The BDF’s Romeo and Juliet escape tragedy

Labour of love: The victorious couple and their lawyer
Labour of love: The victorious couple and their lawyer

Breaking military rules by falling in love, the couple committed a cardinal sin and were liable to be punished. The High Court, after months of testimony, was asked to rule over the love within the Botswana Defence Force’s own Romeo and Juliet. Staff Writer, MPHO MOKWAPE followed the Shakespearean drama in court

It was impossible not to draw parallels between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the military couple on trial in the High Court to defend their right to have a relationship, in spite of the army’s fraternisation rules.

Romeo and Juliet belongs to a tradition of tragic romances, but in this case, the tragedy was not the death of the lovers, but the fact that they had to fight for their right to fall in love and still keep their jobs, in court.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Thabang Tlhapisang and Kozondu Cisquo Uariua live not only to tell their tale, but also to see a reconciliation of their love and the military bosses.

Justice Zein Kebonang last Friday ruled in favour of the couple, ordering the BDF to reinstate them and allow them to continue serving the nation.

In court for the judgement, after dozens of appearances, the lovers sat quietly close to each other in the still courtroom.  After the drama of previous months and formality of filings and arguments by lawyers, the entire case had come down to the minutes Kebonang would take going through his judgement.

For Tlhapisang and Uariua, it was the longest five minutes in their lifetimes.

Judge Kebonang’s reading of the judgement added to the tense atmosphere as his deadpan expression gave no hint as to which direction he was leaning towards. The only sound and movement in the courtroom was that of the judge and the pages he kept flipping as he got closer to the gist of the matter.

For the longest time I paid close attention to Kebonang, trying to figure out from his words where the judgement likely lay. One minute he would go in hard at the couple, suggesting he would rule against them.  But then, the next, he would be in their favour and the mystery of the final verdict deepened.

Tlhapisang and Uariua, on the other hand, constantly gazed into each other’s eyes, seeming to reassure each other soundlessly.  However, their constant shifting in their seats betrayed their anxiety at the ‘torture’ of anticipating the judgement.

The couple ran afoul of military procedures when they engaged in a relationship, contrary to the BDF’s rules on fraternisation. In line with global military standards, the BDF has been very strict on fraternisation, which refers to relationships between higher-ranking personnel and their subordinates. The policy is designed to remove favouritism or the appearance of favouritism in military structures.

In 2012, Tlhapisang and Uariua were employed by the BDF holding the ranks of second lieutenant and private respectively, when their duties nurtured daily contact between them.

They found themselves drawn to each other and what perhaps started as a flirtation soon ripened into a blossoming romance.

The affair would later catch the attention of others and no doubt the couple knew they were treading on dangerous ground. The BDF did not hesitate to take action when it found out and cited them with contravening its Policy on Fraternisation and Sexual Harassment.

Tlhapisang and Uariua were charged with “conduct deemed to be prejudicial to good order and military discipline contrary to section 65 of the BDF Act,” on May 14, 2014. They were subsequently fired, but took the BDF to court challenging the dismissal.

The couple, in their numerous appearances in court over two years, even including side-litigations that delayed the matter, won public admiration of their loyalty to each other and their dedication to their relationship.

At each appearance, they would be side by side, calmly engaging their lawyer.

The moment of truth was now upon everyone.

In his judgment Kebonang outlined that the military was a fascinating institution and that unless it turned rogue, it was established to protect society and was supposed to be at the ready for combat at all times.

The judge explained that while constitutional rights and freedoms applied to the BDF, the reality was that the army by necessity compelled a limitation to these rights because it relied on command and discipline, which are core military functions.

The question, as Kebonang put it, was what business or right the military had to interfere in or monitor sexual relations between two consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms.

“Public outrage or not, it must be accepted that when men and women join the army and pledge to defend this nation, they effectively sign away some of their rights and freedoms including, in the instant case, the right to make decisions regarding their private sex life,” he said.

From the judgement, it became clear that Kebonang was upholding the BDF’s fraternisation rules. For Tlhapisang and Uariua to win their case, the victory would have to come from elsewhere.

That ‘elsewhere’ as the judge pointed out, were lapses in the process taken by the BDF’s to dismiss the pair. 

These lapses were ultimately  the catalyst in Kebonang’s decision to pardon their violation of the fraternisation rules and order the couple’s reinstatement.

“For the above reasons the review application succeeds and the applicants are reinstated with immediate effect to their positions with the attendant rights, benefits and privileges as if they had been in continuous employment,” he ruled. 

As the judge’s last words echoed, the courtroom erupted in ululation and sighs of relief for the lovers and their family members who were in attendance to provide moral support.

The emotional rollercoaster was finally over for the couple and the nightmares were behind them. However, an even bigger fear awaits, as they now have to return to work and face their bosses, for the first time in a long time. “I am happy we came this far but ijoo it’s going to be tough. It’s been long.

This is it. Motho jaanong ga re a ye go iphutha pele ga a boa,” Tlhapisang said in court, as she and Uariua left towards an uncertain future.

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