The week before last, this column dealt with the claims of RETENG, communicated through Prof. Saleshando, that 65% of Botswana population is non-Tswana speakers while 17% are Tswana speakers. She sneaked these views while addressing the National Broadcasting Board. These views were not new since Prof Saleshando had previously penned similar sentiments while she was still Prof. Nyati-Ramahobo. In Mmegi of Wednesday 10th May, 2011 she had claimed that 60% of the total population was formed by minority tribes while the Setswana speaking tribes constituted 17.9%. My recent article entitled Saleshando’s claims on the language question are offensive and dangerous elicited a passionate defence of Prof Saleshando from another RETENG activist, Mr. David Mabuta, who accuses me of a number of things. He accuses me of arguing “that the status quo is perfect”, that I am in “defence of a system that does not advance human rights and social justice” and characterised me as “conservative and hegemonic”. His accusations are without merit since I have never argued in any of my column or academic articles that “the status quo is perfect” or have I ever defended any system. I am a lexicographer and linguist and much of my research has been on the promotion and development of the Setswana language and corpus and statistical approaches to language analysis. My passionate work developing the Setswana spellchecker for OpenOffice, the Translation of Google Search into Setswana and work on the ACALAN Setswana commission, an arm of the African Union, speak to my commitment to the Setswana language. These and many others sometimes put me on a collision course with the likes of Mabuta who see the development of Setswana language as a threat to the development of minority languages. Some of us don’t see matters in that way. That is why while my speciality is the Setswana language, I have availed much resources and support to people working on the development of minority languages. Sometimes I differ with them on how minority languages could be developed but never on whether they should be developed.
But I wish to start with an article by Chebanne and Ramahobo (2003) entitled Language use and language knowledge in Botswana which dismisses the argument by Mabuta that “there are no valid linguistic statistics available in Botswana”. In that article Dr. Chebanne, arguably Botswana’s finest linguist, and Ramahobo, the very one who now claims 17% speak Setswana, found out from the 2001 census that the following languages were spoken at home by the following percentages: Setswana 78.2%, Ikalanga 7.9, Shekgalagari 2.8, English 2.2, Sesarwa 1.9, Mbukushu 1.7, Others (foreign) 1.2, Herero 0.7, Sebirwa 0.7, Shona 0.7, Ndebele 0.5, Afrikaans 0.4, Setswapong 0.3, Subiya 0.4, Shiyeyi 0.3, Sekgothu 0.04. This is linguistic statistics, Mr. Mabuta if you need it. What we do not have is ethnic data or tribal data, that is, how many people are Baherero, Bangwaketse, Bakwena, Bakgalagadi, Bakalaka etc. But we do have linguistic statistics. The two researchers also found out that while Setswana, Sesarwa and English have a national spread, other languages only have a regional presence. Such distribution is as follows: Setswana (national); Kalanga (C & NE); Shekhalagari (Kgalagadi S & N), English (national), Sesarwa (national), Mbukushu (Ngami W & E), Sebirwa (Bobonong), Shona (urban), Herero (NW & Central), Ndebele (NE & FT), Afrikaans (Kgalagadi S), Subiya (Chobe), Setswapong (Palapye), Shiyeyi (NW). There is more from the study. The research shows that in different districts, Setswana was spoken by the following percentages: Southern 96.7%, Kweneng 88.5%, Kgatleng 97.7%, South-East 92.1%, Central 79.3%, North-East 37.3%, North-West 58.6%, Ghanzi 19.5%, Kgalagadi 52.7%, Gaborone 79.3%, Francistown 60.8%, Lobatse 91.5%, S/Phikwe 82.9%, Orapa 79.2%, Jwaneng 88.8% and Sowa Town 70.8%. With the exception of the North East/West and Ghanzi/Kgalagadi areas Setswana is spoken by over 70% to 97.7% across the country. The 17% claim preached by RETENG is very misleading. Mabuta observes that “the validity of the statistics presented by Saleshando is open to question”. That is an understatement. The statistic is simply false and misleading since she has herself, as I have shown above, observed that 78.2% of the population speaks Setswana at home. It is the presentation of these statistics to Mabuta which earns me the unenviable label of “conservative and hegemonic”. This doesn’t mean that the statistics cannot be improved. The greatest weakness is that the information doesn’t reveal the multilingualism of the country at an individual level. I have argued before in this column that: “What the census doesn’t capture however are the other languages that are used at home. For instance, we may be using predominantly Kalanga at home but also using Setswana or English at different times in the house. Many families in Botswana are multilingual and it would have been informative to capture this multilingualism by asking the question: “Apart from the language that you commonly use at home, which other language(s) do you speak at home?”
RETENG seems to conflate language issues with ethnic ones. Such matters may be related, but they are not identical. Mabuta oversimplifies a rather complex matter of ethnicity. In his accusation against me, the RETENG man claims that I “hide behind the smoke-screen of tribal complexity by implying that the nation does not know what a tribe is.” He misrepresents my views. How can people not know what tribes are? My argument was that “the subject of tribal identity is much more of a social construct. It is just as difficult to pin down as is the question of whether one is a woman or a lady.” I demonstrated this complexity by posing the following questions: “If a Mongwaketse woman marries a Moherero man, does she become Herero as well or she stays Mongwaketse? Well it depends on who you ask. What about if a Mongwaketse man marries a Kalanga woman and they settle in Francistown; are the children Bangwaketse or Kalanga? Who is to say, especially if the children speak Kalanga and not Sengwaketse? What about the children of a Mongwato father who has not paid bogadi for their Mohurutshe mother? Can these children take the tribal identity of their father?” These are difficult matters which overwhelm the RETENG man and he elects to dismiss them tersely. It is sometimes difficult to follow the RETENG man’s thesis. Towards the end of his article he observes that “My interpretation of Professor Saleshando’s statements is that she made an urgent call for the nation to introspect and progress on the tribal and language question of Botswana.” If true, that’s a very awkward way of asking people to introspect on the tribal and language question of Botswana by making a false claim that 17% of Botswana’s population speaks Setswana when you know it isn’t true.
I believe that all Botswana’s languages need to be developed, especially that many have suffered much neglect. How such development will be, it is not clear. Contrary to the empty accusations of the RETENG man, I have argued on this column before for the teaching of minority languages in schools; others have argued elsewhere that teaching should be in those languages. I have argued also on this column that we should have news on television and radio in these languages. But the RETENG man wishes to ignore these calls of mine because he only sees me through tribal lenses and would very much wish to sustain a lie that Setswana speakers constitute 17% of the Botswana population. That’s shameful.