Thursday, March 4, 2021

“I am ready to die for my silence”

The first time that I had consciously felt any real effects of the apartheid regime was in the mid seventies when some young men and young women came into Botswana as refugees following the Soweto student uprising. At the time I did not really understand what the issue was about. I met one or two of them at secondary school but never became friends. I later met some South African refugees in the United Kingdom but still did not get what they were about. I also met some Zimbabwean and Namibian refugees but still never really understood what they were about.

I understood racism very well but for some strange reason never felt any need to be close to or to understand these refugees from racial oppression. Some of these refugees seemed to be having a good time. They did not seem to be engaged in any real fight against anyone. I also seemed to make a distinction between the fight for independence and the fight against racism. I think because I experienced racism in the United Kingdom I could not appreciate any sense of localizing racism to South Africa or Zimbabwe and Namibia. Effectively for me the idea that someone was fighting racism in their own country, and had therefore become a refugee because of this, did not seem to be anything special. Later on in the mid eighties I was asleep at Botswana Telecommunications Corporation hostel near next to the Methodist Church in Gaborone when the South African armed forces bombed some sections of Gaborone. I was scared because it was at night and it was not possible to know exactly what was going on.

I remember getting off my bed to lie below the window height. In the morning we got to hear that the South African armed forces had attacked and killed a few people. One of my age mates, Mampane, was shot and injured by these attackers on the road to Tlokweng. I felt at the time that this was a senseless attack but still it failed to shake me from my failure to see how racism could be localized. When I went to study in Canada I was accommodated by an Indian family with ANC connections. I believe they were the Saloojees. I believe the head of the house was a representative of the ANC in Canada. I was very well received and taken care of. Their daughter and her boyfriend also took me to the CN Tower, the tallest structure in Canada at the time. Later I moved to student accommodation downtown and met a South African gentleman who had been in Canada for some time. We got on well cordially but again I felt that he was living the good life. The apparent differences in seriousness in the fight against racism, and for independence between the Indian family and the South African gentleman was very clear to me.

I remember one time in England when we went out drinking with Willy Nkwa at a some nightclub near Birmingham. At some point we had to leave and we nearly got into a racist fight with some skinheads. Even though there were only two of us, for me it did not matter. If these racists wanted a fight we were going to give it to them. We ended up leaving without any fight taking place, but for me as long as racism was at issue there was no turning back. This attitude of not walking away from racism has always been with me. Effectively what I am saying is that I have always treated the fight against racism and the fight for independence as separate issues. Granted it is generally accepted that apartheid was the worst form of racism, but racism for me has never been an issue that can be localized. It is a form of discrimination that obtains between people irrespective of where they are. It is, I believe the ability to make this distinction that made it possible for me to see at a very early age the existence of racism in Botswana. It is this ability to make this distinction that enables me to state without any doubt that racism exists and is alive and doing well in Botswana. As I watch and listen to people talk about Nelson Mandela and his fight for freedom and against racism, thoughts of what racism means to me flood my mind. I get angry because I see a process taking place of confusing a fight against racism with the fight for independence. But I do notice that some of our world leaders are very much aware of the distinction between political independence and racism. They know that it is possible for a country to be independent and to provide a home for racism. The United States of America became independent a long time ago, but the fight against racism, segregation, continued well into the independence era. It is only in countries like Botswana where because of independence we have swept the question of racism under the carpet.

The fight for indigenous Batswana to take part in the mainstream economy is treated as an illegitimate fight. We make so called policies for citizen economic empowerment but dare not make any law to give effect to citizen economic empowerment. Our president and his cabinet ministers are all Batswana but they lack the courage to make a law to give effect to citizen economic empowerment. The fight against racism is not a fight to have access to the same bars and nightclubs, but the fight to have equal opportunity. Equal opportunity is not achieved by accident when the inequality was created by law. Any student of the economic laws of Botswana knows that white privilege was protected by law. To therefore think as our government does that equal opportunity can be created without enacting law is pretentious. One of the local radio stations in tribute of Nelson Mandela played Bob Marley’s song that says “my fear is my only courage”. Nelson Mandela himself has said that at times he doubted that he would succeed in the fight for freedom from oppression and racism.

I have a tough time understanding how successive generations of leaders can constantly refuse to make laws that ensure that their own people participate fully in the mainstream economy of their country. Instead we have apologists for citizen economic marginalization. They have been so successful at this that I have age mates who refused to stand with us and said we were radicals when we asked for meaningful participation of Batswana in their economy. I once read that there were some in South Africa who felt that they were better off under apartheid. At least in their case they were socialized by a racist oppressor to think like this. In Botswana it is tragic that even so-called educated people with degrees and higher lack the courage to stand for anything. We even have situations where professionals tailor their views to suit what they think our leaders would like to hear. Even in the selection of people for positions those tasked with the process lack the courage to select certain people for supposed fear of what the powers that be would say. My age mates and I now nearing retirement and the question that I ask myself is this; are those who kept silent when we spoke out, and were called radical, any better off than us for the fact that they kept silent? I venture to say that they are not. All they have done is postpone the fight for their children to fight. Imagine a situation where you are an engineer who graduated in the eighties and nineties.

Your son or daughter graduates as an engineer and now has to fight to get a law that favours citizens. You have effectively betrayed your child. In fact had the older generation that was the first crop to graduate from university embraced the fight for freedom and equality most of the graduates who are now roaming the streets would be employed. Nelson Mandela is also said to have once said that there is never a right time to fight for freedom and equality. The bible teaches that there is never a right time to help someone. These suggest there is never a perfect time to fight for equality and freedom. The idea that you can keep quiet to avoid being called a radical is not sustainable. Nelson Mandela said that he has done his part. He was lucky for he did not die whilst still waiting for things to fall into place for him to do his part. To those who think it is good to avoid being radical I have this to ask; what if you were to die tonight? When Mandela boldly said “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die” he meant exactly that. Can you boldly say “I am ready to die for my silence?”

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper