Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Squatter’s rights in Botswana: The need for a constitutional review?

Since the past week, I have been following with much interest the uproar raised by a painting exposing the genitals of South African President, Jacob Zuma, entitled ‘The Spear’ by a certain Brett Murray. The painting presents the president in a heroic revolutionary pose ÔÇô one that could have easily passed for an old Soviet Era communist like Vladimir Lenin or even Stalin. Although the painting looked borrowed, the organ, according to Alex Perry, is ‘incongruous: exposed in inept fashion and gratuitously painted.’ (Time Magazine 23 May, 2012).

And this is where it gets interesting! The painting has had an unfortunate effect of dividing South Africa. On one side are those who view it as an attack on Zuma’s dignity. Consequently, the ruling ANC has filed a case in the High Court demanding that the painting be taken down from the Goldman Gallery in Johannesburg, which exhibited it. They further demand the picture be removed from the website of the City Press newspaper. At the other end are those who see nothing wrong with the picture. To them, it is just another work of art. As such, it should be seen in that light!

The furore that followed the exhibition of the painting was therefore more about the artist’s right to freedom of expression on one hand and the dignity of Jacob Zuma on the other. The courts are still to decide on the constitutionality of the matter. What is important though is that when contentious issues of this nature arise, there is a constitution to look up to.

While our neighbours to the south were consumed by the controversial painting, we in our republic were also witnessing a somewhat familiar development with serious implications for our constitution ÔÇô at least if we still want to be seen as a model democracy in the developing world. While the South Africans are currently consumed by issues below the belt, I thought probably as a nation we should be dealing with those above our shoulders. These are what I deem to be pertinent issues that can best serve the interests of this nation. Hence, I deem it appropriate to reflect on the need for a vibrant, modern and progressive constitution ÔÇô one which is better placed to address contemporary challenges this nation grapples with at the moment and beyond.

And the issue that is of great interest to me is the manner in which we allocate and manage land and how we tend to undermine or totally disregard the rights of the squatters in our beloved republic. Last week while watching BTV News, I could not help but wonder if the infamous ‘yellow monsters’ days are back in our country. This came just a few weeks after hundreds of squatters living at the Senthumole Ramadeluka area in Jwaneng were notified to vacate the place or face eviction. According to The Gazette Newspaper (09 May, 2012), the former Director of Lands in the Ministry of Lands and Housing, Ian Tema, informed the residents of this place through a letter that they occupied the land illegally. Consequently, he notified them that, ‘you are therefore directed to vacate the site you are occupying and demolish all structures you have erected on site within 10 days from April 30th to May 11, 2012.’

Going further, he indicated that, ‘…failure to demolish all structures and vacate the site will result in government taking legal action against you which may include your forced eviction and pulling down of your structure. In concluding, he advised them that, ‘this notice serves you time to salvage your building materials and belongings.’ This is one of the many forced evictions that have been making news over the past few months.

Disappointedly, there has been very little public debate on this matter. If I recall well, only the Echo newspaper commented on the issue last week. Our political leaders across the political spectrum are quiet. Civil society organisations are quiet. It seems to be business as usual. This is a sad reality that people who have a conscience will have to contend with for a long time.
But let’s remember that this problem is not by choice ÔÇô at least on the part of the squatters. The majority of these people are ordinary Batswana trying to make a living to cater for their children’s future. In most cases, residents of such places are women and kids. Indeed, very poor people! I mean vulnerable people who are at the bottom of the food chain. They hardly get anything going for them in life. And their life experiences can just be summed up as miserable. This has been going on for too long!

Get me right, I am not saying we as a people should tolerate lawlessness. Rather, we should be able as a society to adequately debate such issues that at best borders on abuse of human rights of vulnerable members of our society by those who are supposed to protect them!

Undoubtedly, the land problem in our country is by design. We hear familiar excuses every time matters of this nature crops up. Land shortages and slow allocation by Land Boards are always at the top of the excuse list. And the reaction by the Land Boards is always swift; seeking court orders the next day to evict helpless squatters with little consideration of their personal circumstances. In no way do these institutions realise that they deal with issues of human dignity.

We should not forget that these people have waited for far too long for the same Land Boards to allocate them plots. Some have waited for well over 10 years but they are still to hear from the authorities. Frankly speaking, nothing seems to be happening! Sadly, it would seem there is no legal route to challenge such institutions when they display their inefficiency by taking too long to serve their clients. On very few occasions have the courts come to the rescue of squatters. A case in point was 2002 when Justice Peter Collins threw out presidential directive authorising demolition of squatter dwellings in Mogoditshane and in the process describing government action as worse than what was done to blacks in Apartheid South Africa.

This development contrasts sharply with what obtains in advanced democracies. Even in new democracies such as South Africa, they have institutionalised 3rd generation human rights in their constitutions. Human dignity is an integral part of such provisions. By so doing, they have ensured that each citizen has a right to decent housing. Arbitrary demolition of people’s houses is thus restricted. Perhaps as a nation, we need to revisit our constitution and amend it to protect the rights of vulnerable members of our society.

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