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Botswana tribal coalition calls for end to ‘assimilationist policies’

15 March 2004

A coalition of thirteen associations of non-Tswana speaking ethnic groups in Botswana, including the Wayeyi tribal community, have raised their concerns over ‘assimilationist policies’ which deny their linguistic and cultural rights and leave them marginalized. Calling for dialogue with the government, the coalition representative stated that non-Tswana speaking groups are not recognized or consulted on decisions affecting their lives through their chiefs, lack rights to land, and do not have their languages used in education, the national radio and other social domains.

The problems facing non-Tswana ethnic groups were highlighted by RETENG – the Mulicultural Coalition of Botswana as a blemish on Botswana’s deservedly good reputation for democracy and good governance. Lydia Nyati Ramahobo, speaking for RETENG, noted that three laws, including the Chieftainship Act, define which communities can be regarded as tribes under Botswana’s legislation, and that these laws have led to discrimination since they currently exclude non-Tswana groups. According to RETENG, this lack of recognition has resulted in denial of fundamental rights enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National Minorities.

Lydia Nyati Ramahobo described ‘assimilationist policies’ in which the non-Tswana speaking tribes are officially referred to by names of the Tswana tribes with whom they share territories. Their non-Tswana song and dance traditions are also officially referred to as Tswana. On the basis of discriminatory laws, in 1999 the Wayeyi Chief was not recognized by the government, resulting in a court case which the Wayeyi won and, after which, the court called for review of definitions under section 2 of the Chieftainship Act. However, despite government moves to bring tribal definitions into the Constitution in the Setswana language, their discriminatory nature remains unchanged.

Ms Ramahobo raised concern over recent signs of intolerance towards minority groups as they advocate for their rights, highlighting for the mysterious death of the Wayeyi Chief, Shikati Kamanakao, on May 6, 2003. Negligence within the investigation process was noted in the Forensic report and seen by minorities as indicating a lack of value for the life of those who are advocating for the rights of minority groups. The government continues to impose the Batawana chief onto the Wayeyi tribe against their will, and to reject a new Chief installed by the community itself.

The Working Group Chair, Asbjorn Eide, and Ms Ramahobo, welcomed a reply to the issues raised by the representative of the Botswana as an indication of potentially ‘healthy dialogue’. However, the state’s focus on nation building and establishing national unity was criticized by Ms Ramahobo as failing to ‘acknowledge, cherish and nurture the diversity of ethnic groups, languages and cultural traditions represented in the nation’. ‘Unity to us is not synonymous with uniformity’ stated Ms Ramahobo, ‘What the government calls fragments of the nations, compartments of the nation are primordial cultures and traditions of the nation and to try to erase all these just because they are different from the Tswana, is a silent genocide on the languages and cultures of the peoples of Botswana.’

Notes for editors

Download the full intervention delivered to the UN Working Group on Minorities.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].