In this thought provoking seminal article novelist, historian and poet, Teedzani Thapelo*, inaugurates a radical revisionist analysis of the political canonization of late president, Sir Ketumile Masire, and drawing from philosophic exposition, argues this action is not only premature but far too precipitate, rising as it does from hysterical hallucinations, and frightening disregard of the critical role of historical interpretation in the place of heroism in politics and public life.
The argument is part of his coming book; Sir Ketumile Masire: willow in the limelight and the gathering storm. The republic buried Masire in Kanye this morning; 29th June, 2017. In the last few days I have watched, fascinated, and appalled, a tempestuous flurry of hysterical allusions, and precipitate confirmations, of this man’s supposed political heroism; prompting my historical conscience to both revisit, and perhaps, rethink, in the same regard, the philosophical idea, and logic, of heroism in politics. This, I am told, is a country of educated people. So I am not going to waste time, and space, on political definitions. Batswana, I think, know what they mean when they talk about political heroes.
My second assumption is that Batswana know perfectly well political heroes are not fictional characters. Third, Batswana know, and I hope, understand, the history of political heroism in Africa, and African struggles for liberation, freedom, democracy, human rights, and human dignity, in the last five hundred years. Four, Batswana, I think, know, and understand, the idea, and logic, of political heroism in political philosophy, Christian doctrine, historical experience, and moral African traditions, even in our daily known world; a world of lived human experience. What type of a hero was Masire?
There are many archetypes of political heroism in political studies, history, and development theory. All these revolve around several cornerstones; the art and culture of war, man’s historical struggles for survival against the ravages of nature, and the elements, and for religious people, human struggle against mortality. All these heroic struggles are defined by the terror of existential menaces, and the necessity to impose sufficient restraints on them, and without such struggles, human history would by now be a thing of the past, and perhaps even planet earth would be extinct. Throughout history, political heroism has almost always manifested several strands.
First, rejection or affirmation of the human condition. Second, the struggle against environmental ruin. Third, and, in my mind, perhaps the greatest object of heroic political effort; the struggle against human extinction. I understand the Sir Ketumile Masire Foundation deals with issues of peace studies, and the resolution of conflict, among other things. So I take it Batswana know what they are talking about when they advocate the republic must crown him a political hero. I also have sufficient reason to doubt the intellectual vigour of this political knowledge.
My concern here is simple: why should the nation crown him a political hero? Is this man, really, a political hero? From what historical premise does this heroism arise? Has it been sufficiently confirmed by historical experience? My second concern is also simple: empirical studies still have to be done to establish any claims to status of such imperial ranking in annuls of national history. But I might be mistaken about this. Sir Ketumile has been University Chancellor at UB, and it might as well be that political scientists and history professors there have already carried out studies to assist propel this argument forward; something I very much doubt.
In the absence of that, my question still stands: is this man a political hero? If these suppositions are simply journalistic impressions, not backed by vigorous, and objective, investigation, my suggestion is that we shelf them for future consideration. If, however, they are just outpourings of human emotions, we must reject them outright. Political grief is one thing, and political heroism, quite another thing. Most of the time the two do not even relate to each other. Some may say he is not a political hero, per se, but he has done so much for Botswana that it would be grossly remiss to not acknowledge him a national hero. Granted; but he alone?
We must, I think, read well, the marked difference between heroism, which, in essence, is individual or human triumph, over adversity, and therefore deserving of national honour, and excellence in one’s duty, which is a simple academic criterion for application of the human mind, and labour, to professional duty, and therefore deserving of a salary, and promotion. I grant both rewards are forms of appreciation. But the two still differ considerably. Masire was paid well for his work, and got the promotions he deserved in his lifetime. If now he must be recognised at a level greater than this, then there clearly is need to re-assess the peculiarity, and genius, of his political career.
This, I am afraid, Batswana have not done. To the best of my knowledge the Botswana national project was collective effort, mostly rooted in African moral principles of common humanity, and human fellowship, and these communitarian precepts are not unique to Botswana: Ubuntu, botho, buthu? To the best of my knowledge it’s untrue to say Masire alone embodied these African values in our political life. Not even the ancient organisational political principle of consultation is unique to Masire’s brand of politics or Botswana political culture in general. These things are common knowledge. Second, our political history is deeply rooted in republican constitutionalism, regardless of the flawed nature of our constitution; a thing that Masire conveniently ignored throughout his life.
What, then, constitutes his political heroism? What political attributes denote the heroic in his political philosophy? What I have heard Batswana say is based on personal observations, professional attachments, collegial cooperation, routine-and rustic- interactions, and, friendships, family connections, and highly select, and unacceptably subjective, historical memory. None of these things are sufficient intellectual tools, in themselves, to confirm the idea, and logic, of political heroism, on their own; not even collectively. The political hero, by definition, is born in war, and allied human struggles; struggles, historical, divine, environmental, eschatological, and metaphysical.
It doesn’t matter what you are talking about; saints, martyrs, statesmen, artists, philosophers, generals, humanist celebrities like Nobel Laureates, all these have homes in these areas of human conception, and imagination. Where, pray, does, Sir Ketumile fit? Is it possible, according to this criteria, to locate, and affirm, to place, his brand of heroism? I think not. And there lies the problem; the simple indifferent challenge of conceptualizing his political heroism. What appears to be indisputable is the fact he was an ordinary, honest, hard-working man. I should think, possibly a most decent fellow, at least to his family, friends, and those to whom he sought audience, and company.
In short, he was a typical Motswana man. There are more than a million men like him in this country. The major difference is that he entered politics, and reached the highest political position in the republic, and in this he is not alone. Are we then to designate all former Presidents political heroes? Isn’t this foolishness of the first order? Would not Sir Ketumile, himself a literate man, and passionate political animal, find this ridiculous to the extreme? Batswana must be aware scholars are already revising the heroic status of Nelson Mandela, the finest amongst African political icons. I have read just about everything solid there is to read about political heroes like Churchill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela himself, Fidel Castro, and several other historical figures that caught my imagination in the last third years. I have also read the political villains; Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mabuto of DRC and Robert Mugabe; a man who tearfully calls Sir Ketumile his best friend.
It shocks me, profoundly, that Mugabe, a man guilty of killing revolutionary heroes in the land of Zimbabwe, can come here and talk about national heroism. He says in Zimbabwe, they would regard Masire as a national hero, and Batswana applauded him, but do they know of the villainous political criminals who lie in the Heroes’ Acre in Harare? Do they know that Mugabe committed genocide against the Ndebele and BaKalanga people in Zimbabwe between 1982-84, right under the watchful eyes of the Masire government?
Or should we take it Masire gave tacit consent to these crimes against humanity? Are we now being called upon to celebrate the horrors of Gukurehunde; the cleansing of chaff, the Zimbabweans Mugabe considered too impure, and unfit, for citizenship in liberated Zimbabwe? Throughout his tyrannical rule Mugabe has relentlessly brutalized, terrorized, intimidated, assassinated, ruined, humiliated, and exiled hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean finest intellectuals, artists, musicians, professors, students, and laid to waste fertile land that once was the economic backbone of Southern Africa. He has scattered millions of hunger-stricken citizens to all corners of the world so that today it is not uncommon to see the children of that beautiful land begging in the capitals of the Western world or being burned alive in South African cities and crowded, equally poor, townships.
The children of Zimbabwe die, lost, and miserable, in the most sordid ways possible, and this man has the audacity to come to a funeral in Kanye and talk about the genocide in Rwanda. Mugabe never mentions Seretse Khama in his inane reminisces about his fond friendship with the good Masire precisely because his politics are a radical pervasion of values that Khama cherished most; moral distinction, racial equality, tribal tolerance and cultural-historical consciousness in pursuit of the public good. Just what is it that constituted such a bond between these two men, Masire, and Mugabe? Should we not consider Masire just as guilty, at least by way of association, of many of the wrong-doings, and heinous crimes, committed by his good friend in Zimbabwe?
Just what are we expected to make of this relationship? Did Masire not care about the killings of innocent little Ndebele, European, and Kalanga children by the Mugabe regime? Then there is the irritating talk about Masire’s mediation exploits in DRC and efforts at reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. Oh, really? What did he actually accomplish there? Nothing, absolutely nothing. As I write Congolese children are still being raped, and massacred, in that permanently lawless country, and Joseph, the arrant son of Laurent Kabila, continues the legacy of his father unperturbed. Yes, some warlords have been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, but all this happened after Masire had thrown in the towel, and flown home to his farms. I really do think people should learn how to examine, and grade, political success.
Batswana always surprise me. They claim to be educated, and yet seem to know so little about the world around them that ignorance of simple realities has come to define us in the eyes of the world. It is because of our gallivanting around with rude, and rustic, characters, like Mugabe, that we have become the laughing stock of the world. If Masire could choose such men for company, and personal friendship, what does this tell us about his political judgement, about his sense of justice, and moral rectitude? What other kind of friends did he choose here at home? Things like these seriously call into question the personality, and moral integrity of a man. Is this how we want Masire to be remembered? What was that silly applause, broadcast live on TV, about?
The argument for Masire’s heroism is too premature, perhaps even misplaced. I look, in both political literature, and the historical drama continually unfolding in Botswana, at how Masire interacted with public servants, and his colleagues throughout his presidency, and how these people remember him. By the time he left office, and I left graduate school, there were already 10, 000 doctoral theses on Botswana, and I have since made it my business to make them my personal friends. Just about all of them are available online. I look at his relationships with civil society, the private press, academics and students.
I look at the presidential commissions, land tribunals, landmark court cases; just about everywhere this man left a fingerprint in the many years of his political life, and little, to nothing, suggest to my mind, this man is a national hero. I look at his political biography from various angles; cosmopolitanism, entrepreneurship, political innovation, administrative accountability, values of statesmanship, elderhood, and patriarchy, and still I am not convinced any case can be made for political canonization. I don’t want Batswana to misunderstand me. I am not trying to take anything from this man’s political life. In politics people do get embroiled in the most vexatious and violent disputes. The few who rise above these without scars, at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and wearing the grand badge of political glory, are people who are capable of legislating their own path to this glory, people who are their own lawyers in national matters of the greatest importance, and these few we call heroes.
For the most part these people die good, wise, incorrupt, and free of slanderous aspersions, and social acerbities. Masire is not one of them, and this now brings me to issues that bothered me when this man was still president. I have heard Batswana argue these past few irritating days he is the architect of our republican constitutionalism, the crafter of our political culture, an undisputed guardian of the public purse during his heady days at Government Enclave, master of financial prudence and economic austerity, the master-farmer statesmen who gave name, dignity, and prestige, to rural production, the finest educationalist that ever strode the republic; it’s as if even Seretse Khama, and other BDP leaders never existed. I don’t even know how to address this emotional juvenile delinquency. It’s just terribly frustrating.
Can the people who argue he is a national hero answer these questions? Why, and how, did the problems of poor work ethic, productivity, and corruption in the public sector worsen under his administration? What really happened to our diamond wealth? Don’t Batswana want to know? Did we get an agreement that was right for the nation? Is it possible by partnering with this gigantic, and notoriously secretive behemoth, we traded away not only national wealth but certain fundamentals of our democracy as well? Is it possible this agreement clawed back our national sovereignty?
How does a small, uneducated, poor, legally and technically ignorant country, like Botswana, negotiate a secret mining agreement with a giant like De Beers in the turbulent, racist world, and climate of the late 1960s, and still claim political legitimacy, and credibility; even mutual benefit? What is the basis of equivalence in De Beers working together with the Botswana government through a corporate deal of this nature for so many years? The agreement is not transparent, it is shrouded in too much secrecy and darkness; does this not bother Batswana at all? Is there an arbitration clause in this agreement? What exactly is the revenue sharing formulae between the two parties, and how has this been affected by subsequent revisions of the original agreement, including the setting up of Debswana, and other attendant organizational and operational changes? Have all these things been done in good faith, and good will?
For example if there have been cases of over-mining, illegal smuggling of rough stones, gratuitous injury to workers, and the environment, has it been possible for government or other affected parties, to claim compensation? Who exactly is entitled to arbitration, and under what circumstances? What kind of legal protection did De Beers ask, and what did it get? Or is this a non-recourse commercial agreement? What are the limits to regulation? What about the issues of social contract and social conscience? How have these been handled, and continue to be handled at these mines?
Was this agreement a blueprint for others to come? Is it a legal precedent for other mining agreements with international mining companies in Botswana? More significantly, how much political capital was invested in this agreement? Is the agreement as progressive as its signatories claim it to be? These are important issues of commercial justice. Batswana rightly suspect the nature of this agreement stifled our economic growth and development, and that we gave too much away, and got little, to nothing, in return. The agreement has absolutely no contact with real society yet it applied to lucrative mining in tribal land, isn’t that the strangest thing? The voice of the people was totally ignored. Only a small elite of less than five educated Batswana found a sit at the negotiating and signing tables, and these people possessed no expertise! Is it possible the agreement took advantage of national poverty, ignorance and appalling levels of political anxiety to impose terms and even redefine political consensus? Under what circumstances can aggrieved Batswana sue De Beers? These are very serious matters.
Just look at our standards of living. Look at the high levels of poverty and unemployment. Look at the swathe of social wretchedness. It has been estimated we could have built more than six international cities the size of Johannesburg with money from our diamonds; what really happened here? How come this huge wealth failed to inaugurate a historic economic dynamic for radical social transformation, the creation of good sustainable jobs, high incomes, industrialization and modern knowledge society? The whole world is astounded at our missed opportunities. We really should get a prize for this briefest gleam of stupendous prosperity that passed by so swiftly and so inconsequentially.
It is obvious Batswana who signed up to this infamous deal were only looking at the political track; they had no knowledge of economics, and no vision of the future. They knew not the cost of doing such things, and could hardly ensure that choices were made with the fullest possible understanding of the facts, risks, and uncertainties involved. Yes, they had help from other white fellows, people who went on to work for De Beers and its affiliates like Anglo-American while those who stayed in Botswana joined the BDP and sat on the local board of the mining company. What do you make of that? Did subsequent renegotiations of this relationship rectify this anomaly? What should be done now? Kana re jelwe Batswana, go ile fela jalo?
My second issue with Masire relates to corruption and elite behaviour during his rule. We know for certain that substantial mineral revenues accrued directly to the state, which enjoyed monopolistic influence on how they could be spent for a good many years. We also know that massive politico-bureaucratic involvement in livestock production has been enhanced with the result that the rural livestock sub-sector has benefited through input subsidies, lax taxation legislation, and other forms of institutional support, but this involvement has left the majority of Batswana lurching helplessly in the poverty trap; and the institutional origins of state lethargy originate in the Masire presidency, of that most scholarship is agreed. What really happened, and why?
I particularly query Masire’s relationship with De Beers, the cattle industry, and his influence in the funding, and transformation of the entire rural economy. Under his presidency one man could be a senior civil servant, an active politician, a priest, a witch, a self-confessed thief, a businessman, a husband, a father, a community leader and a commercial farmer, and therefore, by virtue of all these accoutrements, a hirer of human labour, a trustee of public confidence, and a moral redeemer; a situation that angered progressive Batswana like Gobe Matenge to the extent the two remained enemies throughout their lives in government.
Let us consider the issue of economic austerity. Throughout his administration National Development Bank was held to ransom by agricultural producers, and at challenging election years, was forced to write-off millions of money it could not afford to lose. In 1980s the bank was under such brutal political siege that faced with uncertain elections, and shrinking BDP urban political support base, government had to save the NDB from imminent liquidation by writing-off over P24 million in debt payments owed by both arable and livestock farmers. When NDB was confronted by yet another bankruptcy threat government was once again compelled to intervene. Its accumulated losses at one point totalled P41.1 million.
Outstanding loans amounted to P91.3 million, of which over one-third were in arrears, most for more than six months. The Government's equity position was a negative P15.6 million. In addition, the Small Borrowers Fund, administered by the NDB for the Government, had at the same time accumulated losses of P32.4 million; 70% of its accounts were in arrears, almost all in excess of six months. The NDB was losing P450, 000 a month. The pre-pacified acerbic weekly tabloid, Midweek Sun, reported that NDB was owed more than P60 million in arrears, and borrowers, all of them BDP politicians, were refusing to service their loans. According to the 1991 Budget Speech, P31 million had been provided by the Government in 1988 in order to write off bad debts.
A parliamentary statement by the Assistant Minister of Finance appeared in the Botswana Gazette newspaper on 30 March 1994. In the article the minister revealed that the loans to the NDB had been written off in 1985/1986 and 1988/1989. According to the minister the total cost to the tax payer engendered by these rescue operations amounted to more than P35.5 million. Press interviews of disgruntled NDB employees, including unsigned documents listing NDB loans to Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament, makes the startling revelation that the Bank habitually sanctioned the rescheduling of loans on an across-the-board basis, neglecting individuals' creditworthiness. It tried to deal with this crisis by using ineffective instruments like direct grants, interest recapitalisation, suspension of loan and/or interest payments, conversion of loans into equity, increasing authorised share capital, extension of loans, hikes in rates charged by corporations, and revaluation of assets, and meanwhile 40% of Batswana lived in poverty.
This political burlesque irked, and riled, a public that was only beginning to awake to the sad reality that pirates were in power, vultures that were daily navigating their horrid and ruined lives with greedy eyes that spared no human carcass. Faced with a possible rebellion from angry citizens, especially poor people like us, government turned to constitutional changes designed to make sure we remained compliant, submissive, biddable, and compromised. These laws have protected corrupt, greedy, lecherous, vile, villainous, unethical, immoral, crooked, avaricious, gluttonous, lustful, randy, dreadful, loathsome, evil, contemptible, base, shameful, unpleasant, horrid, and nasty large cattle producers, multinational corporations, senior civil servants and the various members of the liberal professions for a worryingly long period of time. This means that all these oppressors have licence, authority, liberty, privilege and freedom to abuse us, our women, our children, our resources and our fragile environment with reckless abandon and legal impunity. Is it any wonder that these same rulers laugh at us, ridicule us, mock us and play games with us all the time?
Another issue that Masire lazily, and complacently, ignored is the serious matter of grave civil rights violations in the country. While he was busy accumulating wealth, poverty was worsening in the rural sector as shown in the household incomes surveys of 1975/76, 1985/86, 1993/94, 2002/03, the BIDPA reports of 1997 and finally acknowledgement by President Mogae in the 2004 Annual Address to the Nation Speech (see RoB 1976 1986 1994 1997 2003 2004). The plight of Basarwa communities, most of whom had been pushed out of ancestral land to make way for TGLP ranchers, national parks and game reserves, diamond mines and emerging townships like Gantsi actually worsened to the point that by 2004 thousands of these people were irking a living in economic camps, some will say death camps, called remote area dwellings (RADs).
Are all these disturbing facts marks of heroic politics? My point? Studies in political heroism are a minefield. More often than not, one man’s hero is another man’s villainy. To me, this presents a serious problem. I take it I know Botswana political literature well. I also know the history of this country. In fact just about all educated Batswana know these things very well. We also know the story of our country’s development. We understand, I think, the politics, of this country well. I have heard Batswana speak about this man since he died; in the streets, on social media, radio stations, BTV, and a few other infamous places I would rather not reveal. It is, I think, not a particularly good thing to speak about the dead without compunction. But this does not mean those who choose not to speak in public have nothing to say. To most Batswana, and under such emotional circumstances, it is always prudent to subscribe to the cliché discretion is the better part of valour.
So it is, that I have noted, with great concern that certain sections of the republic have deliberately chosen not to participate in these debates. So it is that I have noted these people more or less chose to discreetly boycott the entire funeral dialogue, and process. So it is, I doubt, they will very much miss the late Sir Ketumile, and many of these people are prominent BDP members, past, and present. Yes, statements of condolences where issued, but reading between the lines it is obvious the praises for Masire, were deliberately designed to criticize, and spite, the Khama presidency, instead of directly honouring Masire, on the basis of his own political merit.
Almost all living former cabinet ministers, high court judges, senior civil servants, ethnic minority human rights activists, intellectuals, trade unionists, cultural workers, stayed away. It would not be an exaggeration to say this man was buried, from the depth of hearts, mostly by his best friends, family, foreigners, and tribesmen. Government officials, and some leading politicians, seemed appalled, even annoyed, by this stupendous hysterical exhibitionism. Why? Do they know something that we don’t? When parliament convened to pay oration, three of the four parliamentarians who spoke were Masire’s tribesmen, and the last an opposition member. The rest just watched, almost stunned.
All this is very disturbing. But what I find even more disturbing than this, perhaps even most extraordinary, was the appeal from certain other sections of the republic for emotional restraint during his burial. This is surprising. What was the meaning of these appeals? I particularly remember the appeal by Vice President Masisi. Botswana is a democracy. Masire was a democrat; perhaps not a perfect one, but a democrat nevertheless. So far as I am aware, I am the only citizen who responded, in print, to the last public lecture delivered by Sir Ketumile at a university in Botswana. I admit I disapproved of his domkrag politics. When this man was still president I was refused permission to research Basarwa anthropological anger in Botswana.
I then proposed to write on De Beers and diamond mining but still I found myself struggling against a wall. Infuriated, I turned to something else just so I could get my doctorate. By the time I reached that decision, I had read so much literature about Botswana politics, and development thrust, that when the PhD Selection Committee demanded I should furnish them with development literature review to demonstrate I had sufficient grasp of what to write about Botswana after such a peripatetic shuffling by the Masire presidency and his bureaucratic machine I gave them 200 pages of modern development theory in three weeks. It was only recently I discovered Debswana had been financing Masire’s farming business, and Basarwa sitting on diamond wealth in CKGR.
I have never met Masire in person, but I know about his rule. I lived under his administration. I too have a lot to say about him. As I said, the conception of political heroism is grounded on historical reality, and not only the attributes of a man. Character is important to heroism, but it is what a man actually does accomplish that makes him to stand out as a hero. The accomplishment must be extraordinary, and of infinite benefit to humanity. I don’t believe Sir Ketumile is a political hero. It might be he was admired within BDP but his presidency was certainly not a distinguished chapter in the history of our republic. Many have suggested he was not the right man for the job in the first place. I will not be that ungenerous.
But I do doubt it was a good idea to keep him in the job that long. He has occupied too huge a space in our lives, and brought far too many citizens great misery, and mistrust of the art of politics. No one can deny these charges. He did try to develop a constructive approach to opposition politicians, but the aim was to accommodate, and destabilize the opposition, and not to nurture it. Otherwise he would have allowed government to fund it. We need to be honest about these things. He retired because, like a pillar of salt crumbling away rapidly, he was losing authority in the party.
It cannot be said a man who could not control political dissension, and revolt, in his own party, was also a man happily enamoured to the interests, and agenda, of an organised outside opposition that wanted to torpedo his government. That is a contradiction of terms. Of his forays in international politics after retirement, I really have little more to say. The strangest thing is that he went out to defend political values he routinely violated during his own tenure in office, political values he allowed his best friends, like Robert Mugabe, to also routinely violate; international law, human rights, and personal dignity.
How will I remember Masire? He was a lucky man who found himself thrust in the momentum of history. Sadly, he did little, to nothing, to benefit his own people, and humanity, with the political light put in his hands by benevolent gods. But then there’s always something egotistical about grand lofty things, about mountain tops, a sort of wisdom that is woe, a path in life that takes those who wonder out of all human understanding, even while living, in the congregation of the dead. Such is the road that men like him, and his friend, Robert Mugabe, have travelled. In the end only history can judge them. We are too human, I think, to pronounce the last word in their careers. For this reason alone, I don’t think political canonization will do his memory much good. Let him rest in peace.
Teedzani Thapelo*, is author of the Botswana novel series Seasons of Thunder, Vol. 1(2014), Vol. 2 (2015) and Vol. 3 (2016) and forthcoming books; Battle Against the Botswana Democratic Party: the beginning of the point of departure, Politics of Unfulfilled Expectations in Botswana: a dangerous mess, Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe: abandonment and revolt, The Argument Against the Botswana Democratic Party: an intellectual inquiry and Khama Presidency and Vanity Fair in Parliament: an African political tragedy, and Sir Ketumile Masire: willow in the limelight and the gathering storm.
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org