Fears of State and political capture are gripping the country’s social and political discourse. Steve Harvey and President Masisi’s Gaborone townhall is sending the youth into wonder on whether the intervention will just be another townhall without deliverables. Opposition parties are still going to court to argue about the legitimacy of their unholy alliances.
Parliament has just been dissolved, an election date now seems imminent and fears of a hung Parliament in October are growing stronger.
Former president Ian Khama is still on his ‘influential’ pilgrimage to unseat the Botswana Democratic Party from its stronghold in the Central District. At the same time parts of the country are experiencing severe drought.
Each of these incidents deserves thoughtful analysis. But in a 24/7 news cycle amplified by unfiltered social media, the immediate response has been dominated by an exchange of partisan bickering. With deepening political polarisation constantly dominating social and partisan conversations, Botswana’s political parties are at each other’s throats.
But just because the loudest voices have decided to embrace petty and problematic rhetoric doesn’t mean that everyone else should also surrender their civility.
The invective and verbal slander that has surrounded elections has grown increasingly harsh and must be reined in together with those who peddle it. In fact, political party foot soldiers who perpetuate this kind of discourse must be pushed out of spaces and platforms that afford them such airtime.
‘Politics-by-insult’ is nothing new under the sun. The crazier the situation the country is in, the more detached its politics is from truth, or basic humanity. If Botswana does not appoint some kind of ‘fixer President’ in October, the country’s politics will reflect this well. These national elections are going to get the political blood boiling, and the stakes are very high.
Generally, avid participants of freedom square politics all over the world have tended to view those with whom they disagree as stupid, selfish, blind, beholden to particular economic interests, or driven by different values or experiences. Donald Trump called his former Presidential opponent Hillary Clinton “Crooked.” He labelled U.S.
Representative Adam Schiff “sleazy,” and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren “goofy.” On the other hand, Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders brands Trump a “pathological liar.” U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego tattoos Trump as “an abject Liar,” and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says Trump is “a 98-pound weakling.”
U.S. House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill had no problem publicly belittling Republican President and friend Gerald R. Ford. Yet O’Neill and Ford had a friendly personal relationship. They often golfed together. Ford took O’Neill’s criticisms in stride, knowing that they were not personal, just politics.
In fact, Theodore Roosevelt was also known to be brilliant at leveling insults, not only directed at his political adversaries, but often directed at his political allies too. It is often remarked that Roosevelt’s most profound insult was one targeted at Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.
He called Wilson “a Byzantine logothete backed by flubdubs and mollycoddles.” (In Layman’s terms, a logothete is an administrator; a flubdub means nonsense; and a mollycoddle means pampered.) Needless to say, Roosevelt’s insults are not often and should never be heard on the school playground. We must be careful what we allow into the political debate space in the name of ‘it’s just politics.’
Ideally, civil debaters have treated each other with respect and dignity deserving of any human being. But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media or at political rallies has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and underhanded ‘mafia tactics’ aimed at destroying one’s opponents.
The country desperately needs a strong, broad-based movement of political leaders, ordinary citizens, scholars and thinkers to stand up and reject this type of toxic politik. History is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve serious problems, despite their stark differences in political identity.
The eventual demise of clean, respectful and fact-based engagement in political discourse seems to have deprived many Batswana of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges of unemployment, or simple things such as holding leaders accountable and scrapping off underperformers.
Perhaps we must consider even how these stark differences have played out in the just ended Parliament session. Even simple Bills passed by Parliament that could’ve easily garnered multi-partisan support, have been riddled with and overshadowed by partisan interests.
Given the depth of political polarisation nowadays, we would all do well to consider that the country comes first, always! Seeing and invoking the good in our politics can help us rediscover the perspective upon which productive cooperation is based.
But we also need to reclaim a sense of national service. We must ‘go back to the crossroads’ as veteran politician Daniel Kwelagobe once remarked.
Political parties must be called out and held accountable for their members that use ugly deeds committed by someone they regard as an opponent, for political capital and entertainment at freedom squares. Humankind is far from perfect, yet we have managed to make remarkable progress by working together. The loudest voices on the Internet, at political rallies and elsewhere should not be permitted to drown out that message.
What’s funny though, is that most, if not all political party members who peddle a certain brand of ‘insult politics’, peddle it at their own expense, perhaps with the disillusioned belief that it will come back with a reward from their superiors.
There is a fine line to observe with political insults, and that once that line is crossed, there is often an attendant backlash. Politics is a funny business, and certainly not a good career choice for the thin-skinned.
We must never allow the bar to drop so low that contenders for political office feel comfortable discussing children and people’s personal lives at freedom squares, no matter which side of the political aisle they fall on. Elections, rallies and election debates should be issue based.
And for that to happen, we must ask the civil political leaders to step forward and assume their places as ‘protectors of the realm’ of progressive politics. Certainly, voters are not asking for too much, only a little respect to keep the flies at bay.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea. He writes on the intersections of politics, international trade and foreign policy