Thursday, July 2, 2020

Exclusive use of Setswana during televised COVID-19 updates angers some

With as much false information as there is both online and offline about COVID-19, Btv updates have become one of the main sources of credible information for a worried public. For the first time ever, some people (especially those who don’t speak Setswana) are forced to watch the state broadcaster but are being confronted with a problematic situation.

For as long as it has existed and for the most obvious of reasons, Btv has always used the national language (Setswana) more than the official one (English) in its telecasts. Those familiar with this language policy wouldn’t be surprised when virtually all government officials that appear on the regular and popular COVID-19 programmes speak Setswana. This has been happening for close to two decades now and there is nothing eyebrow-raising about it. There have been instances when what is said in Setswana is translated into English but such cases are few and far between. The later has been motivation for those who never watched Btv, and were probably turned off by its language policy, to complain bitterly about the almost exclusive use of Setswana.

At least on the basis of their names and profile pictures, most of the aggrieved who complain about this on Facebook appear to be white. Media houses like Sunday Standard livestream the updates.During one Btv update, one subscriber used very harsh language to complain about exclusive use of Setswana. Some other non-Setswana speakers express similar sentiment using non-confrontational but unambiguous language – like “I wish that I could understand” that was posted to the comment board of the bwgovernment Facebook page on Wednesday evening during a live update. For what it’s worth, someone tried assuring the latter with “They will translate.” When English has been used, some Batswana have also complained bitterly. President Mokgweetsi Masisi gave a live address on Btv from the State House on March 30 to announce the 28-day lockdown, using English.

He used the same language when he gave another live address from parliament that had convened in Boipuso Hall at Fairgrounds. When he delivered his parliamentary address with a “good accent” (comment from Sweden on bwgovernment Facebook page), some Batswana were not at all happy and expressed their unhappiness about his choice of language. The president used the language of a PhD thesis in his parliamentary address and some 10 or so minutes into this address, someone complained that “English e re tshware ka diwashene”, meaning “The English has grabbed us by the collar.” Elbows flexed in a non-COVID-1 context, the president was indeed flexing his semantic-gladiator muscles in such fashion as to cow both the petite bourgeoisie and hoi polloialike: “paradoxical cul-de-sac”, “topsy-turvy phenomenon”, apocalyptic”, “Stigmatic perception” and “deleterious consequences.” 

There are valid points that one can raise to assert how Setswana has to take precedence in a period like this. One is that if you have lived in Botswana for longer than five years, you should definitely be able to speak many more Setswana words beyond pula and thebe. It is no secret that not doing this is seen as conveying value judgement about both the language and its speakers. Some of the people whom Btv’s language policy favours never had an opportunity to learn English while all non-Tswana speakers have had plenty of opportunity to learn the language but made a conscious decision not to. Volunteer Peace Corps from the United States spend three years in Botswana and become fluent speakers in their second year. One, a young woman who was based in Salajwe, was so good that Btv featured her on its Setswana programme called Sedibeng.    

That notwithstanding, non-Setswana speakers have a legitimate expectation that all COVID-19 messages should be delivered to them in a language they can understand. The government’s main objectives are to save lives, contain the spread of the disease and restore economic activity to normalcy. It would thus be unwise to limit the delivery of the health messages to one section of the population at the expense of the other. Tswana speakers and non-speakers co-exist (some even co-habit) and the section not reached by these messages will definitely be exposed to grave risk and itself become a public health risk as a result. Some non-Setswana speakers play a crucial role in the economy and can only play that role even better if they get good information about COVID-19.

There is another most unusual but as valid a reason why the COVID-19 message should not miss non-Setswana speakers. As more and more Batswana acculturate into a western identity, some full-blooded Batswana don’t know Setswana at all. Therefore, while the use of Setswana can be justified by stating it is the language spoken by most indigenous people, some of those people are indigenous in name only. If being indigenous confers rights, they are also deserving of those same rights.     In as far as naturalized citizens are concerned, the government itself is to blame. A section of the Citizenship Act, which has not been amended, says that a foreigner who is naturalized as a Botswana citizen must have “sufficient” knowledge of Setswana or any other indigenous language. This legal requirement is clearly not being enforced because practically all foreigners who naturalized as citizens don’t speak Setswana. If it was enforced, there would be far fewer naturalized citizens complaining about the use of Setswana on Btv.

The same Act requires foreigners who are naturalized as Botswana citizens to take an oath of allegiance. When this sort of oath was administered in the 13th century Britain following the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, practical measures were taken to ensure that one was loyal to the monarch. If you had taken an oath to follow English culture in 1278 and was found sacrificing an animal the next day to summon rain, you would definitely have been killed immediately.A former British colony, Botswana retains this oath less the substance. Those who took this oath when it had meaning, acculturated into English society. Today, one has to merely chant it before an Immigration official and repatriate profits from his business to the country he retains allegiance to (his country of origin) and never bother to learn Setswana. There are some cultural communities whose members took this oath decades ago and have non-Tswana-speaking children who were born in Botswana.

In remaining culturally closed to Batswana, these communities show where their allegiance lies. Among them would be tycoons whom President Masisi said came to Botswana wearing sandals made from reuse car tyres that Batswana call rampeechane. He made this remark to make the point about them not being loyal to Botswana.It is common knowledge that some naturalized Batswana have shunned not just learn Setswana but simple Setswana names as well. Sometime in the 1950s, a man who in future would become Commissioner of Labour and Social Security started work at a Mahalapye butchery as Kebotse Motshidisi. When he knocked off in the evening, he had a new name (Klaas) because his white employer thought Kebotse to be a mouthful. Klaas would forever overshadow Kebotse. Many more Batswana have lost their indigenous names the same way.If nothing else, this dark phase has re-affirmed the power that Setswana still holds as a tool of communication. English remains an important language of commerce but for most Batswana, one that can’t fully convey public health messages in a life-and-death situation.

Generally, taking advantage of an opportunity to learn languages is always a wise thing to do because language is literally a survival skill. It has that much power. More than a decade ago, some Chinese fishermen perished at sea in Ireland because they couldn’t find the right English words to send an SOS message. As their boat sank, all they could yell into the radio was a repetitive sequence of “Sinking! Water!” messages which didn’t make sense to the person on the other end. To commandoes, multi-lingualism is an asset because it enables one to blend in seamlessly in different kinds of environment. Hopefully, in the future, all those who don’t speak Setswana will take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to learn not just Setswana but other local languages as well.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.