You will have to decide for yourself what the Maun West MP, Tawana Moremi, meant when he said that some children were “eaten” at Camp Dubai, the luxury tent city that served as the headquarters of a historic political campaign. You will also have to so the same thing with regard to whether former president, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, is a dictator.
One of the ways to express “We have lost out” in Setswana is with “re jelwe”, whose literal meaning is “we have been eaten.” In its impure form, the verb becomes a double entendre. One part of Moremi’s contribution to a parliamentary debate on a motion to reimburse Norilsk Nickel, a Russian company that is intent on recouping its investment on the closed Tati Nickel mine in Francistown, had a re-jelwe-themed part.
“Re jelwe after being sold this myth of Polaris II,” he said referring to a failed project to expand the now closed BCL mine in Selebi Phikwe. “Someone came up with this myth and public officials decided to embark on Polaris II. That is why we ended up this way today. Polaris II is not the only failure. A kgotla meeting in Tlokweng heard that re jelwe with regard to Fengyue Glass. I can’t understand what the problem is. A recent newspaper article also said re jelwe with regard to the plastic levy.”
Background: the state-owned Botswana Development Corporation partnered with a Chinese company called Fengyue Glass Manufacturing Company in an ill-fated project that never saw the light of day but sucked up P500 million of taxpayer money. The government has not claimed a single thebe from retailers since the introduction of the plastic levy in 2003. Anxious to avert a re jelwe scenario, Norilsk Nickel threatened to sue the Botswana government unless it got back its investment. The parliamentary debate centred on a request by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Kenneth Matambo, to release funds to the company.
To drive his point home, Moremi made a mind-boggling comparison: “O ka re re ngwana yo o kwa congress kwa Camp Dubai – re jelwe!” On the face of it, “We are like a child that was eaten at a congress in Camp Dubai” is an innocent-sounding statement but the mirth that it excited in the MP’s audience strongly suggests that there may have been much more to it than hit the ear. It is worth pointing out that in Setswana, there are certain contexts in which “child” can mean adult. When the Botswana Democratic Party held its do-r-die national elective congress last year, supporters of Mokgweetsi Masisi, who successfully ran for the chairmanship, set up a luxury tent city that was dubbed “Camp Dubai” because of its level of ostentatiousness. Masisi won and on becoming state and party president last Sunday, blessed his vice president, Slumber Tsogwane, with the BDP post.
A supreme traditional leader who has made a foray into politics, Moremi (whose regnal name is Tawana II), made his parliamentary debut in the lower house where he represented his tribe, the Batawana. While a member of the renamed Ntlo ya Dikgosi years ago, he once microwaved (from the chair’s seat no less) a widely circulated risqu├® joke about a North East man who, unable to get his untrained tongue around “sekisa” (Setswana for the act of trying case in a court of law) ended up approximating it to the suggestive “seksa.”
About Khama’s dictatorship: Speaker Gladys Kokorwe felt that the Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, was out of order when he referred to Khama as a “dictator” and when the latter wouldn’t withdraw the words, ordered him to leave the house. The oddity of it all that is Khama himself has sort of acknowledged that he is a dictator and that the state-owned Radio Botswana periodically refers to some African heads of state as babusa esi ÔÇô “dictators” in language youthful Selebi Phikwe MPs would prefer to use.
“The opposition will not tell you about the successes of the government; all they ever do is tell lies and attack me, calling me a dictator,” Khama said at a political rally in Gaborone a week before the 2014 general election. “I must be the only dictator to be judged the number one ruler in Africa ÔÇô I don’t know about being the number one dictator.”
Years ago, Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone, found himself in a situation similar to Keorapetse’s with his use of “fat cat” to refer to the highest paid civil servants. One of them was then Permanent Secretary to the President, Molosiwa Selepeng, whose semantic analysis of the term on a radio show led him to declare that having majored in English went on radio to express outrage at the use of what the Government Enclave deemed a disrespectful word. During that interview, he would state that having majored in English at university (like Mokone) he fully understood the meaning of the term. Merriam Webster dictionary defines the offensiveness of “fat cat” in the following way: “a wealthy and privileged person.”