“Ba bala dinama,” the president said in idiomatic Setswana (‘they count body parts’) that substantively means insulting someone by referring to their private parts
President Mokgweetsi Masisi has lamented the over-the-top sociopathy perpetrated on social media by subscribers who hide behind fake names. Personally, he has been the target of one too many attacks on Facebook and at least on the basis of what he said at a press conference on Wednesday morning, there is nothing he can do to protect himself. He said, in the first instance, that he expected to be attacked because that comes with the position he holds. In the second, he said that the more vicious personal attacks that he suffers are a sign of the times – times in which people can easily hop on a social media platform and say whatever they want. Using Setswana, he said that in some of those attacks, people young enough to be his children hurl raw, culturally inappropriate insults at him.
“Ba bala dinama,” the president said in idiomatic Setswana (‘they count body parts’) that substantively means insulting someone by referring to their private parts.
It is a little unclear how a Third World president can be helpless in a situation like this because this breed of leaders have been known to overflex their muscles. One very good example is from the previous administration – that of President Lieutenant General Ian Khama. Then a Water Utilities Corporation employee stationed in Maun found himself in a snake pit when he digitally stripped down Khama to a mankini (men’s bikini) in a photoshopped picture that he posted to social media. Following publication of the offending picture, a Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) plane winged its way to Maun for the express purpose of airlifting the suspect to Gaborone for what must have been an extraordinarily intense interrogation session. Apparently, he had not committed any offence in terms of the law (which might explain why the Cyber Crime Act had to be amended) but he would certainly not have enjoyed the flight from Maun – nor his detention at a DISS facility in Gaborone.
The “mankini” incident pales in comparison to what Masisi has to endure and at least, to our knowledge, nobody has found themselves in trouble over it. During the last session of parliament, the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Kabo Morwaeng, had to make a public statement about people insulting Masisi – even pleaded that this misconduct should stop.
Responding against the context of what Masisi said at the press conference, the Umbrella for Democratic Change’s Head of Communications, Moeti Mohwasa, prefaced his comments with assertion that his party doesn’t approve of irresponsible use of social media. He then excavated history that doesn’t portray the president in good light, history with a chickens-are-coming-to-roost dimension to it. Ahead of the 2014 general election when he was Acting Minister of Education Skills and Development and chairperson of the BDP’s Communications and International Relations Sub-Committee, Masisi made an incautious statement at a party meeting. “Incautious” because around this time there was emerging a tendency to secretly record meetings and private conversations, then post the recordings to social-media platforms. In the recording, Masisi complains that mainstream newspapers deny the BDP the right of reply but in the next breath, gushes about his Committee members doing a sterling job on social media. He then announced plans to intensify such effort.
“Re a go oketsa tota, re bo re kwala le ka maina a e seng a rona,” he says in an audio recording that went viral on social media. “Re tla a ipitsa bo–Tom Mangmang gore e se ka ba bona gore di tswa kae tseo.”
(He basically meant that the intensification of the social-media campaign would include the use of pseudonyms “like Tom-whatever to hide our real identities.”)
On the basis of these words and this incident, Mohwasa says that Masisi shouldn’t complain about irresponsible use of social media because he helped propagate it by masterminding “rogue campaigns” that maligned UDC. He adds that what Masisi should be doing is admitting his culpability in the propagation of this toxic culture. The latter is indeed a valid point but there is an important distinction to make here. In his speech to party members, Masisi never once endorsed the use of insults. Admittedly, a Tom Whatever in the BDP’s Communications and International Relations Sub-Committee of 2014 may have insulted UDC members because a pseudonym enables one to exercise their freedom of speech irresponsibly and to the fullest. However, in his speech, Masisi doesn’t give precise instructions for that to happen. As valid a point to make is that the UDC, notably a Botswana National Front battalion that calls itself “Fear Fokol” (fear nothing) routinely and fearlessly attacks detractors within both BNF and UDC as a unit and the BDP. Neither BNF nor UDC (the opposition collective in which the latter is one-third of) has never taken ever taken disciplinary action against these combatants and it has been alleged that some in the BNF leadership used them as attack dogs.
There has been another, deeply worrisome incident that revealed the extent to which parties are unable to rein in criminal social-media conduct. Some time ago, a BDP member called Tiro Mekgwe was caught on audio tape laying out, to a BDP-aligned WhatsApp group, an elaborate plot to “kill all journalists” who report on corruption by party members. He particularly singled out Sonny Serite, then at The Botswana Gazette, as ripe for killing. Through an apology press statement, he would claim to have been “joking.” However, nowhere in the statement did he indicate what is funny about murder and the BDP never punished him.
Mohwasa attributes vile commentary on Facebook to the BDP’s non-responsiveness to genuine grievances that people have about the circumstances of their personal lives.
“People don’t know which officials they should complain to and when they do manage to complain to officials, they are not listened to,” he says. “That is why people turn to social media to vent their anger.”
Irresponsible use of social media exists outside of BDP and Masisi’s culpability. The latter means that, as a government in waiting, UDC still has to come up with a plan of how to deal with it. To that point, Mohwasa says that the party will develop “appropriate legislation that doesn’t take away people’s rights to exercise their freedom of speech.” He adds that even before the advent of social media, there were laws in place to deal with abuse of freedom of speech.