Customary Court and The “Toss”

Thursday was a fascinating cultural day. I couldn’t help comparing what would have happened in the United States under similar circumstances. Basically, my Centre is owed about P30,000 ($3,000 US) which may not sound like a lot in US dollars but to put it in perspective- P30,000 is a little less than we spend on food for the kids during the year. Petrol runs us about P40,000 for the combi that picks up and drops off the kids.

I got all the accounts computerized so it is easier for us to know how much is owed and to show folks how much they owe. For the past year my supervisor has been saying we were going to take people to the kgotla (customary tribal court) to get them to pay. Well this week we started the process.

To digress a tad- there are two parallel court systems in Botswana. Small local disputes are brought to the kgotla, including minor criminal offenses for which the punishment is usually beating but that is a post for another time. Then, there is the governmental civil (and criminal) court system. There is also a small claims court on the government side. The kgotla handles civil cases up to P8,000 and small claims takes over from there but not sure how high it goes before it is a civil suit.  In actuality, disputes are supposed to first be settled by the extended family then on to the Kgosi (tribal chief) or one of the lesser chiefs (Kgosana or Headman) if a resolution can’t be found. Each village has a Kgosi and depending on size, a number of Kgosanas who each preside over a ward within the village.

We have been sending notices regularly telling people what they owe us but with little success.  Two  weeks ago we called the “offenders” and told them we were going to the kgotla the next week. About half the individuals on “the list” came and either paid in part or in full or promised to pay by the end of September. On Monday we met with the Chief Kgosi, his clerk and one of the Kgosanas. They gave us letters to give each of the 12 people. The letter requested their appearance at the kgotla at 8 am on Thursday. Of those 12, three came to see us between Monday and Thursday and either paid full, in part or promised to pay by the end of September.

On Thursday, Botswana time was in full play. The court appearance was scheduled for 8 am. Two people came around 8:15 (we didn’t get there ourselves until 8:10). Then one came a little after 9 and the other 3 were there about 9:45.  Just imagine a US court appearance and being almost 2 hours late for it.The Kgosana was the hearing officer and he said this stage was arbitration. He is 96 years old but you would never believe it. He let them tell their story and then basically told them to pay up. Overall, of the 9 who we expected to come, 6 did and either paid or promised to pay.

So, the three that didn’t show up will now have cases opened against them and the kgotla will work on finding them and making them pay. There are no court fees. We pay nothing but we do work with the kgotla on reaching the people. No collection agencies, skip tracing, process servers, etc. And they get credit just for showing up. It was not at all confrontational and didn’t feel litigious like it would have in the US. For those who made promises, they know that if they don’t keep their promise, they will be brought to the kgotla again.

What I found amazing was one person who is the sister of one of the “offenders”. The mother of the child at the school has disappeared and left the 4 year old and a younger sibling presuming family will take care of them. The family got together and came up with half the amount owed and paid it. The traditional extended family is something that is unfortunately changing in Botswana culture.  While not perfect, kids with less than stellar parents still stand a chance with aunts/uncles/grandparents to be a steady influence. There is virtually no homelessness either. Some houses may not be great but you don’t have people living in culverts and under bridges.

The other unique experience today was observing a “toss”. While waiting for our “offenders” to show up, I got to witness something new. Every 3 months or so, people, who are looking for work, line up . Today there were about 35 people in line. They draw either a yes or a no. If yes, they get to work as part of the ipelegeng program for the next few months. This is like the WPA- picking up litter and other community type projects (right now everything is getting painted blue/white/black for the Botswana 50th Independence Anniversary that is just 2 weeks away. (those are the colors of the Botswana flag). For some people, this is their only source of income and if they draw a no for several drawings, they can be truly hurting with no money to buy food. I don’t know how many “yeses” there were.

Unfortunately I did not take any pictures.It just didn’t seem right. but I pulled these off the Internet to give you a sense of what a kgotla and iplegeng workers look like.They are from Botswana, just not Gabane. Kgotlas can look very different but this one bears a very strong resemblance to ours.

Image result for customary court botswana imagesImage result for ipelegeng images botswana



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