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Botswana needs innovation and creativity during Covid-19 to combat voter apathy

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Kgalalelo Nganje holds a master’s in politics from the University of Johannesburg. She is an elections officer at the Botswana Independent Electoral Commission. Her areas of interest are governance, political and electoral processes and peace building in Africa.

Suspension of face-to-face civic and voter education activities in a bid to curb Covid-19 will, in the long term, perpetuate disinformation and political apathy. Innovative alternatives are needed to target women and young people in particular.

Botswana risks higher voter apathy and further exclusion of young people and women from occupying significant political positions come the 2024 polls, due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has significantly scaled-down civic and voter education since the lockdown of April 2020. This move threatens to have long-term effects on political and electoral participation if innovative ways of engagement are not devised.

Although not mandated by the Constitution or the Electoral Act, the IEC has become the main agent of civic and voter education, owing to the absence of significant civil society interest in carrying out the task. Only one non-government organisation, the Organisation for Youth and Elections in Botswana, centralised in Gaborone, has a mandate to sensitise citizens, particularly the young, to political and electoral processes. Others, such as the Botswana Coalition of Non-governmental Organisations, conduct civic education seasonally.

Even so, their capacity and outreach are limited, considering the country’s low population density, especially in rural areas. Physical distancing and stay-at-home orders have also inhibited their engagements.

The IEC, on the other hand, targets different groups in society across 57 constituencies, including people with disabilities, schoolgoing children from Standard 5 to Form 5, those aged 18 to 35, women and faith organisations. Despite its efforts, the 2019 voter turnout was 84%, a drop from 85% in 2014.

This percentage difference may not seem considerable. However, considering that only 74% of eligible voters were registered to vote in 2019 compared with 77% in 2014, predicting a further decline in the 2020-24 electoral process is not far off. Stay-at-home orders, lockdowns and curfews brought about by Covid-19 have constricted efforts to disseminate election-related information. The effects of this will be felt in four years when the country goes to the polls.

The already lacklustre attitude of young people – who make up 60% of the population – towards participation in political and electoral processes requires extensive cross-country, face-to-face engagements. In the 2015-19 electoral period only 41% cast their ballot while none currently occupies a parliamentary or cabinet position.

Bogolo Kenewendo, 34, the youngest person to hold a ministerial position in Botswana as a specially elected member of parliament, may as well be the last for the foreseeable future. Her words, “African leadership is youth”, uttered recently in an Al Jazeera interview about good governance in Africa, do not exactly befit the reality of the political landscape in Botswana. The need for extensive engagement with youngsters is immense, but Covid-19 protocols make it almost impossible.

Suspension of face-to-face civic and voter education activities in a bid to curb Covid-19 will, in the long term, perpetuate disinformation and political apathy. Inaccurate information shared on digital platforms tends to erode trust in political and electoral processes. In addition, newly adopted ways of information dissemination, such as virtual meetings or workshops and the use of digital platforms, take it for granted that the rural young population has access to the technology.

Women also lag behind in political representation. Although they tend to vote in large numbers (55% registered in 2019) compared with men, this has evidently not translated into them contesting elections and having strong representation in parliament and the cabinet. Only three women were elected to parliament in 2019 and an additional four are specially elected.   

Therefore, as decisions are made about Covid-19, consideration should be given to the need for extensive civic engagements to equip all groups in Botswana, particularly young people and women, with information on their political rights and how to exercise them.

The lack of face-to-face engagement will not only see voting statistics worsen in 2024 but will probably also exclude pupils from election information through the IEC’s school outreach programmes. Similarly, virtual meetings and workshops may exclude rural communities which do not have the required technology.

It is time to use local radio and television stations to get voter education to the majority of Batswana who do not have access to digital platforms. With wide listenership and viewership across the country, they have proven to be effective for government Covid-19 updates.

Another alternative is a public address system. This is a safe way to get messages across while everyone is adhering to physical distancing – reaching people in their homes, workplaces or schools from a roving IEC car mounted with such a system.

It is also worth exploring SMS in areas with poor internet penetration. Cellphones are a popular way to communicate, even in rural areas. While many may not have access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms, SMS is a powerful communication tool that has also been widely used by the government to send Covid-19 information.

The pandemic presents an opportunity for the IEC and other electoral stakeholders in Botswana to be innovative in the interest of turning the tide against voter apathy and declining political participation among women and young people. DM

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