When he appeared before the Balopi Commission, former president Sir Ketumile Masire testified that contrary to what most believed, constitutional recognition of only eight tribes in 1966 was not motivated by any kind of malice but was based solely on the fact that the latter were administratively more organised than all other tribes. Quoting a variant of a verse in a play by Euripides, the Greek dramatist who lived in the fifth century BC (“Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”) the now deceased Masire essentially suggested that tinkering with Sections 77, 78 and 79 was an act of pure madness.
Whatever the inspiration for those constitutional sections could have been, the outcome has been literally costly.“Denying that other cultures and other people exist through a constitution was a great mistake for Botswana and does not promote cultural diversity and cultural tourism,” says Professor Joseph Mbaiwa, who is the Director of the University of Botswana’s Okavango Research Institute in Maun. “I know and understand that this was carried out in the name of nation building but it is important to recognize people and their diversity and allow them to express themselves through their language, food, song, dance and others.”Mbaiwa makes a very strong business case for cultural tourism, one that should resonate at a time that COVID-19 has stemmed the normal revenue streams from tourism.“Cultural tourism can be one of the options to be used to diversify Botswana’s tourism industry away from reliance on wildlife-based tourism.
For a long time, Botswana’s tourism has not been diversified enough from being wildlife-based,” says Mbaiwa, adding that as a result of the latter, the industry has been hard hit by the pandemic since most wildlife-based tourists cannot fly into Botswana. “As such, cultural tourism can promote domestic tourism which I think should be an area of focus and development for Botswana in this era of Covid-19.” Botswana has well over 60 ethnic groups, which all have rich cultural heritage – the main input required for cultural tourism. Mbaiwa says that this heritage needs to be preserved and widely publicised for both Batswana themselves and foreigners. The latter action (publicising heritage) would close a gap that a report by European Union consultants has identified in Botswana’s tourism strategy – that there is virtually no information about most tourist products. Mbaiwa’s own recommendation is that Botswana’s cultural heritage can be displayed in museums, transmitted though books, brochures, cultural festivals, monuments, statues, artistic expressions like song and dance as well as incorporated into school curriculum.
He makes a very important point with regard to monuments and statues – that they should honour leaders who ruled “different ethnic groups in various key centres such as district headquarters and villages of Botswana such as Maun, Ghanzi, Serowe, Masunga, Tsabong, Tlokweng, Molepolole, Bobonong, Mochudi, Kanye and Kasane. For decades now, Botswana’s memorialisation culture, as indeed its general policy posture, has been mono-cultural. Beyond the patent unfairness, this situation also presents a serious national security threat. For what it is worth, the son of the founding president made some effort towards cultural inclusion by introducing the President’s Day Arts and Culture Competitions. Only then did the artistic cultures of some tribes come to the fore. While President Ian Khama is to be commended for this, he didn’t achieve much in terms of cultural inclusion because the breadth and depth of the Competitions was and is still very minimal.
In concerning themselves largely with entertainment, the competitions reflect the broader perception of culture in Botswana. Beyond the constitutional anomaly which was amended during Mogae’s administration, Mbaiwa notes that the government has not been able to exercise able stewardship over tourism in general and cultural tourism in particular.“Our Tourism Policy of 1990 focused mostly on wildlife as the main tourism product and the Botswana Tourism Plan of 2000, which called for the diversification of Botswana’s tourism product, was largely not implemented. We need policies and strategies that promote culture and cultural heritage tourism in the country,” Mbaiwa says.However, he sees “light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of a ministry responsible for promoting culture, which ministry also has a Department of National Museum and Monuments.“If there is political will and these departments or institutions are funded, maybe we can see cultural tourism development increasing in the country. These departments can work with the Botswana Tourism Organisation to develop a comprehensive strategy upon which cultural heritage tourism can be developed in the country.”
Whether it is due to lack of political will or funding, the foot-dragging on the development of cultural tourism is unmistakable. This happens even as some Batswana operate cultural lodges and increasingly nowadays, communities and organisations host what are proving to be popular cultural festivals. Mbaiwa cites the Goo-Moremi Gorge Resort (which is based on the cultural heritage of South African-origin Bapedi) as a very good example of how cultural tourism can be harnessed for economic benefit. The resort is located in the village of Goo-Moremi, which is 40 kilometres east of Palapye. More importantly perhaps and against desperate need to cultivate a domestic market for tourism, this resort has been a hit with local people.“The Goo-Moremi Gorge Resort has been doing well,” says Mbaiwa. “Batswana travel to Goo-Moremi to stay for weekends and holidays.”As popular are cultural festivals, whose number and cultural spread were growing pre-COVID-19: Botswana’s first Sotho cultural festival was held in August last year in Tlhareseleele and the mostly Xhosa village of Bikwe held its own festival for the second year running last year.
Mbaiwa cites Domboshaba, Kuru, Dithubaruba, Son of the Soil and Letlhafula among popular cultural festivals but hastens to add that their potential is not being fully exploited.“These are sporadic events which are not necessarily part of any government tourism strategy, hence marketing of such events has been rather low,” he says. “It will be great to see BTO marketing these events not only in Botswana but in other countries as well. I am of the view that COVID-19 has shown us that we need to diversity our tourism product and promote domestic tourism, including cultural tourism. As such, I believe that those who advise government should include cultural tourism and domestic tourism as alternative options to move Botswana’s tourism forward.”
It is likely cultural tourism would yield another benefit. The wildlife-based tourism that Botswana’s tourism strategy fixates on largely benefits foreigners who waste no time in repatriating profits abroad – some of those profits are reportedly stashed in tax havens. Cultural tourism would give greater economic control to citizens, who would spend their profits in Botswana.