Either Setswana is deficient in its stock of vocabulary or the Leader of the Opposition, Dithapelo Keorapetse, hasn’t mastered the language well enough to be able to express himself competently in it. Midway through his response to President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s state-of-the-nation address (which he had delivered in Tswanglish that was heavier in Setswana) the Selebi Phikwe West MP announced that he wanted to switch back to English in order that he could express himself better.
“Motsamaisa-dipuisanyo tsa Palamente, gore dikgang tse di utwale sente, ke bata gore ke boele ko puong ya seeng so that there is accuracy,” said Keorapetse in Tswanglish that translates as “Mr. Speaker, in order that these issues can be properly understood, I want to switch back to English, so that there is accuracy.”
Amid the bubble of chatter floating around the chamber in apparent reaction to Keorapetse’s statement, one little tag end from Tsogwane was about “Setswana.” The rest of what he said was inaudible but it seems reasonable to assume that he was asking the most obvious question: Couldn’t he express himself as competently in Setswana, his mother tongue? Keorapetse’s response was “Eo e buiwa ke wena Your Honour the Vice President” which would translate into something like “Those are your words, not mine.”
Whatever Tsogwane had said and whatever the reason for the MP’s decision to switch back to English, it is more than a little odd that a representative whose mother tongue – as that of most of his constituents, is Setswana doesn’t consider feel he can express himself better in that language. The statement the MP made also raises the question of how he is able to address kgotla meetings in his constituency in a language that he finds limiting.
As former members of the house like Dr. Kenneth Koma, Ponatshego Kedikilwe and Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi proved, Setswana is rich enough to be competently deployed in the explication of a wide range of national issues. While he has almost similar competence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Lemogang Kwape, tends to overseason his own Setswana with a hotch-potch of mostly regional idioms and folk sayings.
In fairness to Keorapetse, English has become the principal conversational language for most western-educated Batswana. Former president and Bangwato kgosikgolo, Ian Khama, has directed that his younger brother, Tshekedi and the latter’s son, Kaedi, should inherit the tribe’s bogosi – inherited traditional leadership. While some have pointed out that Kaedi doesn’t speak Setswana, the reality is that some (especially young) Bangwato either don’t speak Setswana altogether or like Keorapetse, feel that they can express themselves better in English. At his customary court in Serowe, the future Kgosi Kaedi will be trying cases of defendants who, like him, don’t speak Setswana.