Thursday, July 7, 2022

From the barrister’s perch to the political ring

Is Unity Dow ready for the rough and tumble of politics? It’s a question I ponder as I meet her for lunch at Caf├® Portugalia, Game City.

Nearly two years prior when I had interviewed her at her home in Oodi, she had seemed a touch aloof.

“You’d better Google me so we don’t waste time on what’s in the public domain,” she had told me rather testily ahead of that first interview.

It’s a comment that would have made me bristle with indignation 15 years earlier as a younger and sometimes stuck-up journalist. With age, and wisdom perhaps, you take these reminders to do what has been a part of your training ÔÇô prepare for an interview ÔÇô in stride.

It’s part of the downside of being a journalist. You are often painted in the same colours as the many hacks that wade into interviews unprepared, ask the wrong questions, and end up writing the kind of listless or humdrum pieces that give journalism a bad name.

“Sure, I’ll Google you,” I remember mumbling docilely in response two years ago, even though I already knew enough of what was “in the public domain”. The knowledge that you will inevitably be viewed with a measure of restraint, and suspicion even, because you are journalist is cold comfort.

Dow walks in briskly into the restaurant and from the familiarity with she greets the waitress, I sense she’s a regular here. “I have lunch here at least twice a week,” she explains as we exchange pleasantries. And I sense, too, that she is trying to be much more affable this time around. We both request sparkling water ahead of the meal.

“Why politics?” I ask her.

“Why not?” she counters good humouredly.

Dow has spent a decorated career as a criminal prosecutor, defence attorney, judge, human rights activist and writer. You can argue that to a large extent, hers has been a profession in which respectability has been demanded more than the popularity of politics.

So you would probably be hard pressed to imagine her kissing snotty-nosed babies to win votes, or joining the obligatory dance at a rural political gathering. Funny are the ways of politicians.

True, she has touched base with the grassroots, first courtesy of her rural upbringing, and then because of the ground-breaking cases she’s been involved in as a lawyer and judge. It is nigh impossible to talk about Dow’s career without bringing up the 1992 Dow Case or the 2006 Basarwa case.

There are those who believe she has committed a cardinal sin by entering the political arena, where cloak-and-dagger games are rife.

With evident disdain for pigeonholing politicians attract, she reasons bluntly that all of us are, after all, political animals. “When you ask, for example, why a certain road is taking long to complete, you are asking a political question,” she says.

“What is different for me now is that I’ve decided to enter party politics and offer myself for elected office.”

She has clearly relished her past role as legal wig, novelist and human rights activists. However, party politics is far removed from all that. Here, relationships are treated in terms of power and ascendancy and often people are divided into those to be buttered up and those to be intimidated.

From the coutroom, she will have to move to orating at political rallies, canvassing from door to door, sitting on floors, and doing a lot of the odd things politicians do to get votes.

Dow appears confident that she has tapped deep into the rural rhythms in Kgatleng West, where she will stand for parliamentary elections on a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) ticket. She says she is positive that she will carry Kgatleng West.

Electorally, the fact that she is a woman is largely a non-issue, Dow says. Perhaps it does help that traditionally, Botswana like South Africa, votes for parties, not candidates. And that Kgatleng West is very much her background.

Dow says she draws inspiration from women who have walked the political road ahead of her, women who have been battered by often-rimes cruelty of politics but have rolled with the punches. “There are women like Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi who have shown staying power,” she says.

Moreover, she acknowledges the scant numbers of women in party politics, especially at the highest level. In 2009, both the BDP and BCP fielded just three women in the 57 constituencies. With just four women legislators, women only account for 6.6 percent of the total in parliament.

What about the assertion that women traditionally do not support each other?

“That’s an unfair assessment,” Dow says. “Like men, when it comes to voting, women do not merely make gender-based decision but consider the qualification of the candidate, irrespective of gender.”
She says part of the problem is societal. Traditionally the profile of a leader is a man, even in more advanced societies like England and France. That has been built into the social psyche.

“When a woman opposes another in politics, it becomes an issue; men stand against each other all the time. Women should not be made to feel guilty for voting for a man instead of a woman because the choice should be made after analysis of the merits of all candidates irrespective of gender.”

As we continue to chat over the quiet hum of restaurant conversation, she speaks on the growing view that Botswana is a troubled nation, now the sick man of SADC. This is in view of the rash of problems affecting institutions like the BDC and the BMC.

“The problem is that Botswana is 42 years old and grew rapidly in terms of various aspects,” she says. “What is lacking is a system of tracking and monitoring that growth.”

Botswana is not among the two-thirds of nations that have ratified the SADC gender protocol. Dow speaks out on this.

“The country may not want to adopt the position of other countries in ratification for its own sake ÔÇô and therefore signing a document it will not be able to honour,” she says.

The protocol, she says, is prescriptive in its language, measurable targets, time frames and indicators for achieving gender equality and equity. For example, the 23 equity targets set out by the protocol include the achievement of 50 percent representation by women and men in politics and decision-making by 2015 and the revision, amendment, and repeal by 2015 of all sex or gender discriminatory laws.

“The intention is noble, but it does not take into account the internal processes countries have to go through to make these changes. For this reason, the 10 countries that ratified the protocol may not achieve these targets.”

She echoes one of the greatest criticisms made of the SADC regional grouping is its habit of making numerous commitments and intentions only on paper without corresponding practical activity and drive to implement the plans. Ratification of the protocol should be seen in this light.

So will she need to reinvent her public persona to convince doubters that she is cut out for politics? She doesn’t think she needs to change a thing. “I have always been a politician,” she says.

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