In rare bipartisanship last Friday morning, two MPs managed to agree that it was proper to break with parliamentary and diplomatic norm for purposes of lay blame where it belongs.
For the very valid reasons that he raised, Mahalapye West MP, David Tshere, is worried about the over-exploitation of river sand in the Mahalapye River. Through a motion, he wanted the government to impose a moratorium on such exploitation and allow the river to recover. Tshere may have confined himself to his constituency but he was talking about a problem that occurs throughout Botswana. As in Mahalapye West, there are sandy rivers that run through the Thamaga/Kumakwane constituency and the river sand-mining in the bothers both MP and residents.
As Tshere, the area MP, Palelo Motaosane is gravely concerned about the over-exploitation of the river sand. Motaosane went a step farther and named the main culprits – Zimbabweans, some of whom he said are illegal immigrants. As he revealed to parliament, the brazenness of these sand-harvesters is such that they harvest the sand day and night and have cultivated extreme recalcitrance with which they routinely meet well-meaning remonstration from concerned residents.
“I am not going to hide anything – the culprits are Zimbabweans and routinely threaten us, the custodians of these rivers, with physical violence. When residents remonstrate with them, they come after them armed with spades,” said Motaosane, adding that the Zimbabweans in question harvest not just the sand but the silt beneath it, in the process creating holes that pose a danger to both people and domestic animals because they leave them uncovered.
In one incident and one that would certainly have reached the local police station, some Zimbabweans controversially staked claim to a harvesting spot and clashed with residents. The clash led to the Zimbabweans setting a house in the village of Mogonono on fire.
The MP proposed that sand-harvesting should be more strictly regulated by setting times during which the harvesting can be done and policing rivers to ensure that no one harvests outside official hours.
“If we allow the current situation to continue, these Zimbabweans are going to exhaust Botswana’s natural resources,” said Motaosane, seconds before Mahalapye East MP, Yandani Boko, made a point-of-order interjection.
On paper at least, Botswana has good relations with Zimbabwe and it is diplomatic norm for countries with such relations to not badmouth each other. Deputy Speaker Pono Moatlhodi and two MPs tried to get Motaosane to steer clear of what could well degenerate into a diplomatic row between the two nations. That was when another MP from another part of the country and another party interjected in Motaosane’s defence.
Boko’s point of order was that Motaosane was out of order to single out Zimbabweans, that they may actually not be culprits as he believed and that he was discriminating against Zimbabweans. He proposed that Motaosane should refer to (“batswakwa”) rather than single out a nationality among that group. Similar concern would be raised a short while later by Ngami MP, Carter Hikuama, who began his contribution by stating that former foreign affairs minister, Unity Dow, and her successor, Dr. Lemogang Kwape, have cautioned MPs against attacking foreign nationals when contributing to parliamentary debates. Hikuama warned of possibility of Zimbabwe(ans) doing the same to Batswana in a future when tough times force the latter to seek economic refuge in Zimbabwe.
Motaosane was having none of it and stressed that “I am talking about what I know. No Motswana can go to Zimbabwe and become a nuisance like Zimbabweans have become a nuisance along the Metsimotlhabe River.” He said that he didn’t agree that he shouldn’t mention the culprits by nationality. If he did that, he added, then he would lay the blame on innocent foreigners when there is a specific group among those foreigners which is over-exploiting river sand.
“Am I expected to lie about a different and innocent nationality being lawbreakers?” he posed, later adding that he couldn’t tar all foreigners with the same brush when it was common knowledge about who the culprits are. “I can’t say Malawians over-exploit river sand.”
Bobonong MP, Taolo Lucas, told the house that it wouldn’t a good idea to “over-censor” Motaosane. He said that in his constituency, thieves habitually come from across the border to steal cattle and that the identity of the culprits is not kept a secret when this issue is spoken about. He further proposed that the solution to the problem Motaosane described could actually come from revealing the identity of the culprits by nationality and engaging with the relevant diplomatic mission as was done with cattle thieves in his constituency. Buttressing the latter point by way of example, Lucas said that the Botswana government can’t engage with the Zambian High Commission for a problem that it knew was caused by Zimbabweans.
Ultimately and probably on account of another MP having expressed similar sentiment, Moatlhodi let Motaosane speak freely about errant Zimbabweans. Motaosane was keen to stress that he was not attacking legitimate Zimbabwean businessmen but the violent illegal ones who are plying their trade outside the law. The MP also expressed concern about these illegitimate businessmen overcharging customers by lying about where they harvested the sand.
“They claim to have harvested the sand in Mahalapye when they actually did so in the Metsimotlhabe River,” he said.
Another river sand-harvesting motion is on the way. The Kanye North MP, Thapelo Letsholo, wanted the government to consider “opening up commercial river sand mining in the greater Gaborone area for 24 months as a transitionary period to the development of artificial river sand manufacturing.”