At a time when the government of Botswana has rejected a movement to repeal the legal protection of LGBTQ people of that country; Alice Mogwe, a Botswana activist and lawyer, has just been awarded the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Human Rights Award 2021, for her ongoing Human Rights activities, which include her active involvement in the Anglican Communion’s Indaba – a process of engaging in political and spiritual conversation on topics which might, hitherto, have been found too difficult to address.
Here is the record of Alice’s Speech at the Award Ceremony:
What I learnt Along the Way
Posted On – Author Admin – (Anglican Peace and Justice Network)
Speech of acceptance of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Human Rights Award 2021. 1 December 2021. Gaborone, Botswana.
Alice Mogwe is a Botswana activist and lawyer. She is the founder and director of the human rights organization Ditshwanelo. She is currently the President of the International Federation for Human Rights. She played a vital role in the Anglican Communion Continuing Indaba Project.
Mogwe’s work focuses on protecting political freedoms, abolishing the death penalty, and ensuring rights for minorities, women, children, LGBTQ people, domestic workers, and refugees and other migrants.
Personal understanding of Human Rights – Dignity, Inclusive Equality and Justice
I began my journey with human rights many years ago; long before I knew that they were known by that name. I was conscious of my place in my family and in my community. I was conscious of what was appropriate behaviour and what was not. I learnt the importance of greeting others – whether or not I knew them or would ever see them again. I later learnt that it was an important way of reaffirming that I was a part of my community and that it was a part of me. I learnt that it was important to respect everyone. I also learnt that there was special respect for those who were older than I. I later learnt that this was to reaffirm life’s journey which they had walked, long before I was born. I also learnt that the nature of my relationship with my community and my community with me had a special name – it was botho.
Botho has been variously described as ‘an attitude’, ‘a way of life’, ‘a culture’, ‘a value’, and ‘a concept’. It lives in social relationships. It defines and characterises the nature of relationships. It distinguishes between what is appropriate behaviour and what is not. This norm is determined by the community of which one is a member. I am Tswana-Sotho (my father was a Motswana and my mother was a Mosotho) and have absolutely no doubt that botho is the basis of the recognition that all human beings are people and are worthy of being treated with respect. All human beings should be able to live their lives in and with dignity and to be treated accordingly. I also learnt that we had collective responsibility to and for others.
In the 1980s, I lived in a Botswana which was surrounded by peoples engaged in liberation struggles. Liberation from colonial rule and apartheid in Mozambique, Angola, South-West Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa. Botswana hosted refugees. I learnt that Botswana was ‘the island of peace’ in the midst of a region in struggle. I also learnt that as a result, we were vulnerable to attacks which were justified by those resisting liberation. There were supposed exercises ‘in hot pursuit of terrorists who were being harboured by Botswana’. I learnt that power seemed to give people the right to do as they please, with little regard for ideas such as ‘independent states’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘respecting the will of the people’. Powerful states could invade less powerful states in the name of ‘self-defence’. I learnt that bullying happens between states.
I learnt that the racist ideology of apartheid – the epitome of the dehumanisation by one human being of another – was but a tangible, formalised version of the indignities thrust upon human beings by other human beings and that it is alive and well in our contemporary world. The murder of George Floyd in 2020, marked a moment of truth for us all – for some, to learn and for others, to re-recognise – how de-humanising another, makes all atrocities possible. To fail to respect the botho which binds us all (regardless of religion, of gender, of skin colour, of social class, of nationality, of ethnicity, of political persuasion, of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, etc.) – one human being to another – is to ‘other’ the other. ‘Othering’ others enables one human being to commit heinous atrocities against another, as noted, in a 2017 BBC interview, by Ben Ferencz, the youngest Chief Prosecutor of the Nazi Nuremburg Trials after World War II. I understood why, during the difficult days of apartheid in South Africa, (with regular deaths in detention, with the South African army in the townships, with the torture and murders of anti-apartheid activists), Archbishop Desmond Tutu called upon us all ‘to pray for the oppressors’ while engaging in activism – a reminder of our common humanity!
Most recent learnings
I have learnt that what drives me is the need to protect botho which is inherent in all human beings. The human rights framework is a mere tool to do just that. However, sometimes the tool risks becoming the reason for its very existence, regardless of the context within which it is used.
I learnt that ‘cultural relativism’ is a dirty word, often used when non-western norms are used to justify actions of discrimination which offend others, but not when western norms do the same. I also learnt about the concept of the ‘right to offend’. It emerged as justification for the use of ‘cultural satire’ against those from different cultural paradigms, when their fundamental belief systems were lampooned. I learnt that my conceptualisation of a ‘universality of dignity’ as the basis of a ‘universality of rights’ was often not shared by others. I learnt too that there are major differences between the theory and the practice of the ‘universality of rights’. Many a time, the certainty of implementation is shaped by space and time – geography and political history. I have again learnt this through the ‘right to health and COVID-19’. I have also re-learnt this through the recent COP26 on climate change, as powerful countries struggle to take responsibility for the impact of their legacies on less powerful countries, as we collectively and globally face an existential threat. What does and can a ‘right to health’ realistically mean in our world of social and economic inequalities, inequities and discrimination?
My Headmaster at Maru a Pula Secondary School, Deane Yates, repeatedly taught us in the 1970s, that everyone should have a right to education, but that, that was not the reality in our society. He also told us that those of us who had the privilege of access to education, had a responsibility to ‘’give back’’ to our society … and I believed him! I chose to ‘give back’ through working in civil society. Through seeding and nurturing, ideas grew into projects, programmes, independent organisations and solidarity coalitions, such as BONELA (The Botswana Network on Law, HIV and AIDS – 1995); LeGaBiBo (Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals – 1998); the Domestic Workers’ Foundation (2013); and BoLAMA (the Botswana Labour Migrants Association – 2015) – all began life as DITSHWANELO projects, which grew into organisations. I learnt, as many of us Africans do, that ‘if you want to go fast you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together’. Our solidarity coalition action was not only for Botswana (through the Central Kalahari Game Reserve CKGR NGO Coalition) but also for peoples in our region, through the Botswana Civil Society Coalition for Zimbabwe (BOCISCOZ) and most recently through the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) – all of these actions were driven by recognition of our common humanity.
At global level, international promises are made and targets agreed upon. Shared commitments to principles are also publicly proclaimed, such as ‘leave no-one behind’. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested us all – do we actually mean what we say? Are we truly committed to treating everyone equally? As Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alikija of the African Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance stated on 28 November 2021, the latest variant appears to be a result of ‘the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner’ as well as of ‘the hoarding of vaccines by high-income countries’. The politics of it all was sharply displayed in what she described as ‘keeping the unvaccinated Africans out’ through the immediate travel bans which were implemented targeting the southern Africa countries of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. This was later extended to include the entire southern Africa region by countries in other regions, which themselves, began to register cases. Will the travel bans be extended to all countries which register cases, I wondered?
Are we prepared to address the legacies of our varied histories – of racism, of colonialism and other forms of abuse of power and exploitation? That in 2021 we should be applauding the return of a miniscule portion of African property stolen during the colonial era as part of the colonial project marks a teeny-weeny step along a long journey of reckoning, apology and acceptance. This includes the return of the Benin Bronzes to Africa. According to some reports, approximately 90% of Africa’s heritage is not on the continent. We too, need to look into our own societies to address not-yet-atoned-for acts of injustice towards one another. That in 2021 we should be debating whether respecting intellectual property rules and unequal power relations is more important than ensuring justice and the saving of lives, is deeply disturbing. Where is the botho in this scenario?
I have learnt that those with power (political, military and ‘money power’) can exercise it without regard to the botho of others. I have learnt that this self-centred exercise of power can happen in the family, in community, nationally, regionally and globally. The inequitable access to vaccines marked yet another moment of truth for me. COVID-19 landed on the uneven grounds of socio-economic and cultural stability: some were standing on terra firma, others not. Its ability to wreak havoc on families and communities began to level the ground through high rates of hospitalization and death, until what many call vaccine nationalism (when countries hoarded vaccines) and vaccine apartheid (the concentration of vaccines in wealthy countries) reared their ugly heads – distinguishing yet again, the powerful from the less-powerful, those with access from those without. Gone were the platitudes of ‘allocation on the basis of need’ and ‘no one is safe unless everyone is safe’  and ‘leave no-one behind’ while we were already talking about ‘building back better’. Producing vaccines for Africa in Africa is emerging as the way to go as South Africa, Rwanda and Senegal work on this approach. ‘Each to their own’ appears to be the way to long term solutions – with less regard for notions of common humanity and global social justice.
So, what about rights? What about our role as civil society? What are we doing about the unacceptable gap between the rich and the poor? How do we attain inclusive social justice?
What we all have in common is the desire to live and be treated with dignity – to have access to political, social and economic opportunities. This is a universal truth. It forms the basis of the human rights paradigm – regardless of where you live, how you look, what you say or which religion you follow. In our contemporary global world our focus is increasingly on how different we are: where you live has determined the extent to which you experience the ravages of climate change; how you look determines your social acceptability; what you say may make you a ‘foreign agent and a danger to the safety, stability and reputation of your country’; and which religion you follow determines whether or not you are considered to be a terrorist. The universality of human rights speaks to a universal commitment to ensuring that the dignity of everyone is protected – both as individuals and as member of their communities. At times, the ‘legal frame working of human rights’ can lead us to applaud legal victories which risk remaining hollow victories if they are not able to change the lives of the violated, for the better. Does a legal recognition of the ‘right to health’ lead to increased access to vaccines in our unequal world? We see this too in the international and regional declarations, conventions and covenants. These are all lofty expressions of ‘good intent’, but our daily challenge as human rights activists and defenders is how to make those real for those whom we serve and accompany, on the ground.
What I have learnt is that democracy is rooted in recognising the value of the person – the motho. Botho is therefore the bedrock of our democracy in Botswana. It should in turn provide a conducive environment for the recognition, promotion, protection and respect of human rights. It all sounds rather straightforward, right? However, societies are held together by the glue of culture – which is not static and which is open to change. Whenever I have had doubts about how to make sense of confusing situations, I turn to what I know best, my north star – botho.
I have learnt that our culture shapes our thinking, our world-view and how and where we see ourselves fitting into the world. It also shapes our understanding of human rights and how they can be implemented – with respect for one another; with respect for diversity of thought and opinion; and engaging with one another, with respect. So, what does democracy mean in Botswana? It would appear that we have slipped into the formalistic, cut-and-paste version of three arms of government, regular multi-party elections, an independent judiciary, independent institutions, and what else? It has become a box-ticking exercise; perhaps it always was simply that for many of our people. How do we make it mean much more? How do we shift the discourse from us being what Uli Golazinski has referred to as ‘political consumers’ of democracy to ‘true participants’ of democracy? For Botswana, process is critically important and colours the legitimacy of its outcome. If it is not inclusive and consultative it is followed in rote fashion and it effectively loses its meaning and significance. For human rights to truly take root in our society, the concept has to be an inclusive one which is understood by our people. Botho has been understood and accepted as part of our DNA for generations. This does not always seem to be the case for our youth who continue to explore ways of finding the fit between the global world and Botswana for longer than those precious twitter seconds. Active citizen engagement needs rootedness for it to be sustained. This is a challenge of our times – how to effect it? Leadership, mentoring, supporting, active listening, and constructive engagement are critical. Human rights activism is not a time-bound project, able to be assessed by logical framework tools of analysis. It has no expiry date. It is a life-long mission.
That we live in an intricately inter-connected world is not disputed – as the recent drowning of 27 migrants in the English Channel between France and the United Kingdom shows. What has shockingly emerged is a blame game between two countries and finger-pointing at those engaged in people-smuggling instead of cutting to the chase. Authoritarian governments, climate change, violence, and economic opportunities drive migration. Governments need to be realistic about the drivers and existence of migration, as well as their own roles in all of these. Inclusive social justice needs to be truly on their agenda, tacking causes and not only symptoms.
The opportunities which I have been given by others to experience, to make mistakes and to grow from and through them, to journey and to ‘just be’ – have all provided me with a rich tapestry of valuable learnings. Through my work at the Presidency of FIDH, through my board membership of International Service for Human Rights, the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law and The Other Foundation, I have learnt of violations across the world – from Zimbabwe to Yemen, from Afghanistan to Brazil, from India to France, from Belarus to the United States of America and South Africa to Sudan – and learnt that solidarity with those being persecuted for holding different opinions, for having different religious beliefs, for looking different – can be shown through protest action, through social movements, through litigation, lobbying and activism. This has been my minute contribution, from Botswana, to the efforts of selfless human rights defenders, activists, and communities.
I believe that FES can continue to play a critically important role in supporting, not leading, us as we ‘re-discover’ who we are, as we see what needs to be done to ‘build back better’, and as we determine how best that can be done, as we journey along that path. We are at a global crossroads, faced with major populations displacements due to floods, droughts, wars, deficits of peace and non-accountable leadership. I believe that we can focus on the reaffirmation of the ‘universality of dignity’ – that which reaffirms our human connectedness, our botho. With that, accountability for past wrongs, prevention of future wrongs, and honesty about current wrongs can provide us with hope, trust, and faith in one another. This will be the basis for democracy and social justice for all. In a recent conversation, Lorato Moalusi and I agreed that ‘we need to pass the values onto the next generation – about our work being based on conviction, a mission, a calling – it is more than just being a job’. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us – we should never be under the illusion that we can do anything on our own, without others!
I have learnt that cultures can learn from one another. In 1785 Friedrich Schiller wrote: ‘Thy enchantments bind together, what did custom stern divide. Every man becomes a brother where thy gentle wings abide’. In 1824 Ludwig van Beethoven immortalised in his Symphony No. 9 – Ode to Joy. It later became the national anthem of the European Union.
As I draw my comments to a close, I would like to thank each and every one of you present and online, who have journeyed with me so far – sometimes in peace and at other times under less peaceful conditions. We still have some way to go. In thanking you all, I wish to dedicate this honour to my parents, the late Archibald and Lena Mogwe, to my Maru a Pula Secondary School Headmaster, the late Deane Yates, to our DITSHWANELO Patron Archbishop Emeritus Khotso Makhulu (who strongly encouraged my work on Basarwa/San issues), to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and to my families – my DITSHWANELO family and my own family – Ruud, Marc, Bahumi and Mosele. They have all, every single one of them, played a hugely influential role in my life and I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you. Kea leboga. Danke schön