The Language Policy, Cultural Rights and the Law in Botswana

For many years, linguists, educators and other academics have been calling upon the government of Botswana to develop a language policy which will recognize and empower all the ethnic groups represented in the country. It was little known that a colonial language policy was embedded within the Chieftainship Act of 1933, which recognizes the Tswana-speaking ethnic groups as the only tribes, with sovereignty over land, and only they have the right to designate government-recognized chiefs who can be admitted in the House of Chiefs and consulted on issues of importance. This policy was conducive to linguistic and cultural assimilation of other diverse groups into Tswanadom. The arrangement was meant to build a united and proud nation with one language, one culture and one flag. As a result of the statutory recognition of the Tswana-speaking groups, Setswana is the only local language that is used in national life and English as the official language. This paper presents the language policy in Botswana within this legal framework, the impact of the policy on linguistic and cultural rights and the long-standing agitation of the unrecognized groups for such rights. Agitation strategies include parliamentary motions, formation of linguistic associations, litigations and the engagement of United Nations procedures. While there may be no new and progressive language policy written in the near future, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel in opening up to the use of other languages and cultures in education and other social domains.

Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo
National language and book policies
Southern Africa
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