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LGBTQ rights and inclusion amid Botswana’s constitutional review process

Washington Blade
5 April 2023

All Batswana must be included in the debate

(Featured photo: Constitutional review interest group meeting in Kasane, Botswana. Taken by Raymond Kolanyane)

The Botswana courts are among the very few in Southern Africa that has set a trajectory in realizing and protecting LGBTIQ+ rights.

In 2016, the Botswana Court of Appeal, in the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) registration case, proclaimed that “members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community, although no doubt a small minority, and unacceptable to some on religious or other grounds, form part of the rich diversity of any nation and are fully entitled in Botswana, as in any other progressive state, to the constitutional protection of their dignity.” This remark would go on to set the tone for queer rights in Botswana and the region.

The presidential promise of advancing together

Commencing the 2018 16 days of activism against violence on women and children campaign, President Mokgweetsi Masisi acknowledged LGBTIQ+ people as vulnerable a group who continue to face stigma and discrimination in Botswana. He went on to say that they need equal protection under the law. This an authentic statement because they do form part of the rich diverse nation of Botswana. In response, the members of the LGBTQI+ community through an open letter thanked him for his words and encouraged him to live up to his call for protection. In 2019 during his election campaign, the president of Botswana promised Batswana a fair and equal constitutional review process that reflects the voices and concerns of all Batswana — regardless of their social, economic and gender status. This coming at a time when his government was fighting for the recriminalization of LGBTIQ+. This appeal by the State was a push for the continuous exclusion of LGBTIQ+ and denying them their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, liberty, privacy, dignity and protection under law. In its sense, being LGBTIQ+ is a political statement and to fully enjoy the privileges that come with the bill of rights as stipulated in the constitution one needs the backing and pledge of allegiance from the government.

A constitutional review – a space for all?

In January 2022, President Masisi had promised that the constitutional review process would be inclusive of LGBTIQ+ people. This had given hope and a form of relevance and belonging to the LGBTIQ+ community that finally we were being seen by the highest office in the land.  This presidential promise had encouraged LGBTIQ+ people to practice their fundamental civic duty and contributing to a better and inclusive nation. The constitutional review process commenced at the anticipation of Batswana, but more anticipated was the LGBTIQ+ community. Would this process be inclusive, and progressive and reflect the diversity of Batswana as promised by the president bearing in mind his consistency and failure to live up to his words or were the LGBTIQ+ community once again a pawn in the political game? A December 2022 Afrobarometer report showed that an increasing number Batswana are losing trust in the president’s office. This is followed by the recent controversial reports around the president interfering with the judicial system in the just concluded Bamalete land case. One tends to wonder the legitimacy and question the transparency of the mandate of the Office of the President in ensuring that all Batswana are included and have a fair access to social, economic and legislative practices. In our fight for the realization and promotion of human rights for all, to become true leaders and masters of diversity and inclusion, we must be deliberate and intentional about practicing inclusion from all dimensions.

The bare minimum and reflection of diversity

President Masisi had appointed the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to review Botswana’s Constitution and spearhead this process. In country of 2.4 million people representation matters. The commission of inquiry to tick the gender box have eight females form part of the 19 tasked force team. The rather disappointment that when diversity and representation is addressed, it is only limited to cisgendered male and female. It does not consider the broader gender and sexuality spectrum. Such an essential democratic and civic process needs representation of already marginalized groups, such as young women, people living with disabilities and LGBTIQ+ people. After all, the High Court did state that they [the LGBTIQ+ community] form part of the rich diversity of Botswana. The president, after his promise ensuring inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in the constitutional review process, made an intentional decision to exclude LGBTIQ+ persons in the commission of enquiry. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry task force had experts from the public workers union, House of Chiefs, Village Development Committee, public health education sector, religious community, advocates for people with disabilities and the attorney general’s office. The setup of the commission contributes to multiple forms of exclusion of sexual and gender minorities; as country that recently decriminalized a group that had been marginalized and vulnerable for decades, the intentional representation of LGBTIQ+ people would have been present in the commission of inquiry.

The ignorance of considering the law

In 2021, when the Botswana Court of Appeal decriminalized consensual same sex-sexual relations, this saw a landmark change and the continuous, infectious trajectory from the 2016 LEGABIBO registration case. This put another stamp of approval of legitimacy by the courts that human rights indeed are for all. The fundamental rights to expression, liberty, privacy and equal protection under the law are to be enjoyed by LGBTIQ+ people. This was now the law as pronounced by the courts. The process of constitutional review failed to live up the law — to protect and include LGBTIQ+ people. Society and its norms are dynamic and evolutionary and transform as a society and the world change. LGBTIQ+ people mobilized one another and collectively entered a setting that from the onset aimed to exclude them. The constitutional review process setting included the Kgotla setting, which for many queer people and women is already an unwelcoming place filled with patriarchal dominance. Galvanized with religious and traditional fundamentalist the Kgotla platform seemed like a deliberate intention to continue excluding women and queer people. In 2021, women who wore pants were turned away from receiving the COVID-19 vaccinations at the Kgotla spaces. Queer resilience is a powerful thing as this did not discourage LGBTIQ+ people from exercising their democratic rights. LGBTIQ+ showed up and showed cause. If there is one thing to learn from a community who for years have been criminalized and ostracized is that we continue to have hope and that the struggle for true freedom and liberty continues. A luta continua!

The presidential commission of LGBTIQ+ erasure

The commission of inquiry submitted its final report with recommendations to the president for consideration. The report was also made available to the public to engage with. The voices captured and recommendations made caused an outcry from the public, civil society organizations and human rights movements. The report displayed the continuation erasure LGBTIQ+ people and goes against the orders of the courts which are now laws and the utterances of President Masisi. The commission needed to investigate best practices and incorporate these into the recommendations to the president for review. It needed to have identified and differentiated constitutional matters from civic and social matters. The recommendations took little to no human rights-based approach resulting in multiple discriminatory and harmful recommendations that impact various vulnerable and marginalised groups in Botswana. The report was unsafe and lacked inclusive and protective language, this in addition to it already being anti-gender and anti-LGBTIQ+. This goes against the principles and ethics of human rights, body autonomy and doing-no-harm.

Bradley Fortuin is the LGBTIQ+ Program Officer at the Southern Africa Litigation Center and is social justice activist with over 10 years of experience in program design and strategic management, focusing on developing, implementing, and strengthening LGBTIQ+-led movements.