Odisitse Jele’s quest to ease transportation bottlenecks

15 Mar 2019

By Zeph Kajevu

Though commuters living within and around greater Gaborone enjoy the privilege of choice, their counterparts in far-flung areas like Molepolole, Ramotswa or Lintsweletau risk knocking off early from work to catch a bus before they stop running. The majority of the commuters residing in these so-called dormitory towns usually hitchhike after hours as a last resort.

With as much grace and cumulative effect of personal vision Jele has become the benevolent commuter operator plying the Gaborone/Lintsweletau/Kgope route. It was the late Australian scientist Charles Darwin who wrote that, pertaining but not limited to environment change, it is neither the fittest, cleverest nor the most resilient species that can survive, but those that can readily adapt to change.

Here is a man who succeeded in breaking innuendos and stigma of sole allegiance to tribal leanings, without a solid educational background. From the humble beginnings of impoverishment characterised by meager family resources, Jele who is at apex of his career as a commuter transport operator, is mid-way through the three-year P13 000 monthly installment process of paying off the purchase of a brand new P700 000, 25-seater Mercedes Benz Sprinter. Although the credit terms are stringent, the graying Jele says the Sprinter has been a significant boost to his commuter transportation fleet.

Born in 1958 in Nkange village, in northern part of Botswana bordering with Zimbabwe, Jele’s cross-cultural Kalaga ethnicity enables him to also converse fluently in Setswana and Ndebele. “Knowledge of the three languages has been beneficial to my work environment as the saying goes: ‘You’re the number of times a person based on the languages one can speak and understand,” he says.

When he dropped out, it was long before the Government’s democratic reform of basic education for all. “The good part was that I had acquired the ‘3 R’s basics of reading and writing,” he adds.   

And faced with the dilemma to eke out a living, Jele did not fall prey to the wasted bravery of youthful over-indulgence: alcohol, narcotics, lechery or any other poppycock.

“My memories are heavier than rocks! Life was a grim struggle for survival, performing chores such as herding livestock and land tillage; three meals a day were a luxury,” says Jele. He jokingly states: “A broken egg does not mean total destruction but the emergence of a chick!”

It was in 1977 – 11 years after Botswana gained independence from colonial rule that he left Nkange for Gaborone and joined a construction company. From sunrise until dusk, he performed backbreaking tasks such as sand aggregate screening, mixing mortar, preparing bricks, and general cleaning before knocking off. While meals on site were a luxury better done in between loads, unauthorised breaks with the exception of toilet visits, resulted in salary deductions.

His hardwork and diligence paid off as he was promoted to builder assistant. The promotion came with perks such as higher pay, rest in between tasks and time for meals. “Issues of conscience and passion rather than polemic and dogma drove me to send money home monthly. Through tight budgetary prudence, I made savings addressing rural/urban migration conundrums,” he said.

Because jobs in the construction industry ended with the completion of projects, he did not rest on his laurels but scouted around for more permanent and secure employment.

Jele did not require persuasion to become a security guard, when the opportunity presented itself. This despite the fact that in those days, however, security guards apart from being amongst the lowest paid, worked long hours including night shifts. What paved the way for him to join the commuter transport business was when he obtained his light vehicle driving licence.

“Unlike previously, I could be sent on errands, deepening the interactional profile,” he says. Securing employment with Kgalgadi Breweries marked the enhancement of the passion for self-reliance.

Jele also says: “For everything there is a season: by 1991, having passed the public service passenger vehicle driving licence, my dream and passion were gaining credence. And to my credit, I had raised enough money to build a residential house, buy a second hand 12-seater kombi permit for Thsolamosisi within greater Gaborone.  As an owner/driver operator, appreciating commuter sentiments and ferrying them safely to their destination, was the first golden rule. Zeal coupled with the eagerness to learn, proved an invaluable strategy as commuter operator of choice,” he said.

As a commuter transport operator, maintaining vehicle roadworthiness called for financial prudence for purchasing fuel, lubricants and brake fluid. By virtue of being a resident in Kgope, an entrepreneurial breakthrough surfaced when I attended retired President Lt. Gen Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama meet-the-people in Kgope in 2009. During question time, the residents complained about lack of reliable commuter transport along the Gaborone/Lintsweletau/Kgope route. When President called for tenders for temporary permits pending formalization of the tendering, out of the submissions I was lucky to be shortlisted. Though operations started contemporaneously, the Ministry of Transport authorized the full permit during the 2013/14 financial year. Notwithstanding, the silver platter offering had higher-end cost implications flawed with logistical challenges.

For instance, based on the permit for business sustainability, the break-even payload is 25 passengers. A round trip to and from Gaborone is close to 200 km, calling for not only roadworthiness but mechanical durability.

When he started operating the Gaborone/Lintsweletau/Kgope route he had to address sidelining 75 km Gaborone/Kgope commuters in favour of their 40 km Gaborone/Kopong route counterparts, during the end-of-day peak. “All is moving smoothly now, the Gaborone City Council has agreed to provide commuter ranking space alongside the long distance buses. To avoid leaving behind commuters unable to travel to the Bus Rank after hours, I have introduced an advanced booking system for seat reservations for this class of travelers,” says Jele.

The local market vehicle classes designed to withstand the trying road conditions are the EU manufactured and assembled Sprinter makes like Mercedes, Iveco or VW. The operator also pays importation charges for the mandatory vehicle service and maintenance, at the rate of P4 000 and P9 000 for minor and major services, respectively. While the fuel full tank diesel for the three round trips costs P700 day-on-day, a 5-liter oil lubricant costs a whooping P500. The daily takings vary according to time of month and year. Shortfalls are an occupational hazard calling for hard work and perseverance.

Against the odds, the stumbling block is that the market lacks qualified mechanics for service and maintenance. Engine cannibalisation with cheaper makes substantially reducing life span forms the last best hope for engine malfunction falls due to this shortcoming.

“No wonder, we have always begged for government financial intervention if we are to remain in the business,” he says.

Jele says he has a 10 hectare plot in Kgope suitable for arable and pastoral agriculture pending retirement from the commuter transport business. “I will miss the kaleidoscopic mountainous landscape silhouetted against the blue sky I have enjoyed watching for more than a decade in my tour of business. I’m grooming my last born son to take over the running of the commuter transport business after my retirement into farming. I decide to bring him as his other siblings have chosen careers in the Botswana Defence Force and Botswana Police,” he retorts.