January 10, 2003

Discussion on minority languages

A coalition of cultural pressure groups, the Multicultural Coalition of Botswana (RETENG), has stepped up pressure on the government to repeal sections of the country's constitution that were last year condemned by the United Nations as discriminatory.

The coalition is made up of groups fighting for recognition of minority languages that have been marginalised since Botswana's independence from Britain in 1966. RETENG is campaigning for the repealing of laws that were identified by a 2002 United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) report, which accused the government of Botswana of discriminating against minority tribes while promoting Tswana speaking groups.

The report blamed Sections 77,78 and 79 of the country's constitution, which it pointed out, violated the CERD Convention. "The Committee is concerned by the discriminatory character of certain domestic laws, such as the Chieftainship Act and the Tribal Territories Act (from Section 77 to 79), which only recognise the Tswana speaking tribes," said part of the report. Botswana recognises English and SeTswana as its two official languages. It is mandatory for everyone to learn the languages from primary school level, a situation that has fuelled strong resistance from minority tribes who argue that this will lead to the extinction of their indigenous languages. The cultural groups have also extended their campaign to include demands for cultural, social and economic recognition as well as political rights. As part of efforts to bolster its advocacy, the coalition towards the end of last month held a fundraising gala, where various advocates of minority rights expressed their concerns. "RETENG's position is that the amendment of Sections 77 to 79 of the constitution should bring about the recognition and representation of all tribes in Botswana on an equal basis, and that the Chieftainship Act and the Tribal Territories Act be amended accordingly to achieve equality," said Professor Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo, a minority rights activist and lecturer at the University of Botswana.

The Multicultural coalition is made up of Lentswe la Batswapong, Tsoa/Kua Cultural Group, Qonyati Cnsha, Society for the Pomotion of IKalanga Language, Kamanakao Association, Herero Mbanderu Youth Association, Chelwa Ya Shekgalagari, Cisiya Nkulu Trust, First People of the Kalahari, Babirwa Cultural Group and Manxotai Youth Group.

While Botswana still remains a peaceful country, a tribal conflict is far from being a remote possibility as tribal groups increasingly grow impatient of the government's perceived reluctance to review the offending constitutional provisions. More vocal and sometimes militant groups such as the Kamanakao Association, which represents the Wayeyi tribe in the northern part of the country, and the Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language (SPILL), have in the past taken the government to court over the constitution. This forced the government to set up a Commission of Inquiry two years ago that led to a Draft White Paper on proposed amendments to Sections 77,78 and 79. The suggested amendments were, however, heavily criticised by organisations representing the Tswana speaking tribes, forcing the government to delay their implementation.

Tswana speaking tribes make more than 80 percent of the country's population of 1.6 million. (African Church Information Service)

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