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03 Dec 2018

By Richard Moleofe

Anyone who lived in the 1970s and 1980s would never had imagined that there would today be no Botswana miners working in the South African mines. But that’s the reality on the ground. The migrant labour export has total come to an end

Botswana has a very long history of exporting labour to the South African mines and that history runs as back to the early parts of the 20th century. Circumstances of desperation actually pushed Batswana into this form of slavery that was later accepted as part of our culture. When I grew up, every home had one of its sons working in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand.

The export of labour was primarily created by the British imperialists. After Botswana was  taken in as a protectorate, the colonizers demanded something referred to as the hut tax. Every able bodied man was required to meet this requirement. The chiefs were charged with the responsibility of collecting revenue and they were keeping a minute percentage out of the total sum collected. 

This requirement forced able bodied men to flock to the gold mines of their neighbour to the south. In her book titled The Twilight of Patriarchy in a Southern African Chiefdom, Diana Wyle clearly chronicles how Tshekedi Khama used the revenue that trickled from the hut tax to carry on community projects. The mass exodus to the mines caused great suffering in the local agrarian economy. Labour was no longer sufficient when the ploughing season set in.

Tshekedi Khama built a dam in Serowe and above all he set up the famous Moeng College which up to this day remains nestled in the crest of the Tswapong hills. The building of schools was the biggest advantage as the graduates would later be able to take a leap and get jobs in the colonial administration.

After independence in 1966, the country remained one of the ten poorest countries in the world. The government of the new republic had to depend on finance repatriated by miners in South Africa. These men, most of whom were illiterate kept the economy moving. In 1976, the country got its own currency and slowly moved away from the South African Rand. The new currency would later gain strength over the Rand in a tremendous way. In his book Magic of Perseverance, David Magang blames the strengthening of the Pula on the expatriate economists at the Ministry of Finance who wanted a good take home pay at the end of their contract. However, the strengthening of the local currency hurt the miners in a terrible way as the exchange rate would sometimes yield half of what they had initially worked for and earned in the mines. Part of the negative contribution of the continuously falling Rand were the biting international sanctions on the apartheid government. And so the free falling Rand and the artificially inflated Pula swayed the miners into induced poverty.

So one by one the men left the mines and chose to either stay at home or do menial jobs in Botswana’s urban places. The mighty TEBA (Transvaal Employment Bureau in Africa) in Botswana succumbed to all of these corresponding factors. So too did Witwatersrand North Labour Authority (WANLA). The big buses that caused traffic on the streets of Molepolole vanished like morning mist.

Who would ever imagine this scenario in the 1980’s? As we speak, the miners that drove the economy of our country for so long are almost all reeling in squalor and abject poverty. But it is a little welcome consolation that the old miners are going to be paid their pending compensation soon. The P4 billion to be paid to sufferers of silicosis and tuberculosis is a welcome development.

But all miners need to be put on some form of retirement pension courtesy of the Botswana government. This will be the greatest appreciation we can ever show to the old miners. These are our heroes. They made very important contributions to the economy far much more than many sectors. And they helped grow the GDP at a time when there were no diamonds to speak of.

In actual fact a scientific study needs to be conducted to determine the actual levels of poverty on the old miners. They deserve far much more than war veterans. We owe them a great deal because unbeknown to them they made this country great.          

The current compensation is only restricted to sufferers of two diseases; silicosis and tuberculosis. However, there are those old miners who are currently on wheelchairs and immobilized because of mining accidents. They have no medical insurance and they like anybody else are victims of a long and winding government medical care in this country.

Everything has a beginning. I wish one sensible Member of Parliament would pick this up and table a motion in parliament. Certainly something needs to be done for these voiceless brave men. Like canary birds they went under the belly of the earth to perform something that we could not afford ourselves.    

TEBA head office in Kgale was sold two decades away and that spelled the end of a great era of migrant labour system. The old miners are scattered all around southern Botswana, especially in Kweneng and Ngwaketse. The few useful things they can get themselves into are pastoral and arable agriculture.

These miners need an economic stimuli because most of them are living in poverty and hardship. Here is a common characteristic that places most of them in their economic bracket. A typical miner is someone who has never been to school. They forfeited school because they had to tend cattle which formed an important part of our economy at the time. After their mining career they have gone back to cattle herding again as it is the only thing they know best.

There has been a lot of looting of billions in this country. And the looters have no idea that the foundations of our economy were laid on the backs of the miners. Even the R5 billion being paid by the South African government to compensate miners here is highly likely going to be looted. The government needs to act and address the plight of the old miners who shared the proceeds of their labour with us all. 

*Richard Moleofe is a Security Analyst  

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