Botswana’s Identity Crisis: Where do we place the LGBTQ community?

By: Kaene Disepo

Botswana, well situated at the heart of Southern Africa, prides itself on being the ‘spirit’ of Africa, or perhaps the lesser of all evils in Africa. This is a country with a little over 2.5 million people, yet has already outpaced most of its African counterparts. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2015 African Economic Outlook, Botswana’s ‘growth prospects look broadly favourable’. Moreover, The World Economic Forum, Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) 2014-2015 maintained Botswana’s ranking at 74th out of 144 countries, the fourth position in sub-Saharan Africa, though in 2015, it slipped to fifth position in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Economic Forum, ‘the decline is explained by the absence of improvements rather than worsening of policies compared to other fast-reforming countries in Africa’.

Of course, these observations are made through the lens of the economy, but what about its socio-cultural normative values; where does Botswana rank? A much more holistic, yet necessary analysis of Botswana’s progress as a thriving democratic nation, would be its ranking in the Human Development Index, which; ‘examines the intrinsic relationship between work and human development. Work, which is a broader concept than jobs or employment, can be a means of contributing to the public good, reducing inequality, securing livelihoods and empowering individuals. Work allows people to participate in the society and provides them a sense of dignity and worth. In addition, work that involves caring for others or voluntarism builds social cohesion and strengthens bonds within families and communities’ (Human Development Report 2015)

Using this analytical tool, Botswana registers on the medium human development, being number 6 in the continent and positioning it at 106 out of 188 countries and territories. However, delving deeper-and perhaps specifically- into the analytical framework, Botswana ranked 106 out of 155 countries from the newly introduced Gender Inequality Index and more worryingly, is its position on gay rights, from which homosexual activity in Botswana has been illegal and criminalized way before it gained independence. In fact, the only country in Africa which reigns supreme in gay rights is South Africa, our neighbor, having legalized same-sex marriage. Now then, can this issue be ‘explained by the absence of improvements rather than worsening of policies’ or this socio-cultural, even political debacle calls for a more robust and eclectic solution?

I argue that Botswana, the supposedly best governed and least corrupt African country, is experiencing an identity crisis, thus the incessant clash between policy-makers and public opinion. In psychiatry, identity crisis refers to a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society. Botswana’s battling with her very own identity; of what it means to have Botswana values, to be a Motswana. According to globalisation theorists, the main narrative for identity politics is that there has been an increase in the salience of diverse local and transnational identities at the expense of both national identities and those broad class identities which were traditionally handled by the nation-state. These, include the surge of new social movements such as the civil rights movements, feminist movement, environmentalists, and even the LGBT movements, which centers freedom of sexual preference to be an intrinsic human right. In the case for Botswana, its identity has greatly changed from its pre-colonial period, all the way to post-colonial legacy; not just in the form of formal education and promotion of democratic principles through political elections, but also in fashion, literature and the economy. We seem to have embraced a myriad of these paradigm shifting identities; the women empowerment voice is ever so vociferous, the youth advocates continue their battle, we have integrated into the capitalist world economy. However, social attitudes when it comes to peculiar normative issues are still painted in a negative light. So, who should we look to for a solution?

Incredibly, on the 16th of March, this year, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of LEGABIBO for it to be registered as a society by the Registrar of Societies. This was an ongoing battle from which Government argued that recognition of the Lesbians & Gays of Botswana was against the Constitution of Botswana and veered away from the norms and values of Batswana. Gay rights has been a topic feared in mainstream politics, with the current governing party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP)-a party which has most of its safe seats in constituencies where voter turnout reflects a higher age range- having shied away from. Nonetheless, there has been several voices-prominent and some, surprising- for legalising homosexuality in Botswana. For instance, the former Botswana president, Festus Mogae, has spoken in support of LGBT rights in Africa. In an interview with African Renewal, Mogae maintained that, ‘While I admit that the West often push their agendas on Africa, which we must be wary of, I also believe that we must, as Africans, admit that the world is changing…This means often abandoning some of our long-held convictions about life.’ Indeed, this is so, Batswana must stop cherry-picking when to use the ‘imperialistic’ argument especially on issues which promotes positive freedom. Moreover, other prominent voices have been from first female and former Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Margaret Nasha, and even some of the religious figures have gave their support- a positive note in the reaction against chauvinistic, religious underpinnings of why gay rights are socially abhorrent.

This is a complex social phenomenon that requires robust and eclectic ways of dealing with it. From the grassroots, Guidance and Counselling in schools need to address issues of the LGBT community under the guise of a civic society. Policy-makers need to refrain from cherry-picking what to include in the so-called ‘Moral and Tolerant Nation’ and really act on what it preaches. Although, Botswana is not as extreme as the likes of Somalia, Congo or even her neighbor, Zimbabwe, there is a need for paradigm shifting ideologies on their approach of social inclusion. Education can never be over emphasised, however, even taking a firm stance in mainstream is essential. The unfortunate truth is, we are power-hungry and thus tread carefully when it comes to issues considered an abomination. Just a caution, Female Genital Mutilation, child marriages, slavery, racial segregation, patriarchy, well all-some still are in some parts of the world-considered legitimate under the guise of social justice. Continuing to react against communities which begs for social inclusion, recognition of their inalienable rights (by virtue of being citizens), will only highlight the regressive nature of this country. The LGBTQ community, also deserve a place in the sun, it is morally just and it is fundamental of their human rights.

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