Par Phil Sandick*
Botswana. Post publié(e) le 2009-10-14
Botswana is one of only a handful of African countries that has remained politically stable since Independence. While commentators are quick to pronounce that democratic tribal traditions are the cause of such consistency, one should take into account that they have hindered the growth of civil society in important ways, too. The kgotla
, or meeting place, is a good example of such a double-edged sword.
Every tribe in Botswana has a chief, or kgosi, and almost every tribe has a home village. Within the village, there are clusters of dwellings, and each cluster has its own central gathering place: the kgotla. Anything that affects a large percent of the members of that kgotla will be announced in the circular, open-air, partially-walled, dirt-floored venue
. If the announcement affects the whole tribe, it will occur at the kgosing – the kgotla of the kgosi. Then they discuss.
Historians trace the advent of the kgotla custom to the beginning of the 19th Century at latest, and many see it as a major breakthrough in dialogue-based pluralism. Proverbs speak of the democratic nature of Botswana’s tribal social structure, with one declaring that everything spoken at the kgotla is beautiful, and another, that the chief is the chief through the consent of his people. Many see these open discussions as the foundation of Botswana’s lasting political stability.
But exactly who discusses? Until Independence, not women, not youth, and not members of dominated tribes (think Bushmen). And though all points of view are heard at the kgotla, there is another hiccup in its democratic nature: the kgosi has already consulted with tribal elders and has pretty much made up his mind on the issue at hand before approaching the people. He listens to the opinions of the people, but generally doesn’t deviate from plan. This modus operandi continues to the present in all levels of government: tribal, national, and otherwise.
Very occasionally, decisions can be affected. The privatization of grazing land was halted in some districts—and severely reduced in others—based on vociferous dissent at kgotla meetings (see Molutsi and Holm, “Developing Democracy When Civil Society is Weak” in African Affairs 89:56, p. 334). But that national government has been doing all it can to disenfranchise the local chiefs in the contemporary political context, and kgotla meetings are, especially now, one part dog, one part pony, one part policy debate.
Women have had it especially hard. Because individuals were allowed to voice dissent—with or without impact—at the kgotla, group political action was frowned upon for the first few decades after independence. Moreover, women’s groups weren’t supposed to be in any way politically concerned. Even though they were allowed to participate in kgotla meetings after independence—or maybe because they were—the women of Botswana were doubly disenfranchised. Then came Emang Basadi Women’s Association
Through an aggressive campaign to educate women across Botswana that they were being discriminated against by the laws of their own country, University of Botswana family law Lecturer Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme and her Emang Basadi (Stand Up, Women) broke new political ground and halted inequitable legislation. The 1982 Citizenship Act
would have denied women the right to pass their citizenship to their children if married to a non-citizen. Botswana, however, would not become patrilineal. Supported by Emang Basadi and the Botswana branch of Women and Law in Southern Africa, Unity Dow
took the matter up with the courts, and won. (Dow recently retired from her post as a High Court judge, and Molokomme is now Botswana’s Attorney General.)
What we have here, then, are some guidelines for political mobilization and democratic liberalization in countries with a scattered population. Representatives, whether chiefs or MPs, should attend meetings around the country, and voices—theirs and others—should be heard. That breed of inclusive participation will leave everyone more in touch with the situation both on the ground and in the capital. Individuals—even in the hinterlands—must be educated on issues that concern them, even if it means they challenge existing power structures.
Hopefully, like Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela II and his Bakgatla are
, they will, and their dissent through various channels will lay the foundation for lasting dialogue-based pluralism.
*Phil Sandick is a graduate of Columbia University.