First she took umbrage at radio stations and newspapers for announcing the death of Tlokweng MP, Same Bathobakae, before the “elders” could do so. Moments later, Speaker Gladys Kokorwe was herself going against Setswana cultural protocol.
According to Setswana protocol, elders are the ones who are supposed to formally make an announcement when someone has died. In a 21st century interlinked via social and other media, that is not always the case and Kokorwe bristled at newspapers and radio stations for having arrogated to themselves the right to announce death in place of elders.
“They were quick to announce her death before elders could do so,” said the Speaker before formally announcing Bathobakae’s death to parliament. “It’s true Mme Bathobakae has left us. Let’s all rise and observe a minute of silence in her honour.”
Whatever its merits (showing respect to a recently deceased person) observing a minute is definitely not Setswana but western culture. This practice was first recorded in 1912 in the Portuguese Senate and made its way to Botswana via the United Kingdom and white South Africa. While she is western enough to embrace the moment-of-silence practice, Kokorwe is still traditional enough to not accept that 21st century media will report the news as it happens. Her interpretation of Setswana culture is also problematic with regard to who “elders” are. The Speaker may have been justified for being cross with the media for aculturally assuming the role of elders but in this particular case, it is unclear whom the elders she was referring to are. Was she referring to the management of the National Assembly where Bathobakae worked as an MP or to the deceased’s flesh and blood back in Tlokweng? Parliament starts at two in the afternoon and by that time, the Tlokweng elders would long have announced Bathobakae’s death while those at the National Assembly would be waiting for parliament to sit for them to do so.
At least at an unofficial street level, the coverage of Bathobakae’s death by one section of the media has drawn ire. A cellphone text message that is going viral in some circles points out the irony of Btv not covering opposition rallies and press conferences but being quick to report Bathobakae’s death. The substantive issue of the government media denying opposition coverage came up in parliament last week and when he wasn’t being flippant, the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Eric Molale, was at pains to give rational answers. Asked by Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, whether he has received a petition from the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) about Btv’s bias and to state what he has done about the matter, Molale resorted to meaningless Government Enclave officialese.
“Yes, indeed I have received a petition from the opposition parties, that is the Umbrella for Democratic Change and the Botswana Congress Party against the alleged biasness of Botswana Television in its editorial policy. I have noted the petition and the contents therein. I thank you Madam Speaker,” said the minister, making it clear in response to subsequent supplementary questions that he was not going to take corrective action. “If there is anything that I can pick from that petition that do warrant my action, I shall act accordingly. For now, I have noted it.”
To another question about the editorial policy that the Botswana Daily News applies to select front-page stories, Molale made the impossible statement that “The most important story of the day informs what appears on the front page of any newspaper including the Daily News.” When the former Parliament Speaker, Margaret Nasha, joined the opposition, that didn’t make the front page. The outcome of a bye-election is typically reported as front-page news only when the ruling party wins.