Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Don’t tell me the kgotla is an epitome of democracy

I find myself in a somewhat of a fix, confused and wondering endlessly. The question that troubles me greatly is this: How democratic is the kgotla? Batswana from the most intellectually advanced to the crude, have for many years written profusely or declared publicly about the kgotla as the epitome of Setswana democracy.

It is undoubtedly the epitome of traditionally cultural society. But is it a democratic institution? It seems we have accepted the claim of the kgotla as a democratic institution with minimum criticism and we have subsequently handed such a claim to others as fact. But it is a legitimate question to pose: How democratic is the kgotla?

The question exposes both our primitive understanding of democracy and the fact that most of us haven’t been to the kgotla. We hear about the kgotla and sometimes see a glimpse of it on tv and then we move to romanticize its structures.

At the helm of the kgotla is the kgosi or the kgosikgolo as some young and exuberant monarch has been insisting to be called. Oh! The love of power! The problem with the kgosi and democracy is that the kgosi is not a product of democracy.

By definition the kgosi is a perfect example of precisely how democracy doesn’t work. It is by inheritance that he has the power to rule over a people. It is because of who his father is, that he enjoys the power, property and endless fame which he inherits.

He is born and doesn’t become. He is an unelected ruler who rules over a kgotla and morafe with the aid of another group of unelected men comprising borangwanaagwe and a few villagers in possession of many cows and land. And yet still the kgotla is portrayed by the government and certain intellectuals to foreign dignitaries and those who wish to care as a perfect example of Botswana democracy.
Is this a sick joke or we are in a perpetual state of delusion? How can a democratic institution have leaders who attain leadership so undemocratically?

Yes, go ahead and blame it on culture. The kgotla is as democratic as North Korea! I am not done with the kgotla. I know what some may be thinking: Setswana sa re: Mafoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe e bile kgosi thotobolo e olela matlakala. But dear reader, stay with me a little while longer, and don’t be hoodwinked by Setswana idiomaticity.

The kgotla is not a place of robust debate. To speak and be listened to in a kgotla, you must be a person of means or be related to bogosi. The poor, the disabled, albinos, children, youth, women, badisa and domestic workers are background material. Their unique role is to agree somewhere from the background with speakers and certainly not to attempt to sway the kgotla’s discourse.

Women who sometimes speak in the kgotla are married women, who command a degree of influence by virtue of being married to a respected man of the village or one who commands respect on account of who their father is. The kgotla is predominantly a place for older, retired, and advantaged men.
Those whose views are disliked are shouted down: A ko lo reye motho yoo a nne fa fatshe, o re diela nako or Gatwe yo o a bo a reng? It doesn’t accord equal space to the stammering farm worker and the World War II veteran who brings his war jase to the kgotla to remind everyone of his unique experience.

Government officials also appeal to the kgotla as a principal tool for consultation on policies before implementation. The fact is that the kgotla is an incredibly ineffective tool of national consultation. Think carefully; how many people can a kgotla sit?

Take one of the large dikgotla, the Bangwaketse main kgotla ÔÇô kwa kgosing ÔÇô in its full capacity it may squeeze in a thousand people, perhaps slightly more. Kanye alone has about 45,000 people. The best attendance of lebatla is perhaps 300 people and the best attendance of a minister’s visit to the village is perhaps 100 to a 150 people, mainly semi-literate old villagers with some retired public servants. Structurally the kgotla was not built to accommodate even one tenth of the village. What about towns and cities without makgotla a Setswana?

As a tool for consultation on government policies, the kgotla doesn’t work. The minister or president comes to the kgotla with his entourage during working hours, excluding the larger part of the workforce who could have come to engage him effectively.

Instead in his audience are the illiterate, the retired, the unemployed and a few government officials who have to be in attendance. The professionals and the intellectuals are excluded from the process. You just have to look at the Btv coverage of these kgotla meetings to see manotonyana a batho a a leng teng.

Some, it has become apparent, come to try and extract some freebies from the government. What the government and its advisors have failed to do over the years is develop novel strategies of consulting people on their day to day issues.

The consultative democratic machine is broken. Most people who live in urban centres and large villages are totally excluded from the kgotla consultative process.

In terms of the preservation of the democratic consultative process, the kgotla is largely irrelevant and inappropriate, for the government speaks and consults, but does so effectively ÔÇô with itself. Those who have been elected must feel uneasy about consulting the population through undemocratic structures.

With over 80% of Botswana’s population literate, any progressive government and political party of now and the future must galvanize people largely online and innovate ways of engaging with people through novel routes.

It is only now that many government departments are waking up to the power of website technologies. However since some government departments are headed by individuals who are ill-trained in computing, most websites lack interactivity and are useless as consultative tools.
They are mere dumping sites of government documents.

Facebook, blogs, twits and websites are the real makgotla of now and the future. I hope someone is listening.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper