“Naare tsatsi jeno, o tsamaya jang?” Mary Kethaile remembers asking herself as, from squinting distance, she watched her son, Keamogetse, awkwardly tiptoe farther away from her and towards the holding cells under the escort of a police officer.
For a 21st century teenager growing up in a semi-urban place located along a major highway that connects Southern Africa to the rest of the continent, style-walking is a rite of passage. On this day, however, circumstances were a little too grim for such juvenile indulgence. Thus the mother would look askance at him and simultaneously run through her mind the vexing question, “Why is he walking like that today?” At a conservative estimate, the answer to her question can be expressed in nine different languages: bastinado (Spanish), falaka (Arabic), bastonade (German), bastonata (Italian), da jiao xin (Mandarin), go vala (Setswana-Ndebele), sipakatane (Swati) and foot-whipping (English). Minus the Michael Jackson grace, someone who has been foot-whipped moonwalks the wrong way – and on unsteady feet. Keamogetse alleges that a mob abducted and took him to a farming hamlet west of Mahalapye where the soles of his feet were ceaselessly whipped with metal rods. Afterwards, he couldn’t walk on his feet because of the excruciating pain.
While the culprits were not police officers, there is a very strong police connection here. Go vala is a common method of torture among police officers. Someone who has been in the Botswana Police Service for at least two decades says that when he joined the service, suspects were being foot-whipped. “Vala” is Ndebele for “close” and the Setswana saying “go tswalela ditsela” couldn’t find a more robust, more literal expression in the context of go vala. It is likely that this method of punishment was introduced during the Bechuanaland Protectorate days because it was widely used by British colonial police officers (notably a sociopath called Charles Tegart) in different parts of the empire. Officially torture is not allowed but in relaxed, informal settings police officers tend to be remarkably confessional.
If “advantage” can be used at all in relation to this practice, the advantage of go vala is that it is less likely to leave telltale signs of torture. If a police officer pummels a suspect’s face with fists, he might break or dislocate his jaw or nose, knock his teeth out, give him a black eye, cut his skin or split his lower lip. On the other hand, soles of the feet are tougher, don’t bleed and are thus a safer choice when it comes to torturing suspects. (The current war on alcohol consumption has inspired another form of torture, mild though it may be. In enforcing the open-container law, some police officers indulge themselves by making offenders “decant” alcohol into the pockets of their clothes in lieu of being formally charged.)
Mary Kethaile maintains that the men who vala-ed her son connived with a female police officer who handcuffed him and thereafter disappeared. Keamogetse says that he was handcuffed for the entire period of time that da jian xin was administered to his bare feet. Once handcuffed, a suspect is in police custody and what Kemogetse alleges technically means that he was tortured while in such custody. A cellphone call came in during the whipping and from one half of the conversation, it became evident that the police officer wanted her handcuffs back. Mary Kethaile says that this shows that the officer was in cahoots with the mob.
“How else would she have known the cellphone number of the man she called?” she poses.
While the mother determined that something was wrong judging by the way her son was walking, the police reached a different conclusion. The Mahalapye Station Commander, Superintendent Isaac Mamadi, says that an inspector who oversaw Keamogetse’s booking told him that he (Keamogetse) looked “fit” when he arrived at the police station. A doctor who examined Keamogetse two days later wrote in his medical card that the 19-year old reported feeling pain in both feet. Ostensibly, this was a result of the falaka.