Sunday, September 27, 2020

Okavango enclave in a storm over racist slur

A leaked secret memo describing Batswana as an “inherently lazy people” is fomenting a storm in the Okavango tourism enclave.

The memo, written by English-speaking white South African Grant Woodrow, has driven a wedge between citizens and the white expatiate managers who are mainly from South Africa. Woodrow is a director of a safari tour operation, the Okavango Wilderness Safaris in Maun.

In the same confidential memo, Woodrow also complained about theft by Batswana employees working for his company.

He said the cultural set up of Batswana makes them vulnerable to a lot of pressures which they cannot cope with, ending up with them being thieves.

“I have always said theft is going to hit us hard in the camps ÔÇô it is an environment where staff is battling to survive due to high costs of living.

Issues such as HIV/AIDS and related illnesses and expenses are affecting their daily lives financially.”

Woodrow said Batswana culture, which requires them to make contributions to funerals of their relatives and their communities, often outweighs what they earn.

“The Batswana are also inherently lazy people; one person per family works and supports the rest of them ÔÇô impossible in the real world, but they don’t think so,” wrote Woodrow in a letter circulated among the exclusively white senior managers at Maun.

He told his colleagues that the management of his company could not continue telling guests that theft is not a problem “yet advise them to lock away all valuables.”

“I think it is better to be honest in a professional way that will not offend the guests or the staff,” he wrote.

When his memo was leaked and caused uproar among Batswana managers and staff that his sentiments were patronizing and racist, Woodrow made an attempt at a U-turn.

“I tried to explain some of the reasons why we are having so much thefts in the camps.

These reasons were an attempt to explain why many people in Botswana are struggling to survive due to the pressures exerted by their own culture and society.

I used the word “lazy” in describing the Botswana people, and having re-read my email yesterday, I realized that this was not only a mistake but would also be viewed as offensive by any hardworking citizen.”

“This is what I meant as being “lazy” ÔÇô it is easier to return to the cattle post (with no money) than to solve the problem and continue to earn wages.

This is a problem throughout the industry and although the term “lazy” is not correct there is an issue here where a resigning person will fall under the financial support of someone else, increasing the pressure of that person in the work place. This is probably an aspect of the Botswana culture that I will grow to understand.”

Woodrow loudly wondered how many of his staff survive today given the pressures.

“Every month many of the staff send all their money into town as payment for food and well being as well as donations towards those who are ill or may have passed away.

I want to make a difference to these people’s lives but it is not a simple solution as I am sure you will agree.”

When contacted to clarify how Batswana’s culture made them lazy, Woodrow said the email was an internal memo that has now been understood out of context.

“I am aware of the allegations of racism in the tourism industry in Botswana. The problem is that expatriates and citizens have different understanding of racism. This makes it very easy to misconstrue one another,” said Woodrow to The Sunday Standard.

He said a lot of things about racism in the tourism sector in Botswana are “not exactly true.”
He denied accusations by members of his staff that he is racist.

“The company I work for is not racist,” he said.
But the members of his staff maintain that Woodrow is only recoiling because his letter has now fallen into the wrong hands.

They said the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Moeng Pheto, and his Assistant, Olifant Mfa, had been to the camps to help sought out the problems, but there was still no improvement.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.