Posh but Poor – Perils of Botswana’s middle class

03 Dec 2018

IF asked to describe Botswana’s middle class, I would settle for “POSH BUT POOR”. This is possibly the shortest yet precise description of the perils of Botswana’s impoverished middle-class. Past and recent global   reports on wealth and equity distribution have documented the growing rates of impoverishment of the middle class in this country, once described as “Africa’s shining example”. 

New information surfacing in the past 12 months continue shows that the trend of unequal distribution of income is continuing, and probably worsening. As it stands, if the well-being of the middle-class was the yardstick by which Botswana’s success is measured, then our country would be in trouble. Actually our country is in trouble and we shall shortly explain why. Half of the country’s population is either living in poverty or damn near close to it. This is the same number or even more that finds itself squeezed between rising expenses, stagnating wages, and thin work benefits. This is the class that has been generally classified as “middle class” both here in Botswana and worldwide. 

Globally and even locally politicians, more especially of the ruling parties like to use the term "middle class" because it evokes images of vigorous, respectable, hard-working people with good moral values. Most of our people tend to think of themselves as middle class...indeed they are an impoverished class. We have all probably seen middle-class poverty, if not experienced it firsthand. Middle class poverty is a young single mother with a University degree who started work a few years back but already has crippling debt. It's a young man with a dream job but no health or even car insurance let alone job security. This is a young entrepreneur with a smartphone to keep up with clients but can barely keep up with office rent. Our middle class here in Botswana include the professionals who are in desperate search for land to build their first house but have no option but to rent out because a small piece of land in the outskirts of the capital Gaborone costs over P400, 000. 

These are the thousands of land seekers that our government continue to ignore despite constant reminders that land ownership is the single most powerful pathway to opportunity. We do not know how many times we should say it, but land ownership provides not only secure access to food and income; it is a source of wealth, power, and status, as well as a gateway to insurance and savings tool. 

The fact that our government has over the years failed to provide serviced land to thousands of its people should leave those in  power filled with guilt — and shame. We have said it before and for a dozen times, that elsewhere, land ownership is the key milestone towards economic opportunity and mobility that has provided returns for dwellers. Failure to provide serviced land to our people amongst other things continues to contribute to the enormous wealth disparities that are turning our country into the equivalent of a 3rd-world nation. 

Our government land policies, including the one the one that was revised in the not so distant past undermines the power of land to lift our people out of poverty. The lack of good land policies and land governance have prevented hundreds of families in our country from accessing land or getting ownership rights to the land they do use. This continues to block our people’s best potential pathway to the so called upper class and hampers broad-based economic growth.

If you ask how or why most of our people tend to be stagnant at the middle class level, our finger will certainly point at the government enclave.  All these have happened because at some point our government decided to turn her back on the middle class. The former President – Ian Khama’s obsession with poverty eradication came at an expense of the middle class whom he neglected. No doubt about it, Khama’s grand plan to fight poverty was not by any imagination a bad thing. At the time of his accession to office of the president the poor people in this country were almost forgotten and passed over by capitalism. The biggest worry is that while he did right thing to look towards those in abject poverty, Khama did not afford enough protection to the middle and working class. He shunned them by closing doors to their leaders at Trade Unions except a few who thought they were his allies. With a poverty pay, attacks through state media and court cases, it became crystal clear that the government as lead by Khama did not care about the interest of the middle and working class. 

All this happened at a time when elsewhere, the role of trade unions was and continues to evolve from that of just agitating for members’ economic standing and dignified working conditions for employees but to also shaping domestic democracies. 

It is common cause that government by its nature, and trade unions, are often pitched against each other. But it is quiet disappointing to have a government that set up an organ like Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) and then go ahead and sideline or frustrate it from doing its work to an extend of it shutting down. 

Meanwhile as trade union and labour relations environment in this country continued in its mess, the middle class also continued or rather continue to surfer economically. They are getting impoverished in the process. In the end the #Bottomline remains that our middle class should be given the much needed attention least we find ourselves stuck in the middle income country bracket forever.