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By any Global South standard, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) is a very progressive party with a policy platform that compares favourably with some of the best on the continent. However, some of its mid-level leaders don’t always do good cultural relations and their missteps have attracted extremely bad press. Seven years ago, Echo published a letter from a Muslim man who said that a sitting BCP councillor (who was director of ceremonies at a Mochudi funeral) had ordered him to remove his taqiyah, the religious skull cap worn by Muslim men. The man said that he had travelled from Maun to attend the funeral of the deceased who had been a dear friend. He had explained to the councillor the religious purpose of the cap, he said, but the latter would have none of it, insisting that the man was attending the funeral of a Christian and had to comply with Christian norms.
It is unclear what Christian norms the councillor was referring to because nowhere does the Bible require mourners at a Christian funeral to dress in a particular way. Greatly displeased with the way he was being treated and his religion was being dishonoured, the Muslim man says he immediately returned to Maun. When contacted afterwards, the councillor not only confirmed the incident but what he was alleged to have done as well. He remained adamant that a Muslim cannot wear a skull cap at a Christian funeral. Seven years later, there is another cultural intolerance case involving a former BCP councillor and failed parliamentary candidate that has fired up a news cycle. A fortnight ago, Phagenyane Phage, a former councillor in the Kweneng District Council, publicly stated that Bangwato hire Batswapong as professional wailers at their funerals. Obviously this is not true and the explanation is that he was joking. No less a person than the Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, who is also a BCP member, has sought to justify this misconceived rhetorical flourish as having been nothing but a mere “joke.”
Establishing what a joke is would be productive because both Phage and Keorapetse appear to appreciate a joke in a monolithic context. The fact of the matter is that the same set of words can be both a joke and an insult. To a Motswapong whom Phage has the right level of familiarity with and within a private setting of a closed group of friends, the ex-councillor statements may be tolerable as a joke. To tens of thousands of Batswapong who have no personal relationship with Phage, who don’t trade good-natured barbs with him and only heard what was said about them via the national media, the statement was an insult by a factor of a whole lot. The other thing is that those with a moral centre not only pause and reflect if their jokes bomb, they apologise to soothe hurt feelings. This is a choice that pays the most dividends and under no circumstances can anyone assert a right to make offensive jokes about other people.
A joke has a particular architectural structure: the leading line or set-up, the punchline and toppers. The punchline (the part that makes listeners or readers crack up) is the most important and has a high concentration of wit and humour. The leading line in Phage’s joke is that the president of the Alliance for Progressives, Ndaba Gaolathe, provided professional wailer services at the funeral of former president, Sir Ketumile Masire’s funeral, actually crying more than the former president’s children. What is supposed to be the punchline is the Bangwato/Batswapong bit. The question is: where is wit and humour in a “joke” that gives aid and comfort to tribal supremacy? Phage and Keorapetse seem to have confused pouring scorn on people with joking about them. A joke is supposed to make people laugh, not feel belittled. The supposed joke is based on something that is not a laughing matter. At independence in 1966, Botswana created a caste system that has favoured culturally Tswana tribes – like Bangwato, at the expense of non-culturally Tswana tribes - like Batswapong.
It was on the basis of this caste system that Botswana’s economic gains have been disproportionately experienced along tribal lines, that more development funds have been spent on Serowe, Palapye and Mahalapye than on Sefhare, Machaneng and Lerala. The result is that Bangwato are more affluent than Batswapong and that a Motswapong is likelier to work for a Mongwato than vice versa. On the basis of the power relations between the two tribes, the supposed joke cuts too close to the bone. There is nothing funny about economic tribalism and surely Phage is old enough has to have this historical view. In justifying Phage’s joke, Keorapetse said that he knows that his comrade has a pure, non-tribalistic heart. Two points. The first is that the issue is not what kind of person Phage is and whether his “joke” had nefarious intent - the issue is that what he said hurt the feelings of those he referred to in his “joke.” The second is that there is no need for Keorapetse to volunteer his knowledge of Phage.
His “joke” gives us a pretty good idea about him. The lack of compassion is astounding. The shame of it all is that not only does he find mirth in putting down other tribes, he also thinks the very real tragedy that the Botswana and Masire family suffered with the passing away of Sir Ketumile can be packaged into a freedom-square joke. Some have sought to understand the “joke” within the context of fictive kinship that exists between some pairings of culturally Tswana tribes like Bangwato and Bakgatla as well as Bangwaketse and Barolong that admits of mutual good-natured ribbing. Nobody made much of Kgosi Lotlaamoreng II of Barolong saying, years ago, that alcohol abuse is so rampant that it is almost impossible for his people to find Bangwaketse herdboys. This is a tradition that goes back decades – possibly centuries, and doesn’t seem to be cause for concern.
However, there is no fictive kinship between Bangwato and Batswapong for Phage to publicly make jokes about the latter within such context. Oddly, throughout this saga, Phage and Keorapetse have sought to speak on behalf of Bangwato who have absolutely nothing to do with the former’s “joke” and may well have been hearing it for the very first time. Innocent Bangwato have now become collateral damage in rhetorical retaliation for ill-chosen words that they never uttered. It is tragic that when people are searching for cures to incurable diseases in some parts of the world, some political leaders can still find time to indulge prejudices that have been the cause of all-out civil wars in Africa.
Here is the constructive case: there is a need for political leaders to inform their behaviour to our traditional values and national principles like botho and national unity. There is need for opposition leaders to convey a new vision of nationhood values and to never abdicate moral leadership. Batswana need to develop an ethical framework around tribal relations in order to enhance the ideal of community and national unity. Let’s suppose that what Phage said was a genuine joke and put the joke to the ultimate stress test.
How is it expressive of botho and how does it help national unity? Unlike in the case of the Mochudi councillor, the BCP has attempted a clean-up but only succeeded in making the situation messier. While the Secretary General, Kentse Rammidi, gave a half-hearted apology, Keorapetse defended Phage. With its choice of words, Rammidi’s “apology” represents the low bar of heartfelt regret because it is directed at “to those who might be genuinely offended.” The statement makes clear the fact that it is possible to not be offended for having been insulted. Phage’s own apology statement reveals something equally disturbing – that in his mind, belittling others can ever be said in “jest” – his word.
Nothing on the record suggests that he has apologised to Gaolathe and the Masire family. Past this incident, the BCP will certainly find it helpful to school its members on the cultural knowledge that 21st century politics require.