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Intellectuals and Politics in Botswana

Teedzani Thapelo
 

Institute of International Education Fellowship Award Winner, and runner up national poet to the 2016 Share Botswana Tourism Fiction Award, Teedzani Thapelo*, argues that BDP has declared war on intellectuals, students, and workers in the country, noting that the present crisis at the University of Botswana and Selibe-Phikwe are symptomatic of a political culture of distrust and entrenched loathing that has prevailed within BDP for many years, and that should BDP fail to bridge this gulf between it and the national intelligentsia before 2019 then it is clears UDC can, will, harvest more than twenty new constituencies in the coming election. Is, this, he asks, rhetorically, what BDP wants?


BDP has never been a political home for students, youths and intellectuals. This is a historical fact. Bessie Head, Kgalemang Motsete, L. D Raditladi, Kenneth Koma; it alienated and declared its hostility to them all. No wonder they now want to close down the University of Botswana, the national highest institution of learning. The education system has collapsed principally because BDP is a party of business, and not moral, social and intellectual development of society. They do not care about the future of the nation.

 

There is this misconception that if you feed the stomach, and the economy continues to do well, then you are on the right path to development. What a self-delusion. What naiveté! How in the world of God can we create a dynamic and self-sustaining capitalist economy if we declare war on intellectual culture? No country has as yet accomplished economic development by encouraging its people to live in perpetual ignorance; speaking with tongues, and barking like dogs. Economic development requires national cultural growth and intellectual awakening in society.

 

This is how Europe abolished mediaeval society and set on the road to industrialization, how America abandoned barbarian slavery and rose to affluence, how Japan and Russia overthrew feudalism and set on the path to sustainable economic development, and this is how the whole of Africa will eventually rise above disease, poverty and illiteracy to be a part of global historical culture.


But BDP does not understand this process of development. No, they hate culture and intellectuals. The distrust of intellectuals and ideologists is evident in the history and structures of BDP. The reason for this is simple; once the principle of thinking rather than obeying is accepted, the end will have come for the BDP. In BDP obeying is applied as a binding rule.

 

Not even the press is to be trusted. It is a party that does not self-introspect, self-critique, self-evaluate; its conventional conservatism, spearheaded by a rapaciously greedy and conceited senile brigade operate on the principle: if all fails, then God shall provide. Oh, really? You cannot build a modern economy and society on the conception that within a brief time we will somehow find our way back to God and Truth. This is pure political folly. Not even a truly Christian society is constructed this way. I would go further and say even purely barbarian societies like the DRC, for instance, do accept the need for enlightenment.


BDP is the first, the true, the only source of all the vast evils under which we groan today. All the talk about unfavourable external constraints may have a bit of truth in it, in so far as these are momentary and passing, but the real evil in postcolonial modernity is this cavalier acceptance of ignorance as a permitted form of religion in public life.

 

In this I doubt many Batswana will disagree with me. As to whether this shocking refusal to admit argumentation as a fact rooted in human nature makes sense, I leave that to these angels of darkness. What is regrettable is that we are all paying a heavy price for this folly. How we came to be saddled with this obscurantist monstrosity is something I will never understand at all. But what is the relevance of this observation to politics?


Let me explain. Knowledge is the bedrock of modernity. In economic terms we live in a world of striking net improve in the standards of living. In Botswana much of our social development is an offshoot of South African industrialization. Of that there can be no doubt. Without this remarkable economic history down south this country would have been nothing. In social terms we live in equally one of the most striking and disorienting change.

 

The material conditions and habits of people have altered more profoundly and rapidly than ever before, and a mood of puzzled introspection and self-criticism has seized the literate parts of the population. What has happened, what is happening to this country? These are questions that intellectuals grapple with on a daily basis; writers, journalists, academics, artists, priests, teachers, students, and BDP hates and despises them all.


Why, asks BDP, are they concerned with such silly questions? Why can’t they just gobble food and keep quiet the way we and our children do? The critical question is: will eating food, going to the toilet and sleeping solve the problems of modern society? I don’t think so. They certainly don’t think so at the UDC. Here are some simple facts. The life of this country depends on its articulation with global society. The lives of our entrepreneurs depend on profits, and whatever the sources of these profits, they are not at all remarkably healthy.

 

The lives of our workers depend on their employment and wages, and both are horribly lower than ever before. The lives of our professional classes and intellectuals depend on their employment and scope, and both have declined radically in the last twenty years. The social and political malaise that has become so obvious, leading to the birth of UDC, are certainly due to material discontent and economic hardship. The social and economic landmarks that my own generation took as permanent have been dismantled.

 

Social safety nets have collapsed throughout all social scales. Poverty and unemployment have become the new normal. The proverbial country of morals has become a country of unusually permissive sexuality and venereal damage. The education system has collapsed. A nation that once prided itself on abiding by incorrupt law has become celebrated for the daring and impunity of its robbers, and began to suspect the integrity of its politicians, policemen and judges.

 

What we call the middle classes are really salary earners just about all of whom fall into poverty 3-5 years after retirement. The few rich see themselves as being taxed and oppressed out of existence and, excerpting the thieves that feed with the BDP, most are moving their investments elsewhere. Radical income inequalities have become the norm rather than an exception. We are not by any measure a property-owning democracy. Investment capital continues to elude us.

 

The economy is run by government, and those who fail to adjust to a state-influenced economy suffer. Wealth does not go to the virtues of enterprise and hard work but depends on theft, lies, corruption and immorality. A life of comfort is inconceivable among all workers. Modest easy has already become the limit of middle class aspirations, eroding purchasing power in the economy. The majority of Batswana remain pinching and resentful, a perplexed and angry army of the suburbs and massive supporters of political change at any cost, and the rage of disappointment is spreading to the countryside at an appalling rate-no nation has ever been so angry, no people have ever been so frightfully agitated.


This is the Botswana we live in. This is the Botswana I am writing about. And BDP tells us that old, uneducated men from Serowe are the finest candidates for our political system, and intellectuals can go to hell! Oh, really? Do these illiterates really know what is happening in this country? Can BDP really deal with all these problems? Yes, they do hire consultants, at terribly huge expense, to lecture them on these things, but is that the same thing as solving these modern social problems? I don’t think so.

 

One thing I am certain about; five more years of BDP rule and Batswana will find themselves drinking water from South African boreholes. This is a fact, and BDP does not care. It is all too clear to every Motswana right now that their situation has changed for the worse. We all feel even the possibility of moral annihilation. People who live off wages and salaries feel this sense of ruin.

 

People who live off fees and profits; essentially business and small entrepreneurs, feel the same sense of ruined expectations. People who live off the soil and land; essentially farmers and rural peasants, are on the same boat. Not one person ever dreams of hitting the jackpot of wealth and social recognition in this country. The path to social peaks is so narrow only thieves go through.


You think I am exaggerating? Give me one person, who is not corrupt, who enjoys ample supplies of domestic comfort, excellent education for his children, a sense of being the backbone of the country, and an adequate provision of travel and cultural life that makes him feel a truly living part of global society? There are no such people in this country. Yet, only twenty years ago we took all these things for granted. What happened?

 

People in suburbs are so indebted, and so desperately poor, they use bath tubs to store firewood! Who can blame them? Without electricity and water there is no other alternative. Look at the heavy burden of mortgage, insurance, payments for schools, transport, food, and other corresponding private outlays-like money sent to starving and sick relatives in rural areas; it is hard life; and both wages and salaries have stagnated for donkey years. Middle-class monopoly of domestic comfort has crumbled. In a society in which status is measured by money and the pressure for conspicuous consumption, nothing now remains as a distinctly secure status symbol.


People are terribly depressed. Even entertainment has become ruinous. What is more, sexual intercourse, that biological and social equalizer, is no longer safe to indulge in; even leisure-time wear has disappeared as a status symbol. The only resource remaining to the few who still wear the garb of middle class status is snobbery, and BDP politicians monopolise at it. In brief, an entire way of living is becoming obsolete, and the most reliable way of maintaining a separate style of existence, namely intellectual and cultural activity, is not to the taste of the middle class majority.

 

I want to argue that the malaise of the middle class is due to pauperization and the shifting in the structure of and function of the middle groups in Botswana society. It is a double malaise of those who have not adjusted readily to postcolonial modernity, social innovation, preponderant public corruption, and more significantly, those who have found no adequate and secure place for their talents because of bad policies and a weak and poorly directed educational system. All Batswana must unite to blame BDP for this rotten state of affairs.


The malaise of the workers, on the other hand, is due to economic hardship. I don’t think anyone can say there really are any affluent workers in our society. It would be even a more terrible exaggeration to say the majority of them are free from the struggle for elementary daily necessities and the fear of unemployment. Add to this the fear of old age, with its combination of poverty and emptiness and you truly come face to face with the wretchedness of the Botswana workers.

 

The very insecurity of their already low-paying jobs is a reflection of their social isolation. Botswana workers are pariahs of both economics and politics. They are totally ignored by business, industry and commerce, which supply their wants. The contracts between workers, and the largest employer, government, are so shabby they amount to patronizing attitudes BDP politicians typically reserve for prostitutes, and most private sector employers treat Batswana workers exactly the same way. The attitude is: you are selling your stupid body, not your labour value, so just take what I offer and shut that foul mouth!


This is how workers are treated by the BDP and friends in the private sector. In fact most institutions of the working-class world remain separate and created within it. Even movements from mixed street to single-class suburbs are a rarity. Townships in all cities and towns have intensified this class division in the last couple of years, and the 2008 depression has welded all those who live in their immediate shadow, in Gaborone, for instance, Old Naledi and Mogoditshane, even, Tlokweng, and parts of GamaLete, together into a grim bloc.

 

This partially explains why UDC made such swift gains in all areas around Gaborone in 2014. They are bound to do the same in 2019, and not only in Gaborone. Francistown, Lobatse and Selibe-Phikwe are going the same way. A new class consciousness and sense of exploitation on one side, and fear of an uncertain future, for both families and children, on the other, is being strongly felt throughout Botswana, more specially around urban centres, and it is not surprising Batswana are already waking up to the devastation brought into their lives and homes by an uncaring BDP in the last fifty years.

 

A collapsing education system and a shaking economy are increasingly confining workers and their children to their own world. Go to Tutume, Molepolole, Tswapong, and Bobonong, and you will find parents expostulating angrily against these things, and their children learning to weep for missed opportunities in life. It is a most sad picture. UDC can, and will, easily harvest twenty new constituencies in 2019 if they want to. I repeat, if they want to. Political organization is the only thing that now matters. Much of the mobilization has already been done for them by the BDP-through appalling political failure.


I find it hilariously cynical for BDP to recommend that business take over the task of filling the worker’s world. At this point in time? With the world economy doing so badly, and poverty refusing to slacken its grip on the national population? What’s really to diminish the constant collective battle against unemployment and want?

 

Does BDP really think it can absorb the strongest organ of working-class separatism, the labour movement, into its political routine this way? Isn’t this pure madness! Whatever they say and think about workers in their comfortable private homes, BDP must accept the reality their policies continue to treat workers as outsiders. I know they have tried to enmesh the labour movement in the web of business and government but this still remains, at best, a theoretical proposition.


The reality is that the labour movement, in alliance with UDC, already sees itself as an alternative government. All that remains is for UDC to demonstrate a political willingness to work with it, to adopt a modern and progressive ideology of labour, and the path to political victory is theirs for the taking. Workers will help it decampaign stupid and arrogant BDP loyalists from within government careerist structures; former permanent secretaries, directors, soldiers and many others. T

 

hey have already shown they can do this if they want to, and I think they do; badly. Truth of the matter is BDP treats the labour movement as children, bana ba goromente; as stupid old-style civil service associations. And this rankles, badly. Strike is always associated with unofficial action. Some handpicked labour leaders still regard calls for strikes as signs of rank-and-file revolt. Wage rises are still dependent on the whim of wickedly arrogant senior officials and politicians. Membership to workers unions is not even automatic. In fact there is a marked sagging in workers’ unions, a terrible trend in the face of increasing economic hardships.


This is not the time for the fires in the labour movement to flick out. Workers must be allowed to organise, mobilize and influence the public agenda of the political system; not simply depend on elegies by young intellectuals to survive. What is more serious is the fact Batswana must realize that rapid economic change has eroded, and continues to radically eat at, the foundation of the working-class as traditionally understood, that is the men and women who get their hands dirty at work, mainly in mines, factories, or working with or around engines.

 

It is hard to even talk seriously of industry these days in Botswana. Both manufacturing and commerce are stubbornly refusing to take off throughout the economy thanks to misguided BDP policies and administrative ineptitude. What we see is a slow movement of workers towards tertiary employments like distribution, transport and various services, and there worker mobilization is facing serious problems. Manual labour, always exploited, is declining within government and the private sector.

 

Out in rural Botswana there remains huge demand, mostly piecemeal and seasonal, for both men and women without any qualifications except strength and willingness and these people suffer terrible hardships. The tertiary sector is increasingly becoming a refuge for unqualified labour, particularly in self-service stores and supermarkets like Choppies, and these poor people remained largely ununionized.


Of late BDP has been calling for technical training, by which I hope they mean high specialization requiring a certain amount of training, intelligence, and above all, prior formal education; but for all we know they might be talking of bringing zombies in the fledgling labour market. Fact of the matter is professionals like engineers, chemists, and artisans have throughout history been the vanguard of the labour movement, effectively managing to bring labour right into parliament through strenuous struggles in countries like Britain. Labour must move out of government and organize as a force to contend with in the private sector where real struggles of workers begin and end.


We really have a long way to go in Botswana as far as the labour movement is concerned. UDC has a big role to play here. BDP government, with good reason, regards workers as enemies of the state. UDC must embrace them as colleagues in the struggle for freedom. This is a national duty. It is a crying scandal that our workers continue to face considerable disadvantage in intellectual and semi-intellectual regions.

 

This is not acceptable. There is a terrible anti-egalitarian bias in our education system. The children of workers are caught up in a vicious circle that gives them a worse chance of education, and progressively cuts down their capacities to benefit from what education is available. Education determines access to mostly highly paid wage-work, that is salaried posts, and indeed to most positions of social respect and authority.


Just how many kids and toddlers has BDP thrown off the education system still illiterate in the last ten years alone? Thousands. Hundreds of thousands. And these people are voters. All of them know they have deliberately been debarred from ambition. UDC must mobilize these poor citizens, people who in reality have lost their moral citizenship through political neglect.

 

The youth of this country have no future under the BDP government, and they now know this to be a fact. Many tell me so everywhere I go in the country. It is a sad story. These marginalized youths know that even their children will not do better than them in life; not if BDP remains in power. Like their mothers and fathers these children’s fate will be casually and carelessly determined before puberty.


They may expect better wages than their parents; forgive the optimism of youth and inexperience, but the reality is if they ever get good wages, even with low living costs, almost as soon as they leave school, marriage and their own children will in turn reduce their standard of living again. This has happened before, and it will happen again. It is a terrible circle.

 

Even the youths whose education has continued will not do much better. I am one of them. I know this for a fact. Nothing good ever lasts in this Godforsaken country, and it is BDP that has turned the country into a toxic dump. Born in this country you sign up for the badge of permanent social inferiority at a pretty young age, and this BDP calls democracy. It is the way to go. The best the country can ever do.


But is this what Batswana want? I don’t think so. I think we can do better. But first we must get the major national obstacle, BDP, out of the way. UDC has a lot of work to do. Intellectuals must also play their part. This social group is small, smart, and largely disinterested. They are distinct by their lack of involvement in management and government. For the most part engineers, lawyers, academics, writers, artists, priests and journalists, they lack traditional status.

 

These are the people who declared war on the BDP right from its birth. It is not necessary they focus their political dissidence in universities only. They must work with society, particularly workers, peasants, youths and alliance movements like UDC. Batswana must learn never to underestimate the capacity of brilliant men and women to radically effect change in society.


I don’t know how many people realize this but students in this country are already a political force to reckon with. Ignore them at your peril. The youth, another recognisable group, largely through their poverty and social exclusion from public life; and more than half the population of the entire nation, are the political market that will determine the 2019 electoral outcome.

 

Rapid and unprepared change in the general pattern of society has widened the divide between them as a generation and all other national social classes combined. They are angry, articulate and most want nothing but the ultimate prize: government. Who between UDC and BDP will win their political loyalty? Who between UDC and BDP has a political programme robust enough to carry their political aspirations? Who between the UDC and BDP has the political will to concretise their vision of tomorrow? Who between UDC and BDP can tame the passions of these roaring lions and lionesses?


In their brains this social group carries the fire of life, in their hearts the burden of hope, and in their hands that decisive factor, the voting card, and the future of this blighted country. My message to both organizations is simple. Ignore workers, the youth, students, and intellectuals at your own peril.


Novelist, poet and historian, Teedzani Thapelo*, is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and the School of Oriental and Africa Studies, University of London. He is author of the forthcoming books; Battle Against the Botswana Democratic Party: the beginning of the point of departure, Politics of Unfulfilled Expectations in Botswana: a dangerous mess, and Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe: abandonment and revolt.

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Botswana to Become a Vaccinated Nation: Pandemic Anxiety Over?

30th March 2021

OSCAR MOTSUMI

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.

*Oscar Motsumi: Email:oscar.motsumi@gmail.com

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The women you see in the news matter. Here’s why

9th March 2021
Jane Godia

Jane Godia

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

Jane Godia, Director, Africa, Women in News

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Why is the media so afraid to talk about sexual harassment?

9th March 2021

MELANIE WALKER

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

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