Botho: A Dual-Purpose in Botswana by Liana Mehring

My introduction to the concept of Botho is the single most profound understanding I gained from my study abroad experience in Botswana. Botho incompletely translates from the national language Setswana into English as ‘respect’. The concept is commonly expressed in the phrase ‘Motho ke motho ka batho’ meaning ‘I am because you are.’  Botho is a value shared across the Southern African region that promotes harmony and respect amongst people living together. The concept defies simple explanation but a close friend of mine in Botswana distilled Botho to “Having a deep sense of another person’s humanity—how to demonstrate being a human being to another human being.”

During my time in Botswana I became increasingly aware of the enormous cultural currency Botho possesses as a universally understood and revered value among the Batswana. I subsequently became interested in the ways in which Botho is utilized in Botswana’s political arena and invoked in official government rhetoric. My analysis of speeches, press releases and other government documents found that Botho is invoked to serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, Botho is used as a call for civility and respect shown to the ruling elite. On the other hand, Botho acts as call for charity and aid to the most vulnerable members of society: namely jobless youth.

The Office of the President (OP)  makes liberal use of the term Botho in press releases and speeches to praise or defend the actions of the political elite. Botho is used, for example,  to demonish the press for critical media attention given to the current President, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, and his government. For example, on July 27, 2010 Press Liaison Officer Sipho Madisa released a statement for the OP defending the President against a critical newspaper article published five days earlier. The highly critical article, entitled Khama’s Presidency in One Word: Disaster, was written by a citizen of Botswana named Sonny O. Serite and published in the online edition of the Sunday Standard. In response, the press release is careful to point out that, “It is not Sonny Serite’s view or opinion that we take issue with, but the ‘how’ which we believe goes beyond the core principle of Botho.” The press release condemned the authors use of the word ‘foolish’ to describe the president as lacking in proper respect and humility. The press release was not, in my opinion an attack on free expression. As judged by Freedom House, Botswana is a model of liberal democracy in Africa. The country boasts a ‘free and vigorous press’ as well as almost fifty years of free and fair elections since gaining independence in 1966. Botho is being used therefore not in an act of censorhip but in an attempt to foster a more respectful national dialogue in which citizens may ‘differ in deference’ (Response by Press Liason).

The Ministry of Youth, Sport, and Culture also frequently references Botho in its public pronouncements and press coverage. In late 2012 they launched the Youth Empowerment Scheme or YES. This program was developed to address disturbing figures in the 2009/10 Botswana Core Welfare Indicators Survey (BCWIS). The survey found that youth are the hardest hit by unemployment, with a 34% unemployment rate amongst 20-24 year olds and a 41.4 % unemployment rate amongst 15-19 year olds. With the largest demographic of the national population facing unemployment and conditions of poverty, the government developed YES to foster behavioral change, poverty eradication, and skills development amongst Botswana’s youth. Overall, the program is designed with the paramount objective of reinforcing positive social values such as Botho amongst Botswana’s youth.  The YES program seeks to inculcate a spirit of volunteerism among the youth of the country through providing job instruction, developing good work ethics as well as entrepreneurship skills. The Ministry of Youth, Sport, and Culture therefore is attempting to instill the value of Botho in the most socially vulnerable members of society as well as mobilize Botho in their care.

In examining Botho’s dual political function I found that the concept is referenced first and foremost as a call for civility and respect shown to the ruling elite on the part of protestors who voice their discontent for unpopular policy decisions. On the other hand, the government invokes Botho as call for charity and aid to the most vulnerable members of society: namely jobless youth.  As an expression of interpersonal respect, Botho is a powerful cultural concept mobilized in the defense and care of the entire spectrum of Botswana’s citizenry, from the most vulnerable unemployed youth to the President himself.

Liana Mehring is a graduating senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, majoring in Culture and Politics. She spent the spring of her Junior year studying abroad at the University of Botswana in Gaborone Botswana. Upon returning to Georgetown for her senior year, she wrote her thesis for the African Studies Department about the concept of Botho in Botswana.