BOTSWANA: Discriminatory clauses to be removed from constitution
gaborone, 21 October 2003 (IRIN) - After years of agitation by Botswana's minority ethnic groups, the government has finally committed itself to an amendment bill to remove discriminatory clauses in the constitution by the end of the year.
"The objective of the bill is ... to promote nation building by amending sections 77, 78 and 79 [of the constitution] to render them tribally neutral. We must continue to celebrate the compositeness of our culture and promote our unity in diversity," President Festus Mogae said last week.
The government's decision follows a report from a presidential commission of enquiry, established in July 2000 under a former minister, Patrick Balopi, to look into complaints by non-Setswana speaking people that the constitution discriminated against them.
Sections 77, 78 and 79 guarantee automatic membership in the House of Chiefs to the eight Setswana-speaking paramount chiefs, while minority groups are represented by three members, regarded as sub-chiefs, who are elected to the assembly.
"People are saying that the House of Chiefs excludes a whole lot of people like the Bakalanga, Bayeyi, Basubiya, Batswapong, Babira, Basarwa, Bakgalagadi and Baherero. It really contravenes the spirit of equality that is enshrined in the constitution, that we are all equal before the law," Moiseraele Dibeela, the principal of Kgolagano College of Theological Education, told IRIN.
The Chieftainship Act states that the "principal tribes" are defined as the Setswana-speaking Bamangwato, Batawana, Bakgatla, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bamalete, Barolong and the Batlokwa. The Tribal Territories Act also defines ethnic territory in terms of these eight groups, which means that all land must be distributed under their jurisdiction.
Membership of the House of Chiefs - which plays an advisory role to the government and parliament - is important because it is a constitutional recognition of the existence of a particular ethnic group. A lack of representation also means the lack of a voice in the development of customary law. For instance, the Wayeyi, some Basarwa groups and Herero groups are matrilineal. But the imposition of Tswana patriarchal customary law has eradicated their own laws of inheritance, marriage and succession.
The issue of ethnic discrimination has been a sensitive one since independence. Two previous attempts to reform the constitution - in 1969 and 1998 - failed.
Animosity flared again at public meetings to discuss the controversial sections as part of the Balopi Commission. The legality of the commission itself was challenged in the House of Chiefs by the paramount chiefs opposed to radical change.
Initially, Mogae had proposed that the country be split into regions, and these regions would then elect representatives to sit in the House of Chiefs. But this was rejected by both the cabinet and the numerically superior Setswana-speaking groups.
Setswana-speaking chiefs remain very influential in the rural areas, the most important electoral constituency for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.
Under the revised proposals, which are yet to be submitted to parliament for approval, the eight Setswana-speaking paramount chiefs will keep their positions in the House of Chiefs, but provisions will be made to elect additional representatives at district level, to sit in the House. No details have been provided over how many additional seats would be created.
"The bill, as it is, will not help - because when people are elected in the districts, it is unlikely that somebody from a minority tribe will be elected," Dibeela said.
"I actually think that the House of Chiefs is an obsolete institution because it is non-representative our country. I would argue that you need not be a chief to enter the House of Chiefs - you could be a community leader, women's leader ... or a distinguished business person," he added.
Modise Maphanyane, national director of the Botswana chapter of the watchdog Media Institute of Southern Africa, said talk of constitutional reform needed to be examined closely. "This issue will have to be dealt with holistically and not piecemeal."