Ethnic tensions on the rise

A referendum on the Botswana judiciary's conditions of service was always going to struggle to draw a crowd. In the event, only five percent of registered voters bothered to make their opinion known in the weekend poll. But with the majority of that tiny sample voting yes, the government is going ahead with its plans to amend the constitution, heightening a controversy that analysts say is less about the judiciary and more about national unity.

Ethnicity, previously an issue that was never publicly discussed, has over the past few years gradually taken centre stage in Botswana - at least among the political classes. The debate is over the position of "minorities". Simply put, the Khalanga people, who reportedly constitute just 10 percent of the 1.5 million population, are disproportionately represented in the professions such as the judiciary. Some Batswana allege they are being disadvantaged by "nepotism".

The constitutional amendment proposals put to referendum included a recommendation that the retiring age of judges - the majority of whom are Khalangas - should be increased from 65 to 70. The question was seized on by Pitso Ya Batswana - a controversial Tswana nationalist association - as evidence of Khalanga chauvinism, and called for a boycott of the referendum. What is not clear is whether the low turnout was a genuine response to the call, or confusion over whether the referendum was going ahead after a month-long postponement by the government, and a confusing legal challenge by Pitso Ya Batswana.

But Botswana's national question goes deeper. The original constitution recognises only eight ethnic groups, with their leaders assigned seats in the House of Chiefs - Botswana's second legislative body dealing with cultural matters. Excluded are the "minorities" such as the Khalanga, Wayeyi and the original inhabitants of the country, the Khoisan. In response to their agitation, the government set up a constitutional commission headed by a former minister, Patrick Balopi, in July last year.

"Once the commission was set up, in a way it ignited the issue of ethnicity," University of Botswana political scientist Zibani Maundeni told IRIN. "Ethnic groups advantaged in the constitution didn't want change while the others wanted the discriminatory clauses amended."

Submissions to the commission began to take on an organised nature, with previously cultural groups such as the Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language, looking more like a political campaigning organisation. When the Balopi commission finally reported in November last year, critics argued that it had fudged the issue.

"People wanted some finality to come out but instead it sort of sat on the fence, and that is what is causing some disagreement," the editor of the independent newspaper Mmegi, Sechele Sechele, told IRIN. The government, yet to produce a white paper on the recommendations for a constitutional amendment, has encouraged further debate. But the delay has only sparked allegations of government bias.

"I wouldn't say there is ethnic tensions, these are issues intellectuals are debating, but it hasn't caught up with ordinary people," Maundeni noted. "Positions are still being sharpened, only after that can it become a serious issue."

But stoking the controversy, the Botswana media has carried claim and counter-claim by the contending associations. "It has become intense because the press took it up," Sechele acknowledged. "It's a hot issue among the urban elites ... but in the rural areas it's not an issue".