‘Tati concession was colonial generosity to private companies with the property of local people’

25 Feb 2018

At a time that Guma Moyo was still in school and Chapson Butale was probably starting his career in the civil service, a United Kingdom magazine published an article that raised grave concern over an issue that the two future MPs would also spotlight in parliament at separate times.

When Robert Mugabe started confiscating white-owned farms in Zimbabwe in what ended up degenerating into what was essentially a land-for-laddies scam, Butale was North East MP. Contributing to a parliamentary debate about a land-related matter, Butale said that those impressed with what Mugabe was doing should know that Botswana (notably his constituency) had the same land problem as Zimbabwe. The message between the lines was unmistakably clear. Years after Butale’s retirement and death, Tati East MP, Moyo, has called on the government to repossess the land that Butale was talking about without compensation. That he says “repossess” and not “expropriate” or “seize” is significant.

The author of the article, which was published in 1970, was Sandy Grant, a historian and Mmegi columnist. Grant’s article is helpful in illuminating how a company owned by Europeans came to acquire land on which generations of African people had lived for centuries. Gold was discovered in the expanse of the Tati area in 1866. However, mining couldn’t begin because the land was claimed by four parties: the Bangwato, Ndebele, Boers and British. There were also the problems of lack of working capital, the “brighter attractions of the Reef and Kimberly and the difficulties of working the ore.” Rather than resolve the dispute, the colonial authority resolved to give the land to Tati Concessions Ltd. In terms of the Tati Concessions Land Act of 1911, the area in question is “from the place where the Shashe River rises to its junction with the Tati and Ramokgwebana Rivers, thence along the Ramokgwebana River to where it rises and thence along the watershed of those rivers.”

“1966 – the year of Botswana’s independence – left the Tati Company intact, the virtual ruler of 2062 square miles,” Grant wrote in Venture, which was published by The Fabian Society, a UK socialist organisation which espouses the principles of democratic socialism. “Curiously, the acquisition of national independence which might have been expected to precede some political action against the company has in fact, led not to its demise but in all probability, to its renewal.”

In the year that Venture published this article, Francistown was a Botswana People’s Party (BPP) stronghold. The article had been prompted by an agreement between the government and Tati Company which was announced by President Sir Seretse Khama on September 17, 1970. In terms of that agreement, the company donated 115 000 acres of rural land and 2000 acres of urban land in Francistown to the government. The company also agreed to sell the government approximately 220 000 acres of rural land and 1600 acres of urban land in Francistown. On account of BPP’s political dominance in the area, Grant adjudged that the interest of Khama’s government was political.

“The same cannot be said of the company. There is nothing in the last four years to show that it has been unduly concerned about the government’s political difficulties in Francistown – created very largely by the company itself – nor, consequently, about the possibility of being nationalized,” he wrote.

His supposition was that much more likely was the possibility that mineral survey work on Tati territory near Francistown had proceeded so satisfactorily that it was now in the company’s interests to remove the restrictions which it had placed on the town’s growth while at the same time ensuring for itself, a major share in the resultant profits.

Some 47 years later, very little has changed. While the BPP has long been knocked off its pedestal, the BDP is still in power and Tati Company is still enjoying the fruits of a lopsided decision by the British High Commissioner. In 2017, as in 1970, the company still restricts Francistown’s growth and on occasion, the government has to buy land from it at prohibitive cost. This state of affairs will continue for many more decades or as Moyo proposes, can be dramatically brought to a swift end. It is unlikely that in its present constitution and under the current leadership, the ruling party will do anything that dramatic but what happens in South Africa will be instructive.

In his first state-of-the-nation address, South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, used language as uncoded as Moyo’s to put everyone on notice about his plans. Ramaphosa said that in order to speed up land transfer from white to black people, he plans to undertake an extensive expropriation-without-compensation programme. Motivated to provide appropriate historical context, some of South Africa’s more militant leaders like Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters prefer “repossess” to “expropriate” because such word choice justifies the action that Ramaphosa plans to take.

Grievance over Tati Company will not go away for as long as the land ownership problem in the North East persists. With what has happened in Zimbabwe and could be about to happen in South Africa, it is guaranteed that at some point in the future, there will emerge in Botswana, bold enough political leaders who will want to change the status quo.

Grant’s article resurfaces against the background of Sunday Standard’s publication of a summary of an explosive academic paper by Dr. James Kirby of La Trobe University in Australia. The paper (which is titled “Conditional on a Bill of Rights”: Race and Human Rights in the Constitution of Botswana, 1960-66”) basically says that the economic interests of a small white minority took precedence over those of the majority of indigenous black people when Botswana gained independence in 1966. In 1970 there was no private press and therefore no local platform for an article as controversial as Grant’s was. Part of the article’s hat reads: “The Tati concession in northern Botswana was an example of colonial generosity to a private companies with the property of local people.”

Lobatse in the south also faces a Francistown-like problem that could worsen if its development plan bears bountiful enough fruit. On account of its colonial history, the town is smack bang in the middle of white-owned farmland. A sizeable chunk of land in the town centre is taken up by abandoned buildings and undeveloped commercial plots that belongs to absentee landowners - some of whom have long moved back to Europe. This state of affairs has thwarted both Lobatse’s expansion and modernization plans.