“I ring lockdown virus mo ngwanehng …”, says a South African comedian in a language similar to Setswana – which, in proper form, would have rendered that essentially nonsensical line as “E reng lockdown virus mo ngwaneng.”
The comedian’s name (Dimpie Dimpopo) suggests he would pronounce Setswana correctly but his pronunciation of as basic a word as “utility” suggests linguistic pedigree with strong Model C school/Afrikaans influence. Mr. Dimpopo – if he is ever addressed as such – fatefully plugged for a new Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) platform that the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) was launching through a video advertisment. This deal sparked outrage among Batswana, forcing the Corporation to both withdraw the advert and tender an apology that came from no less a personage than the Acting Chief Executive Officer, Edward Rugoyi, himself. The argument being made by members of the public were that there are lots of Batswana who could not only have done the ad but were even more talented than Dimpopo. On its Facebook page, the Botswana Forum for Action and Reform describes this deal as “an insult to talented young Batswana, our sovereignty [and] our pride as a nation.”
It should be easy to assert that BPC made a grave mistake but it is not because Botswana and Batswana at various levels don’t demonstrate the patriotic virtues that the Corporation is expected to display. It should be easy to make a strong case for citizen economic empowerment but it is not because one aspect of it is citizen cultural empowerment. Citizen economic empowerment is a good point of departure, not least because that one subset of it (citizen cultural empowerment) is always missing from the national conversation.
Advertising has a very strong relationship with popular culture and in today’s, “e reng …” and its variations roll off the tongues of one too many young people in Botswana on an almost hourly basis during their waking hours. Going back decades to when Batswana young men were contracted to work as labourers in South African mines (makonteraka, singular lekonteraka), Batswana have always had fascination with South Africa and its pop culture. In Botswana, the “Give everybody a drink” line and bar practice can be traced back to when a lekonteraka would show lager beggars a good time, only he would render that line in basic Sotho that he would have picked up in South African townships: “Ba siele ka o fela.” In time, the South African-origin sartorial over-elegance of makonteraka would lead Batswana across the country to acquire South African fashion-wear through mail-order catalogues like Mahomedy’s and African Wholesalers.
There is a type of Motswana who crows about having bought this, that or the other “in Jo’burg” to convey impression that whatever s/he bought is more qualitative than what one can buy in Gaborone even if the opposite is true. A couple of years ago, when the writer encountered a homeboy of his at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Gaborone and offered to buy him a meal, he was rebuffed with, “I don’t eat KFC except when I am in Jo’burg because the one down there is more delicious than Botswana’s.” The reality is that the recipe for KFC restaurants is the same across the globe. Music promoters know that if they want really good turnout at their shows, then the headline act should be South African. That explains why the most popular South African artists headline major festive-seasons like “Clap Your Hands”, “Home-coming” and “Gaabo Motho.” Predictability is very important in business and promoters are able to predict good turnout if their shows feature a Cassper Nyovest, a Sho Madjozi or Bongo Maffin. Mr. Nyovest can easily fill up Botswana’s national stadium without having to risk life and limb by walking the length and breadth of Botswana – Kast has to. Some very deep-pocketed Batswana pay South African celebrities huge sums of money (think P80 000 for two hours) for just making an appearance at the exclusive birthday parties they host.
There are also some Batswana who over-identify with South Africa, faking proficiency in Afrikaans and all the Nguni languages they barely speak, contrive to speak South African Setswana and would likelier root for the wrong side when Gaborone United plays Kaizer Chiefs. There is a Lobatse (Bandleng) Facebook page called “Bandleng Wa o Bitsa”, which means “Bandleng is calling you.” “Bandleng” is Tsotsitaal (South African patois) for Lobatse. In proper Setswana, that name should have been “Bandleng o a go bitsa” – as in the ruling-party’s slogan for the 2019 general election, “Masisi o a go bitsa.” Bandleng Wa o Bitsa is on the same plane with: “Ba siele ka o fela.”
Side note: it is tragically ironic that a culturally Tswana person from a border community whom the original constitution recognised as a citizen, would over-identify with South Africa and its pop culture while a non-culturally Tswana person, also from a border community whom the 1966 constitution didn’t recognise as a citizen until a few years ago, identifies only as a Motswana. You don’t ever encounter Batswana who over-identify with Namibia, Zimbabwe or Zambia and if that happens, it would definitely be on a very small scale. Conversely, there is no shortage of Batswana (mostly male and culturally Tswana) who over-identify with South Africa and its culture. Another irony worth mentioning is contained in what Tumi Morake, a South African comedienne, said about an impending visit to Botswana. She says that she was very nervous about her corrupted Setswana not measuring up to the pure Setswana spoken in Botswana.
Taking stock of the situation, some highly talented Batswana have had to emigrate to South Africa and only then have they been taken seriously in Botswana. At the top of the list is DJ Fresh who reportedly makes so much money that he can afford to single-handedly finance the Botswana government’s COVID-19 food distribution programme. Had DJ Fresh not made that fateful relocation, he would be where all those who started Radio Botswana 2 – some of whom trained him as a DJ – are right now. He would also not have been able to make as much as he makes at Botswana’s festive-season shows.
As mentioned above, advertising has a very strong relationship with popular culture. BPC wanted a spokesperson to plug for its new digital platform and when it surveyed the pop culture scene, found it to be mostly South African. It also found that despite the fashionable citizen economic empowerment talk, non-citizens (in the form of South Africans) make a killing in Botswana because arts and culture is an economic sector. That led BPC to signing a contract with Mr. Dimpopo – and public outrage that led to BPC withdrawing the advert and apologising to members of the public. Was this outrage justified? Yes, it was because after 53 years of independence we should have citizen cultural empowerment that places our own pop culture before South Africa’s. BPC was undermining such empowerment but what happened with its advert should offer a very valuable lesson for the rest of the country.
Let’s see the same outrage the next time the next time we hear a Motswana corrupting his Setswana to sound South African – this is very embarrassing for culturally self-respecting Batswana. Let’s express similar outrage when Batswana support South African football when it is common knowledge that a football fan in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal thinks that Township Rollers is the name of a factory that manufactures hair rollers for townships. Let’s boycott music festivals that feature South Africans as headline acts and Batswana as support acts. Otherwise, we would have to apologise to BPC for having expressed outrage about doing what one too many Batswana and Botswana companies also do and suffer no adverse consequences for.
The Botswana Forum for Action and Reform is right: let us place high enough premium on talented young Batswana as well as on our [[cultural] sovereignty and pride as a nation. By the way, the “e reng” expression and its variants was coined by Bonang Matheba, a South African celebrity from Mahikeng.