Thursday, August 6, 2020

A guest of the state remembers

When the state takes away a citizen’s rights, the little things often taken for granted, like when and what to eat, fly out the window. As a guest of the state, you are not to be bothered with such trivial matters. Someone else will determine your eating timetable.

You’re used to breakfast at 745am? Tough luck buddy. 

“We serve breakfast from 8 to 10 sir,” the lady at the other end of the line patiently explains.

Now, that means your morning meal can reach you anywhere within that two-hour stretch. Forget consistency, man. That does not belong here. Remember you are a guest of the state. Today the knock that signals arrival of the meal pack may be at 830am, while the following day it might be at 9am or even 930am. And, by the way, you don’t get to decide what you are served – whether at breakfast, lunch or dinner. 

Your daily ration of bottled water is limited to two 500ml bottles. So you jump rope in the evening to exercise, thereby taking up your water intake beyond what’s currently provided? Once again, tough luck dude. The lady who answers the call made to the guest relations desk explains that there’s nothing the hotel can do to help your situation. They won’t even sell you an extra bottle or two.

“It’s not allowed,” she explains before we both agree to end the conversation.

When nation states were carved out, it  impacted on people’s unfettered movement. People could no longer roam the earth as they pleased because now there were borders to respect. But the need to travel beyond the confines of the borders that now quarantined human beings into the geographical area they had the (mis)fortune to be born in did not stop when the fences went up. International travel persists to this day, and it happens for a myriad of reasons – from government diplomatic work, business, leisure, flight from persecution, criminal undertakings, study to anything else that drives people to wander around the world.

Movement through ports of entry is facilitated by a document whose origin is traced to the biblical era. 

In the book of Nehemiah, its eponymous central character – who was an official under King Artaxerxes I of Persia – sought permission to travel to Judea. And having granted such leave, the king gave Nehemiah a letter “to the governors beyond the river” requesting safe passage for him as he travelled through their lands.

The historian Martin Lloyd, in “The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document”, states that centuries ago, what was known as the “sauf conduit” (safe conduct pass) was designed to grant the bearer “passage in and out of a kingdom” being visited; a written request that acted as a gentleman’s agreement that two rulers recognise each other’s authority, and stepping over a border by the other’s subject would not be interpreted as an act of aggression.

In the absence of an international convention and norms, the rules were not always clear. And there were no guarantees. This changed in the aftermath of the First World War when, in 1920, the newly established League of Nations championed the idea of a worldwide passport standard.

So today, on top of a flag and national anthem, each nation state has a national passport that it issues to qualifying citizens and, in some cases, non-citizens who are often victims of persecution in the countries of their birth.  

 In many respects, the national passport is still very much like King Artaxerxes’ letter that Nehemiah bore in his possession and the “sauf conduit” of later years.

My passport, for instance, carries a request by the President of the Republic of Botswana to “all those whom it may concern” that I be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance, and that I be accorded “such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.

One of the acts of curtailment of a citizen’s right to free movement is the withdrawal, or denial, of a passport. It’s the tried and tested action of choice by authoritarian regimes against citizens who often don’t share the popular worldview.

Such an abrogation of citizens’ right to freedom of movement is something we can never imagine happening in Botswana. Our rights, we like to think, are protected by that very sacrosanct document whose copy many of us don’t even have – the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana.

Imagine the irony then, when I returned from a visit to Zimbabwe, to find that my right to free movement ended the moment I stepped into the geographical territory of Botswana. A government led by the person in whose name I am usually courteously ushered through borders and ports of different countries had decreed that this time my own country’s immigration officials not let me “pass freely without let or hindrance”.

Returning from a country that at the time had recorded three cases of Covid-19 while Botswana was yet to register any, made me eligible for the just introduced mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Incidentally, when government information machinery first announced the decision to quarantine returning citizens and residents on March 24, it was only in reference to people entering the country from South Africa. A couple of hours later, a decision had been taken to extend the protocol to returnees from Zimbabwe as well.

And so began my 17 days as a guest of the state, first at Masunga Senior Secondary School. We were checked into the school’s boarding dormitories, where we came face to face with the ugly face of Botswana’s public education system. It’s unforgivable that in today’s Botswana, boarding learners still have to contend with non-functioning toilets, flooded bathrooms, and lack of warm bathing water. These didn’t seem ideal conditions to quarantine over 160 people without risking another public health disaster. 

The atmosphere around Masunga Senior Secondary School had the depressing feel of refugee camps you often see depicted on TV. But even in such conditions, the human spirit refuses to die. Friendships and alliances are struck. People are generous to a fault. You have no cellphone charger? Strangers offer theirs. You can’t stand a cold shower? The two guys down the corridor have an electric kettle that they are happy to share.

In such a camp, word has a way of getting around. The District Commissioner has an announcement to make, and somehow we get to know. So we troop out to congregate at the closed gate where we stand on one side of the fence while our tormentors, who masquerade as public servants, most of them in masks, stand on the other. 

Food is being served. We troop out of wherever we’ve been to queue for whatever is being served. Forget about social distancing here.

Through social media and the tireless efforts of civil society activists such as Pusetso Morapedi, Uyapo Ndadi, friends, and many others our plight came to the notice of decision-makers, and we were moved to more habitable conditions in hotels in Palapye. But that was not before we endured two days in which we slept on bare mattresses and were under the guard of police officers, some possibly my son’s age, who sauntered about brandishing horsewhips and rifles

as if daring us to…….I have no idea what. I recalled another era, and another police chief. Whatever happened to the humane face of the police service once led by an affable man, a true gentleman, called Norman Moleboge?

Funny how word gets around in a camp. And today is no exception. You notice heightened activity, and you enquire from the guy in the Barcelona replica shirt that he has clearly worn for a couple of seasons. When the response comes, you don’t know whether to celebrate or curse. We are being moved from this place, the Catalan club’s fan says.

Nobody saw the need to communicate this little detail the previous evening. You are a guest of the state, so presumably you have no need to know what’s being planned for your tomorrow and the day after. So you hurry to retrieve your wet undershirts that you had just hung on the laundry line, to pack your bags because it has been decided that you should up and go. Right now. Or as the government people said, “now now”.

But, as we would learn from experience, “now now” does not mean immediately as we had initially thought. Though we had finished packing our bags and sat under the soon receding shades by 9am, it was only after 2pm that we began to board the bus – and even much later that it roared to life, and began the trip to Palapye where I would spend the next 15 days before being cleared after undergoing a Covid -19 test, thereby turning into a statistic – part of the numbers that are quoted as having been tested for the coronavirus in Botswana. 

So what did I take out of my time in quarantine? I value freedom more. I value the crucial role of civil society in holding the powerful accountable. I value an independent judiciary. Yes politicians are elected to take decisions, some of them very difficult, on behalf of citizens, but citizens must always maintain oversight over all public officers – elected leaders and the government bureaucracy. It is often during abnormal times, such as this one, that the rights of citizens, especially the poor and less powerful, are most violated by overzealous enforcers who turn themselves into demigods.

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Sunday Standard August 2 – 8

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of August 2 - 8, 2020.