One of the Batswana women, who contributed significantly to the ecumenical movement in Botswana was Ruth Ketlhapile Motsete. She served the Botswana Christian Council from 1984 to 1994. She was born at Phala Road (Dinokwe) on 21st May 1949 and died on 29th November 2008. Her mother was Nkhabe Gasebonwe Ramabele Molosiwa Khama. Her father was Tlametlo Wilson Maranyane Maswabi. She was the second of six children whose names were Masego, Moffat, Mmaopiki, Lilly, and Maungo.
Motsete started primary education at Mahalapye African School in 1956 at the age of seven. In those days, schooling was not easy and things were harsh. They were taught under trees and in winter, they went to a river where they made a fire to keep warm. She attended standard four as well as standard six. She passed her standard six in 1963 and was admitted at St. Joseph’s College, Kgale to do both a Junior Certificate and a Cambridge Overseas School Certificate. She was a good athlete at school.
She was not Catholic and detested having Catholicism imposed on her. There was no other church denomination at the college. In 1965, she decided to become a Catholic not necessarily because she believed in Catholicism and its teachings but so that she could tolerate what was happening. Holy Mass was all in Latin and most of the time people did not follow or understand anything. Some of the doctrines she could not believe included the infallibility of the Pope and the teaching that the Catholic Church is the only true church in the world. At baptism, she was expected to wear white and adopt a saint’s name. The church wanted her to change her name Ruth given by her mother and take a saint’s name. But she refused to do so and, after a long struggle, she was baptized using her name Ruth.
She completed her secondary education in 1968. Ruth Motsete intended to proceed with her education by acquiring a degree in law or political science but the Ministry of Education refused to sponsor her in those courses. However, they agreed to sponsor her for a degree in education but she turned down the offer in 1969 because she felt that she would not make a good teacher.
During her time at school, Ruth Motsete excelled in sports. At St. Joseph’s College, she was the second best athlete, the third best athlete in the country and an excellent basket baller in the first team. She was nicknamed by her friends as “Why worry” because each time the ball was in her hands there was no worry because it was sure that she was going to score. Because of her forthright character, she was nicknamed by her uncle “Mountain Shaker” because she was a daring person, not afraid, but forceful and controversial. Her husband called her “My Treasure” because he believed that she was a rare find. Her mother called her “Pilot.”
This was the time she went globetrotting in the search for justice and human rights for all. Her colleagues at Emang Basadi Women’s Association called her “Madam Speaker.” In 1999, she applied for the post of Speaker of the National Assembly but she was denied the post because she was not a member of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). She was a member of the Botswana National Front (BNF) from 1975 to 1998 and, at one point, she was a member of the Central Committee and Advisor of women’s affairs. She challenged the procedure of electing the Speaker and the way in which her application was handled by the Clerk of the National Assembly, Constance Mompei. She was unable to get the BNF sponsorship because she resigned from the party in 1998, after the split, and chose live above party politics and maintain independence of thought. Afterwards, she became Managing Director of African Pearls (Pty) Limited, a company she owned. She ran the following businesses under its umbrella: (1) Motsete Catering Services (2) Creative Minds, (3) Ruth Motsete Consultancies (this included counselling, document translation and training in small businesses). Most of the time, these services were rendered free of charge because she believed that if she could not work for pay she could work for God.
In the early 1970s and 1980s, Ruth Motsete was a household name because she was a lone voice challenging the status quo, fighting for women’s rights in Botswana. She did all she could to help society change its mindset on male-female relations. She left St. Joseph’s College in 1968. For most of 1969, she had been unwell, newly married with a baby to care for. During this time, she observed many injustices in society. For example, the Ministry of Education had refused to sponsor her for a course of her own choice in Law and Political Science. This was the time when the government was encouraging women to become teachers and not lawyers or political scientists. In 1974, she joined the opposition Botswana National Front and became Advisor of the Women’s Wing and also a member of the BNF Central Committee. She resigned from the Central Committee because all political parties at that time conspired or connived to underplay the call made by the United Nations to equality, justice, and peace. Most of the women in Botswana believed in the subordinate position of women because “men were superior to women and that was a fact that nobody could challenge.” This position has, of course, gradually shifted as a result of the emergence of women such as Ruth Motsete and Athalia Molokome who challenged this position. As a result, a number of laws were amended such as the Income Tax Act and the Citizenship Act. Ruth Motsete was also instrumental in calling for the introduction of structures in government that could look into the affairs of women—the Women Affairs Unit. Some of her ideas were included in the speeches that she prepared for certain ministers. When it came to discrimination against women, all the parties seemed to have adopted the same stance as seen in the Citizenship Act as well as in the public debate on polygamy.
Her first job was with the Botswana Government as a shorthand typist at Central Establishment, now the Directorate of Personnel Management in 1969. She got married in March 1969 to Botlalo Ato Motsete, her mother’s cousin. She also worked at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Water Affairs as shorthand typist from August 1970. In 1971, she was transferred to the Attorney General’s Chambers on promotion as Personal Secretary to the Legal Advisor, Lands Division. Later she joined the University of Botswana and Swaziland as secretary in the Faculty of Economics and Social Studies. She also worked as Warden and moved to reside on campus. After leaving the University of Botswana, she worked as the District Commissioner’s Secretary in Lobatse. While there, she also worked as Secretary of the joint Government of Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC) Housing Allocation Committee. Eventually the BHC recruited her for the post of Assistant Estates Officer at the Headquarters in Gaborone.
Ruth Motsete experienced gender discrimination first hand and vowed to fight for women’s rights. In the first instance, she experienced the discrimination imposed on women by the Income Tax of 1973 according to which “a married woman was considered unmarried for income tax purposes.” Secondly, though her work as Assistant Estates Officer consisted of processing house purchase applications she could not buy one herself because she was married in community of property although there were already signs that her marriage was disintegrating. Another injustice she felt was when the Ministry of Health refused to purchase for her lithium aspartat for her mental illness under the pretext that she was the only one who needed it. She felt that she was denied access to better treatment by her own government to whom she paid tax. It was these and other factors that caused her to wage lonely battles to improve the status of Botswana women. She was prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of justice and human dignity.
A golden opportunity came when she was employed by the Botswana Christian Council as Personal Secretary to the General Secretary. She was later promoted to the post of Director of the Social Concerns Department, which was established in 1984. Her new responsibilities exposed her to work with national clergy, personnel of the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the World Council of Churches. Her work at the Botswana Christian Council provided her the best opportunity to use her potential to the fullest. In 1981, she attended a three month course in “Development Planning and Women—An African Perspective” in Arusha, Tanzania through the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Botswana. She was sponsored by the National Secretary General for Christian Women’s Fellowship. She secured funding for training with a trainer from the Overseas Education Fund for a different course in Leadership and Development of Community Projects. She eventually joined the Church Women Fellowship (CWF) because she wanted to see change as far as the role of women is concerned in the church.
As Director of the Social Concerns Department, her work included, among other things, human rights, work with refugees, youth, women’s rights, children, education, health, environmental issues, disasters, and the rights of the Basarwa. In 1984, she underwent training of African Refugees Workers in Nairobi and, in 1988/89, the World Council of Churches sponsored her for a Post-graduate Diploma in Human Rights at the University of London. In 1999/2000, she did a Diploma in Paralegal Studies with the Professional Career Development Institute, Georgia, in the United States by correspondence and became a member of the legal profession. Her project was entitled “Refugee Women and their Access to Supplies and Services in Botswana.”
Her marriage ended in 1979. Her main contribution to the BCC and Tswana society in general was her passion for human rights. Her major fight concentrated on improving the status of women. Her efforts were rewarded because she became one of the government’s chief advisors on gender issues. The world recognized her contribution and she received a grant of USD 1,000-00 which she used to further her studies in Small Business Management in 1998 in preparation to start her own business.
Ruth Motsete was an influential figure in Botswana. Her main contribution was in the area of human rights as seen in the fact that she was involved in a number of committees dealing with women’s issues. She served in different capacities in various organizations. As the Past Vice Secretary of Business and Professional Women’s Club of Botswana, she obtained money to set up a scholarship fund for needy children from Church World Service in the USA. She served as a Founding member and the first National Vice Secretary of the Association of Botswana Women’s Organisation (ABWO). She was a member of the Women’s Development Planning and Advisory Committee that was formed with people dealing with women’s issues in the different Ministries/Departments of government. She was the only independent member and was appointed by the Minister of Home Affairs to work on voluntary basis.
When the Second State President came into office, Ruth Motsete became the First Lady’s Chief Advisor on women’s affairs. She wrote speeches for her and addressed her international visitors. She served as Botswana National Front Past Coordinator of Women’s Affairs and Chief Advisor to the Women’s League. She worked at Ditshwanelo, as the Botswana Centre for Human Rights Co-founder and one of the first Board Members, at the Emang Basadi Women’s Association as Co-founder and past Vice-President where she volunteered as Convenor of the Membership Committee, Convenor of the Publications Committee, Community Mobiliser, Member of the Political Education Committee Secretary General and Head of the Secretariat, which included the Publicity Secretary. She was also a Member of the Botswana National Council on Women appointed by government to represent members of the public. The Council was set up in 1999 as the highest body to advise the government on women’s issues and monitor instrumentals of the National Policy on Women approved by Parliament. She was also the Chairperson of the Council’s Power-sharing and Decision-making Sub-Committee. The Sub-Committees were set up to strengthen the work of the Council in dealing with Botswana’s six critical areas of concern in preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995.
Personal communication with Mrs. Ruth Ketlhapile Motsete, Mahalapye, May 2002.
Photo source: Botswana Council of Churches.
This biography, received in 2018, was written by Dr. James Amanze, General Secretary of the Association of Theological Institutions in Southern and Central Africa (ATISCA), Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Botswana (Gaborone), and DACB Advisory Council member. These stories were written as part of a collection documenting the history of the ecumenical movement in Botswana, an unpublished manuscript entitled “Heroes and Heroines of the Ecumenical Movement in Botswana: Celebrating Great Lives, Celebrating Past Leadership.”