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Statements Special Procedures

Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, on the conclusion of his official visit to Botswana, 13-24 August 2018

23 August 2018

Gaborone, 24 August 2018

Good afternoon and thank you for coming.

I would like to thank the Government of Botswana for the invitation extended to me to undertake a visit to the country from 13-24 August 2018.

The objective of my visit was to identify, in a spirit of cooperation and constructive dialogue, good practices in, and possible obstacles to, the promotion and protection of consultations on the human rights situation of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in Botswana in conformity with my mandate as Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.

I would first like to sincerely thank the Government of Botswana for extending an invitation to me and for the cooperation of the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation for the purposes of my visit. I thank them for their time and for the valuable information they provided.

The overall aim of the visit was to take a closer look at existing legislation policies and practices for the protection and promotion of the rights of persons belonging to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. I wanted to explore aspects pertaining to various minorities including access to quality education, use of minority languages, access to health and other public services, land ownership and resource use, participation of minorities in the political process, and the existing efforts to fight hate speech. I also wanted to get a better sense of the normative framework regulating human rights in general, and particularly those of minorities including latest amendments to relevant legislation, acts and other mechanisms that have been established in that regard. As I often explained in my meetings in exchanges during this period, minorities must be understood in relation to my mandate refers only to a numerical category as to whether a linguistic, religious or ethnic group are less than half the population in the country. It has no negative connotation, does not depend on official recognition, and does not involve any issue of domination, subservience or socio-economic status.

During my ten-day visit I attempted to meet with the widest spectrum of stakeholders at the governmental level, both national and local, NGOs, institutions working on various aspects affecting minorities and importantly minority communities themselves and their representatives, especially in different regions of the country. I have specifically met with high-level representatives of a number of ministries and other governmental entities including the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, the Commissioner of Police, the Ministry of Defense, Justice and Security, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, the Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, Ministry of Health and Wellness, the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Statistic Botswana, the Ministry of Nationality Immigration and Gender Affairs, the Attorney General, the Ministry of Basic Education, the Chief Justice’s Office, the Ministry of Employment, the Labour Production and Skills Development, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the Government Implementation Coordination Office, as well as the UN Country Team.

In terms of minority communities, I have met with NGOs working for, or representatives of, the Baheroro, Basarwa (including San and Naro), Kalanga, Ovambanderu, Subiya, and Wayeyi communities, amongst others, in and around the localities of Gabarone, Francistown, Letlhakane, Maun, Ghanzi, Kasane, and Kavimba. As part of my mandate, I also consider the Deaf and hard of hearing community who use Sign Language as members of a linguistic minority and have met with their representatives accordingly. I also talked to community leaders, human rights defenders, women, youth and community workers.

I am grateful to the Government for the collaboration before and during the visit. To everyone who met with me, I want to express my gratitude for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue to better understand and assess the human rights situation of minorities in this beautiful country. I also wish to express my gratitude to the UN Country Team for their support and assistance.

Positive steps and developments

Botswana has made considerable progress since independence in 1966, and it must be congratulated for its efforts and achievements.

I wish to acknowledge the efforts and commitment of the Government of Botswana to provide all citizens with access to development programmes and especially to address the economic  disadvantages  faced  by remote-area populations and marginalised groups such as the Basarwa who are often persons who belong to minorities, including a five-year informal plan of affirmative action with regard to recruitment of persons belonging to minorities in the army, police and prison system.

One important policy initiative directly impacting on many minorities concentrated in the peripherical districts of the country to alleviate poverty and promote development is the Remote Area Development Programme. Revisions to this programme have come to accept “a  community-led  development  approach  which  aims  to  promote  participatory  processes  and  community  participation  in  issues  affecting  their  own  development”, and the need for affirmative  measures   for the benefit of communities, including inter alia minority communities, that have faced “intractable  disadvantages,  either  for  logistical  reasons,  or  because  of  long  standing  historical  prejudice  and  subjugation  by  the  dominant  groups”. These measures cover matters such as improved access to education, health, employment and economic development opportunities.

Its efforts in the area of education for example have resulted with an enviable adult literacy rate in the continent of 88.5% in 2015 according to UNESCO, and this seems to be increasing. Various initiatives in education are in place to make education as accessible as possible to all, include remote-area dwellers who are often minorities. Religious minorities do not seem to face any major obstacles or discrimination, and it is noteworthy that hate speech or incitement targeting them or other minorities appear to be practically non-existent. 

It is also a stable democracy which stands out as the least corrupt country in Africa in 2017, and with one of the world’s fastest growing economies with an average of about 5% per annum over the past decade. Of course, not everything is rosy, in that the economy relies heavily on mining, unemployment and under-employment are still serious challenges, as is the very high rate of HIV/AIDS infection. In addition, despite its relatively high GDP per capita and being considered an upper-middle-income country, it has also serious poverty issues in various regions.

On the human rights front, the Government’s Vision 2036: Achieving Prosperity for All aims at building a united and proud nation based on the five national principles of democracy, development, self-reliance, unity and botho. I will also pleased to see in Vision 2036 a statement that all ethnic groups will have equal recognition and representation at Ntlo ya Dikgosi.

In a section dealing with what is described as the fourth pillar involving the constitution and human rights, it aims for Botswana “being among the top countries protecting human rights”. In another it refers to the recognition of the cultural heritage and identity that Botswana must maintain and promote in order to achieve an inclusive and equal opportunity nation, as well as to enable all its communities to “freely live, practice and celebrate their diverse cultures”, including their languages. I also noted that in 2012, at the Universal Periodic Review, the Government indicated appreciating the importance of using mother tongues for education and indicated that it would explore strategies for this purpose, including by introducing teacher aides at the primary school level. It has also been brought to my attention that the Government of Botswana is in the process of soon ratifying, in all likelihood, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In addition, there are currently discussions within the Government to strengthen the human rights mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman to include a human rights mandate, and for it to incorporate the activities of a possible national human rights institute. These, and other initiatives to improve access to justice, health care, water and other public services to all, particularly in more remote regions where minorities are concentrated, must be commended.

Despite these and other positive measures and developments, the good policies and intentions that I have often heard during my discussions around the country are however not always translated into practice and implementation.

There remain issues of concern that Botswana must tackle in a more comprehensive manner as a matter of priority in order to effectively respect and protect the human rights of minorities and its international obligations. Vision 2036’s desiderata of “communities freely living, practicing and celebrating their diverse cultures”, including their languages, does not seem consistent with the refusal to allow the licensing of community radios which could broadcast in minority languages or the prohibition of the teaching of a minority language in a private school. This is of course of a general observation, and in some areas such as Ghanzi, I sensed that the local administration acknowledged more the importance of local languages and trying to respond to the needs of local minority communities by acknowledging their different languages and cultures.

More comprehensive human rights architecture

I welcome the Government’s commitment in Vision 2036 to make Botswana among the top countries protecting human rights. This will require steps towards a more comprehensive human rights framework, including a review to the Constitution of Botswana so that generally it becomes more aligned with those enshrined in the core international human rights treaties, including that the prohibited grounds of discrimination be increased to better mirror the country’s international commitments. In addition, while Chapter 2 of the Constitution and some legislation cover a number of human rights obligations, Botswana as a whole does not have a bill of rights or a comprehensive human rights legislative framework. There are therefore gaps, uncertainties and even contradictions in the protection and promotion of human rights in general that could best be addressed through a dedicated Bill of Rights. Vulnerable or marginalized individuals and communities, including at times minorities, are those most likely to be affected by the absence of a more comprehensive approach to human rights. I would also urge the Government to ensure that the future human rights mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman comply with the Paris Principles and continue its positive engagement and efforts in this regard, including through technical assistance by the UN and consultations with national human rights institutions from other countries.

Education and minorities

Botswana has made great strides to increase access to education and the quality of its education system, including for minority children and others living in remote areas. Data shows however that failure and dropout rates are still significantly higher among these children.

It became clear to me during this mission that minorities living in remote areas face significant difficulties in accessing education. The system of hostel accommodation put in place by the Government to bring children from these communities to live alone in areas closer to schools may initially seem a positive initiative to ensure that no child falls outside of the educational system, but it appears in practice to have negative consequences on the lives of many of these children. In practice, they can be far away from their families who may not have the means to visit them during most of the school year, may come under the care of someone they are unable to communicate with in their own language, does not always have access to the supplies that are supposed to be provided, and books may not always be available. I have been told of hostels that are unsafe, sometimes lacking in access to water or without electricity. These are hostels with children as young as 6 years old, at times thrown into an alien world, away and feeling abandoned by their own mothers and fathers. It is therefore no wonder that too many become despondent and run away or do very poorly, despite the stories of some who eventually benefit and go on to secondary studies, and even tertiary. Minorities appear to be disproportionally found among those who are sent to hostels in different regions of the country.

This practice of what amounts to institutionalizing in hostels of remote area children, and particularly the Basarwa, should be reviewed and alternative approaches studied so as to minimize the separation of very young children away from their parents, at least at the primary levels, and the devastating effects this can have. Increasing the number of two-teacher classrooms, reducing the period away from homes, the use of radio or other forms of remote teaching should be considered in a national strategy to ensure equal, quality access to education for all – including minority children.

Evidence from UNESCO and from research around the world demonstrate the quality and value of education increases when the mother tongue of children is used as medium of instruction at least in the initial six years of learning when this is practical. Children who first learn in their own language acquire more easily and faster literacy and numeracy skills that will permit them more easily to learn additional languages. They achieve better school results in school stay in school longer, and are less likely to drop out of school early. Minority children develop also a stronger self-esteem, as their language and culture are valued in the classroom, at the same time allowing their parents to also be able to contribute to their children’s formative years by being able to understand in their own language when a child is home. If using mother tongue education is not possible, at least teaching minority languages as part of the curriculum is usually considered an appropriate approach. This is also a human rights issue, as the obvious disadvantages for minority children who cannot use their mother tongue may constitute a discriminatory practice when such instruction is practicable and reasonable in the exercise of their right to education.

From the comments made to me when visiting different regions, it is clear that all recognize the benefits of learning English and Setswana in schools. No one opposes the desirability of a unifying language, but one does not exclude the other in the sense that acquiring fluency in an official or national language does not exclude the use of the mother tongue in public – and even private – schools. Research in fact confirms that by starting with the mother tongue, fluency in the official or national language will be more easily mastered. Contrary to widely held views, it is also more cost effective.

Many individuals from minority communities mentioned their hope that their languages would be included and taught in public schools, consistent in fact with the Government’s own statement in the Vision 2036 document.

I was also informed that the Government has initiated a programme through which retired teachers who can speak minority languages are hired as teacher aides for grades 1 to 3 in primary school. However, it has appeared obvious that in practice this has not been implemented in most parts of the country, since there does not seem to be any consistent approach to the use of these teachers aids for communicating with students in their own languages.

Additionally, I have been made aware that in the past in some areas of the country there were public schools teaching in minority languages during the first 3 grades of primary school. The example provided was that of the Kalanga minority and the schools in the North-East and Central district, which until 1972 were using Kalanga language as a medium of instruction. But in 1972, a Presidential Decree reversed this practice by replacing minority languages with Tswana language.

Even in private schools, the medium of instruction is only Tswana and English. In 2017, the John McKenzie private school’s proposal to introduce a pilot literacy project in the Kalanga language, was rejected apparently on the grounds of this being inconsistent with “national unity”. Ironically, I have also been told that a language other than English or Setswana can be offered in the country’s public schools, and that this can be French or even Chinese – but apparently not any of the country’s minority languages.

Finally, in his 2009 mission report, the then Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was assured by the Government of Botswana that it acknowledged “the need to train teachers to de liver mother-tongue education, and that it has now begun working towards the implementation of mother-tongue education programmes”, this commitment by 2018 appears to have been discarded.

I invite the Ministry of Basic Education and Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to review these policies of excluding the teaching of and in minority languages in both public and private schools, as this would appear to be contrary goals under Vision 2036 of the recognition of the cultural heritage and identity that Botswana must maintain and promote in order to achieve an inclusive and equal opportunity nation, as well as to enable all its communities to “freely live, practice and celebrate their diverse cultures”, including their languages. It also is contrary to the Government of Botswana’s own stated agreement in 2012, during the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations, of the importance of using mother tongues for education. Finally, there is the potential of not fully respecting Botswana’s human rights obligations by not allowing minority languages in private schools, and of discriminatory practices in the exercise of the right of education in some situations where only English, Setswana, French or even Chinese are present in public schools where to exclude other languages such as Kalanga or others are unreasonable and unjustified in parts of the country.

Political and Public Participation and the Kgotla System

A central and unique feature of Botswana constitutionally and politically are its chieftaincy system (kgotla) and the position and authority of the Ntlo Ya Dikgosi (House of Chiefs). Both are to a large degree a historical legacy of the British colonial period.

The Ntlo Ya Dikgosi is currently a three-tier system: at the top are the chiefs (kgosi) of the eight areas belonging to the Tswana tribes and the four former Crown lands, five persons appointed by the President, and a maximum of twenty other chiefs selected by regional electoral colleges for five-year terms. The recognized chiefs of the eight Tswana tribes rule over other tribes whose chiefs are not recognized and recommend to government the appointment of sub-chiefs, senior chiefs’ representatives and headmen.

The Bogosi Act, adopted following litigation brought by members of the Waweyi community and the resulting 2001 High Court judgment which found Section 2 of the Chieftainship Act to be discriminatory and unconstitutional, has led to a number of changes, including the formal recognition of the Wayeyi as a tribe in 2016 and of their Chief in 2017. However, the High Court had ordered that for the equal protection and treatment to all tribes under the Act. The current three-tiered arrangement, with a number of tribes unrepresented while the chiefs of the eight Tswana tribes retain a permanent and automatic membership of the Ntlo Ya Dikgosi, while many others are either unrecognized, unrepresented, or need to have their chiefs be elected periodically – if they can – as members of the Ntlo Ya Dikgosi means that some minorities feel excluded, disadvantaged politically, and that they are not able to enjoy the same advantages and benefits as tribes who are automatically represented, including in terms of the recognition and respect for their identity. There therefore remains issues that continue to create tensions in Botswana society, such as the more prominent role, rights and privileges of the chiefs of the eight Tswana tribes which could still be considered discriminatory, as were previously parts of the Chieftainship Act in 1999.

Many tribes remain completely unrecognized under the current legislation, and even those who have been recognized since the adoption of the Bogosi Act are not automatically treated the same as the paramount chiefs of the eight Tswana tribes. Some receive no salary (the chiefs of the eight Tswana tribes do) and in reality may not be able to impose their authority on neighbouring sub-chiefs, thus meaning in practical terms that the recognition is in some cases more practical than real.

While some officials have expressed the view that constitutional amendments and the  Bogosi  Act mean that all tribes are treated equally and have equitable  representation,  this does not appear to be the case as I have just indicated. Other laws also still only recognize Tswana tribes and tribal structures and not those of minority tribes. The Tribal Territories Act of 1968 which deals with tribal land rights in Botswana names tribal territories after the major Tswana tribes only, as well as designates their chiefs as the custodians of these territories.

I have however been informed that further changes are being considered in this area, and the Government of Botswana must be commended for its acknowledgement in the Vision 2036 document that all ethnic groups will have equal recognition and representation at Ntlo ya Dikgosi. It is urged that such changes be done as openly and expeditiously as possible, following national public consultations, so to complete the task set forth in Vision 2036 and to ensure practices that have already been deemed discriminatory by the High Court of Botswana and additionally contrary to the prohibition of discrimination contained in treaties to which Botswana is a party such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Tensions appear also on the claimed predominance of the eight Tswana tribes in nominations in the current kgotla and chieftaincy system, which serves as the custodians of the culture of the people but also importantly address some 80% of criminal and other matters in their communities. The formal, common law system covers only 20% of the country’s criminal and civil legal matters. Records in the matters adjudicated by the kgotla system are not kept, and most kgosi have no legal training for civil or criminal matters being adjudicated. While the kgotla system provides for direct public participation and consultation at the local level, it seems that the adjudication system based on the kgosi may also result in some cases to the dominant tribe imposing its customary law on minority tribes in a tribal territory in civil matters.

There are also gender issues that arise from the kgotla and chieftaincy system, since women in minority communities – as well as the Tswana – do not seem to be often in positions as kgosi. The principle of non-discrimination, which Botswana has accepted, including in ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, suggests that the future review of the whole kgotla and chieftaincy system so that all ethnic groups have equal recognition and representation at Ntlo ya Dikgosi should also as a matter of priority also reflect on how best ensure the rights of political participation of women in a non-discriminatory way.

The requirement that individuals must be fluent in English to be qualified to be elected as a Specially Elected Member of the House of Chiefs or the National Assembly also appears questionable and potentially discriminatory since it has the potential to disproportionally exclude minorities and others who may instead be fluent in Setswana and their own language, and thus set up barriers to their political participation due to language preferences.

Access to Public Health Care and Other Public Services

According to information provided by the Ministry of Health and Wellness, approximately 85% of the total population finds itself in a radius of maximum 15km from a medical center (from as big as a district hospital to the smallest, which is a health post). There are mobile units to reach out to those communities living in remote areas. The Ministry of Health and Wellness also tries to engage with local communities in order to resolve the issue of language, both in the provision of medical services, as well as with regard to the implementation of awareness-raising programmes. All these efforts are to be commended.

To date however, awareness-raising campaigns designed and implemented by the Government of Botswana are only in Tswana and English, and not in minority languages, including Sign Language.

Additionally, it was reported to me during meetings in different regions of the country that minorities often in practice feel left out and denied access to proper public health care. I was told for example in a recognized settlement in Central District that a medical clinic there is supposed to have medical workers on location only once a month – and, even then, this might not always occur “for transportation reasons”. While this can be viewed as one of the challenges the Ministry of Health and Wellness generally, some minority community members felt they were in fact treated in a cavalier way at least partially because they were not Tswana. It was not possible to obtain any way to corroborate whether this occurred often in the case of minority communities or did not occur as frequently in the case of recognized Tswana settlements.

Similar occurrences were signaled to me in relation to access to public services more generally outside of Gaborone, and especially in remote settlements. I often heard minority community members express sentiments of exclusion and discrimination in relation to difficulties or obstacles to access public services because of their non-Tswana identities. It is difficult to establish whether these situations were simply the result of failures in the implementation of service delivery outside of the capital, or a more problematic disregard towards minority communities, or those living in more remote locations. Nevertheless, I urge the Government to continue efforts to improve service delivery and implementation of its health and other public services and to review these in light of apparent persistent patterns that should be tackled as a matter of urgency in order to avoid growing discontent in some parts of the country who feel left out, and especially in regions inhabited by persons who belong to minorities.

Land Ownership, Development and Access to and Use of Resources

Current land laws still largely reflect the colonial land tenure system set up by the British that specifically recognized Tswana interests in land over minority tribes in the country. These laws and the land boards created in 1968 to administer and hold in trust all tribal area lands connected to them are still in place today. 

Tribal land is available for communal use is divided into eight tribal territories named after the dominant Tswana tribes, it has been made clear to me that members of minority tribes perceive they are being discriminated against because they were not receiving the same recognition as the Tswana. 

Some of the frustrations expressed to me seem to be connected to the absence of a clear mechanism for demarking and recognising traditional or historical land use, or to address long-standing grievances. The current system is one where land boards hold tribal land in trust and issue leases on an individual or collective basis. Not everyone is convinced that this system is ethnically neutral. Tswana customary law tends to dominate in these matters, according to some of the individuals who shared information with me on the mission.

Though I was not able to visit members of the Basarwa and Bakgalagadi living in the Central Kalahari Games Reserve or those resettled in Kaudwane and New!Xade, the previous reports of my colleagues, the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, suggest that there is a continuing restrictive – and inaccurate – interpretation of the 2006 High Court decision in Roy Sesana and Others v. The Attorney General by mainly limiting to the applicants in the case and some of their family members to return, while requiring temporary entry permits for others and imposing certain requirements on those wishing to remain after the age of 18. Access issues to water and state services are still contentious, as are prohibitions on traditional hunting, grazing or foraging in the name of wildlife conservation – while at the same time allowing the continuation of mining and tourism activities, one example being the Gem Diamonds/Gope Exploration Company (Pty) Ltd., operating in the reserve.

The above and other matters raise serious human rights concerns for these minorities, and I encourage the government and the affected communities to engage in consultations to attempt to fin win-win solutions rather to continue in a stand-off which may lead to further litigation.

On a more positive note, I got the impression that the government is committed to putting into place many tools for developing community-based initiatives to ensure that local minorities in areas such as Ghanzi, Maun and the Okavango Delta regions participate in the management of local natural and cultural resources.  I noted for example that the 11th National Development Plan 2017-2023, which aims at diversification of sources of economic growth, human resources development, social development, development of sustainable resources, good governance and development of effective policy monitoring and evaluation systems, refers targeting to “vulnerable members of society” and “vulnerable and disadvantaged groups”.

I appreciate the work of civil society in this area and welcome the development of partnerships of civil society, the government and the private sector in taking this forward. I encourage the government to continue and expand its community-based approach and to further develop capacity in the tourism industry, but particularly to namely focus on those minorities who are among the country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

At the same time however, I have heard of minority communities in Kasane, as well as communities enclaved by the Chobe National Park and forest reserves, who feel poorly served in terms of the implementation of policies and programmes which should normally ensure equal access to state services such as education and health so that no one is left behind. Chobe is the country’s only district without a senior secondary school, meaning that some children have to live 300 km away in Nata to attend a school there, or even have to leave their family for most of the year to live in hostels as far away as Francistown or Maun, 500 and even 600 km from home and thus almost completely isolated from their family and home. Minority communities such as the Basubiya have limited access to the lease of very small plots of land, since their traditional lands are considered state land. While damage done to their crops, homes, property, and even to themselves is in theory entitled to some compensation, the amounts involved are often either quite insignificant, and even at times never paid when the budget for compensation has been exhausted. There is even the challenge of inhabitants of Kavimba, Mabele and neighbouring Basubiya villages being locked in after 6.30 or 7.30 pm every evening, the road leading from their communities to Kasane outside the national park where most government and other services are located being closed except for emergency medical evacuation. The above litany again raises the often expressed feeling that non-Tswana minorities are not fairly treated by the apparatus of the state.

While inadequate access to water occur both in urban and rural poor areas, it clearly seems to disproportionally affect settlements where certain nomadic and minority communities live, including in particular San and other Basarwa communities. I was told of some settlements of more than the 250 population, which is the requirement to become a recognised settlement for the provision of basic services was met, but there still was no water connection. I was also informed that even in a major town such as Maun, with a concentration of Wayeyi and other minorities, provision of water in the municipality is not always guaranteed, even for days on end.  People do not always know why the Water Utilities Corporation is sometimes unable to supply water through its pipelines. In more remote settlements where water tanks are to be supplied on a regular basis, it has been indicated to me that the provision of water is not always systematic and that public water tanks can occasionally be empty for four to five consecutive days. I was also informed for example that water in Gaborone is provided by the North-East District where rainfall rates are amongst the highest in the country, and he was made aware of a case in the North-East District, in which localities very close to a water dam were not having access to this water, because there was no infrastructure available to pump and distribute the water to these localities. 

In most of the meetings I have held, the issue of land or resource use, including water, was a recurring theme. At times this is due to frustrations at the complexity of the existing legal framework and procedures to be followed, others the lack of available information, including in the languages of minority communities so as to effectively reach all those concerned, while on other occasions it seems existing policies and programmes are simply not implemented as they were expected or announced. At the very least information campaigns are needed to more fully educate the general public, but particularly minority communities outside Gaborone region who seem to feel left out and suspicious of state actions which are too often assumed to privilege the Tswana.

Information and Communication

The Communications Regulatory Authority Act of 2012 regulates broadcasting services in the country and currently only provides for public service broadcasting and commercial broadcasting. It includes no provision for local community-based broadcasting, despite the many occasions this has been brought to my attention, and the numerous applications which apparently continue to be made. Some of these such as in Francistown emphasise that community radios would provide “a voice for the voiceless”, and a democratising tool that would enable communities, including minorities, to express themselves in terms of their culture and way of life.

In a 2017 publication of my mandate entitled Language Rights of Linguistic Minorities: A Practical Guide for Implementation, it is indicated that governments should serve the needs and interests of the whole population, including minorities, ‘to access the media and impart and receive information, including in their own language’ in line with the ‘principles of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness’. In relation to private sector media, and in accordance with fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, this means minorities must be free to communicate among themselves in private media without obstacles to the use of their own language. Equality and non-discrimination require the media sector to apply the principle of proportionality in ways that are flexible and appropriate, and that any financial or other support provided to private sector media be allocated in a non-discriminatory manner, including in relation to those using minority languages. The role of public sector broadcasting in minority languages is particularly significant in terms of promoting not only tolerance but also acceptance and creating a sense of integration among minorities where their own needs and interests are fairly reflected and communicated.

Unfortunately, it appears that Botswana has a long way to go in applying these human rights principles. Generally speaking, the use of languages other than English or Setswana is not provided for in the information or communication activities in the country. Even HIV/AIDS awareness-raising campaigns use only Tswana and English, although the Government tries to liaise with local organizations for the effective dissemination of the information. In terms of broadcasting on public television, the only exception would seem to be the 30 minutes of interpretation offered in Sign Language out of the 24 hour programme.

While private printed media do exist in Botswana, these only exist, and apparently are only allowed, in English and Setswana. Any prohibition of the use of other languages, and this include minority languages, would be contrary to fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression. It was brought to my attention that though private radio stations do exist, they are all based in Gabarone though they may be retransmitted to other parts of the country. Apparently none are allowed to broadcast any programme in any of the country’s minority languages. Broadcasting licences for locally-based community radios have until now always been rejected, and in some cases this may have been partially motivated by the proposed use of minority languages in some of the proposed programming. It has been explained that community broadcasting might be considered to be divisive along tribal lines and be open to abuse by “subversive elements”. However, these fears appear to be misplaced, as most democracies – including in Africa – allow private radio broadcasting outside of their capitals.

Disaggregated data for better and more effective policies

The current absence of clear demographic information on the situation of minorities and data on matters such as ethnicity, religion or language is frustrating for many, as well as unhelpful for authorities and policy makers who do not have information that may ensure a clearer view of the characteristics of its population to better tailor its polices and practices with the reality on the ground. The Government of Botswana should therefore review its national census approach and, as is the case in many other countries, collect and analyse data disaggregated by ethnicity, religion and language while being sensitive to and respecting privacy concerns.

Botswanan Deaf Minority and Sign Language

The revised Education Policy of 1994 introduced the use of sign language. There are currently 2 primary schools, 2 junior high schools and 1 senior high school that use sign language as medium of instruction.

According to the information received, courts in Botswana offer sign language interpretation, and such a service is also facilitated by the Botswana Association of the Deaf and the Botswana Society for the Deaf. 

The police force includes in its training programmes courses on sign language.

However, many challenges still remain:
-   In 2007 the Ministry of Basic Education had launched a project for the elaboration of Sign Language Dictionary. However, the dictionary is reportedly not adapted to the needs of the persons with hearing impairment in Botswana, and one of the reasons may have been the absence of wide consultations with the community itself.

-   There is a serious lack of qualified and professional interpreters. And some of them, they even appear to not even perform their function with the appropriate professionalism, including by introducing personal views or lacking accuracy during interpretation.

-   It is reported that the Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) often proceeds with the accreditation of sign language interpreters without consultation with those organizations working with the deaf community.

-   At school, most of the teachers are not trained in sign language or in teaching methods adapted to the educational needs of the deaf persons. At the same time, the Government response with the hiring of assistant teachers with training in sign language seems to be insufficient as these assistant teachers do not receive pedagogical and teaching methods training. 

-   The school examinations are in writing, and this poses a significant challenge to deaf persons as they often present writing skills different from those of hearing persons, and therefore running the risk of being graded lower or disqualified due to the fact that the exam evaluators may strictly evaluate syntax and/or grammatical errors and not the content of the examined paper.

-   Problem of early identification of persons with hearing impairment, inter alia, due to the fact that some of these persons can speak. Consequently, they are often identified as persons with hearing impairment at a late stage, which significantly impacts on their school performance due to their initial enrolment in schools that do not provide the appropriate learning environment for them.

-   Absence of interpreters in the health care sector and of outreach and health education programmes in sign language, which affects negatively the effective dissemination of information with regard to health prevention, in particular in country with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

-  Absence of sensitization and awareness raising programmes for parents, medical personnel, law enforcement, teachers and school staff, as well as judges and lawyers. 

-   Absence of TV programmes in sign language. Out of 24 hours programming, it is reported that only 30 minutes are dedicated to programmes with sign language interpretation. Some of the key TV information programmes for deaf persons, in particular those living in rural and remote areas, such as agricultural programmes and awareness programmes on HIV/AIDS do not include sign language interpretation.

-   Sign language is not used during important local level decision-making processes such as the sessions of kgotla.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness has recognized the need to step up efforts to introduce sign language in the health sector.

My visit comes to an end today. I however look forward to continuing my collaboration with the Government of Botswana, civil society actors and minority organisations and communities, particularly through follow-up to the recommendations I have made above. I stress that today’s observations are preliminary findings only and will be further developed by additional research and consultations with the Government and other relevant stakeholders. My full report and recommendations will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2019.

I once again take this opportunity to thank the Government, United Nations Office in Botswana officials and, in particular, my mandate’s Human Rights Advisor who was with me on this mission, and all of those who took time to meet with me and provided information and assistance.

I thank you for your attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.


Dr. Fernand de Varennes (Canada) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2017. He is tasked by the UN Human Rights Council, to promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, among other things.  Learn more, visit: 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Check the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: