Feminism and Social Democracy in Botswana

Van Allen

Botswana many seem an unlikely place in which to explore the intersections of gender politics, democracy and socialism in Africa.1 The gendered “dual political systems” and strong market women’s associations of West Africa that might provide historical precedents and contemporary political bases for women’s rights organizing are absent,2 and Botswana scores are weak by the criteria of liberal feminist political science and the dominant development models, including the Millennium Development Goals.3 There are no electoral quotas for women and relatively low percentages of women in parliament, local government and the ruling party’s structures –- and in the most recent elections, in 2004, when the SADC goal was 30% representation of women in member parliaments, the percentage of women in Botswana’s parliament actually dropped from 17% to 10%.

Botswana has no history of either Tanzanian-style “African Socialism” or a Marxist-led national liberation movement that might have produced a strong left governing party with both gender and class on its agenda. The social democratic opposition has repeatedly been split by factionalism. After an unprecedented strong showing in the 1994 elections when it won 33% of contested seats, the leading opposition party, the Botswana National Front, split in 1998, a year before the next national election, and parliamentary opposition dropped from 13 seats in the 1994 election to seven in 1999 (17% of an expanded parliament). Trade unions are relatively weak, legally restricted, and not engaged in party politics.

Botswana is celebrated in the bourgeois political science literature and among neoliberal “development” agencies for its “multi-party” democracy, its stability and its growth rate.4 But its “democracy” has produced de facto one-party rule by the Botswana Democratic Party since independence in 1966, and there has been much criticism and concern expressed in the last few years about the growing power of the executive relative to parliament and the consequent weakening of democracy. Political stability has depended significantly on the credibility of promises made by the ruling party to bring the benefits of its diamond wealth to the masses, but Botswana has one of the greatest disparities of income and wealth in the world and some 40% of its people live below its own poverty datum line or soon will as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.5

Botswana can in fact be understood as suffering from a paradox of peace: its transition to political independence absent not only a national liberation struggle but any nationalist struggle at all produced political stability at the cost of political consciousness. Rural people -– a majority of the population until recently and still a significant proportion of voters –- experienced independence as something done “for them” by wealthy and royal-family elites. “Democracy” came to be identified not with ideological or party competition, but with the Botswana Democratic Party. Suffrage, gained without struggle, did not come to be highly valued. Never did Botswana witness those impressive long snaking lines of South Africans waiting in the hot sun to cast their first vote.

Botswana also suffers from a paradox of wealth: Seretse Khama, president from independence in 1966 until his death in 1980, wealthy himself from cattle ownership, is generally seen as having treated the government as a trust, using revenues from the young diamond industry to develop infrastructure and provide education and healthcare for the people, while gearing rural development programs to benefit large cattle owners rather than the rural masses. With the burgeoning wealth from diamonds in the 1980s and the influx of international aid in the face of threats and attacks from apartheid South Africa, BDP office-holders and their allies are said to have grown fat. The demise of the apartheid state and Botswana’s classification as a “middle income country” by the World Bank have merged into the current paradox of peace and wealth: no more anti-apartheid-based international aid, no more poverty-eradication international aid,6 just South African capital eyeing the rest of Africa for investment possibilities, with Botswana right under its neoliberal nose, and DeBeers already securely in place within the diamond export business on which Botswana relies for its continued stability and even survival.

Botswana thus provides a “revealing though not representative” context for examining the contradictions and possibilities for political engagement created by capitalism in Africa, as old relations of domination break apart under capitalist pressures, and new social relations are formed.7 Although still dominant, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been gradually losing in the popular vote during its 40 years of rule, getting only 52% in 2004 (although 77% of parliamentary seats), and there is a slight possibility that opposition parties may be able to form a successful electoral coalition and government in 2009. In the last 20 years, an active women’s movement has successfully challenged laws, policies, party structures and political discourse, getting significant concessions from the BDP government and strong support for “equality” in the social democratic opposition parties’ platforms and for quotas in their party structures. Social democratic women continue to push for greater gender equity within the party (SADC 1999).

The leading women’s group and the social democratic opposition parties share concerns about persistent high levels of poverty and social inequality and a desire to increase the political consciousness and mobilization of voters. But there are still tensions and conflicts, in practice and in theorizing the connections (and contradictions) between class and gender. Explanations for how these potentially transformative forces have emerged, separately from each other, lie in the history of Botswana’s political economy and in the contemporary processes of neoliberal globalization. Possibilities for progressive connections are not to be found in any attempt to create Marxist-feminist “grand theory” in the Western mode, with its contentious courtship and “unhappy marriage” (Sargent 1981), nor in “one big union” (or party), but in much more measured negotiations and interconnections appropriate to the particularities of contemporary political struggle in Botswana.

Cattle, Mission Schools, Mines and Wage Jobs

Botswana is a dry, often drought-ridden, land, with a short rainy season suitable for agriculture and a lot of land suitable for grazing. In pre-colonial Tswana and Tswana-dominated societies, men owned or controlled cattle and boys herded them at cattle posts. Although men cleared fields, women and children did most of the farming. When missionaries arrived and set up schools, starting in the 19th century, many girls went to school, and many boys did not. After diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa, in 1867 and 1886, Botswana (then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland) was incorporated into the mining economy as a labor reserve, and young men started being recruited (and coerced) into migrant work, while girls continued to go to school, benefiting from the extensive expansion of state schools after independence and the ending of school fees in the early 1990s. Female school enrollment is still higher until girls are old enough to get pregnant; university enrollment is about equal; female literacy is about 5% higher than male, at about 90% for the more than 50% of women who live in urban areas.8

Botswana’s great good fortune in discovering diamonds only after independence, and in having good negotiators, gave the government 50% ownership of Debswana (the Botswana-De Beers mining company), and the export of gem-quality diamonds continues to drive the economy. Diamond wealth, invested in both infrastructure and services, drove sufficient economic development and urbanization to create wage jobs, and young women were ready to move into them. Capitalist transformation of Botswana’s economy thus first wrenched young men’s labor out of rural family control, increasing the workload on those left behind, then pulled and pushed increasing numbers of young women into urban wage labor, as rural livelihoods fell and the wages of migrant daughters as well as sons were needed to maintain the rural household. Droughts plagued agriculture in the 1980s, and cattle and land ownership became increasingly privatized and concentrated in the hands of wealthy men through market-oriented, government-sponsored “development” programs.9

By the 1980s the face of business and government and services was often a female face -– shop clerks, grocery checkers, managers, office workers, bank tellers, administrators, school teachers, technicians, cooks, government researchers, office cleaners or domestic workers, depending on their level of education, as well as the nursing and other healthcare jobs generally held by women throughout SubSaharan Africa. In addition, a significant number of highly educated professional women -– university lecturers, lawyers, journalists – had emerged in the capital city, Gaborone. Women were much less well represented in the small industrial sector, although they did work in diamond-sorting and in garment manufacture, and women had been organized into various producer cooperatives.10 Women workers were in general not organized. Thus during the 1980s a female working class and a female petty bourgeoisie was forming in urban areas, particularly in Gaborone, but without class consciousness and without any political movements that might have fostered such consciousness.11

Feminist Consciousness vs. Class Consciousness

Women’s roles in “reproduction” -– their responsibility for care work, and particularly for children –- and their identification in Setswana12 culture as mothers –- seems to produce a distinctive gendered consciousness among women even as workers. Motherhood, not marriage, indicates social adulthood; and the identity of “women” as “mothers” is reflected in the term of polite address for adult women, “Mma” -– that is, “Mother.”13 To a great extent the ways in which women experience constraints on their lives reflect their identities and treatment as women-mothers more than as “workers,” and their complaints are often expressed as what Molyneux terms “practical gender interests” –- perceived needs that arise out of the existing gendered division of labor, as distinct from “strategic gender interests,” which challenge gendered divisions of labor and power (Molyneux 1986: 284-5). Women criticize men for not supporting their children. They criticize government for not providing the health services they need as mothers. They may phrase demands for higher wages in terms of needing to feed their children. Domestic workers complain that their employers will not give them leave to go “home” to the village to take care of family needs (Nyamjoh 2005).

As Molyneux argues, it is the specific task of “feminist political practice” to politicize these practical interests and transform them into strategic interests that challenge gender inequality (1986: 285) -– and that is exactly what the women’s movement in Botswana has done.

The BDP government provided the spark by passing a newly discriminatory Citizenship Act in 1982, and then, as authorities often conveniently do, prompted the mobilization of a movement by refusing to reform the law. Responding to concerns about the abuse of Botswana citizenship and its benefits by Zimbabwean political refugees, many of whom took their educations and businesses and, for some, their Batswana wives, back home with them after the nationalist victory in 1980, the law changed the basis of citizenship from birth in the country to descent. But it did not allow women citizens married to foreigners to pass on their citizenship to their children, although men married to foreigners could do so.14

Opposition to the law started slowly, with a conference organized in 1980 by the new, two-person Women’s Unit in the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, which led to seminars in various districts and town councils and publication of a handbook and two pamphlets on how existing laws affected women (Botswana 1984a, 1984b,1986). But their criticisms of the Citizenship Law –- and their “standing” to represent the “women of Botswana” -– were dismissed by the government. In response, a small group of women professionals organized a women’s rights “action group,” Emang Basadi! (Stand Up, Women!), formally registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in 1986, which evolved into an effective force for social change. As government continued to resist reforming the law, EB activists focused on a Constitutional challenge by lawyer/activist Unity Dow against the Citizenship Act. Victory in the case mobilized larger numbers of women into organized action, creating a political momentum that Emang Basadi sustained until the 2004 election. The arguments and findings in the case crystallized EB’s defining core belief that Tswana customary law as well as common law and the statutes that express it oppress women and must be rejected in favor of women’s equal rights.

Dow argued that the Citizenship Law discriminated against her on the grounds of sex in violation of Section Three of the Botswana Constitution, which provides that “...every person in Botswana is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual,... whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex” (Dow 1995: 31). The Attorney General attempted to use an appeal to customary law, arguing that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were premised upon “the traditional view” that a child born to a married couple belonged to the father in all ways, including citizenship and guardianship (see Schapera 1955, 1966). He pointed out, in support of that construction, that another part of the Constitution, Section 15(3), says that “no law shall make any provision that is discriminatory either of itself or in its effect,” and enumerates prohibited discriminatory categories: “race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour or creed,” but not “sex,” and that therefore discrimination on the basis of sex is not a breach of the Constitution. The existence of these two different sections had led many people in Botswana, including some lawyers who advocate for women’s rights, to declare that the Constitution did not prohibit discrimination against women (A. Molokomme 1987). But both the High Court and the Court of Appeal upheld Dow’s challenge, and the Citizenship Law was referred back to Parliament for revision in 1992.

The High Court Judge’s decision, upheld on appeal, argued that the list in 15 (3) was simply a set of examples and not to be taken as restrictive of guaranteed protections. He explicitly rejected the government’s claim that those who approved the Constitution intended it to maintain the continuation of patrilineal custom:

“...the time that women were treated as chattels or were there to obey the whims and wishes of males is long past and it would be offensive to modern thinking and the spirit of the Constitution to find that the Constitution was framed deliberately to permit discrimination on the grounds of sex.” (Dow 1995: 31)

As of that decision, as upheld on appeal, the Constitution of Botswana does prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex.

Despite the court ruling, the BDP continued to stonewall on amending the Citizenship Law, and reports that government was considering calling a nation-wide referendum to support the law led to the formation of the NGO Network for Women’s Rights, co-founded by Emang Basadi, to advocate against it. Emang Basadi published a Women’s Manifesto in the run-up to the 1994 elections, to make clear to all political parties “what women want” and to demonstrate to all politicians that “women’s issues are political issues” (Emang Basadi 1998a: 4). The Manifesto was distributed widely throughout national and local government and political parties and to all participants in the process, and was followed up with an electoral strategy: mobilizing women voters to vote only for parties and candidates who supported women’s demands. As the 1999 revised Manifesto somewhat dryly puts it, “…it dawned on many activists that lobbying for reform by appealing to leaders’ good sense was not sufficient” (Emang Basadi 1999: vii).

The Manifesto was intended to represent “women’s issues, rather than those of a particular organization,” and was based on wide consultation and participation from a range of women’s and human rights NGOs, women’s wings of political parties, and women from churches and tertiary institutions (Emang Basadi 1998a: 4). The organization of the NGO Women’s Network and the inclusion of that network and other groups in the creation of the Manifesto were parts of an attempt to counter government claims that Emang Basadi represented only a small group of “Westernized” university women. EB’s organizational response was a significant move in creating a network among a wide variety of individuals and groups as a basis for continued mobilization and for changing public political discourse. Emang Basadi in 1993 also began its political education project, expanded after the 1994 elections, and designed both to conscientize women voters and to recruit and train women candidates, particularly for local elections. (Emang Basadi 1998a).

Emang Basadi’s focus on urging women voters to make electoral choices based on their interests “as women” promoted a liberal feminist consciousness, innocent of class, but nevertheless potentially powerful in challenging both formal and substantive inequality and contributing significantly to the development of politically aware voters. They built on and politicized women’s interests as mothers, moving in a sort of rolling feminist dynamic from mothers’ “practical” needs to “strategic” challenges by women as wives/mothers/workers/citizens to the existing gender divisions of labor and power. In Emang Basadi’s educational materials for women, in their Manifesto, and in the Citizenship Case itself there is a subtext and sometimes an explicit construction of women as mothers. The Setswana version of the Women’s Manifesto (printed back-to-back with the English version) uses “Bomme,” the polite term to refer to “mothers/women,” not “Basadi,” “women/wives.”15 The Citizenship Case itself, although argued primarily in terms of women’s rights to equal citizenship, posed mothers’ rights (to pass on citizenship to children) against fathers’ rights. Many provisions in the Manifesto construct women as mothers, as do its many of its illustrations. But the Manifesto and other materials, such as the Political Education Project (PEP) handbook (EB 1998a) move on to challenge all discriminatory laws, cultural biases against women as leaders, the culturally-based gender division of labor, and male power over women, whether expressed in marriage law, financial practices or male violence against women, including marital rape. Emang Basadi’s efforts successfully pushed women’s rights issues into party platforms from 1994 on, and through EB’s own meetings, conferences and workshops, through the press and radio, and through “Radio Mall,” consciousness of “gender issues” moved into the dominant public discourse.

In sharp contrast, opposition left parties have historically had little success in pushing class consciousness into the dominant public discourse, or in developing class consciousness among Botswana’s workers, male or female. Explanations again lie in Botswana’s political economy as well as its colonial history. Analysis based on male migrants in Botswana has classified such cyclical migrant workers as a “peasantariat” because of the dependence of their “household” on a combination of rural farming/herding and migrant wage labor, seeing them as unlikely to develop a “working class consciousness” because of their identification with the village as “home” and their investments there (Parson 1984). It is also significant that during the years of heavy migrant mine labor which continued after independence, citizens of Botswana resident outside the country during elections could not vote -– a useful measure to block the possibility of migrants organizing politically at the point of production and effectively expressing a radical political consciousness. When they returned “home” they would be dispersed and reincorporated into village communities, most of whose chiefs supported the dominant Botswana Democratic Party.

However, as indicated above, the historical lack of radical or working class consciousness is strongly rooted in the absence of a nationalist struggle for independence that could have radicalized both workers and sectors of the petty bourgeoisie. The white settler population, unlike that of surrounding countries, was not large enough to provoke radical political opposition. Botswana achieved political independence through a transfer of formal power from the British colonial authorities to their preferred political formation, the Botswana Democratic Party, organized by Seretse Khama -– the royal heir in the largest Tswana polity (Bangwato) and the wealthiest man in the country at independence –- and his allies in the colonial “African” legislature. The BDP represented a non-racial political and economic alliance of wealthy Tswana cattle owners with the small number of wealthy white cattle owners and with Tswana traditional leaders.16 It was organized specifically as a counter to the first organized party (the radical Botswana People’s Party, which had historical and ideological links to nationalist movements in South Africa) and was from the beginning extremely hostile to trade unions. For decades, laws prohibited the unionization of civil servants and criminalized strikes.

The continued dependence of the economy on diamond exports and its lack of significant diversification into manufacturing is today a major obstacle for the development of a strong trade union movement, although unionization has been growing. Diversification is constrained by South Africa’s domination of the regional economy, a problem that will face any governing party. A Hyundai plant enticed by government benefits to new investors was opened with much celebration, and then in a few years shut down by pressures from South Africa, protecting its own auto manufacturing sector. Although recent laws have allowed for the unionization of civil servants –- a significant change –- and for improved rules on collective bargaining and strikes, they have not yet been implemented and still contain bureaucratic restrictions.

However, the biggest obstacle to the emergence of a strong trade union-based social democratic opposition is the historic and continued depoliticization of the trade unions. The BDP government brought in an “expert” from the U.S. to train trade unionists in the doctrine of non-participation in politics. The Botswana Federation of Trade Unions, organized in 1972 with government sponsorship, takes no collective political actions, leaving that to “individual citizens.” The BFTU doctrine of non-engagement in “politics” has in practice meant cooperation with the BDP government and a refusal to engage or ally with the social democratic opposition (Maundeni 2004; BFTU 2003). The labor movement has been largely coopted through bureaucratization; the BFTU has been incorporated into government councils that “recommend” legislation but leave the BFTU, never a militant force to begin with, in what it acknowledges to be an ineffectual advisory capacity (BFTU 2003).

Miners’ strikes at Selebi-Phikwe in 1974 demonstrated the potential for militancy, which extended to women in the 2004 strike of 460 workers –- women and men -– at Debswana, as well as in protests by women garment workers and in the 1991 strike by the Manual Workers Union, which included many government workers. But these militant protests also demonstrate the continued hostility of the BDP and the constraints of globalizing capitalism. The Debswana workers were fired, with no redress. The Chinese-owned factories shut down operations as soon as their government incentives ran out. In the 1991 strike 10,000 government workers were fired, and the BDP government then incorporated its industrial-class workers into the civil service, which at the time barred strike actions. The BDP’s record on labor issues, and its persistent refusal to sign almost any International Labor Organization protocols, has been identified as a major “blot” on its record by human rights organizations. Trade unionists are optimistic that the revised, although not yet implemented labor laws, which allow unionization of the civil service and explicitly legalize strikes, will strengthen the union movement. But gains have been made more through direct negotiation than through legislation (BFTU 2003), and support for social democratic opposition parties remains problematic.

Despite possible complaints about BDP economic policies, the BDP still receives deserved credit from the people of Botswana for the social development that it has fostered. Whatever criticisms can be made of the BDP elites, they have significantly developed the country in many sectors, providing not only roads and safe water and electrification, but schools and healthcare and a social security net for the poor. No one is accusing them of salting the diamond wealth away in foreign bank accounts while the people starve. And Seretse Khama received international recognition as well as praise in Botswana for his principled international stand against apartheid and his government’s policy of accepting and protecting South African refugees, in the face of economic pressure and murderous South African Defense Force commando raids.

But with the ending of the outside threat posed by the apartheid regime, political space has opened up for greater questioning of government, as the consequences of economic growth accompanied by growing inequality and unemployment are more and more manifest. The Botswana Democratic Party’s failure to make good on promises to diversify the economy and to provide jobs has led to more public criticism of its economic policies and its favoring of the “wealthy,” and opinion pieces and letters appear that criticize neoliberalism and capitalism, and sometimes call for socialist solutions, although they are still relatively rare.

Feminism Aligned with Socialism?

In the run-up to the 1994 national elections, there seemed to be some congruence and sympathy between the campaigns of Emang Basadi and the leading opposition party, the Botswana National Front. Emang Basasi, frustrated with the Botswana Democratic Party’s stonewalling on changing the Citizenship Law after Dow’s successful court challenge to it, had moved into a more oppositional stance toward government, and some EB activists were also active in the Botswana National Front. The BDP did promise to revise the Citizenship Act, to examine other legislation, and to ratify CEDAW. But the BNF went much further. In the 1990s the Botswana National Front was undergoing changes, not for the first time, but now in a new context, including the impending election of the ANC in South Africa. The growth of trade unions and of urbanization, along with increasing dissatisfaction among young people with the educational and job policies of the BDP, had swelled BNF membership and support, and the party formulated a strong social democratic platform critical of the ruling party’s “neoliberalism.” The combination of ANC influence and pressure from militant women in the Youth Section resulted in a strong women’s plank in the 1994 BNF platform, in its section “On the Emancipation of Women”:

BNF is committed to the abolition of all forms of discrimination and inequality based on sex. BNF believes that most Batswana women suffer from various forms of sex discrimination and inequality, and that sex discrimination and inequality are a result of social relations of a male dominated society. (BNF 1994: 10)

The BNF proposed “special projects and programmes” that dealt with women’s access to management and skilled jobs, economic and financial resources, agricultural credit, and maternity leave at full salary. BNF also advocated support for women “to organize themselves under organizations that promote their particular interests as women” -– a significant recognition of the need for the autonomy of women’s organizations, and committed the party to reserve 30% of positions in party structures for women, with the remaining 70% to be contested by women “on an equal basis with men” (BNF 1994: 10).

The Women’s Manifesto called for legal protections –- including the application of international conventions -– for “vulnerable workers,” especially domestic servants, a majority of whom are women, and the many women who work as temporary agricultural workers (EB 1999: 6). The October 1994 election results jolted the ruling BDP: the old parliament had only 3 seats held by the BNF as compared to 32 by the BDP. The new parliament, with 40 elected seats, had 13 BNF seats and only 27 BDP elected seats plus four more “Specially Elected” by the majority party (i.e., appointed by the President, who is himself –- or herself -– determined by the majority party in parliament). The BDP fielded two successful women parliamentary candidates, and added two more as Specially Elected.

The significant gain in seats by the BNF was apparently interpreted both by Emang Basadi and by the BDP as an indication of the potential power of women’s votes, even though the only women elected to parliament were from the BDP, and other analysts have attributed the BNF gain at least in large part to voter disapproval of vociferous and public factionalism in the BDP just prior to the election (Makape 2006: 89-91). In any case, the BDP acted on its gender promises, and continued between 1994 and the next election in 1999 to carry out parts of Emang Basadi’s agenda, earning recognition in the 1999 Women’s Manifesto for having:

- Amended the Citizenship Act in 1995, the Deeds Registry Act in 1997, and the Mines, Quarries, Works and Machinery Act in 1999 and in 1999;

- Adopted the National Policy on Women in Development;

- Developed and adopted a National Gender Programme and Gender Plan of Action;

- Ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW);

- Amended the Penal Code in 1998, defining rape as gender neutral and increasing the minimum sentence to 10 years, and 15 years if accompanied by injurious violence.17

The BDP government also clearly recognized the threat posed directly by the BNF. As the BNF points out in its 1995 Social Democratic Programme preface, the BDP adopted several policies proposed by the BNF in 1994: creation of an independent electoral commission, reduction of the voting age from 21 to 18, social security for the aged, a two-term limit on the presidency, and -– not included in the preface but included in BNF proposals –- extension of voting rights to citizens residing outside the country. The BNF, along with Emang Basadi, claimed credit for the BDP’s actions “to repeal the archaic laws that oppress women” (BNF 1995: Preface). The Social Democratic Programme (SDP) includes gender equality as part of a strong social democratic formulation of social and economic rights as the basis for political rights: “Equality is the pre-requisite to liberty. In an unequal society, the victims of inequality inevitably have less control over their own lives and dignity.” The BNF therefore opposes “an order of things whereby rights, obligations and tasks are allotted according to sex” and “calls for equality between men and women” (BNF 1995: 13). The SDP further calls for well paying and secure jobs for women, equal sharing between men and women of “care of children and the home,” and freedom for women “to participate in political and trade union activities and other national issues.” It commits the BNF to the use of “affirmative action to put women in positions of leadership and responsibility…” (BNF 1995: 15).

Approaching the 1999 elections, both the women’s movement and the BNF seemed to have gained momentum. A weekly Gaborone newspaper editorialized in January 1996:

Women are evolving into a powerful constituency in Botswana. They have always been a potentially strong bloc as they constitute the majority of voters, especially in the countryside. However, in the past women did not vote as a bloc rallying around common issues. With the momentum that women’s civic associations like Emang Basadi have set in motion in conscientising women about their rights, any political party which does not court women in the future will be doing that at its own peril. (Mmegi, January 12-18, 1996: 15)

Emang Basadi emphasized this “peril” and their continuing commitment to bring “gender sensitive” women into political leadership at their 1997 national conference, where participants wore T-shirts proclaiming, "Democracy without a woman in power belongs to the past," and warning, "Dear President, Members of Parliament, Councillors and All Candidates: In 1999 we will vote for those who advocate for women's rights. Are you one of them?" (Mmegi, March 14-20, 1997: 10) Emang Basadi issued a revised Women’s Manifesto, with greater emphasis on poverty and “economic empowerment,” women’s reproductive rights, violence against women, and democracy and human rights. The revised Manifesto retained a strong focus on women’s legal rights but also explicitly challenged men’s power over women and argued that strategies that seek “power sharing between men and women should target all levels of public and private life in order to be successful” (EB 1999: 16). The Manifesto criticized the “basically oppressive” nature of “certain aspects of Setswana culture,” including “the cultural acceptance of men assaulting their wives” (EB 1999: 23, 12). It therefore not only demanded the elimination of the statutory or common law “marital power,” which gave husbands control over their wives’ property and rendered adult married women legal minors; it also demanded that “all customary laws” should recognize “women’s right to full legal capacity” (EB 1999: 23), continuing Emang Basadi’s long and determined struggle to assert women’s equal legal rights against custom and customary law.

The BNF, having taken 13 seats in 1994, identified seven additional seats as “marginal” – districts in which the total combined vote of opposition parties was greater than that for the BDP candidate. The BNF had in fact carried out its commitment to increase women’s representation in party structures. It added a “women’s lobby,” and at the party congress in July 1997, a woman, Motsei Madisa from the University of Botswana, was elected Deputy Secretary General over male opponents, and three other women were elected to hold “shadow portfolios.” This led additional women’s rights advocates to ally with the BNF, forming part of its “left wing.” In 1998 women made up one-third of the party central committee (Dingake 2004: 190).

The BNF continued its long advocacy of the rights of workers into its 1999 campaign, and seemed to be gaining some (unofficial) support from the larger and more militant unions. Still benefiting from the ANC victory in South Africa and, perhaps even more, from increasing frustration among urban youth about unemployment, the BNF seemed poised finally to win a majority of parliamentary seats and take control of government. But irreconcilable factional conflicts over the leadership and direction of the party led to the “battle of Palapye,” a contentious and eventually violent party congress confrontation between opposing factions, salaciously reported in the press. As a result, part of the BNF, led by BNF vice president, Michael Dingake, split away, taking with it Deputy Secretary General Modisa, 12 of 18 members of the central committee, including all the women members, and more than 800 party activists. Dingake, Robben Island veteran and long-time socialist, became the first president of the new Botswana Congress Party, with Modisa as Deputy Secretary General.18

The Botswana Congress Party produced both a Manifesto and a Democratic and Development Programme (DDP), with provisions on gender that address discrimination and subordination "in both public and private spheres”; criticize the use of “family privacy” and the “marital power” to keep women vulnerable to male power and violence, including marital rape; and call for abolishing all laws “modern and customary” that discriminate against women (BCP 1999b: 40-41). The BCP Manifesto includes these issues and extends the calls for equality to “the boy child and the girl child.” It also pledges to “ensure that gender is mainstreamed in all sectors of the economy” by introducing a “gender audit” to monitor mainstreaming (BCP 1999a: 32-33).

Since the group that formed the BCP included 11 of the 13 BNF MPs, the BCP replaced the BNF in 1998 as the official parliamentary opposition. But their triumph was short-lived, as the 1999 elections brought in six BNF MPs but returned only one BCP member, Dumelang Saleshando. Instead of the “Year of the BNF,” 1999 became the “Year of the Woman ,” as it was dubbed by the Botswana Gazette (October 27: 1, 5). Six Botswana Democratic Party women candidates were elected, and BDP President Festus Mogae nominated two women for Specially Appointed parliamentary seats and appointed women to 10 top positions in government and the public service, including head of the National Bank. This increased the number of women MPs to 17% and women to 20% of the Cabinet -– all BDP.19

The “Year of the Woman” further energized and encouraged women activists to continue their electoral strategy and their pressure on government to remove discriminatory laws, particularly the common law-based “marital power” of the husband over the person and property of his wife. Keboitse Machangana of Emang Basadi said of the Citizenship Act victory and its repudiation of “custom” in favor of equal rights, “Since then, there has been no looking back!” (Mmegi, May 30-June 5, 1997) Pressuring government, from outside and through the actions of (BDP) women MPs, produced a notable success in December 2004, when Parliament passed the Abolition of Marital Power Act, which equalizes spouses’ control over joint property and juristic acts, and also removes the definition of a married woman’s domicile as legally that of her husband and equalizes rights regarding the domicile and guardianship of children (Quansah 2006). This was a significant victory after a long campaign, significant not only in terms of the actual statutory changes, which matter directly for all women married under civil law, but symbolically as a statement that men do not “own” their wives. It becomes part of the shifting discourse on domestic violence and provides increased possibilities for changing law and practice on domestic violence. Even though the change only affects civil marriage and not marriage in customary law, it “rolls” the debate further on, bringing into greater contention customary law “marital powers” and the other “customs oppressive to women” targeted in the Women’s Manifesto.

But Emang Basadi’s electoral strategy was seriously called into question by the defeat of many women candidates in 2004 primary elections, resulting in the reduction of women’s representation from 17% in the 1999 parliament to 10% in 2004.20 This was a serious blow to activists’ hopes, in the election supposed to increase women’s representation to 30% to meet SADC member goals. Even if all the women candidates standing in the general election had won, they would still have held only 21% of seats. Emang Basadi and academic analysts tend to locate the problems in both culture and culture-inflected economics: both women and men continue to question female leadership, women candidates have fewer resources to meet campaign costs, and women candidates still must balance their family responsibilities with campaigning.21 They also locate problems directly in the electoral system and the political system: the “first past the post” elections in single-member districts as opposed to proportional representation, and parties’ lack of commitment to fielding women candidates. In SADC gender conferences, women’s NGOs in Botswana have called for gender quotas and proportional representation, but there seems to be little chance of support by the dominant BDP for electoral reforms, since the current system keeps them in power.

Paradoxically, the combination of abolition of the marital power and electoral defeats of women candidates may indicate the success of Emang Basadi’s electoral strategy to support parties and elect candidates that support women’s rights -– just not women candidates. The actions of President Festus Mogae also suggest a response to activists’ campaigns and a willingness to include women in government -– as long as he doesn’t have to risk losing a parliamentary BDP seat by fielding many of them as candidates. Along with appointing women as Specially Elected MPs in both 1999 and 2004 and women as ministers, deputy ministers and to other top government posts in 1999, Mogae appointed Unity Dow as the first female judge of the High Court in 1998 (the very court that ruled in her favor in 1991). In 2003 he appointed Athaliah Molokomme, University of Botswana law lecturer, Emang Basadi’s first president and author of the first women and the law handbook, pamphlets, and many scholarly articles on women’s rights critical of the BDP government, as the second female High Court judge; and in 2005 he appointed her as the first woman Attorney General of Botswana.

Maundeni (2004) characterizes these appointments simply as “cooptation,” and they certainly can be seen as the use of a political tactic well-practiced by the BDP (and many other dominant parties) to neutralize effective political opponents. But High Court Judges and even the Attorney General have legal and political space in which to maneuver, and it is this space of contention that is politically interesting. Dow has commented on the complexity of the transition from political advocacy to judicial “impartiality,” from challenging the government to being in government. She has said that she can still use her position to advance women’s rights, since judges in a common law system are able to interpret laws in the context of evolving human rights standards, such as the provisions of CEDAW, and bring those new standards into judicial discourse. She also pointed out that non-governmental organizations are an important source of cases in which she can further develop human rights law (Dow 1999: 1). She is clearly willing to rule against government, as she did in the recent successful case by the First People of the Kalahari against the government’s policy of removing them from land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.22 Molokomme has also used her position as Attorney General to address women’s rights issues, and NGO advocates have expressed optimism that having a progressive Attorney General will help advance human rights.23

Toward 2009: Feminism, Socialism and the Democratic Project

Moving toward the next national election in 2009, social democratic opposition parties are continuing their cautious and sometimes contentious attempts to form electoral coalitions. Emang Basadi is continuing its attempts to bring a greater “gender sensitivity” to all political parties, to government and to voters, particularly women voters, and to convince parties and voters to accept women as leaders. Emang Basasi recognizes that it has a difficult task in convincing voters, as well as parties, that women can lead. They must confront the Setswana saying that, “Heifers will lead the herd into a ditch,” which is not even an accurate description of cattle behavior, but a male biased imposition of values: heifers in fact do lead groups of cattle, as anyone can observe on roadsides throughout Botswana.24 Human rights groups and researchers/advocates at various institutes and foundations continue to study and urge programs to increase substantive democracy, sharing with Emang Basadi the goal of convincing voters that they can make changes in their lives with their ballots.

BDP factionalism has recently gained force, with a bloc of BDP MPs and other party activists criticizing others for their use of public office for personal gain.

So, what are the chances of a successful opposition coalition? What would Emang Basadi gain from a more class conscious and social democratic perspective? What would the social democratic parties gain from Emang Basadi’s political analysis? What are the likely locations in which feminism and socialism could be brought together?

Much press and scholarly attention has been paid to the factional splits within the Botswana left opposition and to the recurrent charges of “opportunism” by all sides against each other. But the Botswana National Front has engaged in a long campaign to create a unified and successful opposition formation, and in recent elections other opposition parties have also engaged in attempts at forming coalitions and pacts. The Botswana National Front was organized in 1965 in an effort to bring together various small parties and individuals who opposed the Botswana Democratic Party (just elected in the run-up to independence), characterizing it as neo-colonial. Joined in 1969 by a dissident chief, Bathoen II, the BNF has been an uneasy and often fractious alliance of opponents of the BDP, and many small parties have split off from it, some of which remain or have returned to be “part” of the BNF, since membership has been both by individuals on their own and by individuals who are members of aligned groups and who run for election, when they do, under the BNF banner. Many individuals, as well as groups, have moved back and forth between the BNF and the BDP, and many people within the social democratic opposition have moved among parties, much of which can be seen as “normal” attempts to sort out political alliances, strategies and ideological commitments.

Opposition parties have engaged in continuing attempts to form electoral non-competition pacts, so that they can win a majority of parliamentary seats and form a government of national unity. Limited success has so far been achieved, but efforts continue to create pacts for 2009. Joint participation in broad-based political coalitions, such as one organized in March 2007 to urge stronger SADC action on Zimbabwe (Echo, April 5, 2007: 8), also offers “safe” space in which BNF and BCP activists can work together and develop networks and trust. Even a successful pact and the winning of a parliamentary majority would still, of course, give the Botswana Democratic Party the opportunity to attempt to hive off enough individual MPs or a small party and form its own “national unity” government. But in the absence of an actual merger of the BNF and BCP, the national unity strategy seems the only possibility for introducing “popular democracy” into Botswana governance (Saul 1997).

The BNF and BDP have similar criticisms of BDP corruption and incompetence at diversifying the economy, and of its favoring the wealthy and ignoring the poor, and they advocate gender policies that differ more in degree of detail than in basic concept. There remain ideological distinctions between the two parties that are clear in left political terms, perhaps best indicated by the alliance of the BNF with the Socialist International since 1986, and the alliance of the BCP specifically with New Labour and its support from New Labour’s Westminster Foundation. But both define themselves as social democratic parties. Both clearly state their opposition to “the free rein of capitalism” and their commitment to state intervention in the economy, support of parastatals and cooperatives, and restructuring of the rural economy. They both seriously attack economic inequality and promote extensive social provision. Parties with less agreement have formed workable coalition governments.

What Emang Basadi could gain from a “left” infusion into its analysis of women’s problems and proposals for their solution is, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of the ways in which capitalist “development” in Botswana generates many of the problems they want to solve. In their Political Education Project handbook and in much of the Manifesto, women’s poverty is identified as a crucial problem. But the proposals to reduce women’s poverty are primarily proposals for incorporating women into existing patterns of “development” rather than questioning the patterns of capitalist “development” itself, an approach extensively criticized by left feminists since it was introduced in 1970.25

There are serious problems in focusing only on demands for “gender equality” in an economy with such great inequality among men. Certainly Emang Basadi is not purposely proposing “equal poverty” between poor women and men and “equal wealth” between rich women and men, but without a perspective critical of capitalist “development,” many of its proposals could work out that way. The BNF provides a more comprehensive political analysis of inequality, combining critiques of inequality between women and men, between classes, and between ethnic groups, in the context of capitalist-generated economic inequality. (BNF 1995)

The BNF and BCP and other left parties have incorporated “gender issues” into their platforms, responding to the Women’s Manifesto and the continuing work that Emang Basadi has done with women activists in political parties. Even though the BNF was unwilling to participate in the Inter-Party Caucus organized by Emang Basadi in 1996 because of the dominance of BDP parliamentarians (4 to 0) and BDP councillors (55 to 10, plus 4 from other parties), BNF women and, after 1998, BCP women have been part of Emang Basadi’s conferences, workshops and seminars, and, through women’s wings, both party policies and party structures have been affected.

But there still needs to be more “gender consciousness” in the formulation of party positions and integration of gender issues throughout all sections of party programs. Both the BNF and the BCP have moved seriously toward recognizing that male power over women, rooted in culture, must be addressed in order to create gender equality. The BNF refers to the “social relations of a male-dominated society” and urges the abolition of discriminatory laws “in whatever guise”; the BCP proposes the abolition of “all laws modern and customary that discriminate against women in our society” (BNF 1994: 10; BCP 1999b: 41). Both specify that policies on gender must deal with both the private and public realms, and strongly oppose male violence against women; and their support for abolishing discriminatory laws –- especially customary as well as statutory law -– includes abolition of the marital power. But both could benefit from adopting Emang Basadi’s clear positing -– expressed in the Citizenship Case and the Women’s Manifesto -– of women’s rights as opposed to “culture” and customary law.

In other sections of their programs, the social democratic parties -– understandably in the current context of political claims by “minority” ethnic groups -– express support for “cultural rights,” but such “cultural rights” claims may conflict with women’s rights. The BNF’s statement is the most cautious, supporting the right of “each linguistic and cultural entity… to preserve the best of its cultural heritage” (BNF 1995: 6). The BCP makes the stronger statement that they will guarantee “all people the right to practice their culture, language, beliefs and customs…” (BCP 1999: 34; 2004: 23). The problem with this language is one raised by feminist critics of multiculturalism: if “cultures” are said to have rights, who in the “culture” decides what customs are to be followed? Even if it’s the right to “the best” of a cultural heritage, who decides what’s “the best”? The answer is too often those who already have power in the “culture,” and that means men, often senior men. If the social democratic parties are going to oppose customary law that discriminates against women, some serious rethinking of the relationship between “culture” and individual rights is needed.

At the moment such thinking is most likely to take place among women in the social democratic parties, in women’s wings and youth wings. With their combined connections with Emang Basadi and their parties, they are at the nexus of feminism and socialism. During the U.S. debates about the meaning of “socialist feminism,” Barbara Ehrenreich remarked that a socialist feminist is someone who goes to twice as many meetings. That seems to be a commonality of socialist feminism that crosses international boundaries. Whatever effective action Emang Basadi engages in to carry its ideas into the opposition parties will strengthen the women in those parties in their struggle to push a socialist feminist perspective more thoroughly into the formulation of social democratic party programs, and social democratic women more effectively into the leadership and electoral slates of their parties.

A social democratic infusion of ideas would strengthen Emang Basadi’s analyses and proposals, but its political autonomy -– from all parties –- is crucial for its political effectiveness. As a liberal feminist force, EB is central to the democratic project –- the “struggle to redefine the content, form and practice of democracy and political life” (Selolwane 1998: 409). Emang Basadi and allied women’s NGOs are not, after all, a party -– they are a women’s movement. EB isn’t trying to take power, but to influence the powerful.

To promote the continued possibilities of party contestation for power on which its electoral strategy depends, Emang Basadi needs to maintain connections with women in social democratic opposition parties, and to do that, it must retain its autonomy from, as well as its connections with, the Botswana Democracy Party. But in a future social democratic government of national unity, Emang Basadi’s autonomy would also be crucial, as feminists inside “progressive” and socialist governments and parties in many countries have learned.26 Today in South Africa with its much praised Constitutional gender rights, its gender machinery and its high women’s representation levels, ANC feminists still find it difficult without the existence of an autonomous women’s movement to confront the refusal of the left -– the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party -– to take gender as seriously as class.27 Important as it is for feminists within socialist or social democratic parties to contest party programs and work to make them genuinely feminist, trust in your comrades is not enough: you need that autonomous women’s movement at your back.


1. This article is based on participant-observation research in Botswana, starting with two years residence in 1987 and 1988, and on several return visits, most recently April-May 2007, as well as on documents and newspapers. Many people over the years have helped me understand Botswana. For research on this article, I want to thank Imelda Molokomme, president of Emang Basadi; Ida Mokereitane, EB executive director; Mohammed I. Khan, secretary general of the Botswana National Front; Taolo Lucas, secretary general of the Botswana Congress Party; Dr. Motsumi Ndula Marobela of the University of Botswana, and, for their hospitality as well as insights, Dr. Leloba Molema, Dr. Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo and Dr. Maude Dikobe, all of UB. As ever, none of them is responsible for my errors or conclusions.

2. Van Allen 1976, 2000. For indigenous women’s political spheres and mobilization, see also Okongo 1976; Ritzenthaler 1960; Wipper 1982. Such formations are rare in Southern Africa.

3. UNDP 2005: 305; Bauer & Britton 2006; UNRISD 2006.

4. With variations in emphasis and reservations on some issues, such praise can be found in a range of scholarly works whose titles or subtitles include the word “development”  (Vengroff 1977; Hartland-Thunberg 1978; Picard 1985, 1987; Harvey & Lewis 1990; Stedman 1993; Dale 1995; Samatar 1999).

5. Figures vary. The 2003 UNDP Human Development Report sets Botswana’s poverty inequality index at 43.6 (close to that of the U.S. index of 45.6), reporting that 23.5% of the population has an income of less than $1 per day, and 50.1% less than $2 per day. UNDP HDR 2006 gives the adjusted GDP (Purchasing Power Parity – PPP) as $9945. Women earn about 60% of men’s salaries (UNDP Gender Empowerment Measure 2005: 305). Greater skepticism about Botswana’s future can be found in works on the country’s “political economy,” some more explicitly Marxist than others, which acknowledge the great successes in economic growth, effective bureaucracy and formal liberal democracy, but see severe contradictions and sources for future conflicts located in class polarization and increasing poverty alongside growing wealth (Parsons 1977; Colclough & McCarthy 1980; Oomen, Inganji & Ngcongco 1983; Parson 1984; Tsie 1995; Gulbrandsen 1996; Botswana Society 1997; Hope 1997).

6. International aid for HIV/AIDS is available but does not cover the costs of Botswana’s aggressive program of education, testing, care and treatment, including the provision of free anti-retrovirals.

7. ’Laughlin 1998, describes Botswana as a “revealing though not representative” case of the continuing social dislocations resulting from a long history of migrant male mine labor; Van Allen 2000 argues for an emphasis on the contradictory impact of capitalism on women, in this case, in Botswana.

8. Schapera 1947, 1966; Botswana CSO 1997, 1998; UNICEF 1992. Girls were required to drop out of school if they fell pregnant and return only to a different secondary school, which resulted in many girls not returning to school, until Emang Basadi pressured government to change the rules, now allowing girls to return to the same school after childbirth and allowing those in their final year to sit for examinations. However, pregnancy still reduces the proportion of female secondary school enrollment. The fathers of the children, many of them older men, are not punished (Emang Basadi 1999; UNICEF 1992).

9. Peters 1994; Solway 1994; Botswana Society 1997.

10. Botswana 1991, 1996, 1998; Lewycky & Nthomang 2000.

11. For a more detailed analysis of female class formation in Botswana and its current effects on women’s integration into salaried and waged work, see Van Allen 2000.

12. On the base "-tswana" are built Bo/tswana, the nation; Ba/tswana, the people; Mo/tswana, an individual of the Batswana or a citizen of Botswana; Se/tswana, the language or culture; and a long list of government programs, parastatals and private corporations, the largest of which is the gold-mining parastatal, "Debswana," from "DeBeers" and "(t)swana." A mosadi is a woman; basadi, women. For clarity I will use "Tswana" to refer to the original polities and the dominant ethnic group, but generally "people of Botswana" to refer to citizens today.

13. “Mma” is used as a polite title, combined with a woman’s surname, as in “Mma Ramotswe,” the protagonist in Alexander McCall Smith’s popular series about the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.” But it is also commonly used in combination with the name of a woman’s child’s, e.g., Vice President Ian Khama’a mother could have been called “MmaIan” in place of “Ruth.”

14. Similar laws exist in many African countries. Dow (1995: 70) lists Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia in Southern Africa, as well as Uganda, Mauritius, and Gambia. Similar laws in Zimbabwe are criticized in Women Voters Association of Zimbabwe (1995: 145).

15. “Bomme” is used to refer to two or more women who are not present to the speaker, and “Mme” to refer to one, as “Bomma” (Bo/mma) is used to address two or more women, and “Mma” to address one. “Basadi” is used to mean both “women” and “wives”; singular Mo/sadi. Choice of words depends on context. Emang Basadi takes its name from the national anthem, which adjures men to stand up, and women/wives to stand up beside their men – EB pointedly left off the “beside your men” part. Some educated women now use “Ms.,” also pointedly.

16. The non-racial aspect of the BDP also reflected Khama’s own position on non-racialism, shown in his marriage to a white Englishwoman, Ruth Williams, and in his outspoken opposition to apartheid. The acceptance of their son, Ian Khama, by both the Bangwato as heir to leadership and the people of Botswana as their Vice President (and presumed President-to-be) is an indication of the success of Khama’s vision of non-racialism. The South African and initial British fierce opposition to the marriage is detailed in Dutfield 1990.

17. Emang Basadi 1999: iv-v. The 1999 Manifesto praises the law’s provisions of no bail for suspects charged with rape, and sentences of 10 years’ minimum, and of 15 years to life, with or without caning, if violence results in injury to the victim. This put Emang Basadi in alliance with the BDP against human rights and civil liberties advocates; the Botswana Constitution prohibits “torture” and “inhuman or degrading punishment” but specifically exempts punishments that existed at the time the Constitution came into force, namely, caning. Constitution Chapter II (7).

18. Dingake 2004; Mmegi, April-June 1998.

19. Appointments included Ministers of Local Government and of Health and assistant ministers of Local Government and of the Office of the President. One woman has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and later as Minister of Education; one as deputy secretary of Foreign Affairs and later as assistant minister of Local Government, Lands and Housing. The number of women in Parliament increased from four to eight, but because Parliament was expanded, the percentage went only from 10% to 17%.

20. The reduction of women directly elected, as opposed to appointed or “Specially Elected,” was even greater, from six in 1999 to three in 2004, thus increasing the dependence of advocates of women’s representation on the President.

21. Selolwane 1998; Emang Basadi 1998, 1999; I. Molokomme 2007.

22. Dow’s views on women’s and human rights and social transformation through political engagement are clear in her novels, starting with Far and Beyon’ in 2000.

23. Molokomme addressed “passion killings” (of women by male partners) as resulting from men’s inability to deal with women’s greater rights (Mmegi, February 9, 2006); optimism expressed in personal communications, April 2007, by Duma Boko (FPK lawyer), Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo (leader in Kamanakao, a “minority tribe” cultural association and advocacy organization).

24. I thank Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo for pointing my attention through a car-window to heifers leading herds alongside the road. Culture and custom block women’s movement into political leadership, but the historical impact of Botswana’s political economy has enabled women to move forward into leadership in the private business sector, advancing Botswana ahead of many Western countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, with women as 31% of senior corporate management (Mmegi, April 17, 2007).

25. Pala 1977; Elson & Pearson 1984; Beneria & Sen 1992.

26. Seidman 1984; Molyneux 1986; Urdang 1995.

27. Seidman 1993, 1999; Hassim 2006; Motsei 2007.


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