Saturday, July 4, 2020

Racism is the demon nations haven’t exorcised

Dear President M. E. K. Masisi, 

“I can’t breathe” is a familiar phrase around the world right now. It means exactly that. George Floyd pleaded for his God-given oxygen, but the weight of three police officers on his feet, back, while the infamous Derek Chauvan knelt on his throat, ebbing life out of him. All the while his hands were tied to the back. The independent post-mortem reveals Floyd was already dead barely four minutes into an ordeal that lasted nine minutes.

Medically, Floyd died of traumatic asphyxia, which means the deprivation of oxygen due to strangulation. “I can’t breathe” also is a powerful metaphor that every privileged person, family, clan, community, tribe, race or nation should understand that those being dominated over a while, eventually lose their breath. It is this figurative meaning that I am scanning to bring out the hypocrisy that characterizes person-to-person relationships, and that failing to empathize by those enjoying dominance can only lead to the widespread rioting similar to what has been witnessed across the United States of America since last week. It was the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King jr. who is credited that “Riot is the language of the unheard.” Coming from a man whose activism was anchored on nonviolent marches, it is powerful to send a clear message to the oppressor.

It is reminiscent of the axiom, “mokgerwa o tle o lome mong wa one,” as much as it is a fulfilment of “setlhako se hisa morwadi.” Let us not commit the error of perpetuating the belief that there is more than one race. There is only one human race. Because we have taught ourselves that we are not equal, we have settled for the colour of skin to describe race, racism and racialism. Out of this categorization, we have developed a language that says racism is an atrocious treatment meted out against those whose colour of the skin is different from the oppressor. It cannot be the true definition in 2020. Those whose military might or economic strength conquered, subjugated, assimilated and continued to control fellow human beings without regard for their pleas and cries of “I can’t breathe” are racist, and have no moral rectitude to speak against what is happening right now in the United States. 

It has been astounding to see commentary from fellow Batswana who enjoy similar privileges because of their bloodline, condemning racism and calling out the United States to address it swiftly. I have been nauseated by this level of hypocrisy when the same people vehemently refuse any move that takes away from their so-called principal tribes’ status quo to empower others that have been identified as minority groups in the Constitution. They don’t believe theirs is racism. They would even deny that Botswana suffers from tribalism, another terminology coined to talk about ill-treatment happening between black Africans. This is absurd. We cannot help America or Europe to clean up their mess when we have loads of our own that we refuse to confront head-on. 

Imagine this. A baby born in 2002 is entering college later this year. If such a child was born into a privileged family that recognizes his tribe as the principal one in the Botswana Constitution, he has known nothing but to feel superior to others. Similarly, if another child was born into a family whose bloodline is recorded in the same Constitution as the minor tribe, she has grown in the shadow of her master to believe that despite her achievements in life, she can never rise tall. The year 2002 is not just an example, it is the year when the highest court in the land upheld a landmark ruling that was specific to the Bayei to be freed from the subjugation and assimilation by the Batawana, and to the benefits of other ethnic groups, the orders were that sections 77, 78 and 79 of the Constitution be repealed to introduce amendments setting all tribes on an equal footing. 

The idea of a master-servant relationship as a fundamental socialization philosophy proved powerful when a state president with the determination to remake history was completely defeated by broad-daylight remarks at the Serowe kgotla, where he was reminded that as a Motalaote, President Festus G. Mogae is historically, a subject of the Bangwato. He left the kgotla deflated, without the tempo and gusto he carried as he went around the country to consult other tribes about the impending amendments that placing every citizen on the same level. This racism has been with us for centuries. The Europeans simply amplified it by preferring certain tribes over others, allocating vast regions under their control, while promulgating discriminatory laws into the Constitution of an independent nation. Those tribes in the context of Botswana, which have benefited from the status quo and being recognized as first-class citizens, have enjoyed the privilege so much that any suggestion to have other tribes drape their kings in lion or leopard skins at coronation has stirred up feelings of resentment.

The idea that these so-called minor tribes can have their kings as equals in the Ntlo ya Dikgosi has elicited fury. Any move to rename the districts and land boards by diminishing the territorial integrity of the so-called principal tribes is seen as intentional subversion to upgrade those who should be content in their lower caste as they have been assimilated. How on earth do we want to project the image to the world that we are a constitutional republic when we hold the judgments of our courts in contempt?

One wonders how we rise tall to describe ourselves as a democracy if we defy the rule of law, yet expect those being dominated to be peaceful with the institutionalized racism. Botswana’s political stability owes to the nonviolent attributes of those who have been dominated for centuries, and time is nigh that the ones that have enjoyed this supremacy make amends. Who teaches his child that he is superior to another human being, having determined how? We have no way of telling that our children or their children will have tolerance for all these lies, prompting the present generation to correct the bad legacy of supremacy to secure the future. No one would have guessed that 400 years after the black African slaves stepped on the American soil, there would be riots of this scale. America must have been complacent that the civil rights era was behind and buried, even when America knew that the demon of racism was still lurking around in her subconscious psyche. Here is a nation on edge.

Its sentinels cannot secure it. Several buildings have burned down in raging fires since last week Tuesday. More lives of protestors have also been lost, but the marches for equality, for justice and liberties are not abating. The violence has taken the centre stage with the mainstream media boiling with commentary that racism has led to the destruction of property, daylight looting from innocent businesspeople because the black community has no trust in the system to address structural injustices spanning across 400 years. Since President Mogae caved in to the Bangwato dominance, there was no hope once his monarch ascended to the presidency in 2008. It has been a decade of dead silence with President Ian Khama. He has passed the baton into the hands of President Mokgweetsi E. K. Masisi, “an addict to the rule of law” by confession. We are observing just how the captain would steer the ship where racism in our part of the world is concerned, at least to the extent that the specific sections should be repealed and amendments introduced. He can make his legacy as Abraham Lincoln is noted to have achieved liberties for African-Americans, or our Father of the Nation can warm up the seat and leave no meaningful change to talk about at the end of his term.

But one reality remains true; Botswana will also burn, one day. It may not be on his watch, but it will burn because no human being is born with the understanding and acceptance that he is inferior to another. If you doubt this truth, observe babies, even toddlers or innocent children when they interact with one another. We are inoculated [with] these ideas once we are capable of harming another person. We should call out racism for what it is and not make it sound lesser by saying ours is tribalism. As we continue to be outraged by the callous attitudes displayed by white law enforcement agents in the United States and the raging riots across American cities, we should not lose sight that our demon remains stuck in the closet with an eerie sound to exorcise. As a nation, we have not started to dismantle the colonial remnants that have set us apart from each other according to our street address. As we think we can share with America [on] how to heal herself from the racial warfare, we must remember that cultural advocacy groups such as Kamanakao, SPIL, Lentswe la Batswapong, Kgeikani Kweni (First Peoples of the Kalahari) and many others did not just mushroom out of nowhere. These are voices of the oppressed, subjugated, dominated and assimilated people muttering under their breaths, “I can’t breathe.

You are going to kill me, Sir. Mama!” Once we heed the cries of fellow citizens, we start to enjoy the moral high ground to share social graces with nations afar. Anything else is hypocritical. Racism is here in Botswana, let us uproot it and secure the posterity of the land. We should not pretend that we are equal, we must believe that we are equal and that it is the only truth. 

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.