Good luck to BPF candidates in Selebi Phikwe – they’ll need it

01 Jul 2019

Even before it is officially launched, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) plans to field candidates in all 57 constituencies but one particular corner of Botswana presents an unsual challenge – Selebi Phikwe.

Selebi Phikwe has two constituencies and until three years ago, was the lifeblood of a region made up of 201 000 people. That ended with the mysterious closure of BCL mine, which was opened in 1973 by the founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, and mysteriously by his son, former president Ian Khama in 2016. With Khama having left presidential office but still yearning for presidential power, deeply troubling information about the mine’s closure is trickling out.

Sunday Standard has reported that at the time that the mine was closed, it “was on the verge of a major diamond, platinum and uranium strike which could have catapulted the company fortunes beyond those of Debswana Diamond Company.” Deposits of such minerals were discovered in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve where the government forcibly removed Bushmen communities in order to “bring them closer to more developed areas.” Information from the Department of Mines shows that a slew of multi-national companies have converged on the CKGR to explore and exploit minerals and it is just a matter of time before the game reserve becomes one of the most developed areas in Botswana.

Sunday Standard’s reporting also detailed the personal involvement of members of the Khama family in the intrigue that surrounds BCL’s closure. When then Minister of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security, Kitso Mokaila resisted plans to close the mine, President Khama moved him to a different ministry, replacing him with Sadie Kebonang. At this time, Cabinet (meaning Khama who typically brooks no dissent from juniors) had already made a decision to close down BCL mine. Shortly thereafter, Khama’s nephew tried to sell the BCL mine’s diamond licence.

When the mine was closed, Selebi Phikwe effectively became a ghost town and the regional economy of an area made up of 201 000 was badly affected.

The late Sir Ketumile Masire understood that a president’s physical presence in a crisis area is a powerful expression of leadership and also gives those affected assurance that the highest office in the land is with them in both mind and body. In 1995, some cattle in Ngamiland were infected with lung disease and the government decided to kill all 320 000 cattle in the district. President Masire flew up to Ngamiland to personally deliver the devastating news to the residents. An unconventional leader, President Khama has dealt with the BCL crisis in an unhelpfully unconventional way. News about a mine that is lifeblood of a whole region came not from him personally and he never maintained any kind of visibility at the epicentre of the crisis. He had visited Selebi Phikwe a month before the mine closed but didn’t go back to break news about a crisis much bigger than the killing of cattle in Ngamiland.

Khama has just formed a new party that will be fielding candidates in not just Selebi Phikwe but the entire region that was badly affected by his personal and possibly unethical involvement in the closure of BCL mine. If the BPF candidates in that area want to trade on Khama’s legacy, they will find themselves having to explain Khama’s personal role in turning a once thriving town into a ghost town.