By Methaetsile Leepile
A young woman at the back of the hall shouts, “What about our subscription? Are we going to get our money back?” She was referring to the P100 annual membership subscription fee she had paid over the last two weeks to MISA Botswana, a local media advocacy organisation that was holding elections for its leadership this past weekend at Arirang Guest House in Gaborone’s Extension 9 suburb.
The young woman was part of a horde of newbies who, according to journalists at the meeting, had their membership subscriptions paid for by one of several controversial, influence-peddling entities around town, so that they could vote for one or the other of the candidates bidding for the chairmanship and other positions.
Some, as a colleague illustrated from a message he received on his phone, did not even know what MISA was! “What is MISA? The message read. “Media Institute of Southern Africa”, was the response. “Why are you asking?” “I hear they are holding elections and some money is being paid out,” was the answer. “How much?” “P50; P100 … “The names of DIS and a South African-based construction and trenching company, with a regional footprint, were being bandied about as the main sponsors by irate speakers at the meeting.
“We can’t have these people supervising our ballots”, said one particularly agitated fellow across the room. They spoke openly. Mentioning names. It was rough.
There were chaotic scenes, as the Regional Director of the organisation, now based in Harare, read the riot act to the candidates.
“You can go ahead with your election, but just make sure that you are not an active member of a political party, because should it turn out you are, we are going to ask you to step down almost immediately”, said Dr. Tabani Moyo.
“We have done it in Lesotho. We have done it in Malawi. We have done it in Zambia. This is our organisation… our brand which we developed 30 years ago and shall guard against jealously,” he intoned.
Someone in the hall would not have anything of that. “This is our country. We have our own laws, our constitution. MISA Botswana operates within those boundaries.
We are going to vote. f###k you!”Outside, people waited. Waiting to vote. Some had been bussed in, in 30 seater coasters. Others came by foot. Surreal scenes.
The National Director, Tefo Phatswane, said they could not cope with the applications over the last three weeks. Suddenly there was an avalanche of applications and the normally cash-strapped organisation was sitting pretty with zaka in the bank! Many of these, journalists at the meeting said, were university students who were paid to come and vote.
Phatswane said they processed just under 600 applications. Ultimately the elections were cancelled to enable the leadership to go back and draw up new guidelines for aspiring candidates.
When that message was announced, one group romped into the hall, singing in defiance. Quite some scene to watch. A display of bravado… oh, the braggadocio of youth. The bravura and swagger of the knock-berrie-wielding leader. The tap tap; the tap-tap-tap-tap of stomping feet.
They belted out in song. I did not catch the words, but the singers’ demeanour was, you can go voetsek! The apparent leader of the motley jesters is said to be the leader of the local Media Workers’ Union. Or used to be.
Sad day for journalism and media advocacy in the country as it was, in some ways it was quite satisfying. It seems nowadays everything is for sale. Journalists are for sale.
Thugs who receive brown envelopes from these influencers are embedded in the newsrooms. Their bosses are for sale. It’s in the open. Staybridge played it out. Looking back to 1992, when some of us the foot soldiers established the organisation from sheer grit and determination to promote media pluralism and alternative voices in the region, the scenes from Arirang Guest House were anything but nauseating. We can hark back in awe.
• Methaetsile Leepile is a founding member of MISA, the organisation’s founding Regional Director and an Honorary Member of MISA Botswana.