What really is tribalism?

SHARE   |   Sunday, 31 August 2014   |   By Banks Ndebele
Sir Seretse Khama Sir Seretse Khama

Some members of parliament (MPs) while contributing to the motion on the use of other languages on national radio and television suggested that it is tribalism. They painted the picture that tribalism is bad and the ruling party shuns tribalism. I therefore think it is important to address the issue of what really is tribalism and if indeed the ruling party shuns or thrives on tribalism. Our shared understanding as a nation of what tribalism is all about, will help us to understand the import of the motion specifically, and the thinking of those who shun forced assimilation as a nation building project. 

So what is tribalism?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, tribalism is the state of being organised in a tribe or tribes. The Wikipedia encyclopaedia states that tribalism is the state of being organised in, or advocating for a tribe or tribes. In this regard, let us examine how the state of Botswana under the leadership of the BDP was organised since independence. Eight tribes - all speaking the same language were recognised. The House of Chiefs was established and admitted the eight tribal chiefs into the house on a permanent basis. Tribal administrations were established, and enacted laws that defined land according to eight tribes and established land boards tribal. Thus the country of Botswana was organised and continues to be organised along tribal lines. In short, Botswana is a state founded on tribalism.


In 1952, Isaac Schapera wrote the following about the tribal situation in the then Bechuanaland:

"Eight of them (Ngwato, Kwena, Tawana, Ngwaketse, Kgatla, Malete, Tlokwa and Tshidi-Rolong) have separate territories of their own (officially termed "Reserves" or "tribal areas"), with statutorily defined boundaries, and the Administration accords to their hereditary rulers the official designation of 'chief'. Two others, the Khurutshe and the Seleka-Rolong, live in the Tati Native reserve (Francistown District), which they share with non-Tswana tribes, but each has its own location (whose boundaries are conventionally, and not statutorily, defined), and their rulers are officially known as 'sub-chiefs'. The remainder, whose rulers are all classed, as 'headmen' have no areas specifically set aside for them. They live in Crown land, at the pleasure of the Administration, and in theory are liable to be moved at any time, “.


This situation has not changed. I personally do not have a problem with organising tribal administrations. The Botswana situation is problematic since it established these administrations in a discriminatory manner. While it organised the Bangwato, Balete, Bangwaketse, Bakwena, Bakgatla, Barolong and Batawana and Batlokwa in tribal administrations, it did not establish the Bakalaka, Bayeyi, Basarwa, Babirwa, Batswapong, Bakgalagadi, Basubiya, OvaHerero, Bambukushu, Banajwa, BaKhurutshe, OvaMbanderu and others, into tribal administration. These were not recognised; their chiefs were not admitted to the House of chiefs. Their children are not taught in their languages; their languages are facing extinction; their histories, values, customs and traditions are not taught in schools.

The question is, who is playing the tribal card and fanning tribalism? Who is advocating tribal discrimination? Is it not the state that has organised its people in tribal administrations and yet discriminating other tribes or those who are challenging this discrimination? It is not organising people along tribal administrations that we are against, but rather, the discriminatory nature in which it has been done. The discrimination has gross consequences on nation building.


As Botswana Congress Party (BCP), we want every citizen to feel valued and not forced to assimilate under another tribe. In 1966, Botswana’s founding president, Sir Seretse Khama outlined his unity in assimilation model and said 'likewise all moves towards closer inter-tribal co-operation will be encouraged, such, for instance, as the organisation of tribal and other groups into local councils, into which smaller tribal units will be absorbed for their own economic benefit, even if they retained a small measure of tribal identity”.

This is from Carter and Morgan's book published in 1980. Here is Seretse organising the nation into tribal groups; and this is tribalism. He is not only doing so, but even discriminating others, calling them small and calling for their extinction. So Seretse was a tribalist and tribal discrimination architect. He is saying smaller groups will need to be absorbed (ba komediwe ke merafe e metona). E metona according to Seretse, are those who speak Setswana as a first language/dialect. According to his thinking, all other ethnic groups were smaller. Can you imagine the number of Bakgalagadi, Bakalaka, Bayeyi being absorbed by Bakwena, Bangwato and Batawana. Ke gore his thinking is in reverse of reality. The tribes he calls smaller are actually bigger in number than the ones he put in charge go kometsa these other tribes. We want all tribes to be equal before the law and express their culture for the economic benefit, not to lose their culture for their economic benefit as Seretse thinks. We want unity in diversity and not unity in assimilation. To force people into assimilation is a recipe for disunity and a threat to genuine nation building. Unity is diversity is the best model for nation building.


Nation Building
The ruling party believes it has built a nation through assimilation, forcing people to lose their languages, and even forcing MPs to be afraid to speak on behalf of the people who elected them, lest they are expelled from the party and stand to lose their ministerial and parliamentary seats (MP Botsalo Ntuane is a case in point). This is the assimilation model, which has been found to be unsustainable in many countries but a time bomb. Its disadvantages are numerous and common sense tells that suppressing someone's language and identity is nothing good - but waging a war against that person. You can use radio Botswana to oppress and suppress, but reality on the ground will show and say otherwise.

As a party we want to build a nation with all its characteristics without oppressing anyone. We are advocating for a model of unity in diversity, not by word of mouth but in action. Using these languages will help us to appreciate our diversity. Setswana will remain our national language, with other languages being recognised at the regional level and use on both local and national radio stations. This will promote true patriotism and a true national state, in which people are happy.


Our education system has broken down and is in disarray. Language is a major factor in imparting knowledge. We need no rocket science to tell us that speaking a foreign language to a child on day one of school is not only terrifying but a good way of ensuring that the child does not benefit from the learning process. Our education system is in shambles because over the years, children learn in English at an early age and fail to grasp key concepts, reading and writing skills at the beginning.  Setswana is only taught for one year and that is not enough to help children to develop communication skills. Our model of unity in diversity is good for education and it is the best for true nation building in which everyone feels valued.

Research has proved that teaching a child to read and write in their mother tongue helps them to learn a second language better. Thus mother tongue education and its use on radio as a teaching tool will enhance the performance in Setswana and English. Currently children fail Setswana in large numbers, because the current model teaches them that Setswana and other languages are not important. They all aspire to be English men and women and not what they are. This is due to the tribal discrimination model the ruling party has championed. It has now imprisoned people psychologically, telling them that the use of other languages will bring war.  Namibia is using 14 languages in education; there is no war in Namibia. All our neighbouring countries are using mother tongue in education for at least four years. UNESCO says mother tongue is a marker of quality education. Teaching in mother tongue, will restore respect in our national language, Setswana as well as other languages, hence strengthen our national identity.


Job Creation
Our model is also good for job creation. Teaching children in their language and using these languages in education and the media will create jobs - radio announcers, technicians, script writers, news readers, teachers, curriculum developers, translators, interpreters, etcetra. It will develop technologies and advance our level of development. Promotion of talent in poets, comedians, story-tellers and so on is better done in mother tongue and therefore, self-employment by fully exploiting ones culture will be realised. 

On the basis of this, it is clear that those M P’s who have opposed motions on unity in diversity lacked a better argument, but rather are influenced by fear and emotionalism both of which are irrational.  A country organised on tribal discrimination cannot develop to its full potential. The current situation has resulted in citizens of this country despising one another. Once you say this tribe is better than this one, and put it in the constitution, you have divided the nation, and taught people to despise others and you have ruined work ethic in the country. Citizens have been taught to value discrimination and negative attitude to one another. Before serving a client, one has to ask themselves from what tribe do they come from. This has further gone into discrimination along political lines, and now as you all know has become to outright nepotism, people appointing their own siblings and cousins. This country cannot develop when appointments are based on these elements and not on ability and capability to do the job.


Parliamentarians have the power to raise this country from this situation and bring our country to true unity based on the principles of equality before the law and not on sweeping other tribes under the carpet and think we are building a nation. This issue has become a means to gaining ministerial posts and proofing ones loyalty to the ruling party especially those who had diverted and now their loyalty is questionable like Hon. Botsalo Ntuane who once dumped the BDP and like the biblical prodigal son came back a le makgasa.  Opposing   motions on unity in diversity is their own way of getting accepted. We cannot make decisions affecting the very existence of citizens on such principles.  We are advocating for building a nation based on the unity in diversity model and turn away from the assimilation and tribal discrimination model since it has failed to unite the nation after 49 years.

It is the discrimination that we are against and argue for inclusive development. Labelling progressive unity in diversity as tribalism is deception. This is how Eve was deceived in the Garden of Eden. The ruling party believes they have succeeded in suppressing and oppressing other people and when they complain of this oppression, they label them as propagators of tribalism. The nation is alert to such labels and deceptions.

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