In a period of time when when a major corruption case involved less than P200 000, mere use of an unproblematic term could consume a whole week’s news cycle. Thus when then Botswana Guardian editor, Outsa Mokone, coined the term “passion killings” to describe cases of men murdering their female partners, President Festus Mogae got as outraged as to officialise his objection to the term at a Botswana Democratic Party National Council meeting.
Shortly thereafter, a GabZ FM breakfast show focused on the use of this term. The guests were Mokone and then Permanent Secretary to the President, Molosiwa Selepeng – who, as part of making his case against use of the term sought to establish his authority by stating that he had studied English at university. In response, Mokone said that he had majored in English at the University of Botswana.
(Around this time, a director of roads department, Kebonyekgotla Kemokgatla, had been found guilty of accepting a bribe of P170 000 in exchange for awarding a road construction tender to a company Zakhem Construction Company. The state’s star (and accomplice) witness was Nicolas Zakhem, who spilled the beans on the corruption that had been happening behind closed doors.) Despite Mogae’s objection, “passion killings” was successfully franchised into public consciousness and more than two decades later, is apparently part of not just Botswana but Southern Africa’s lexicon.
Just last week, “passion killings” appeared in a statement that was made by none other President Mokgweetsi Masisi. “Bagaetsho [compatriots], on another note, as you are aware passion killings continue to be on the rise, a trend that is unfortunate and worrisome,” reads part of a message which mostly dealt with a recent tragic road accident along the Francistown-Maun road in which 22 people died. Post-office, Mogae maintained his opposition to “passion killings.” Addressing the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security in 2013, he urged his listeners to desist from using that term and suggested a new one: “hatred killings”.
The August 25, 2013 issue of Sunday Standard quotes the former president as saying the following: “There is no passion in these heinous crimes. You can’t refer to these crimes as passion killings when they use knives to slay women. This is hatred killing.” Indeed there is a lot of hatred in these killings but “hatred killings” just never gained traction. Likely on linguistic influence from Botswana, “passion killings” is now being widely used in neighbouring countries. Through its “Letter from Africa” series, the BBC invited African journalists to write about their part of Africa. The March 3, 2016 issue featured an article by Farai Sevenzo whose introduction states the following: “Passion killings have become a tragic trend in the southern African nation of Namibia over the last three years.
The Namibian police described passion killings as murder cases between intimate partners such as husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, and exes.” The term has also found acceptability in Zimbabwe where, as in Botswana, it is used in reference to incidents of men murdering their spouses. A headline in the July 5, 2015 edition of Sunday Mail asks: “Passion killings: Is This the New Love?” The story says that cases of people in romantic relationships killing and maiming each other are happening on a weekly basis. “Passion killings have sadly become the in thing,” observes the writer, adding in another part that “in the just-ended half year, several cases of passion killing of a horrific nature were reported in and around Harare.”
By coincidence, the article is illustrated with the case of “a married Botswana-based Harare pastor, Reverend Rosbon Munamba, who allegedly drenched his now deceased lover, Rudo Bakasa, with sulphuric acid after she had ended their extra-matrimonial alliance.” The term is also being used internationally. As late as two years ago (January 26, 2021), a pan-African media organisation published a story from Zambia headlined “Zambians Alarmed by Surge in Suicide and Passion Killings among Youths.”One part of the article reads: “Among the ways of combating passion killings, suggested by commentators, what stands out is that communication is key and perhaps establishment of a vigorous psychosocial counselling programme, may just be the starting point and should be a concerted effort by government, civil society, the church, community leaders and other stakeholders.”
The term has been used in an international academic journal (Journal of Interpersonal Violence) in an academic paper that addressed the Namibian situation. The title of the paper is “Men’s Accounts of Passion Killings in the Namibian Context.” One of the paper’s three authors, Dr. Simon Duff works at theCentre for Forensic and Family Psychology of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Mogae’s objection to the use of “passion killing” is astonishing. The term is gaining wide acceptance even outside Botswana and its equivalent exists in not just the English language but the legal tradition (Roman-Dutch law) that Botswana, which became a British colony in 1885, has been using for more than a century now.
That term is “crime of passion” which began its life in 1804 in the original French: crime passionnel. The latter translates as “crime of passion.” During his reign, Napoleon established the French civil code (the so-called Napoleonic Code) which was not drawn from existing French laws but instead from a sixth century codification of Roman law developed during the reign of an Eastern Roman emperor called Justinian the Great. The latter ruled from 527 to 565. In that regard, “crime of passion” has existed since 1804.
“Passion killing” neither expands nor contracts “crime of passion” but merely recasts it: killing is a crime and the one in question involves passion. The Zambian publication mentioned earlier has actually used these terms interchangeably: “The rate at which young people are reportedly committing suicide and crimes of passion/passion killings in Zambia has become a source of serious concern. What the latter means is that if Mogae finds “passion killing” offensive, he should reach similar conclusion with “crime of passion.”