When former president Ian Khama took a knee wearing a black Black Lives Matter T-shirt, a good many people could see right through the charade and wasted no time in communicating such impression. It is unclear how many saw through the charade of the Botswana government protesting police brutality in the United States but whatever the number, such impression has not been as volubly communicated. Yes, both the Botswana government and Khama treated a very important historical moment like just another passion of the moment from the US to be tightly embraced for as long as cameras are clicking.
There is no ambiguity about what the main aim of the BLM movement is: ending the all-too-often murderous police brutality that targets black lives. In its reporting over the past several years, Sunday Standard has written about the two policing models that were developed in the United Kingdom: the benevolent Metropolitan model for mainstream British society and the malevolent Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) model for what was seen as a rebellious Northern Ireland. The RIC model would later cross the Atlantic Ocean to co-agulate with a slave-era type of policing that targetted and still targets black people. The British also exported the RIC model to its colonies to police indigenous (meaning black and brown) people. Tragically, even when they became independent, these former colonies retained the RIC model. The latter explains why in Botswana today, riot police still fire rubber bullets not into the air but right into rioters.
BLM represents organised protest against the RIC model of policing, which targets and has killed a very long list of black people. George Floyd, whom the Botswana cabinet observed a minute of silent in honour of, was a victim of RIC-style policing. That same cabinet has never ever observed a minute of silence in honour of RIC policing victims killed by the Botswana Police Service (BPS) officers. Cabinet has power to ban RIC and humanize policing in Botswana but has failed to do so.
Some would say that the racism charge doesn’t stick because Botswana is an independent black state whose police service is entirely black. It is common knowledge that black police officers in the US routinely assault and, in some instances, kill fellow black people. The issue is not the colour of the officers but the type of policing model they enforce. Botswana’s police enforce a model of policing that was specifically designed to brutalise poor black people.
Away from the crime-against-humanity that is RIC policing, Botswana has failed to domesticate the idea of black lives matter in any other essential way. While there may not have been an official declaration and because it determined that black lives didn’t matter, the British colonial government introduced racism to Bechuanaland Protectorate. As Senior Education Officer with a master’s degree, future Minister of Education, Gaositwe Chiepe, was paid less than a white junior who didn’t have a university degree. Because black lives still don’t matter, some of that racism lives on. In today’s Botswana, it is not uncommon for woefully underqualified whites to earn more than overqualified blacks.
BLM is about racial justice in an expansive sense: it is about acknowledging black humanity, about paying black workers a wage that can enable them a decent life and about being respectful to and accepting of black culture – around which those lives are organised. Achieving that racial justice requires having an uncomfortable national conversation about race and race issues and that conversation should yield positive results.
With power shifting to the east, now, more than ever, Batswana have to contend with a kind of racism that has never been officialised – that of Asians. As in the case of white racism, some of this racism draws inspiration from religious texts. White racism still rampant in Botswana but a lot has also been done to analyse and neutralise it. Next to nothing has been done with Asian racism.
While entertaining, ATI’s race starter’s command (“run!”) is not very helpful because the Asian businesspeople he picked for his men’s marathon team hold the same colour of passport that he holds. It is possible to put across non-emotive points about ways in which Asians interact with what President Mokgweetsi Masisi would call “Batswana ba sekei” [indigenous Batswana].
Some Asians probably don’t know this but there are Batswana ba sekei who worry about race relations with them. They worry that, like whites but to a greater extent, Asians are not sharing national wealth with them; that Asians are never going to let them operate a Nandos restaurant for longer than 15 years; that Asians overwork Batswana ba sekei in return for slave wages that don’t make socio-economic advancement possible; that instead of paying workers Christmas bonuses, some of them prefer to jet off to India, buy status-symbol elephants and bling them out with expensive jewelry; that these underpaid workers are often forced to sell inherited land at giveaway prices to the same people of a race that is exploiting them; that centuries after arriving in Botswana, they remain a closed cultural community that doesn’t speak Setswana, doesn’t know local indigenous cultures and whose interaction with Batswana is limited to the realm of commerce; that, unlike Batswana ba sekei, they don’t sacrifice their children to the Commander of the Botswana Defence Force; that whereas there are Batswana ba sekei who were made millionaires by white employers, there is not a single Motswana who was made a millionaire by an Asian employer; that the ubiquitous Asian-owned store purposefully sells poor-quality, almost toxic food that compromises public health – especially that of the poor; that some of these stores routinely switch off the power at night in order to keep electricity costs low, in the process compromising food safety of fresh produce; and that, in very rare instances where it occurs, romance between Asian girls and Batswana ba sekei boys is brought to a screeching halt by parents spiriting away the former back home in order that they can interact with more racially suitable suitors. In short, that black lives don’t matter to Asians.
Much to the chagrin of some Indians in Botswana, Sunday Standard has written about how the iconic Mahatma Gandhi was actually an unreconstructed racist who left evidence of such racism on the pages of a newspaper he published. Gandhi was Hindu and that religion has created a racial caste system that places black people at the lowest end. There is evidence that what Gandhi said about black South Africans reflected the views and attitudes of the society he came from. In an article titled “The Indian caste system is based on racism” the February 6, 2016 edition states the following with regard to the Hindu caste system: “America has its racist Ku Klux Klan. We have what might be called our own Ku Klux Kaste, which is just as racist.” What are we to make of Gaborone having three Hindi temples? Today, in India, there are black people called Siddis – who emigrated hundreds of years ago from East Africa. The treatment of the Siddis by the Indian government and people shows that black lives don’t matter.
Here at home, Asian-on-black racism has been alleged against Asian Muslims who, according to a Motswana Muslim, will only eat at a black wedding if an Asian woman is part of the people preparing food in the kitchen. This allegation was made in a letter to the editor, the writer used his real name and to our knowledge, this allegation was never challenged.
When he was still a member and chairperson of the renamed House of Chiefs, Kgosi Tawana II said during one debate of what is now Ntlo ya Dikgosi that no people are as racist towards black people as the Chinese. He made this statement based on his student days in the United Kingdom where he studied business law. It was probably not a good idea to tar a whole nation with the same brush but there is photographic evidence of the Chinese being virulently racist towards black people. We also have to wonder whether the Confucian principle of “dazhuang”, which stresses need to stick to one’s lane, has a racial dimension. If on the basis of this principle, a Chinese contractor believes that blacks are inferior, he would not be motivated to pay them wages that are good enough to enable them a decent life. For now at least, Chinese contractors in Botswana (who get all the lucrative contracts) can’t prove that black lives matter to them.
At least according to the analysis of former British prime minister, David Cameron, racial communities that settle in a country and remain closed, end up becoming a national security threat because they put their interests before the nation’s. He offered this view to explain why Islamic radicalism was on the rise among young Muslim man whose families had long settled in the UK. It is common knowledge that whites and Asians mostly, remain closed cultural communities, their interaction with Batswana mostly limited to professional and commercial settings and that they are hoarding wealth at the expense of indigenous Batswana. If Cameron was right, these whites and Asians have become a national security threat.
ATI distilled these and many, many more concerns into his race starter’s command and the reason that simplest of commands is resonating with some (maybe a lot of) indigenous Batswana is because they share such concerns. It is troubling though that some opposition politicians, who have never been public-spirited their entire lives, are said to be egging ATI on. Their meddling will only serve to muddy the waters because the issue is racial justice, not personal aggrandizement.
Where Batswana should have connected the essence of the BLM moment (whose momentum may be fizzling out) to their own black lives, they are only too glad to protest racism against black Americans, not racism against their own black selves. (Some would have been bemused by members of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters taking a knee outside the US embassy in Pretoria but at not the South African Police Service headquarters which still uses RIC-style policing to brutalise poor black people.) With their actions, Batswana are basically saying that black lives matter only in the US when their own black lives here at home are also under threat.
However, as we engage in EFF-like circus, across the Atlantic Ocean, the BLM movement is literally changing the face of the US: statues that honour racists are tumbling, police forces are being reformed, racist movies are being pulled from rotation, the US army will rename all Confederate-named bases within a year and most importantly, some progressive whites are saying that they are beginning to realise how harmful white privilege is.
In Botswana, where, according to the Paris School of Economics, the top 10 percent earned 67 percent of the national income in 2009, where income inequality is among the highest in the world, some are kneeling, others are exchanging BLM memes and yet others are observing a moment of silence. Why are we treating this very important historical moment like the latest Air Jordan trainers from the US?
We should be talking about how, as a demonstration of the fact that black lives matter, national wealth (over 80 percent of which is in either white or Asian hands) should be shared with indigenous people. Beyond complaining about Afriforum representing the Botswana government in the Butterfly case, the Law Society of Botswana should have officialised its grievances about virtually all lucrative corporate-law contracts being gobbled up by white lawyers at the expense of black ones. Landless black Batswana, especially those in the North East, should have protested a state of affairs where they are landless in their own country because the land they should have inherited from their ancestors is now in the hands of absentee white and Asian landlords. Indigenous Batswana should be asking why common law, whose introduction was motivated by racism, should continue to take precedence over customary law. One other aspect of black lives matter is that decisions made by black governments matter. Beyond the symbolism of a moment of silence to honour George Floyd, the Botswana cabinet should have raised its voice for hours on end about the racist patriarchy of white westerners who want to dictate to it how it should manage the country’s wildlife.
The level of racial self-centredness that we have witnessed over the past 53 years of Botswana’s existence tells us that what is proposed above is not going to happen tomorrow. But we also know, for a fact, that it is not in anybody’s interest to continue denying, through their deeds, that the lives of black Batswana don’t matter. If this denial continues, Botswana’s BLM actualisation will certainly feature a hugely popular Idi Amin-like leader.