Are we proud of our past as we celebrate 50th anniversary of Independence?

12th July 2016


By Moreri Gabakgore

It’s mind-boggling to think about an acceptable answer to this question without evoking unforgiving memories of the past, such as the unemployment rate at 20.0 percent and poverty levels estimated at 20 percent together with high income inequality. 

In the public service, it is the new Public Service Act which has become an administrative debacle, ruffling up the relationship between the government and public officers with trade unions at the center.  The unresolved and controversial public service salary increase is another with a dehumanizing effect on public officers that tend to affect their performance.

Another area of concern as we celebrate our Golden Jubilee is that of communities in the country, which feel neglected because their languages are not recognized.  These communities may not sing the chorus of self-congratulation on 30th September because they feel marginalized.   They however accept the notion that Setswana is the language of national unity and cultural identity, but want to be identified by their own language to uphold their cultural values.
The recognition of Wayeyi as a tribe by government recently, is a step in the right direction, although it may not be perceived well by Batawana as it could lead to the issue of tribal territory boundaries between the two tribes. 

Wayeyi have been very vocal about their identity as a tribe and now that they have won the battle, they may push for their language to be recognized.  This would call for a long awaited review of the National Language Policy to accommodate other languages that government may recognize as official languages.
Recently, Professor Thapelo Otlogetswe of the University of Botswana said on Gabz FM that there are 29 languages in Botswana spoken within a population of 2.2 million people.  He suggested that rather than pushing for these languages to be taught in schools, we should advocate for them to be preserved and developed, because he said, the classroom setting is not viable as it is being purported. 

He advised that Setswana should also be economically empowered to become a language of business like Chinese.  In the same vein, Herman Batibo says in his research paper, that Setswana like any other language, should be empowered to meet new usage as it grows and must be given economic power to survive the test of time.  

He says there should be a review of the national language policy, adding that the review should also help to standardize Setswana by establishing an effective National Language Council that should be given a mandate to standardize Setswana orthography which is now the biggest problem that contributes to the demise of the language.  The current Setswana orthography is based on a revised version of 1981 by the National Setswana Language Council and grammar by Cole in 1955.

Unfortunately, most Batswana do not know the current Setswana orthography and write Setswana as they speak, using different dialects and English colloquially.  Setswana has a number of dialects, but sadly none of them has been used as a basis for standard Setswana to become an important instrument of communication. 

It would also appear that Setswana is not growing like other languages and instead it is being enriched with foreign concepts devoid of Setswana cultural values.  Even Setswana publishing companies in South Africa, including the local Mmegi Publishers, are now not publishing because there is no market for Setswana readership.  Manuscripts by Setswana authors are collecting dust in shelves and this leads to a situation of Botswana becoming a nation without the past.

In a multilingual country like Botswana, community radios would offer a panacea solution to the language problem because they are community based and driven by a social agenda as opposed to commercial motivations that drive private radio stations.  They could help to preserve and develop the diverse languages of the country with little or without government involvement.  It is unfortunate that some Batswana use the issue of Botswana languages as a pawn on a national chessboard to further their hidden agenda.  The issue needs a political will and prudent decision like now, to avoid a looming disunity and separateness of Botswana’s communities.

Vision 2016 alluded briefly to these concerns, but unfortunately all its seven pillars, appear to be empty rhetoric because this is the target year (2016) with very little accomplished, particularly in the Moral and Tolerant Nation Pillar.  The pillar recognizes Botswana’s diversity of tribes with different languages which are not equally recognized.  It also acknowledges signs of disunity and separateness as challenges which require building a united nation that would harness these challenges.  Sadly, the challenges have not been met and the language issue is now critical than ever before. 

A bill to liberalize the airwaves for community radio stations in Botswana was presented to parliament in the recent past, but unfortunately it was deferred because most members of parliament expressed fear that community radio stations would promote ethnicity as opposed to nation building and they used the Rwanda genocide as a scape-goat.  Of course it is on record that a private radio station in Rwanda known as Mille Collines incited the 1994 genocide against Tutsi that claimed more than a million lives. 

But today, Rwanda has generally a free media landscape with 20 private radios and 5 community radio stations while Botswana has only three private radios and no community radio stations, let alone private television stations.  This comparison shows that Botswana at 50 years of independence, has lacked behind considerably in liberalizing its airwaves.  This is further illustrated by how neighbouring countries have forged ahead in licensing their private and community radio stations leaving Botswana still paranoid about these democratic changes.

Namibia for example, has 27 private and community radios at only 26 years of independence,  Zimbabwe which gained independence 36 years ago, has just licensed a community radio station 40 km from Harare and others are being considered.  South Africa which got independence 22 years ago, has a whopping 165 community radio stations and    Zambia at 52 years, has one of its community radio stations helping a local community to adopt safer reproductive health care practices. The radio is funded by the United States Agency for International Development USAID.

Botswana as a democratic country, should have been in the lead in providing a free electronic media landscape that would increase the political and social understanding of its citizens, using community radios as a democratizing tool.  Without this tool, our democracy is seen to be lacking an alternative platform of democratic participation and deliberation needed in a multilingual country like Botswana.   

It is time that communities in Botswana which may feel ready to start a community radio station, should start benchmarking in neighbouring countries, particularly in the areas of regulations of operation, code of ethics and management, in anticipation that the long awaited media bill will pass in parliament when it comes again.  In most countries, community radios operate under the ambit of a national body that lobbies for their airwaves. 

The body also ensures compliance, as well as assisting community radios with participatory programme content involving local communities.  The body works closely with communication regulatory authorities.  

Moreri Gabakgore
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