It is sad, even distressing, to note a hardening of tones in the discourse of public debates between the government and the ordinary people in our country.
The last few years have seen a continuous dwindling of space for open and tolerant public debates.
Slowly and slowly everyone is digging in their heels deep into the trenches; getting shriller, becoming more intolerant, hostile, openly contemptuous and even abusive towards one another.
Instead of talking to one another, everyone is shouting down the other; that is if they are not calling them all sorts of smear names.
A culture of righteousness, hitherto unknown in our midst is fast getting entrenched.
As the British writer George Orwell said some sixty years ago, truth is always the first victim of every war.
There is no better example of just how dishonesty thrives in an atmosphere of intolerance than the way various commentators are pushing their opinions in the ongoing alcohol debate.
Truth be said, the two leading protagonists in this debate; the alcohol industry on the one hand and government on the other have used every trick in the book to brutally kill honesty and transparency.
Each of the two sides (and to a very large extent their supporters too) has viciously bended and in some cases altogether invented facts so as to reach their preconceived poles.
Stigmatisation of the opposing side is tactic employed across the board.
As was to be expected in such circumstances each side is subjecting the other to generalized infamy if only to browbeat opponents into silence.
It is depressing to see a whole nation made up of people being polarized into just two camps.
As the American George Bush would have it, you are either with us or against us.
I cannot remember any time in our history when we differed so fundamentally on an issue.
People who defend the alcohol industry and rail against the infamy it is being subjected to are dismissed as outright drunkards who cannot live for a moment without the assistance from alcohol.
People who criticise government, however their good faith and measured tones, are indiscriminately labeled as unpatriotic and potentially seditious.
Honest criticism of government is often discredited, with the patriotism of critics routinely questioned and their reputations consistently maligned.
It is sad to see the extent to which the current government is actively polarizing the nation, not just by suppressing debate but also by uniting its diehard loyalists on one hand against critics on the other.
On the other hand those who support government’s determination to abolish alcohol are dismissed as Ian Khama’s cowardly bootlickers.
That is very scary indeed.
It was never supposed to be like this.
As a people, we have to learn to differentiate between government and a people.
Even a President as popular and universally loved as Khama cannot always be said to be talking on behalf of the people.
There are questions raised about the legitimacy of automatic succession, but no one doubts the mandate of this government to speak on behalf of the country.
Which is why it would be very prudent for Ian Khama to show some magnanimity and humility in his interaction with other people and industries he does not like or admire, like is so clearly the case with the alcohol industry.
While alcohol has caused serious ravages to Botswana’s social economy, in tackling the issue, the President should be careful not to be seen to be zealously imposing his lifestyle on other people.
In calling for tolerance, I am in no way saying people should not differ.
My concern is that the way we are drifting apart as a nation, with the polarity probably at the most endemic in our history, our differences should be so managed as to ensure that reconciliation will achievable once the storm is over.
Botswana faces some very serious problems going forward and it’s difficult to see how these could be overcome without thorough, open minded debates.
In fact, many Batswana want to be involved in open and courteous debates where they are treated with respect including by people who disagree with them.
The smear, labeling and name calling that we are wailing through only repels a majority of our people
As we all know, courtesy is one of the basic principles of a debate.
It’s difficult to see how the current intolerance, discourtesy, smear and name calling can be said to be amenable to a free and honest debate.
Many Batswana demand courtesy in the course of their public debates including from a government they may like but not necessarily agree with on matters of principle.
That courtesy becomes even more important to them when it is given by people holding views divergent from theirs.
It’s time we reclaimed our roots of tolerance, honesty, patience, flexibility and humility.
Those are the virtues that will promote serious discussions necessary to uplift us from the national morass in which we find ourselves as a country.