Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Doing a beautiful thing in an ugly way now national pastime

In Setswana culture, it is antithetical to all the established precepts of botho to publicly display charity to the needy. In Christianity, Matthew 6:4 counsels: “So that your giving may be in secret and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” According to Islam’s Hadith, Prophet Muhammad mentions among those who will be shaded on Judgement Day, “a man who gives in charity and hides it, such that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives in charity.” Hebrew for acts that would otherwise be called “charity” in English is “Tzedakah” and in Judaism this obligation cannot be forsaken even by those who are themselves in need. Of the eight Tzedakah levels, giving anonymously is the second most meritorious. Eastern philosophies also frame giving in similar context: in Buddhism, giving with ulterior motives is frowned upon.

If botho is a national principle and religion (Christianity especially) is a mainstay of present-day Botswana, why do some companies establish departments solely dedicated to publicly offending God’s orders as expressed through the various religious texts? Why do faith associations and individuals also see the need to preen in public as they donate to the poor? From a common-sense perspective, public display of charity might encourage others to give and for companies, this is good marketing that burnishes such companies’ credentials. Still, what the Bible, Koran and Torah supersedes common sense. Additionally, botho remains a national principle that is supposed to have relevance in national life.

Nowadays, a Btv newscast is almost incomplete without an item on some benefactor giving away something. At least from an earthly perspective, giving is a good thing all round because it solves a real need problem. In addition to satisfying human yearnings for love and compassion, the giving improves the beneficiaries’ quality of life and the sight of the charity has been known to warm the cockles of the hearts of witnesses. There is also credible science that giving is essential for mental and emotional health because those who give have been found to live longer, happier lives. The charity almost guarantees that at its next meeting, heaven’s Divine Grace Committee will recommend to God that the giver be rewarded with a huge blessing. Or not.

Among hearts whose cockles have never been warmed at the sight of public charity is/was Dr. Kenneth Koma and Johnson Motshwarakgole. The now deceased father of Botswana’s opposition dismissed philanthropy as a mere public relations gimmick that is solely designed to earn the giver brownie points and not solve any poverty problem. Motshwarakgole, a veteran trade unionist who has solid opposition bona fides, never misses an opportunity to raise cain about the ugliness of public charity and one of those he has specifically targeted is President Ian Khama. At an Umbrella for Democratic Change rally in 2014 to launch Duma Boko as the party’s parliamentary candidate for Bonnington Gaborone West North, Motshwarakgole hauled Khama over the coals for donating blankets and food hampers in full view of the public and with Btv cameras rolling. By his account, Motshwarakgole knows benefactor families whose children have been mercilessly ridiculed by their playmates for being so poor they depend on the charity of others to keep body and soul together. The mean playmates gleefully point to what they saw on Btv as incontrovertible evidence.

In the corporate sector, the impulse to publicly perform charity has led to the establishment of corporate social responsibility (CSR) units which are mandated to go against what the Bible says in explicit terms. One of the new inventions from the Government Enclave is the Public Service Day which is when a particular ministry or department spends the whole day doing some otherwise laudable community service. Soon thereafter, this charity is publicised. Perhaps the oddest participants in this absurdity are faith associations which are supposed to be custodians of religious propriety. On days that they conveniently don’t open their Bibles to Matthew, some church leaders have donated to the needy and invited the media to cover their acts of charity. Against what the Koran says, the Botswana Muslim Association has also made a public spectacle of its donation to the needy.

One particular donor group has used charity as an opportunity to be ungodly in the most peculiar way. Minus its political underpinnings, the President’s Housing Appeal for the Needy is a noble cause but at least according to what has been reported in the media in the past, some givers have given this charity the appearance of protection racketeering. The story in question said that these donors (who for a reason that was never made clear were identified as white) are said to have refused to appear for industrial dispute hearings at the district labour offices because they had donated to the president’s charity.

From what the Bible says, on Judgement Day God will use the selfsame trial procedure used by Botswana courts. A case will be called up, the charge read and the accused invited to make a plea. The public charity – like that of the Public Service Day – is performed in groups but on Judgement Day, participants past and present will answer to God as individuals.

There is also the question of who should feature prominently at the donation ceremonies. In tragic circumstances, this giving is attended by shamelessness. Some of the people who will appear on Btv this month and in the future are entrepreneurs with stacks upon stacks of unpaid-wages cases pending before the district labour office and the Industrial Court. For that reason, the person who should be flaunting a giant mock cheque on Btv and smiling for cameras at the presentation ceremony is not the business owner who is unlawfully withholding employees’ wages but an employee representative whose money is being given away.

Should all this be happening in a Christian-majority country where there is a house of worship within every square mile? It shouldn’t but the reality is that while the number of churches may be increasing, Jesus Christ’s message has been violently unmoored from its doctrinal rivets. Observing the liturgy (“Praise God”) has now become more important than transacting faith with God ÔÇô loving thy neighbour in deed. The main culprit appears to be a uniquely 20th century commodity called prosperity gospel which, in the particular case of Botswana, franchised itself into public consciousness as a legitimate form of worship at the turn of the century. Essentially a pay-to-pray/tax-evasion scam that was invented in the United States in the early 1970s, prosperity gospel mostly targets financially-illiterate black people. To his unwitting flock, the slick DJ-turned-pastor who consciously samples Jamaican dancehall hit songs from Shabba Ranks, Shaggy and Spragga Benz – all the while keeping his head and hands raised skywards, is officially “speaking in tongues.” Never having night-clubbed before, the poor flock has no way of knowing that the impenetrable rapid-fire delivery is actually not a medley of spiritually-inspired Hausa, Tagalog, Zulu and Bengali. They will probably never know that the jumble of words is merely retro-90s Kingston patois from the pastor’s deejaying days that is still firmly lodged in his long-term memory. This is the permissive religious order in which it becomes all too easy to institutionalise public charity with all the audacity that the need for adulation requires.


Read this week's paper