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If there are any rules about what makes a real social activist, Talita Monnakgotla ticks all the important boxes. The eccentric “&T” in the husband and wife AT&T Monnakgotla business empire may not be your placard waving, slogan chanting ruble-rouser, but she is a significant force in the fight against abasement, poverty and illiteracy among Bakgalagadi. “When I got married, I never really left Hukuntsi” the consummate business woman who is unapologetically Mokgalagadi says, as she fields questions from the Sunday Standard. We are ensconced in the cushy embrace of her spacious boardroom at the Gaborone main mall, but her heart is lodged more than 500 kilometers away in the spartan dusty, sunbaked Kgalagadi backwoods.
After many years of schooling and running businesses in Gaborone, the city lights have not blinded the Hukuntsi enthusiast in her. The transport magnate with a deep-rooted social conscience carries the hopes of Bakgalagadi reformists, talks passionately about her kinsfolk, puts her money where her mouth is and understands how the power of her position can effect change. Most of AT&T business decisions tell as much. While investors were falling over each other to cash in on the promises of huge profits to be made from the lush Gaborone business opportunities, Monnakgotla was thinking of how she could make a difference in the lives of Kgalagadi residents.
The result was a business foray into the harsh and unforgiving backwaters of the Kgalagadi Desert. In 1998, AT&T Monnakgotla introduced the first daily public transport vehicle, on the Gaborone – Hukuntsi route, a 25 seater that plied the bone jarring road for two years. In 2000 the company replaced the 25 seater mini bus with a 65 seater bus. This was more than just a business decision; it was also social activism. With Bokgalagadi central to her personal “brand” as a businesswoman, the bus was aptly named “Yecho” which is Sekgalagadi for “ours”. The second bus was christened “Gochwe” which is Sekgalagadi for “our home village” and the third bus was called “Macheng” which is the collective name for the area around Hukuntsi (aka 4-Huks). Employing nouns to exotic and poetic effect – cleverly espousing a kindred spirit, the names emblazoned on the buses pounds through, like an elegant self affirmation of Bakgalagadi. It was an education, if you will, on self love.
Colleagues point to Mma Monnakgotla’s rare combination of business acumen, great accessibility and kinship passion as making her a good champion to reframe and exalt Bokgalagadi. One of her most profound childhood memories, she says, was watching her father racking his brains on what to do with a refrigerator which stopped working a few months after he bought it from Jwaneng. “It would have cost him a lot of money and hassle to transport it back to the furniture shop in Jwaneng. After agonising for days over what to do, he finally gave up and the defective fridge was left to gather dust as just a useless piece of furniture in the kitchen. You can imagine how many residents had to go through that headache. For Macheng residents, shopping in Jwaneng was a big hassle. The bus ferrying shoppers was a hustle and bustle of passengers and shopping bags. Some grocery bags got lost and stolen on the way and we were forced to compensate the passengers.
Then there were passengers who insisted on bringing diesel for their boreholes into the passenger bus. It was all a huge chaos. We felt that we had to do something to save the situation”, she recalls. A few years later the AT&T Monnakgotla couple put up a huge shopping complex in Hukuntsi, complete with a furniture shop, filling station and supermarket. The complex, which has become a major landmark in the village, was also named Macheng Mall. The mall has solved most if not all problems associated with shopping some 300Kms away (in Jwaneng) and has created employment to over 150 people in the Macheng area. Mma Monnakgotla, who is one of the biggest philanthropists in the area was however not content with only addressing the symptoms of under development in Kgalagadi, or wanting for some messiah to come and solve their problems. For some time now, Kgalagadi students have been fighting for success against a widespread global trend that shows schools’ results become worse the further away they are from capital cities.
Mma Monnakgotla insists that, “In order to ensure we have vital, productive rural communities, critical issues like education have to get a better rap.” Mma Monnakgotla has rolled back her sleeves and knuckled down to improving the performance of Kgalagadi schools which she says is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty that has persisted for generations. “Education is the key to addressing most of our pressing problems. Children have to go to school, work extra hard to make up for the shortage in books and equipment. Teachers also have to show more commitment and not be demoralized by problems of staff housing. She also called on parents to throw in their lot towards helping educate their children.” She was speaking at the recent Lehutshelo Prize giving ceremony in Hukuntsi.
Monnakgotla however is not all talk and no action. She actually walks the talk. AT&T Monnakgotla sponsored the school prize giving ceremony at a tune of P4000, and pledged P100 000 sponsorship to take teachers and staff on a retreat to Swakopmund in Namibia should the school record a marked improvement in academic performance. AT&T Monnakgotla also strives to create opportunities to help lift Kgalagadi youngsters out of poverty. The company is sponsoring an annual July football tournament for Kgalagadi and Gantsi (aka KGAGA President’s Day Tournament) children to help hone their talent and give them a fighting chance against their peers in more privileged parts of Botswana.
Monnakgotla told Sunday Standard that, we have spread our corporate social responsibility throughout Botswana and have sponsored social upliftment causes in places like Bobonong and Gumare. We have also donated first aid kits to schools throughout the country, because we realised that children had to participate in sports without the necessary first aid equipment.” She explained that they were particularly interested in Kgalagadi because of the poor academic performance of schools in the area.