on the contrary you are rude, pompous, abrasive and offensive you are considered lacking in botho. A person therefore can have botho or lack it (o na le botho/ga a na botho or go tlhoka botho). In Setswana botho can be molded in a child (go bopa botho jwa ngwana). This means that, while a child may be lacking botho (a tlhoka botho) there is provision that such an individual’s life can be changed through character development. They can be re-socialized, taught manners and be beaten into line. It must be made clear though that Batswana use the term botho not just to mean “good manners” but also mean behaviour or manners in general. That is why it is possible to talk of botho jo e seng jone [the wrong kind of manners].

Let us now turn to setho. The word setho refers to those intrinsic qualities which define one as human. That is why we have botshelo jwa setho (human life), boitshwaro jwa setho (behaviour characteristic of humans), boleng jwa setho (human worth), maikutlo a setho (human feelings), mowa wa setho (human spirit) etc. Those are human traits which are found in all persons regardless of age, race or social class. The lack of such critical traits renders one beastly and barbaric. That is why the term human rights is defined as ditshwanelo tsa setho because they are rights that accrue to one purely because one is human. One doesn’t have to earn them or work for them, but they are purely his/hers on account of one being a human being. Additionally, anything that goes against such basic traits ga se setho. Anything that is not setho is sephologolo [animalistic].

That is why any inhumane treatment is classified as not setho. The butchering of people is not setho, some believe homosexuality is not setho, insulting one’s parents is not setho and bestiality is not setho. Therefore to have no setho is much more serious that to have no botho since a lack of setho signals the lack of characteristic human qualities, while the lack of botho is the lack of good manners which is as common as oxygen in every society and generation. It is almost impossible for society to move ahead with people lacking in setho while a lack of botho in society is typical of every generation. 

When the Botswana vision, Vision 2016 speaks of botho it describe a person who is well-mannered, courteous and disciplined, and respects the rights of others in a complex society.

“Botho is an example of a social contract of mutual respect, responsibility and accountability that members of society have toward each other and defines a process for earning respect by first giving it, and to gain empowerment by empowering others.” It is important to observe that botho presupposes setho in a motho. In other words, it is only people who can have botho, and it is only those people who are humane and who can demonstrate botho. It would be farfetched to expect one who lacks setho to show botho. There is a hierarchy here. Motho must have setho to have botho.