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Stephen Corry lives in London but can so accurately describe the Okavango Delta as if he lives in it. With the saga of Botswana elephants that died and were later miraculously reincarnated, Corry, who is the head of an international lobby group called Survival international, lambasted Elephants Without Borders (EWB) for being part of a western-based brotherhood that wants to steal the resources of people in the Third World through sleight of hand. Corry puts EWB in the camp of conservation NGOs that promote “heavily-armed fortress conservation”. He dismisses these NGOs’ claim that they consult local people as an “empty sham.”
“The reality is that they don’t want to give up their control of large areas of Africa, and are still building up protected areas which prohibit local people, many of them tribal, from accessing their traditional territory. Conservation, lauded as generally ‘progressive’ in the West, is often despised in Africa as just more (white) colonial land-theft,” Corry writes.
He could well have been describing the Okavango Delta which ranks as Botswana’s most lucrative tourist asset. As even two opposition candidates managed to agree during a GabZ FM debate in 2014, the Delta is essentially a white fiefdom in which indigenous (meaning black) people only feature as lowly-paid manual workers. As a direct result of the latter condition, while tourism brings in a lot of tourism revenue, a majority of the people who live in the Delta (its actual owners) are dirt poor. When it was revealed that the Tawana Land Board was surreptitiously facilitating an application for a Delta concession area for British tycoon, Richard Branson, the Maun West MP, Tawana Moremi, made his own revelation about having long but unsuccessfully applied for land way before Branson.
The hospitality establishments in the Delta are managed by white couples who, with the knowledge of the owners, have been accused of actively keeping black people out. A former cabinet minister recalls an incident of a drunk lodge manager asking him why he and a travelling companion in an army commander, were holidaying in the Delta and not at their cattle posts.
However, there are blacks who don’t have a problem staying at the hospitality establishments – filthy rich ones like Oprah Winfrey who holidays occasionally in the Delta. The latter itself raises another race-toned dimension of this issue: given the racial disparity in economic empowerment, Delta properties are more accessible to whites.
As former Mmadinare MP and future Vice President, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, found out years ago when he and members of a parliamentary committee wanted to book accommodation at what was essentially a whites-only hospitality establishment, guests books not locally in Botswana but abroad. As he told parliament, a parliament staffer facilitating the committee’s visit was given a South African telephone number to call and make a booking. For those making a booking and paying for services at the Delta itself, the prices are quoted in a western currency (United States dollar) and one pays using a global payment technology (Visa) administered from a western city. Where cash is used, lodges generally prefer that it be an international currency.
That a lodge manager couldn’t recognise a minister and army commander is because, like the rest of his colleagues, he neither reads nor watches the local media of what, to all intents and purposes, is a foreign geopolitical entity. Many more foreigners generally don’t follow events in the media and in one respect that is what led to the arrest of an Indian national who in 2003, wanted to bribe a minister (Oliphant Mfa) with a P5000 cash payment and P800 business suit in exchange for a licence to practise as an optician. Then Director General of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, Tymon Katlholo, who was a familiar face to those who follow domestic news, featured in sting operation that nabbed the man.
Tour operators repatriate the handsome profits from the Delta back home to the western world or First World South Africa. While the government has quoted lowly figures as representing this revenue leakage (“about 30 to 40 percent”), the African Natural Resources Centre, a subsidiary of the African Development Bank, quoted a much higher figure (“over 70 percent”).
The lease agreement between the Tawana Land Board and tour operators contains a right-of-first-refusal clause. Right of refusal is a legal principle in terms of which a seller must give a party an opportunity to match a price at which a third party agrees to buy a specified asset on the same terms offered to the third party. When the lease for a concession area ends, all bidders, including the sitting tenant, compete in an open tender and upon evaluation, the latter is given the opportunity to match the overall highest bidder’s proposal. In the event the sitting tenant has to vacate a site, s/he has to be fully compensated for a site that would have been developed with huge sums of money over a period of time. This clause plays no small part in the racial composition of the Delta. Some tour operators have been known to fight tooth and nail, in some cases going all the way to the High Court in order to retain control of the lucrative establishments they operate and in such effort, retaining the services of highly accomplished South African advocates.
Given who really owns the Delta and on the basis of historical racial disparity, the Delta’s status as a tourist resort has been elevated above all others and the most government support goes there – some of it proffered unwittingly. On an almost daily basis, the government’s official Facebook page features a Delta hospitality establishment or flora and fauna unique to that part of the country. All the other tourist assets don’t get this level of publicity. Good sources say that during the process to develop Botswana’s brand, a male white member of the Brand Leadership Team seriously proposed that Botswana should be renamed “Okavango.” Scandalous though that proposal may seem, the man may have had a point because some of the rich people don’t know that they are in a country called Botswana when they holiday in the Delta.
When the elephants saga erupted two months, some western tourists exchanging fire with Batswana on social media were introduced to a Motswana they never knew existed. There are cases when tourists flying from the west, get connecting flights to Maun in Johannesburg, are picked up by tour operators’ private planes at Maun airport, flown to the Delta and return the same way. They overfly more than 95 percent of the country and their only real interaction with its people is with ever-smiling guides and waitresses. They have no experience of assertive Batswana, some of whom have themselves lived in the west. At the height of the aforementioned social media war, some westerners got acquainted to this latter group and expressed shock that there are such Batswana. One wants to sympathise with them because their experience of Batswana is in a place that has been designed for white comfort and the expense of black suffering.
Most of these tourists were incensed by EWB claims that the new administration has stopped the shoot-to-kill policy against black poachers. To use an analogy from a different quarter of the underworld, the black poachers are mere street drug peddlers while the drug lords (the people who benefit hugely from poaching) are white men living in western capital cities. Tourists incensed about the ending of the shoot-to-kill policy would be even more incensed if the shoot-to-kill policy was to be applied to poaching kingpins in London or New York.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this situation is that Corry puts a former Botswana president (Ian Khama) squarely in the camp of the international, western-biased brotherhood that is promoting heavily-armed fortress conservation. It is hard to argue with this point because Khama is indeed a global leader of one of the conservation groups (Conservation International) that Corry complains about. Khama, a bi-racial man who never embraced his black cultural heritage and has certainly never given a black power salute, has never aligned himself with any black cause, is himself an Okavango Delta tour operator. It was Khama, whom Corry describes as “British-born” and accuses of having tried to “destroy the Bushmen”, who introduced a shoot-to-kill policy that essentially targets black poachers.