Botswana’s political elite has been ripped apart by the ongoing debate on gay rights, and the fault lines run as high as the country’s cabinet.
While the Botswana government was this week reported to have snubbed visiting American Special Envoy for Lesbians, Gays Bisexuals and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Randy Berry, the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Botlogile Tshireletso broke ranks with the Executive.
Tshireletso who stood out as the only government official at a dinner hosted for Randy Berry by the American Embassy confirmed to the Sunday Standard that she did not attend the dinner party as a government representative: “I was invited as a Minister and MP who is passionate about human rights issues. I’m not saying I was there representing Government’s position. They invited me and I was touched by the plight that homosexuals find themselves in,” she said.
She said there is need to debate the issue in Parliament. Asked if she does not fear that she is likely to be reprimanded by her employer Tshireletso said “I don’t think my presence at the event hosted by the US embassy could rub the government the wrong way.”
Fighting Tshireletso’s corner on the gay rights issue is former President Festus Mogae and former Speaker of the National Assembly Margaret Nasha who both attended the dinner party alongside pro gay activists among them BONELA representatives and LEGABIBO lawyer Dick Bayford of Bayford and Associates. Top on the list of the opposite side of the gay rights debate is President Lt Gen Ian Khama who has gone on record speaking out against homosexuality. Asked in Parliament to clarify the government’s position, Khama then Vice President said: “Human rights are not a licence to commit unnatural acts which offend the social norms of behaviour … The law is abundantly clear that homosexuality, performed either by males or females, in public or private is an offence punishable by law”. WikiLeaks disclosed recently that Botswana’s presidency believes that homosexuality offends Botswana’s traditions and culture.
The issue of homosexuality between Botswana and the American government has been simmering below the surface for some time. A few years ago the Botswana government refused to issue an exemption certificate (the diplomatic residency permit) for the adopted child of a gay American diplomat. The then American Ambassador, Andrew Nolan reported that, “according to the Chief of Protocol in the Office of the President, Ms. Daphne Kadiwe, who was speaking confidentially, it is primarily an issue of law and precedent precipitated by having both men listed on the child’s birth certificate. According to her, Botswana has already discouraged three other diplomatic missions from assigning same-sex couples to Botswana. There are (largely unenforced) laws making homosexuality illegal here. They wish to avoid giving the impression of condoning such activity which is not only illegal but also contrary to Botswana’s traditions and culture.”
Botswana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has always closed ranks around Khama on the issue of gay rights. In September 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Botswana opposed the resolution. Current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi is understood to have embraced the ministry’s strong anti-gay position. In what most political observers view as a diplomatic anomaly, the ministry was not represented at the dinner party hosted for the visiting American envoy, the ministry told the Sunday Standard that it was not aware of Randy Berry’s visit. Sources close to the Ministry however claimed that this was a euphemism meant to cover up the deep seated division between the Botswana government and American government on the issue of gay rights.
The Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs has also openly taken a position against gay rights. Former Assistant Minister of Labour and Home Affairs Olifant Mfa even encouraged gays to, “go for counselling and serious therapy so that they can be brought back to normality.” In line with this position, the ministry has consistently denied access to condoms for men and women confined to an enforced same sex environment like prisons.
Adding to the volatile political mix is the support the American and British government are giving to gay rights activists. In March 2015, the British High Commission in Gaborone funded a policy dialogue by the Botswana Network of Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) and the Lesbians Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana whose aim was to enhance more debate on influencing perceptions and challenged Botswana’s legislative framework on dealing with lesbians, gays, intersex, bisexual, and the transgendered people.
British’s High Commissioner to Botswana, Nick Pyle told a local newspaper that the debate had nothing to do with promoting one r lifestyle over another. “Nor is it about forcing anyone to change their beliefs.
It is about choice and tolerance of difference,” he said. From a human rights point of view, it is simply about protecting the right of all members of society to live their lives free from discrimination and the fear of violence. The American Embassy in Gaborone posted on their website last week that they “appreciate the work of civil society organizations such as BONELA, LEGABIBO, Pilot Mathambo, and Rainbow Identity, among others, for their tireless work in the field to promote human rights and acceptance of members of the LGBTI community and their ability to access basic services, including health care. Our support to these groups will continue.”