The Assistant Minister of Health and Wellness, Sethomo Lelatisitswe, finds himself in a snake pit after an ill-advised family gathering in his home village of Lethakane. Oddly though, the person who suspended him regularly headlines events where Covid-19 health guidelines are also severely compromised.
In terms of the new Covid-19 restrictions, which came into effect on August 16 and ended this past Friday, all public gatherings were suspended until further notice. “All” included tomb-stone unveiling ceremonies but on August 31, the Lelatisitswe family gathered in Lethakane to unveil a tombstone erected on top of the grave of Lelatisitswe’s father. A few hours later, pictures of this gathering were posted to Lelatisitswe’s official Facebook page which, by his account, is managed by his nephew. All hell broke immediately loose, forcing Lelatisitswe to offer a “humble sincere apology” in which he actually dedicates greater editorial acreage to shifting blame to his family members, notably his nephew, and Setswana culture: “this particular occasion as everyone will know from a family standpoint in our tradition is organized and coordinated by close family this is what happened”, “it was on this day that our mother was taking off the mourning black/blue dress, our culture prescribe that immediately after giving her a new dress she has to be escorted to cemetery by her children to show her where her late husband has been resting for past 12 months”, “I don’t want to downplay the mistake by my nephew”; and, I wish to posit that I personally did not share anything or even respond to any comments, my Facebook official administrator did without prior consultation as it is norm.”
The apology, such as it was, was directed at the nation, President Mokgweetsi Masisi and “the entire leadership of the country.” Some irate readers had taken issue with the holding of the ceremony against what the legal situation was until Friday and the admin gave back as good as he got. Upon learning about the post and resulting comments, Lelatisitswe says that he “instructed for the post to be removed from my Official Facebook page.” What the junior minister didn’t apologise for was putting someone outside the civil service in charge of his official page.
Many more people are forever flouting Covid-19 but Lelatisitswe is a different kettle of fish: he is custodian of such law as both health minister and a legislator who authorised its promulgation via the Emergency Regulations law that parliament approved last year.
Apology notwithstanding, Masisi suspended Lelatisitswe on Wednesday and his press secretary, Batlhalefi Leagajang, issued a public statement to that effect. The legal aspect aside, there is irony in Masisi taking issue with Lelatisitswe being part of a large-crowd gathering – precisely because on a more regular basis, Masisi is himself part of even larger-crowd gatherings.
Some take issue with Masisi’s frequent international trips but while there may be some self-indulgence on his part, it is important to realise that between 2008 and 2018, the presidency neglected its role in international relations. President Ian Khama, Masisi’s predecessor, rarely made official visits abroad, completely shunning UN General Assembly and African Union summits. Additionally, he assumed a pro-western stance that riled other African leaders. The net result was that when Masisi became president, and in apparent effort to build bridges with countries that considered Botswana to be an extension of the west, he had to work through an international-diplomacy backlog that had accumulated during Khama’s administration. That necessarily entails having to travel abroad a lot and the result has been that the presidential jet probably spends more time airborne than in its hangar.
When Masisi leaves or arrives from abroad, Vice President Slumber Tsogwane (and some ministers in certain instances) is typically on hand to either bid the president farewell or welcome him back home. There are also hordes of senior civil servants who go to the airport to perform similar function. Another civil servant group would be that of security personnel (Botswana Defence Force, Botswana Police Service and the Directorate of the Intelligence and Security Services. The president himself travels with a sizeable entourage. Add to that a press corps from both the state and the private media houses.
The result is many more people than attended the Lelatisitswe tomb-stone unveiling ceremony in Lethakane are at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport when Masisi leaves or arrives back home. If in doubt, compare the crowd welcoming Masisi back home from Lusaka (video available on the BWPresidency Facebook page) where he had attended the inauguration ceremony of the new Zambian president and the Lethakane crowd. Some would say that one gathering was legal while the other was not. That may indeed have been the case but the reality is that Covid-19 doesn’t care. Large gatherings, be they legal or illegal carry similar and greater risk of infection.
The legality of the airport gatherings is itself unclear because they are not on the list of gatherings that were exempted – like parliamentary meetings of whose status would be in the same bracket as presidential airport gatherings. If it was necessary to be specific with regard to parliament meetings, why wasn’t the same done with presidential airport gatherings to mark their legal status? Supposing the latter are legal though, the cloak of their legality cannot be used to compromise public health.
That the science on the virus is still inconclusive is all the more reason why it would be desirable to err on the side of caution. While such science says outdoor gatherings are always less risky than indoor ones, being in close quarters with other people at an outdoor event still provides opportunities for the virus to spread. Outdoor transmission is around 20 times less likely than indoor transmission and indeed, there have been delta variant outbreaks at outdoor events.
It remains unclear why the risk reduction policy that the government has adopted with regard to containing the spread of Covid-19 doesn’t apply to Masisi’s airport crowds. Crowds with far fewer people would reduce the risk but those crowds are not thinning out. At least from pictures taken at the airport, the physical distancing between those on the apron does not always comply with what the Ministry of Health and Wellness recommends.
Compromising Covid-19 health guidelines by the highest office in the land is nothing new. Last year, Vice President Tsogwane featured at mock-cheque presentation ceremonies on the grounds of the Office of the President where both mask-wearing and social distancing were not strictly observed.