There is a big elephant in the room that needs to be killed.....

10 Sep 2018

Who still remembers the story of the Botswana Tourism Organisation and its former Chief Executive – Thabo Brian Dithebe?

Dithebe is that Motswana man who was technically pushed out of the job he seemed to love so much after his clash with tourism minister Tshekedi Khama.

As we all can recall, by close of business on 21 Friday 2016, Dithebe was no longer the CEO of BTO having been forced out, not just from his job but even hurriedly pushed out of serving the three months notice that he intended to do.

These are some of the incidents in our country that we tend to usually sweep under the carpet or easily forget. These forms part of the conversations that no one, more especially those in the corridors of power, wants to discuss and find everlasting solution for them.

One other incident or rather unfortunate occurrence that we tend to take at face value is the one that happened recently when the Elephants Without Borders (EWB), possibly with the help of a powerful family in the country leaked untruth information about our country to the influential international Western media.

A quick latest Botswana news search through Google does prove that indeed “lies” travel fast as the propaganda on elephants being poached went as far as the office of the UK Prime Minister Theresa May and soccer player Aaron Ramsey amongst others, thanks to EWB and the powerful family. The EWB with the help of this powerful family have been successful to convince part of the world that Botswana under the administration of President Mokgweetsi Masisi encourages poaching - this is utter rubbish.

This EWB and powerful family case study and many others continue to remind us of the elephant in “our” room. You know there is an elephant in the room when people seem uncomfortable and everyone knows the discomfort is there and no one wants to bring the issue up. Instead, in our case, everyone is tiptoeing around it, with those in the corridors of power uniting in the unlikely hope that it will somehow go away by itself. This kind of problems never varnishes on their own and their consequences are detrimental not just to ordinary Batswana but whole economy.

The bitter pill that we all need to swallow - starting with President Masisi is that to truly unleash our country’s potential, we need to tackle the concentration of ownership, control and market dominance by foreigners in leading sectors such as retail and tourism. This is the big elephant that is in our room that we need to face. This is the most discomfort topic that we should address without shame.

Granted, our government must be credited for its prudent management of mining revenues, stable democracy and good governance record over the years. But the same government dismally failed to equitably share wealth from diamond mining among its citizens. This could perhaps have helped some Batswana to actively participate in the tourism sector which remain white & foreign dominated. I know this is a sensitive issue that usually cause some discomfort whenever it is brought up. This is a big elephant within our room that we should face as part of economic reforms that we need to undertake.

From where we stand, these abnormalities such as the one that was reported at both BTO and the Tourism ministry last year - when friends and associates were hired and imaginary “foes” were fired as when those in power wants are a reminder of sad reality about one of the key sectors in our economy. We are out of touch with it. 

Even apart from the poor governance issue, it is worrisome that at national level, despite the tourism sector’s potential for growth and contribution to the domestic economy, our country is unable to retain atleast 50 percent of the revenue generated by this sector.

As previous statistics did show, only 10 percent of the domestic tourism revenue is retained locally whilst the rest is claimed by foreign countries through their companies. We have been told that this is so because the bulk of Botswana’s tourist bookings are handled in South Africa and as far as the United States of America where most of these operators originate. This is all a doing of those who have been in power, some of which remain in power and are benefiting from the current set up. 

Had we successfully transferred money from diamonds into the pockets of Batswana, we could by now just be focused on economic reforms that reduces the role of the government in controlling the private sector.

But as we put this commentary together, our challenge is not just changing the dynamics of the game in the tourism sector but we are also forced to reduce controls that hamper entrepreneurial dynamism and often bred corruption.

As we prepare to face the elephant in our room we should bear in mind that the foundation of industrial economies has shifted focus from "natural resources" (like diamonds) to Intellectual assets. That is why we need deliberate policies that will ensure that we harness this country’s Intellectual capital. Instead of producing only industrial workers who produce material goods, we also need to have "knowledge" workers who create immaterial products such as knowledge, communication, or even an emotional response to groups such as the powerful family and their friend EWB.

Going forward to be competitive, as a country we need to have citizens who think critically without favouring their political, religious or even racial affiliations.  This is necessary because most countries aspire to a knowledge economy. Nations around the globe are pouring billions of money into increasing their "knowledge intensiveness". We therefore cannot be left behind and should not be left behind. We need to make deliberate decisions as part of our economic reforms and this starts by opening up on issues such as the participation of locals in key sectors such as tourism.  There is no need to remind the “powerful” Tourism sector leadership of what is going in Maun, Kasane and all other lucrative tourism centres. The #Bottomline is that a reform of management of the tourism sector to ensure that tourism development in our country has linkages with the rest of the domestic economy is long overdue and essential. There is no doubt that if properly managed, the tourism will continue being a valuable instrument for progress, job creation, infrastructure development and economic growth for our people. This is the economic reform we want – the kind that will ensure that money end in the pockets of the locals.