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Revisiting the principle of botho

When Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) president Duma Gideon Boko spoke ferociously and harshly against injustice during a presidential debate, many commentators regarded him disrespectful.

At one point when speaking as a political opponent, the late Gomolemo Motswaledi pointedly argued that it is difficult for him to speak freely against Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi because he is afraid of being labelled  disrespectful to an elder. He further said, “Botho bo siame mme fa gongwe bo diela nako”(though respect/courtesy is a good thing, it is sometimes a waste of time).

In Botswana, there is a common old adage that  says “Susu ilela suswana gore suswana e go ilele” (elders must respect the young so that the young respect them back).

Quite interestingly, the above statement also relates or applies perfectly to the ruler-ruled relationship: mutual respect for the preservation of the social contract. However, it is worrisome that the principle of Botho has been used and is likely to be manipulated by the ruler to circumvent freedom, equality and justice by inspiring fear to the ruled. Speaking truth to power is most likely to be regarded as contempt culture, rebellion, unpatriotic and disrespectful.

This thesis argues unapologetically that the principle of Botho is often or most likely to promote conformity and political deception as opposed to dissent and political inclusion.

The principle is most likely to reduce debate into a taboo in favour of maintaining the status quo at all costs. The Botho antiquity is defiant to the metamorphosis of society and therefore likely to favour the ruler and marginalise the ruled by emphasising responsibilities more than rights, thus, reducing the political space or the market place of ideas into a ‘management culture’ than a ‘debate culture’.

The reciprocity between the ruler and ruled is embedded in the social contract making both parties equally worthy of respect not a one sided win-lose arrangement.

When held in contempt of Botho, the ruled inevitably become more respectful to the ruler by or through circumvention or coercion. Those who do not conform are likely to be witch-hunted and accused of ‘disturbing the peace’. 

This has potential to create ‘peace bias’ in that negative peace is favoured at the expense of positive peace. Afraid of being contemptuous, the society is likely to appease (making government to account to themselves ) than  question (holding the State or government  accountable). This in return is a potential catalyst for a counterproductive state-

society relations based on “ the politics of yes sir” than debate. 

Utilitarian philosopher, John Stuart Mill beautifully opines that, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question”.  In defence of liberty, those who are dissatisfied with injustice, corruption, mismanagement, obscurantism and tyranny should speak loudly and clearly against such ills. If speaking the truth to power is regarded defiant to Botho, then the principle of Botho is not meant for those in pursuit of accountability.

There is a likelihood that Botho circumvents freedom and Justice by instilling a sense of fear to those with dissenting voices. To illustrate further, the political leaders still highly use the Kgotla as a place of consultation. However, those with dissenting views at the Kgotla are either afraid to speak or when they speak they are accused of inciting a sense of disorder, disturbing the peace and regarded contemptuous. In the Kgotla, Batswana are fond of toeing the line and giving praise poetry than criticising the status quo.

The Village Development Committees ( VDCs) which appear more political than administrative often are co-organisers of Kgotla consultative meetings and are most likely to do “ dress rehearsals” of kgotla meetings in an attempt to maintain, defend or appease the status quo. During the 2011 Public Service Strike in Botswana, a certain public servant cried to the then  President Ian Khama.

She insinuated that she was incited to join the strike. She asked for money at the kgotla and after getting money, she vowed never to strike again. She encouraged others not to strike and depicted the strike as being disrespectful to elders, power and authority.

For a long time in Botswana, government has been very un-open and secretive and those seeking answers get frustrated.  Speaking truth to power is simply labeled disrespectful to elders.

Those questioning authority are sometimes regarded anti-state/government or disrespectful to elders (higher echelons of power).  This has potential to kill public scrutiny, accountability  and likely to pollute the social contract under the disguise of Botho.




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