What started as a demonstration by students of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) in Palapye evolved into a diplomatic incident that has been registered 736 kilometres away in a SADC capital.
BIUST students went on strike on September 28 over a slew of grievances they have with the varsity’s management. The latter called in riot police who used what the Student Representative Council (SRC) maintains was unnecessary and excessive force. In a statement that the SRC released following the incident, it claimed that members of the Special Support Group chased after students even when they had indicated that they wanted to disperse peacefully as ordered. The SSG, which is a paramilitary wing of the Botswana Police Service, is said to have pursued students into their hostels and literally smoked them out by firing teargas canisters into the rooms they were cooped up in.
New revelations about the strike indicate that all told, six students (four males and two females) were injured during the SSG raid on BIUST hostels. Sunday Standard learns from the SRC’s Minister of Publicity and Communications, Petronella Mosholombe, that one of the injured students is from Lesotho. She further revealed that during the actual demonstration itself, most international students chose to stay in their rooms – which is understandable because getting into trouble with the police in a foreign country is something that few relish. However, such precaution came to nought when the riot police raided the hostels. Mosholombe says that the Lesotho student, who had been in the hostels all along, was injured upon leaving the bathroom as a direct result of the SSG swooping on the hostels.
The Lesotho student is in a different category of concern because the injury incident could spark a diplomatic row between Botswana and Lesotho. Save a 1977 incident when Lesotho’s Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan, decided to nationalise the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland without doing so much as consult partners in the joint university system, the two countries have always had excellent relations. The Lesotho government will certainly not be pleased with accounts that suggest that its citizen was needlessly terrorised by the police in a foreign country.
The BIUST incident also bodes ill for Botswana’s plans to market itself to the region as an education hub – there is actually a government department with such name (“Botswana Education Hub”) that was established to undertake such mission. Being self-sponsored, international students would not have been agitating for timeous payment of allowances but they share other concerns that the SRC have officialised with management: poor living conditions that include dilapidated porta cabins; lack of a dedicated student information system; unsatisfactory catering service and continual brutalization by security guards of a company engaged by the university.