How Linguistic Inequality Explains Botswana’s Surge in Identity Politics and Xenophobia

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 4

In post-colonial Africa, Botswana is often times regarded as a model transition, upholding traditional values in their quest for modernization. In fact, Botswana has mobilized drought relief campaigns, pension and orphan benefits, increased health infrastructure and mass school reform. Many attribute this success to a homogenous ethnic and linguistic population. This narrative of a rose-colored African Renaissance has stunted the human rights progression of minority groups and foreigners. The Umbrella for Democratic Chance (UDC), a political alliance to improve government accountability, has set concrete policy measures to combat xenophobic responses that have seen little results. Xenophobia and minority oppression within Botswana are perpetuated by linguistic inequalities and must be addressed through a sociocultural framework rather than progressively open immigration policy.

Instances of exclusionary behavior have cropped up in the public and private sector in recent years in Botswana. In 2012 in Serowe North, the urban village’s MP, Tshekedi Khama, was reprimanded by the National Assembly after referring to African foreigners within Botswana as “Makwerekwere” in parliament. The use of this derogatory word, which translates as “strange unintelligible sounds,” exemplifies the prevalence of historical marginalization and dehumanization of outsiders among Botswanans. High-profile independents, such as Freedom Fighter Julius Malema and lawyer Gordon Bennett, have been targeted for exclusion from entering the nation-state. After housemaids finished their work as immigrant laborers, their recently expired working visas were immediately reported to the police. Many may suggest this is an issue of contractionary immigration policy. But, Botswana has been known as the “country of immigration” for decades. In fact, in 2018 President Mokgweetsi Masisi reformed the Ease of Doing Business in Botswana policy so that “employers and investors who have been struggling with visas or residence or employment permits will be facilitated as expeditiously as possible.” So then, if not rooted in border controversies, the spread of xenophobia must be rooted in a greater social movement.

The rise of ethnocentrism particularly surged after a change in Zimbabwe migration patterns. Many call for the electrification of borders, non-citizens to carry identification and generally stricter migration laws. This rhetoric may parallel the progression of violence in South Africa, such as the xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg, which killed five. With a neighboring cautionary tale, Botswana will need to shift public opinion in order to keep their peaceful reputation. Wider immigration won’t combat dangerous rhetoric calling for restrictions on immigration itself; it’s not the origin of the problem. Foreigners aren’t facing walls or cages; but a homogeneous cultural enterprise that’s fearful of their authority being questioned.

The ‘One Nation project’ forced homogeneity through Tswanafication. Following independence in 1966, English became the official language, and Setswana (Tswana) became the national one. Minority languages such as Ikalanga and Afrikaans are gradually disappearing, along with oral and textual diversity in policy and media. Specifically, the demand for a national identity led to the suppression of tribal language within the education system, creating a positive feedback loop. Thus, assimilating to Tswana simply became more advantageous for career progression. Subservient to the state-wide narrative, foreigners’ labor rights only grew in the 1970s. Therefore, Botswana’s ‘successful’ post-colonial transition wasn’t caused by natural homogeneity, but systematic oppression of factions.

These linguistic changes created an inequitable power structure. The House of Chiefs’ membership, constitutionally, are ex-officio lifelong and hereditary members from eight Tswana merafes, or tribes. Yet, legislations such as the Tribal Territories Act excludes non-Tswana people’s protection of residing land. Eventually, minority groups began to create coalitions against the majority bias, such as the Society for the Promotion of Ikalanga Language, but these efforts were generally seen as unpatriotic rather than revolutionary. Therefore, the structure of government is more discriminatory than the content of the laws, creating continual elitism and ethnic collectivism.

The lack of articulate legislation fails to support the already silenced minorities and aliens. In section 15(3) of the Constitution, discrimination is defined by the ‘difference of treatment.’ But the implementation proves how “different” isn’t intuitively equal. In Attorney-General v Dow (1991), the court ruled that Section 3 implies all-encompassing fundamental rights, and therefore the equal treatment of individuals. However, many believe this law doesn’t practically protect against discrimination. Recently, foreigners have been blamed for crime, social ills and unsustainable economic opportunities. This ineffective application enhances the primary need for greater cultural intervention.

Rhetoric has infiltrated the daily lives of Botswana’s population. ‘Local’ men and women assert their dominance and sexualize Ghanaians, a prominent minority. Through marriage, Ghanaian men attempt to gain citizenship rights. This opportunistic relationship manifests xenophobia through repulsion, rather than the more common tactic of rejection. These abusive power structures are formed from intolerance and disrespect, conveyed through linguistic relativity. In Tswana languages, roots meaning “human beings” are “mo-ba,” such as the “Basotho” people. However, non-Tswana speakers, such as Lekgowa-Makgowa imply vultures or thieves. These literal savage implications highlight the schism within Botswanan culture.

Many citizens refuse to publicly address these widespread offenses. Because the press is controlled by the dominant language, journals and articles about xenophobia are rare. Methaetsile Leepile, former editor of Mmegi, provides a rare criticism of the Kalanga elite by claiming they attempt to “dictate the tempo and direction of change to make strategic interventions when it serves their peculiar interests.” Thus, it is the responsibility of the masses and media to shed light on their own missteps, perhaps through youth education campaigns or increased minority language representation in films. Common thought would point towards more accepting immigration policies, yet the true conflict is intrinsic. The multifaceted issue of language must be culturally assessed, for the greatest injustices are most evident in civil society.

This case of language suppression is not singular and as globalization expands, Botswana’s minorities will continue to be threatened against a more homogenous world. Perhaps, it’s actually the ‘utopian’ societies that require more critical cultural analysis, for the factions who might need to vocalize injustices and suppression, may lack the ability to do so.

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