Capturing the Botswana philosophy

Anver Versi

In Focus: Botswana

Botswana’s 35 ethnic groups are all equal before the law – in theory at least. But modern living has created situations where speakers of minority languages feel disadvantaged, not least of all the San, who have been relocated away from their ancestral lands


Botswana culture


Botswana is a curious case. While perhaps the majority of the people live in towns and cities, they are still rooted in the countryside. To understand Botswana, one must understand its environment. Most of the vast country is composed either of the Kalahari Desert or the Okavango Delta, neither of which is ideally suited for human habitation. Nevertheless, both these natural features have provided sufficient succour and nutrition for several groups to not only thrive but forge unique cultural identities.

While the per capita GDP of the country is the highest in Africa, wealth is still considered in terms of livestock. While medical facilities are some of the best in the continent, there is still a revered place for the traditional medicine man. While it has enjoyed the longest uninterrupted democracy in Africa, consensus rather than confrontation is still the aim and, while it has a largely young population, respect for elders is still a social norm.

Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, culture has not yet been commoditised and packed into tourist-friendly bundles – despite the mandatory ‘traditional dances’ that have become such a monotonous fixture on the tourist circuit.

Rather, culture in Botswana is understated but very much alive in the very fabric of daily life. The Scottish novelist, Alexander McCall Smith, has succeeded in capturing some of the essence of the ‘Botswana philosophy’ and way of life in his Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. There is a certain grace and graciousness that comes with plenty and a generosity of heart that has become such a very rare trait in today’s world.

But the very absence of an overt and self-conscious ‘national culture’, which is somehow located outside normal life, may be undermining the country’s fascinating cultural uniqueness.

The fear is that the dominance of the Setswana-speaking peoples is overwhelming other tribes who are losing their own languages and their cultural diversity. The term Botswana itself means the ‘the place of Tswana’. The term Batswana refers to all the people of the country, but it also, of course, refers specifically to ethnic Tswana as distinct from other ethnicities. The norms and customary laws of eight Tswana tribes were recognised by the British when the country was still a colony. These still form part of the broader legal system of Botswana. While English is the official language of the country, Setswana is the national language. Although Botswana has an estimated 35 ethnic groups who speak 26 different languages, it is estimated that some 90 per cent of the citizens of Botswana speak Setswana.

Since the 1990s there has been agitation by speakers of some of the smaller language groups, often assisted by international pressure organisations, to resist the dominance of Setswana in national life. They complain that their children are disadvantaged in primary schools and they face discrimination when looking for work. They are also unhappy about losing their cultural identities.

On the other hand, the government has made it clear that all citizens are equal and have equal rights to all public services, such as education, piped water, electricity and state income support. It does not believe in the idea of ‘equal but separate’, which was the foundation of the Apartheid state in South Africa. However, President Ian Khama has acknowledged that the right to live in dignity includes recognition of one’s cultural identity and uniqueness. But it seems unlikely that Botswana will seriously contemplate an official multi-language system such as that now prevailing in South Africa. Setswana is now so widespread that few link it to any specific ethnic group. Rather, it seems to provide the glue that binds the country together.

What has created a greater furore is the situation of the Khoisan, or San, people. These are believed to be the original inhabitants of the wild areas of the Kalahari Desert. Their extraordinary success in adapting to life in one of the harshest and least-forgiving places on Earth has given them an international celebrity.

Films such as the 1980s comedy The Gods Must be Crazy, which depicted the amusing encounter between a San hunter and the outside world – in the shape of a Coca Cola bottle which falls from a passing plane – brought the hitherto unknown world of the San to a global audience. Documentaries charting the San’s brilliant hunting techniques, their almost miraculous ability to find water, tubers, fruits, insects and other edibles deep in the desert, coupled with their sense of family and community, their wonderfully entertaining mimicry and mischievous sense of humour has endeared them to millions around the world.

When word came that the Botswana authorities had ‘forcibly’ removed the San from their wilderness paradise and dumped them into reservations where they had become depressed and taken to drink, there was outrage. The case was vigorously taken up by Survival International and other NGOs which claimed that the real reason for the removals was not, as the government insisted, to integrate them into modern Botswana, but because their traditional lands lay over rich diamond reserves.

In a series of clearances in 1997, 2002 and 2005, virtually all the San were removed to reservations. However, in 2006, the High Court ruled that they had a right to return to their ancestral lands if they so wished. Some have done so but complain that the government has done little to repair the damage that occurred during the original removals. Others have either adapted to life in the reservations, gone into small-scale businesses with the compensation they received or abandoned their old lifestyles for new.

The issue of the San people is a complex one and can be looked at from various perspectives. There are those who accuse Survival International and other Western agencies of wanting to preserve ‘primitive Africa’ as a ‘living museum’ by isolating the San from human progress; and those who say that removed from their natural habitat where they reign supreme, the San will simply wither and vanish. The government has said it has a duty to educate at least the younger generation of the San and to introduce them to the wider world.

There is no conclusive proof one way or the other that the San were removed from their homes at the behest of diamond-mining companies, but a large deposit, estimated to be worth US$4 billion, has been discovered at Gope and Kukema in the ‘tribal territories’.

In addition, there have been discoveries of other minerals, including large deposits of gold, in those areas. The land is owned by the state but perhaps some sort of compromise can be reached whereby the San can stand to gain from the mining activity. The idea that an archaic way of life can be preserved in aspic forever may be romantic and make good television, but it has no realistic possibility of survival.

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International