Sunday, March 3, 2024

Government still struggling with its tribal equality message

When he barnstormed across the country to garner support for a consultative process to repeal Sections 77, 78 and 79, President Festus Mogae also felt the need to explain that Botswana didn’t discriminate between its citizens. Exhibit 1 in service of the latter was himself: the constitution didn’t recognise Batalaote but he, a Motalaote, was president.

Almost two decades later and as the cultural-festival season gets underway, Vice President Slumber Tsogwane was saying about the same about there being no discrimination against anyone on account of tribal identity. One example that Tsogwane gave when he spoke at the Wayeyi Cultural Festival in Gumare during the Easter holidays was that anyone can be allocated land anywhere in the country. Undertaking similar assignment at the Ovambaderu’s own cultural festival, the Assistant Minister of Agricultural Development and Food Security, Konstantinos Markus, said about the same thing. The Daily News quotes him as saying that the government “continued to embrace all cultures and traditions of ethnic groups across the country.”

It is true that you can be allocated land in Tlokweng or Kgatleng when you are from Shakawe but in as far as culture is concerned, Batswana don’t have equal rights. At a Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions in 2017, a University of Botswana lecturer, Professor Monageng Mogalakwe, lamented the “cultural genocide” that some tribes have been subjected to. Another UB lecturer, Professor David Sebudubudu, has stated that Botswana’s public policy is based on Setswana culture.

In Bushmen culture, corporal punishment is taboo and in the past there were stories about Bushmen children at remote-area dwellers’ (RAD) schools running away after being caned by their teachers or boarding masters. This was cultural shock to them because there is no corporal punishment in their culture. They were responding to such shock the way anybody else would. Likewise, many Bushmen males have been and are still being punished corporally at dikgotla(customary courts) across the country. Up in the north, Bushmen culture has also lost to Tswana culture. In October 2015, the Batawana Regent, Kgosi Kealetile Moremi, decreed that all wedding ceremonies in Ngamiland must be put on hold until after the harvest season. This ban amounted to cultural oppression because in the Bushmen culture, the end of the year is the traditional wedding season. In the house of parliament (Ntlo ya Dikgosi) that Moremi sits in is a Bushman member from New Xade, Kgosi Lobatse Beslag. While the repeal of Sections 77, 78 and 79 caused a ripple effect that necessitated the amendment of the Chieftainship Act ÔÇô now called Bogosi Act ÔÇô there is still a caste system that places dikgosi from the politically and economically dominant tribes above all other tribes ÔÇô including that of President Mokgweetsi Masisi. As in the past, dikgosi from those tribes (which include Batawana) are ex-officio members of Ntlo ya Dikgosi while representatives from Masisi and Beslag’s tribes have to run for elections every five years.

Setswana culture has been mainstreamed into public life in other ways. Botswana’s iconic traditional dance (borankana) and national dish (seswaa) are from Setswana culture and with the cultural-festival season getting in full swing, even what are touted as national cultural festivals will feature a fare that is over 90 percent Tswana. Much of what the Ministry of Basic Education calls Cultural Studies is in fact, Setswana Culture. One very good example is from the Standard Two textbook which uses a term and form of kinship (“cousin”) that doesn’t exist among some non-Tswana tribes like the Kalanga, Subiya and Zezuru. Botswana’s public memorials and entire memorialisation culture don’t acknowledge the nation’s tribal-cultural diversity. That is why most people ÔÇô including the culturally marginalised, know about historical figures like Khama III and Sechele I but not about their counterparts like Matsharatshara (Wayeyi) and Sehurera (Mbukushu). They know about the heroism of Bakwena in the Battle of Dimawe but not about the seminal role played by the Wayeyi in the Battle of Khutiyabasadi or about how Kaptein Simon! Gomxab Kooper, the Nama leader who founded Lokgwabe, repelled an attack by German soldiers in 1894.

Part of the problem is that an ill-formed conception of culture has developed over the years. Tsogwane and Markos pointed to the cultural festivals they officiated at as evidence that each and every Motswana (that ethnonym itself is problematic in the context of the subject at hand) is free to practise their culture. Culture extends way way beyond the spectacle of the cultural festival ÔÇô the festival is meant to provide entertainment but culture is more than just entertainment. Culture is about a wide range of cultural practices relating to art, music, language, historical landmarks, myths and symbols, architecture and interior design, engineering, food and food protocols, clothing, etiquette, marriage, postpartum confinement, religion, memorialisation, daily life, indigenous government and many more.

The main deficiency of cultural festivals is that they don’t have a cultural education component. Children who attend cultural festivals are never taught indigenous table manners when this would be an excellent opportunity to do so. Similarly, the cultural festival has spawned a myth about preserving culture but the evidence points in the opposite direction. Showing up at an entertainment venue with WiFi decked out in Zulu attire, spending the whole day sampling delights on offer while keeping in touch with friends on Facebook is not how culture is preserved.

There is little known history behind the status quo. At independence in 1966, the new nation never negotiated its cultural identity and there was little to no awareness about cultural rights. While a Botswana People’s Party leader says that the party’s platform included cultural rights, there was never systematic and sustained advocacy for such. Additionally, a BPP leader of the time, Motsamai Mpho, was among those who suggested “Botswana” as the name of the new republic. The international cultural rights movement took root in the late 1970s but when cultural rights groups like the Society for the Promotion of Ikalanga Language and Kamanakao Association came about, a lot of damage had already been done and repairing it is proving a mammoth task. A former cabinet minister says that Mogae wanted to make all dikgosi equal (which plan entailed denuding the powers of those from the politically and economically dominant tribes) but there was resistance so fierce that at one point, it threatened national security. By the former minister’s account, Mogae adjudged that maintaining the status quo would be a better gamble than levelling the playing field.

The first step to resolving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. In that regard, public pronouncements that Batswana are equal are not very helpful because they justify the preservation of an imperfect status quo.


Read this week's paper