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Sankara Died, Sankara Lives (Pt. 2)

“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young President with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”

The quotation in the sub-title should not be summarily dismissed as a glib, sweet-toned turn of phrase.  It is a very fitting nod to the nonpareil phenomenon that was Thomas Sankara. It rolled off the tongue of Joan Baxter, a Canadian journalist, development researcher, anthropologist, and award-winning author as borne out in Chapter 5 of her 2011 book titled Dust From Our Eyes: An Unblinkered Look At Africa.

In the same, strikingly dispassionate book, Baxter goes on to laud Thomas Sankara as “one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity, and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head”. Paradoxically for a Westerner, Baxter was attempting to resurrect the hopes that Sankara, Africa’s greatest leader ever by far, inspired in the youth of this dismally stunted, shackled, and perhaps ill-starred   continent.   

On his inauguration as President on August 4 1983, Sankara spoke these highly evocative words: “We have to dare to invent the future … Everything that we are capable of imagining we are also capable of attaining.” The statement cut almost crisply to the heart of Napoleon Hill’s equally pregnant aphorism that “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve”.  To Sankara, no dream was forever a pipedream, no vision was simply a pie in the sky. So what was it that Sankara envisioned for his country? What future did the charismatic young leader and visionary have in store for the people whose destiny now lay in his 33-year-old hands, people who 23 years of pillaging and plunder at the highest levels of government and foreign vested interests had reduced to paupers?

It was this, as captured in a speech he delivered on another rostrum: “Our revolution will be of value only if, looking back and ahead, we are able to say that the Burkinabe people are a little happier because of it. Because they have clean drinking water, because they have plenty to eat, because they are in good health, because they have access to education, because they have decent housing, because they have better clothing, because they have the right to leisure, because they have greater freedom, more democracy and greater dignity … Revolution means happiness. Without happiness, we cannot speak of success.”

Yet even the most sanguine optimist had to take cognizance of the one inescapable fact – that the road to the Land of Milk and Honey would not be a stroll down what John Winston Lennon called Strawberry Fields. Realistically, it would entail a long stint in the wilderness, certainly not the 40 years of stasis the nation of Israel endured in the rocky terrains of Mount Sinai but considerably long anyway. Such misgivings were well-founded for the one stark truth was that the country was staggeringly and eye-poppingly poor.   
Would Sankara buckle under the enormity of the challenges  that raged?

THE ODDS WERE FORMIDABLE

The Upper Volta Thomas Sankara took over in January 1983 was reeling from a raft of asphyxiating economic maladies. Firstly, nature itself had placed its own inscrutable veto on the fortuities of the country.  It was landlocked and was partly enclasped in the tentacles of the drought-stricken Sahel Zone, a narrow band of semi-arid land which was contiguous to the Sahara Desert and stretched all the way from Senegal to the Sudan.  Infant mortality rate was a whopping 280 per 1000 live births, one of the sorriest on the globe. Life expectancy was a piteous 40 years. A startling 90 percent of the population were unable to read and write, with a school enrolment rate of only 10 percent. There was only one doctor per 50,000 in a population of 7 million people. At a mere $100, average annual income per head was bottom-of- the-rung in the whole wide world.   

A mandatory head tax, a flat rate for every able-bodied national of workable age which dated back to the days of French colonial rule, was still enforced as a desperate fiscal lifeline. Peasants had semi-feudal obligations to perform menial tasks for the paramount chiefs as and when they were called upon. As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, chiefs had the right to requisition food and animals from their subjects, another relic of the privilleges they enjoyed in the colonial days as a spur to reigning in nationalistic impulses amongst their people.   

Sankara sought to reverse all these blights not inch by inch or step by step but fleet-footedly, at the speed of a gazelle.   The revolutionary zealotry he undertook to instill in his people was not mere ideological posturing but was about tangible, realisable benchmarks for goal attainment. It was about a radically new approach to duty that presupposed the embrace of a radically new work ethic. It was all hands on deck now for every Jim, Jack, Mary, and Sharon: it was all systems go.  

The Marxist-leaning leader’s idea of economic and institutional transformation was premised on change that was creative and non-conformist. It was change which, in his own words,   contained “a certain amount of madness”, a foray if need be into realpolitik.  That did not mean it was an exercise in futility, that it was so wild in its broad sweep and so onerous in its burdensomeness as to border on the fanciful. It was the pace at which it was going to be accomplished that required dying a little, that called for a level of self-sacrifice that was without parallel both historically and contemporaneously.  

The young and feisty president was aware his task made that of Sisyphus seem like a Sunday School picnic but he was such a believer in the possibilities of his people and indeed in his own dynamism that he did not waver.   
 
GRASSROOTS DEMOCRACY

Sankara went to work literally from the very day he ascended to power. The first thing he did was to surround himself with a corps of 150 carefully vetted presidential aides who were going to assist him in moving the country forward by jet propulsion. Then he launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social, cultural, economic and political revival ever attempted on the continent of Africa. The concerted instruments of these reforms were the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs).

The CDRs were patterned after the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución of Cuba, which Fidel Castro had established in 1960 as a "collective system of revolutionary vigilance” that criss-crossed the entire island like a latticework. They were launched under a Peoples Development Plan under which provinces were to set down their objectives and devise a means through which to bring them to fruition.   

Underscoring this pioneering experiment of the exercise of power in all its expressions by the people in the name of the people, Sankara observed thus: “The most important thing is to give the people confidence, to help them understand that they can at last define their own happiness, to enable them to decide on their own aims and understand the price to be paid.”

Sankara saw CDRs as a veritable organ for the devolution of the full spectrum of power to the grassroots which would go a long way in consolidating direct, participatory democracy. This divestiture of all facets of executive affirmation on the part of his regime in favour of a brand of authority and responsibility that was coterminous and co-equal with that of the governed was at least in theory envisaged to be wholesale.

“Democracy means using the full potential of the people,” he pointed out.  “The ballot box and an electoral system do not prove the existence of democracy. There is no real democracy where those in power call elections from time to time and concern themselves with the people only in the run-up to an election … There can be no democracy unless power in all its forms – economic, military, political, social and cultural – is in the hands of the people.”

True to their billing, the CDRs became the cornerstone of popular participation in power, permeating as they did every nook and cranny of the constituent structures. There was a CDR for for the youth, a CDR for women, a CDR for farmers, a CDR for unions, a CDR for each workplace, ad infinitum.  The CDRs had clout. Their mandate went beyond the preservation of public security to the inculcation of political education, maintenance of impeccable standards of sanitation, boosting production and productivity, bringing checks and balances to bear on the excesses of government and bureaucrats, red-flagging budget control deviations in the ministries, and a host of overarching judicial and administrative responsibilities.

Not only did CDRs deliberate on a whole range of national projects but they also had the power to reject them if they were not deemed crucial or were fraught with lapses. With the establishment of CDRs therefore, Sankara had radically restructured the basic functions of society, turning it from a mere cog in the wheel to an integral part of the wheel itself.

Sankara also gave considerable thought to the mobilisation of ideas from the youth cadre with a view to inform official policy formulation. His former Policy Adviser Fidele Kientega affirms this predilection thus: “Sankara created the Young Pioneers groups in all schools and communities to change the old feudalistic patron-client political discourse. Young people were trained to practice democracy in decision-making in terms of issues that affected them. They were asked to come up with proposals that were then formed into policies and were delegated with the mandate of implementing these same polices they helped to form. Sankara was building grassroots democracy.”

MILESTONES IN HEALH AND EDUCATION

On August 4 1984, the first anniversary of his accession to power, Thomas Sankara changed the name of his country from the colonially imposed Upper Volta to Burkina Farso, with the people now to be called the Burkinabe.  The name was weaved together from two words borrowed from two local languages and meant “Land of Honourable People.” The name change was not prompted by the sentimental need to rid the country of any lingering imperialistic vestiges. 

It was meant to underline a new dispensation altogether in the aspirations of the nation and as a rallying cry for his people to invoke so that they were forever reminded of forging a new   international dignity through scaling new economic heights. That’s how he sought to galvanise his people and launch a bootstrap development movement. Granted, the name of the country was an integral symbol of his national crusade.  Besides being a great psychological spur, it had positive ramifications, implicitly, at a karmic level.  

Education and literacy were an overriding priority. In only the first two years of his presidency, the proportion of people who attended school jumped from 10 percent to about 25 percent, thus significantly denting the 90 percent illiteracy rate that bedeviled the country when he assumed office. In 1986, a whirlwind nationwide literacy campaign mounted in nine indigenous languages resulted in 35,000 being able to read and write. It was tantamount to imparting a competence across the board in one fell swoop.  

Similar strides were made in public health. In a 15-day marathon immunisation programme in November 1984 – and this was only three months after he took office – Sankara enlisted the aid of Cuban volunteer medics to vaccinate 2.5 million Burkinabe children against the dreaded meningitis, yellow fever, and measles in a bid to fast-track the promotion of public health.

The feat was unprecedented anywhere. For the first time ever, basic health services were like in the Botswana of today made available   to the entire population, one consequence of which was that river blindness was kept in check, again a first for the country under a plucky, doggedly determined Thomas Sankara. By January 1985, the infant mortality rate had precipitately fallen from 280 deaths for every 1000 births to 145. In only four months at the helm, the wunderkind president had delivered results as though he was waving a magic wand.

THE INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE SAHEL

Concerned that his country desperately needed an infrastructural uplift, Thomas Sankara embarked on an ambitious rail and road construction programme to “tie the nation together” as he put it. Schools, hospitals, dams, and houses were also factored into the hive of construction activity.

As much as government was the project bankroller, a considerable amount of labour was donated by the citizenry out of a sense purely of patriotic duty and the unremitting love of their iconic leader. For instance, peasants built storage dams by the sweat of their own brow, and every village was called upon to voluntarily build a medical dispensary. Over 350 communities were stirred by Sankara’s logically marshaled persuasive pitches to construct schools by sacrificially working their fingers to the bone. Note that the people were not expected to make a material contribution: only labour and of their own accord. No one was forcefully conscripted.

In February 1985, two construction programs were incepted. These were a public housing project and what Sankara called “The Battle for the Railroad” project. The latter was the construction of a missing rail link to the northeastern region of Tambo with a view to develop a major manganese deposit that had   recently been stumbled upon. Sankara dubbed the undertaking a “battle” in that it was done independent of foreign financing after the Bretton Woods institutions and the jaundice-eyed donor community gave it the thumbs-down in favour of the less crucial road to the already flourishing northern mining region. The only foreign prop for the project took the form of an inconsequential number of rails Canada grudgingly provided from a plant in Trenton, Nova Scotia.

With government coffers stretched too thin, Sankara again took recourse to a resource of last resort – the citizenry. He appealed to them to lend the project a vital hand without which it was foredoomed.  They readily obliged: between 1985 and 1987, the merry throngs of volunteers, who mostly comprised students and civil servants, led 62 km of rail under the blazing Sahel sun and a smog-like swirl of hovering dust.

Meanwhile, the encroaching Sahara Desert needed to be taken care of as another component of the national agenda. In this regard, Sankala launched a vigorous reforestation programme in which hordes of Burkinabes were both directly and indirectly mobilised.  Over 10 million trees were planted around the country in the space of only twelve months in a bid to expeditiously halt the growing desertification of the Sahel.  In order to keep the momentum of the reforestation going, new house owners or tenants were made to undertake to plant and tend to a prescribed minimum number of trees.  

Concomitant measures to help perpetuate the reforestation programme have been summed up thus: “The CDRs of women and youth mobilised to build tens of thousands of improved stoves in order to reduce the consumption of firewood. Hundreds of wells were sunk to provide reliable drinking water to those who lacked it. An old, partly-abandoned tradition of each town and village cultivating its own grove of trees was revived. In the villages in the developed river valleys, each family was given the means and the obligation to plant one hundred trees per year. The cutting and selling of firewood was brought under strict control.” (To be continued next week)

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The Taiwan Question: China ramps up military exercises to rebuff US provocations

18th August 2022

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosis visit to Taiwan has violated the One-China policy, and caused the escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Experts and political observers across the spectra agree that Pelosis actions and subsequent pronouncements by US President Joe Biden gave impetus to an already simmering tension in the Taiwan Strait, provoking China to strengthen its legitimate hold on the Taiwan Strait waters, which the US and Taiwan deem as international waters.

Pelosis visit to Chinas Taiwan region has been heavily criticised across the globe, with China arguing that this is a serious violation of the one-China principle and the provisions of the three China-US Joint Communiqus. In response to this reckless move which seriously undermined China’s sovereignty, and interfered in China’s internal affairs, the expectation is for China to give a firm response. Pelosi visit violated the commitments made by the U.S. side, and seriously jeopardized peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

To give context to Chinas position over Taiwan region, the history behind gives us perspective. It is also important to note that the history between China and Taiwan is well documented and the US has always recognized it.

The Peoples Republic of China recognises Taiwan as its territory. It has always been the case even before the Nationalist Republic of China government fled to the previously Japanese-ruled Island after losing the civil war on the mainland in 1949. According to literature that threat was contained for decades first with a military alliance between the US and the ROC on Taiwan, and after Washington switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979 by the US One China policy, which acknowledges Beijings position that Taiwan is part of One China. Effectively, Taiwans administration was transferred to the Republic of China from Japan after the Second World War in 1945, along with the split between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) as a consequence of the Chinese Civil War. Disregarding this history, as the US is attempting to do, will surely initiate some defence reaction on the side of China to affirm its sovereignty.

However, this history was undermined since Taiwan claimed to democratise in the 1990s and China has grown ever more belligerent. Furthermore, it is well documented that the Biden administration, following the Trump presidency, has made subtle changes in the way it deals with Taipei, such as loosening restrictions on US officials meeting Taiwanese officials this should make China uneasy. And while the White House continues to say it does not support Taiwanese independence, Bidens words and actions are parallel to this pledge because he has warned China that the US would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan another statement that has provoked China.

Pelosi, in her private space, would know that her actions amount to provocation of China. This act of aggression by the USA seriously undermines the virtues of sovereignty and territorial integrity which has a huge potential to destabilize not only the Taiwan Strait but the whole of the Asia- Pacific region. The Americans know very well that their provocative behavior is deliberately invoking the spirit of separatism masqueraded as Taiwan independence. The US is misled to think that by supporting separatism of Taiwan from China that would give them an edge over China in a geopolitics. This is what one Chinese diplomat said this week: The critical point is if every country put their One-China policy into practice with sincerity, with no compromise, is going to guarantee the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, it was in the wake of US House speaker Nancy Pelosis visit to Taiwan, that China, in a natural response revealed plans for unprecedented military exercises near the island, prompting fears of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the entire Asia-Pacific region. The world community must promote and foster peace, this may be achieved when international laws are respected. It may also happen when nations respect the sovereignty of another. China may be in a better space because it is well capacitated to stake its territorial integrity, what about a small nation, if this happens to it?

As to why military exercises by Beijing; it is an expected response because China was provoked by the actions of Pelosi. To fortify this position, Chinese President, Xi signed a legal basis for Chinas Peoples Liberation Army to safeguard Chinas national sovereignty, security and development interests. The legal basis will also allow military missions around disaster relief, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping. In addition the legal changes would allow troops to prevent spillover effects of regional instabilities from affecting China, secure vital transport routes for strategic materials like oil, or safeguard Chinas overseas investments, projects and personnel. It then follows that President Xis administration cannot afford to look weak under a US provocation. President Xi must protector Chinas sovereignty and territorial integrity, of which Taiwan is a central part. Beijing is very clear on One-China Policy, and expects all world players to recognize and respect it.

The Peoples Liberation Army has made it clear that it has firepower that covers all of Taiwan, and it can strike wherever it wants. This sentiments have been attributed to Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the PLA Navy Research Institute. Zheng further said, We got really close to Taiwan. We encircled Taiwan. And we demonstrated that we can effectively stop intervention by foreign forces. This is a strong reaction from China to warn the US against provocation and violation of the One-China Policy.

Beijings military exercises will certainly shake Taiwans confidence in the sources of its economic and political survival. The potential for an effective blockade threatens the air and shipping routes that support Taiwans central role in global technology supply chains. Should a humanitarian situation arise in Taiwan, the blame would squarely be on the US.

As Chinas military exercises along the Taiwan Strait progress and grow, it remains that the decision by Nancy Pelosi to visit Chinas Taiwan region gravely undermined peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sent a wrong signal to Taiwan independence separatist forces. This then speaks to international conventions, as the UN Secretary-General Antnio Guterres explicitly stressed that the UN remains committed to the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758. The centerpiece is the one-China principle, namely, there is but one China in the world, the government of the Peoples Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is a part of China. It must be noted that the US and the US-led NATO countries have selectively applied international law, this has been going on unabated. There is a plethora of actions that have collapsed several states after they were attacked under the pretext of the so-called possession of weapons of mass destruction illuminating them as threats – and sometimes even without any valid reason. to blatantly launch military strikes and even unleash wars on sovereign countrie

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Opinions

Internal party-democracy under pressure

21st June 2022

British novelist, W. Somerset Maugham once opined: If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.

The truism in these words cannot be underestimated, especially when contextualizing against the political developments in Botswana. We have become a nation that does not value democracy, yet nothing represent freedom more than democracy. In fact, we desire, and value winning power or clinging to power more than anything else, even if it harms the democratic credentials of our political institutions. This is happening across political parties ruling and opposition.

As far as democracy is concerned, we are regressing. We are becoming worse-off than we were in the past. If not arrested, Botswana will lose its status as among few democratic nations in the Africa. Ironically, Botswana was the first country in Africa to embrace democracy, and has held elections every five years without fail since independence.

We were once viewed as the shining example of Africa. Those accolades are not worth it any more. Young democracies such as South Africa, with strong institutions, deserves to be exalted. Botswana has lost faith in democracy, and we will pay a price for it. It is a slippery slope to dictatorship, which will bring among other excess, assault on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Former President, Festus Mogae once stated that Botswanas democracy will only become authentic, when a different party, other than the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) wins elections, and when the President of such party is not from Serowe.

Although many may not publicly care to admit, Mogaes assertion is true. BDP has over the years projected itself as a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of democracy, but the moment its stay in power became threatened and uncertain, it started behaving in a manner that is at variance with democratic values.This has been happening over the years now, and the situation is getting worse by the day.

Recently, the BDP party leadership has been preaching compromise and consensus candidates for 2024 general elections. Essentially, the leadership has lost faith in theBulela Ditswedispensation, which has been used to selected party candidates for council and parliament since 2003. The leadership is discouraging democracy because they believe primary elections threaten party unity. It is a strange assertion indeed.

Bulela Ditswewas an enrichment of internal party democracy in the sense that it replaced the previous method of selection of candidates known as Committee of 18, in which a branch committee made of 18 people endorsed the representatives. While it is true that political contest can divide, the ruling party should be investing in political education and strengthening in its primary elections processes. Democracy does not come cheap or easy, but it is valuable.

Any unity that we desire so much at the expense of democracy is not true unity. Like W. Somerset Maugham said, democracy would be lost in the process, and ultimately, even the unity that was desired would eventually be lost too. Any solution that sacrifice democracy would not bring any results in the long run, except misery.

We have seen that also in opposition ranks. The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) recently indicated that its incumbent Members of Parliament (MPs) should not be challenged for their seats. While BDP is sacrificing democracy to stay in power, UDC is sacrificing democracy to win power. It is a scary reality given the fact that both parties ruling and opposition have embraced this position and believe democracy is the hindrance to their political ambitions.

These current reality points to one thing; our political parties have lost faith in democracy. They desire power more than, the purpose of power itself. It is also a crisis of leadership across the political divide, where we have seen dissenting views being met with persecution. We have seen perverting of political process endorsed by those in echelons of power to manipulate political outcomes in their favour.

Democracy should not be optional, it should be mandatory. Any leader proposing curtailing of democracy should be viewed with suspicion, and his adventures should be rejected before it is too late. Members of political parties, as subscribers of democracy, should collectively rise to the occasion to save their democracy from self-interest that is becoming prevalent among Botswana political parties.

The so-called compromise candidates, only benefits the leadership because it creates comforts for them. But for members, and for the nation, it is causing damage by reversing the gains that have been made over the years. We should reject leaders who only preach democracy in word, but are hesitant to practice it.

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Opinions

The Big Deal About Piracy

21st June 2022

Piracy of all kinds continues to have a massive impact on the global creative industry and the economies of the countries where it thrives.

One of the biggest misconceptions around piracy is that an individual consumers piracy activities, especially in a market the size of Botswanas, is only a drop in the pool of potential losses to the different sectors of the economy piracy affects.

When someone sitting in Gaborone, Botswana logs onto an illegal site to download King Richard online, they dont imagine that their one download will do anything to the production houses pocket or make a dent in the actors net worth. At best, the sensitivity towards this illegal pirating activity likely only exists when contemplating going about pirating a local musicians music or a short film produced locally.

The ripple effects of piracy at whatever scale reach far beyond what the average consumer could ever imagine. Figures released by software security and media technology company, Irdeto, show that users in five major African territories made approximately 17,4 million total visits to the top 10 identified piracy sites on the internet.

The economic impact of this on the creative industry alone soars to between 40 and 97.1 billion dollars, according a 2022 Dataprot study. In addition, they estimate that illegally streamed copyrighted content consumes 24% of global bandwidth.

As Botswanas creative industry remains relatively slight on the scale of comparison to industries such as Nollywood and Nilewood where the creative industry contributes a huge proportion to West and East Africas respective GDPs, that does not imply that piracy activities in Botswana do not have a similar impact on our economy and the ability of our creative industry to grow.

When individuals make decisions to illegally consume content via internet streaming sites they believe they are saving money for themselves in the name of enjoying content they desire to consume. Although this is a personal choice that remains the prerogative of the consumer, looking beyond the fact that streaming on illegal content sites is piracy, the ripple effect of this decision also has an endless trail of impact where funds which could be used to grow the local creative industry through increased consumption, and revenue which would otherwise be fed back into Botswanas economy are being diverted.

Why cant our local creative industry grow? Why dont we see more home-grown films and shows in Botswana? are questions constantly posed by those who consume television content in Botswana. The answer to this lies largely in the fact that Botswanas local content needs an audience in order for it to grow. It needs support from government and entities which are in a position to fund and help the industry scale greater heights.

Any organisational body willing to support and grow the local creative industry needs to exist and operate in an economy which can support its mandates. Content piracy is a cycle that can only be alleviated when consumers make wiser decisions around what they consume and how.

This goes beyond eradicating piracy activities in so far as television content is concerned. This extends to the importation and trade in counterfeit goods, resale of goods and services not intended for resale across the border, outside its jurisdiction, and more. All of these activities stunt the growth of an economy and make it nearly impossible for industries and sectors to propel themselves to places where they can positively impact society and reinvest into the countrys economy.

So what can be done to turn the tide here in Botswana in order to see our local production houses gain the momentum required to produce more, license more and expand their horizons? While those who enforce the law continue to work towards minimizing piracy activities, its imperative that as consumers we work to make their efforts easier by being mindful of how our individual actions play a role in preventing the success of our local creative networks and our economys growth.

Whether you are pirating a Hollywood Blockbuster, illegally streaming a popular Motswana artists music, or smuggling in an illegal decoder to view content restricted to South Africa only, your actions have an impact on how we as a nation will make our mark on the global landscape with local creative productions. Thembi Legwaila is Corporate Affairs Manager, MultiChoice Botswana

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