Many more naturalised citizens don’t speak Setswana

13 Aug 2017

While Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, may have raised a very valid point about compliance with the law, the broader context of the issue he raised lacks a solid foundation in rationality.

Mmolotsi asked the Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs, Edwin Batshu, to explain the citizenship of the Deputy Treasurer of the Botswana Democratic Party, Natwarl Jagdish.

Jagdish, the minister revealed, was granted Botswana citizenship on April 14, 2011, having arrived in Botswana in January 1993. He submitted a declaration of intention to make an application for a certificate in terms of the Citizenship Act in May 2000 which he followed up with an application for a certificate of naturalization in July 2010, appeared before the Citizenship Committee in October 2010 “and having succeeded in interview, was granted citizenship on the 14th of April 2011.” While the minister insisted that Jagdish “followed the law to the letter”, he never explained why the latter, who doesn’t speak Setswana, qualified for citizenship. At the custodian of immigration law, Batshu conveniently avoided addressing himself to Section 13 of the Citizenship Act which clearly states that anyone who is naturalised as a Botswana citizen must have “sufficient knowledge of the Setswana language or any language spoken by any tribal community in Botswana.” Jagdish, who was born in India, doesn’t speak Setswana.

It would be easy to conclude that the latter was granted citizenship because of the depth of his pocket. The reality though is that the language requirement is not rigorously enforced. Apparently, the setswana that applicants are expected to know is very basic conversational Setswana and ability to handle it is conceived within varying contexts. A shopkeeper-applicant would be tested on greetings and ability to converse at a very basic level with customers. Given how high up the food chain he is, Jagdish doesn’t interact with people who can’t speak English and in his particular case, knowledge of simple Setswana greetings would suffice. This means that many more expatriates whose Setswana is limited to “pula” and “thebe” have been granted Botswana citizenship.

Mmolotsi was only half-joking when he said that Jagdish’s millions may have assisted. They did but not in the way he cast the issue. A checklist, which is periodically revised, has been drawn up from the Act. Some of the elements on that list include an applicant’s level of financial investment in the country, the employment s/he has created as well as his/her social responsibility programme. Jagdish is a deep-pocketed man and CA Sales & Distribution, the company that Jagdish is director of, has created employment for some. His involvement in football would also have counted in his favour. When scored on his application, these factors would qualify Jagdish for citizenship and language ability wouldn’t become a big consideration. As a matter of fact, the Act also states that where special circumstances exist, the minister may award citizenship to an applicant who fails to satisfy the language requirement. It is unclear why Batshu didn’t quote and not having done so might only serve to reinforce the impression that the latter provision in question was not invoked.

Away from Jagdish’s case, there is the absurdity and irrationality which in 2017, is strongly attached to the requirement about ability to speak Setswana in order to become a Botswana citizen. More and more Batswana are acculturating into a western English identity, with some children using English as a first language and not speaking Setswana at all. On the basis of the latter, it doesn’t make sense to insist on knowledge of a language whose use is declining because it is shunned by an increasing number of its owners. In a Botswana where there is less and less use of Setswana, where and from whom are people like Jagdish going to learn the language? Officially, indigenous culture is being revived but facts speak otherwise. Lately Botswana is experiencing the farce of “cultural revival” which, in one of its most tragi-comic manifestations, takes the form of “cultural revivers” being unable to form complete sentences in Setswana when they appear on the Btv breakfast show to plug cultural festivals. Some government schools have adopted a policy that discourages the use of Setswana, which policy is announced to the world with signs that read, “English-speaking zone.” The irony is that discouraging the use of Setswana is anti-educational because a wide body of research shows that speaking many languages has educational benefit. In itself, language is a knowledge system and exposing learners to as many languages as possible gives them access to a wide variety of knowledge systems.

An area that would be more productive to look into with regard to items on the Citizenship Committee checklist is employment creation. The government’s definition of employment is so loose that even people whose total earnings cannot cover monthly public transport fare, meals at work and rent are considered to be employed. This means that a foreigner who operates a supermarket chain that exploits thousands of young people in the name of employment would score very high marks on the checklist. Coincidentally, Mmolotsi raised the issue of CA Sales exploiting workers in his constituency in a variety of ways.