Writers in Botswana are notoriously underpaid. This is endemic from television to magazines to newspapers. Since most people learn to write in standard one, many people believe that writing is easy, anyone can do it. Because of this good writers are undermined. If you compare rates for writers in Botswana to our neighbours in South Africa it is shocking what we tolerate in this country.
Let’s look at television. A few years ago BTV was looking for scriptwriters for a thirty minute sitcom. They were offering a rate of P1800 per episode. If you check the minimum rate for South African scriptwriters for writing a thirty minute sitcom as recommended by the South African Scriptwriting Association you see that they recommend R8000-R11000 per episode. The discrepancy is almost laughable if it wasn’t so sad.
Freelance writers in South Africa regularly get R2/word for magazine and newspaper articles. In Botswana even P1/word is considered high and you’d be lucky to get it. I was recently happy with pay I got for an article I wrote for a local newspaper but when I worked out the per word rate I realised I’d been paid 30t/word, I was no longer very happy.
Other aspects of the job that make freelancing very difficult in Botswana are the way most publications work in the country. In other places, when you want to write an article for a certain magazine you query first. You send the editor your idea with the manner in which you would approach the topic and the word count of the proposed article. You ask the editor if they would be interested. You only write the article once the editor says yes they will buy it and at which rate.
In Botswana, in most cases, freelancers write on spec. What this means is that writers conduct interviews, do research, write up the article and then send it out to the publication they would like to buy it. Now it is up to the editor to decide if they want to buy the completed article. If they say no, then all of the writer’s work was done for nought.
Another difficult aspect of working as a freelancer in Botswana is payment. Almost all publications in Botswana pay on publication. What this means is that you might write an article in May but if the publication does not use your article until September, you will be paid at the end of September. What other industry would tolerate such conditions?
Publications need writers. Production houses need writers. Without writers many industries would come to a standstill, but writers continue to operate under very harsh conditions. Some of this can be negotiated with the employers. Here are some things you can do:
Always ask for more. If the money is not enough, don’t write for them anymore.
Ask for payment on submission. Many overseas publications pay writers as soon as last edits are done. Why can’t publications in Botswana do this?
Don’t write on spec. Writing on spec is an inefficient way to freelance. Everything you write should make money for you, if you write on spec then that may not be the case. Pitch an idea to the editor, if she agrees- only then write the article.
Work your articles. If you interview an MP, for example, use the time wisely. Ask a wide range of questions. From that interview try to pull out at least two or three articles. Maybe a personal piece, an article about what he’s done for his constituency, and maybe a third article about a recent overseas trip he took. In this way your time is efficiently used. You conducted one interview; you get paid for three articles.
Trying to make a living in Botswana as a writer is tough. It’s made tougher when writers undermine themselves and write for peanuts, sometimes even for free. Respect your work and the situation will improve for all of us.
A version of this article was first posted on the author's blog