Saturday, October 16, 2021

‘Outsa Mokone is a Molepolole-born Botswana citizen’

One of the very first people to stop by Jane Mokone’s bed minutes after she gave birth to her second son was Harriet Snowy Rampa. Outside work, Rampa was very well acquainted with the mother and her husband, recently-arrived South African refugees who operated a grocery store in Molepolole.

Then a nurse at the Scottish Livingstone Memorial Hospital, Rampa recalls the joyous but fatigued mother asking what sex her baby was. On learning that it was a boy, she gave him a unique Setswana name: Montsamaisabosigo. The name is drawn from a Setswana proverb,montsamaisa bosigo ke mo leboga bo sele which literally means that you thank someone who travelled with you during the night in the morning. To those who have an inactive relationship with Setswana, that might deceptively sound like a payment plan for a Red Bull-swilling commercial driver whose car spent all night ricocheting between Chez Ntemba, Fashion Lounge, Chez Nicolas and Ghetto Blues nightclubs, before ending its assignment at the house of the now near-comatose passenger in the morning. In reality though, the proverb stresses the importance of returning the favour when someone comes to your aid during your hour of need. A 30-centimetre-long name presented challenges that ranged from the trivial (deejaying or playing pick-up soccer with it) to the profound (bylining an award-winning newspaper story). And so, through a baby-talk convention favoured by mothers and close family members which linguists call hypocorism, Montsamaisabosigo became Outsa. Thus a future Fourth Estate bareknuckle fighter in the heavyweight division called Outsa Mokone was introduced to the world. Soon thereafter, the hospital issued a birth certificate.

You can well imagine Rampa’s horror when she set her eyes on the frontpage of last week’s edition of Botswana Gazette. “DIS Guns for Mokone’s Citizenship,” declared a banner headline next to a portrait of a pensive and naturally behatted Mokone striking the classic hand-over-mouth pose. As someone who was in the labour ward after Mokone was born, Rampa read the story with utter disbelief. Thereafter, she composed a critical, sharp-worded text message on her cellphone that she immediately sent off to Mokone.

The story, as related by Mokone to the newspaper, is that his citizenship was the subject of an active, sign-of-the-times investigation ÔÇô or more precisely, a counterfactual operation to deport him to God knows where.  A month ago, Mokone’s car was broken into at his house in Gaborone and among valuables that were stolen were his passport and national identity card. Mokone has been able to replace the latter but the passport proved an unusual challenge. On enquiring from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship why his passport was taking too long to come out, he learnt that his citizenship was being investigated.

While Mokone was born in Botswana, his parents were not. They came here in 1964 as refugees fleeing a South Africa where, to all intents and purposes, the apartheid government had placed virtually all black people on death row and was slaughtering dozens by the day. In terms of the Citizenship Act, a child born to foreign parents has to affirm Botswana citizenship in writing when s/he reaches the age of majority. On turning 21 in 1989, Mokone complied with this requirement and was issued a naturalization certificate. For 28 sane years, there has never been any question about his citizenship.

When he was five years old, Mokone and his siblings went to live with his grandparents in South Africa. The reason, he explains, is that his parents hadn’t settled well and wanted a more stable family environment for their children. Mokone would start school in South Africa but didn’t stay long. With the parents having put down roots in Molepolole, the children returned in 1977 and Mokone enrolled at Canon Gordon Primary School. Later, he would go to Kgari Sechele Secondary School and the University of Botswana to study for a BA in Humanities. While at UB, an inherent ability to do amazing things with words propelled him towards journalism. By the time he completed his degree, Mokone had staked out a prime position in the then luxuriant groves of the Fourth Estate.  A few short years later, he successively served as editor of Botswana Gazette and Botswana Guardian and in 2004, became founding editor (and co-director) of Sunday Standard. He is the 1997 CNN Africa Journalist of the Year.

One part of the story is that the investigation dwelled on whether Mokone’s documents might have been forged. While it is possible to forge a document, it doesn’t look like such documents were ever subjected to any forensic analysis ÔÇô which investigative capability Botswana’s security services have – to determine the answer. And while birth certificate and naturalization certificates can be forged, the experience and memory of having been in a labour ward when a child was born cannot. Rampa has no incentive to provide false testimony and as just one indication of how genuine she is, she backtracks on an earlier account about having delivered Mokone.

“No, it wasn’t him but his younger brother, Joshua. When he was born I hadn’t qualified as a midwife but was qualified when Joshua was. I was only in the labour ward when Outsa was born. I am absolutely certain about that and am prepared to vouch for him,” says Rampa whose work at Scottish Livingstone so endeared her to mothers that a good many baby girls she delivered were named after her.

The latter means that it is likelier than not if a Molepolole woman in her 40s and 30s is called Harriet, Rampa delivered her as a baby at Scottish Livingstone in the 1970s. There is also the possibility of those born after she left the hospital having been named after those she delivered. At the time of her retirement, Rampa was Matron at Princess Marina Referral Hospital in Gaborone.  

The bigger tragedy is the time that the government chose to conduct this investigation/operation. Mokone is still mourning the death of his wife of 15 years (and partner for 26 years) who died last month. He now has to raise both their two children, who school in Cape Town, by himself. Until her death, the mother stayed with them. The children are themselves still mourning their mother’s death and desperately need emotional parental support. At their most emotionally trying time yet, these children became collateral damage in a matter they have absolutely nothing to do with. Before there was an issue about his passport, Mokone would travel to South Africa on an almost weekly basis. However, for the entire period that he was denied a passport, he could not visit the children and only maintained telephonic contact with them. To the extent it can be called parenting, Mokone had to parent his children over the phone because he could not travel outside the country.

He finally got his passport last Wednesday afternoon which should enable him to re-establish physical contact with his children as well go on an official trip to China next month. However, the storm is far from over. Mokone is still facing sedition charges before the Regional Magistrate Court in Gaborone. The charge was prompted by his paper’s publication of a story about President Ian Khama being the driver of a car that was involved in a night-time road accident. The Department of Public Prosecutions deems this story to have been seditious, that is, it incited people to rebel against the authority of the state. Following publication of the story, Mokone was arrested, locked up in a police cell for one night and his work computer was confiscated. Under the impression that the story was printed at a then incomplete printing press in Pilane – which was still under construction at the time – investigators attempted to confiscate the printing press. The press is owned by Sunday Standard’s sister company and its confiscation would certainly have caused a serious diplomatic row between Botswana and the United States because the project is being financed by an American organisation.

In a Botswana that not even a cabinet minister can hardly recognise as his birthplace, it has been credibly alleged that the passport saga is part of a nefarious plot to strip-search the law for provisions through which Mokone’s journalism can be tamed – if not disenabled altogether. The latter raises a deeply disturbing question: with the government’s campaign against Mokone and his paper ever evolving in an escalatory fashion, how will the final stage of the rumoured plot manifest itself? Upon learning of a state-sponsored plot to stage a sting operation in which a lookalike receiving a bribe would play his part, the Assistant Minister of Investment, Trade, Industry, Reverend Biggie Butale, is quoted in Botswana Gazette as saying, “This is not the Botswana that I grew up in.”

If nothing else, this impulse to photoshop counterfactual reality in order to incriminate innocent citizens severely diminishes the moral prestige of Botswana’s democracy.

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