Sunday, July 5, 2020

A season for change is nigh

To a question why naturalised citizens who dominate business should be concerned that indigenous Batswana have largely been excluded from Botswana’s economic boom, Tumisang Healy appeals to their conscience. In a country that has been so good to them and made it possible to prosper, he asks, don’t they think the people of this country also deserve the same? Somewhere through the conversation, the background music in the coffee shop we have chosen for our rendezvous is of Otis Redding’s rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke’s prodigious composition that became an anthem of the United States civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It’s a poignant reminder of a struggle once waged in a different time and country by a people excluded – descendants of slaves forcibly carried across oceans to build economies neither they nor their offspring were deemed t human enough to enjoy. It’s a perfect sound track, albeit for a few minutes, for a discussion that coincidentally is on yet another act of exclusion – and a necessary struggle to correct that injustice.In last year’s general elections, Healy managed an unlikely feat by taking back Gaborone Central from the opposition to become the Botswana Democratic Party’s first MP for the constituency in 10 years. His outspoken rhetoric and demonstrably impatience with the slow pace of change in the economic wellbeing of indigenous Batswana would seem somewhat unusual for a backbencher of the governing party – an observation he shrugs off, pointing out that he is in politics precisely because of the unequal society that Botswana has become.

“If you are a citizen who loves Botswana genuinely then you should be concerned, irrespective of your background or colour,” Healy says. “If your allegiance is genuinely to this republic and if you have a conscience, then it should bother you that the majority of citizens – and the majority in this instance are the indigenous Batswana – have been excluded from the economic wealth of a country that has been so good to you and made it possible for you to prosper this much.”He asks of naturalised citizens to ask themselves if the descendants of the people who fashioned Botswana into a relatively well-off and stable democracy, “which is what attracted you from your country of origin”, don’t deserve a fair share of the country’s wealth.“Look at the unfortunate situation that happened in Zimbabwe (during the invasions of white-owned farms). Why the politicians did what they did is known to them. But why the people got spurned on to doing the land invasions is because they had run out of patience. They had been promised things which were not materialising. What is political independence without economic liberation? It’s useless.“So we have had our political liberation. It was bloodless. It was smooth, for which we are thankful. The levers of government right now and the control of this country in the political sense are in the hands of indigenous Batswana. In our early days after independence senior civil servants, judges, and all the people who ran this country other than the elected politicians were of foreign descent, then we had our localisation process. But that localisation process is not yet complete because it just stuck to the civil service. The process hasn’t gone far enough. So in the spirit of economic justice, we are saying let’s localise the wealth in the same way that we have localised the positions in the civil service,” he states.

Healy sounds a warning that the longer it takes to bring indigenous Batswana into the real mainstream of the economy, the closer Botswana lurches towards its Tunisia day and the ensuing Arab Spring. His explanation is that in any country where the citizens feel marginalised, it goes without saying that at one point there will be some sort of unrest similar to the uprisings that swept across the Arab world in the early 2010s.“We don’t want that sort of turmoil for our country. Our forebearers have sacrificed so much to make this country what it is, so it would be irresponsible of the settler community and it would be irresponsible of us the indigenous Batswana to let the status quo continue because invariably what we would be saying is that we want to throw it all away,” he cautions.

Healy disagrees that framing the narrative around Botswana’s wealth distribution in the terms he does smacks of racism or some sort of discrimination. He argues that the truth must be told, and the right terms to describe that truth should be used for there to be a lasting solution. He makes the case that discrimination has long happened in Botswana, and the people who got the short end of the stick were the indigenous Batswana. So in that sense, the theory continues, the current conversation is about correcting past wrongs. His diagnosis of where it all started goes back into Botswana’s history – the history of the arrival of the early white traders who formed the nucleus of the settler community and the declaration of British protectorate over what would then be known as Bechuanaland.

Healy argues that from early on, there was systematic design to give certain fundamental advantages to the white settler community.“They (the settler community) got access to the most important resource, being land. The most fertile land in the Tuli Block was lost to the people of this republic. The best ranching land in Ghanzi was lost to the indigenous citizens before they even had a republic.“In the early days, the only traders were of foreign extraction. So everything conceivable was already stacked against us. When you add that to what then happened post independence, then clearly indigenous Batswana are disadvantaged. But let’s be clear about one thing; the issue is not to discriminate. We are not trying to discriminate against anyone; we are trying to put indigenous Batswana on equal footing so that all citizens get to share in the economic wealth of the country that they all call their home.”

So what does Healy and other like-minded people want to see that will address the economic exclusion of the majority?He prefaces his answer with the commitment made in the BDP manifesto for last year’s elections as well as various public statements by the party leader President Mokgweetsi Masisi about the need and urgency to economically empower Batswana ba sekei (indigenous Batswana).“One of the reasons we as BDP MPs are in parliament is that we promised Batswana a citizen economic law. We have had policies around the same subject for many years, and they have clearly proven to be ineffective mainly because policy is not binding, and there is no sanction. But when you have law, if anyone breaks it there will be criminal sanction.“So we need a law to whip into line those who don’t want to comply because there will be certain elements – both our own people the indigenous Batswana, as well as citizens of foreign descent – who will work against this principle and they will do anything to stop it. So there is need for a law that will make everyone know that if you sabotage this thing you will face criminal sanction,” he points out.

Something else needs to change. This time he directly addresses the indigenous citizens. First he narrates an experience from his youth when Gaborone had only two or three hardware stores. He was sent to buy a chain, and the first hardware store he walked into had run out of stock. Then something interesting happened. The (Indian) owner picked the phone and called another store, which happened to have what he was looking for. The owner of the first store referred him to the one he had just called, obviously owned by someone of similar descent. Now you’d say he had a great customer experience, which might as well be. But there is another thing that he deciphered in that gesture.“The man wanted to keep the money in his community,” he says.

In contrast, he imagines, a Motswana would probably not have referred a customer to a compatriot’s store because of a tendency to view each other as competition and lose sight of a deeper shared interest.“I find this hostility and ill-wish so strange because when you look at our background in farming, we water our livestock in the same boreholes; we had a communal system in our culture in which we cooperated for the common good and shared almost everything. But where has that gone? Why and when did we become so individualistic?“We need to start asking ourselves the hard question. Lehuha ke la eng? Ke eng re huhegelana? Why do Batswana not want to see each other succeed? We are very comfortable to be enablers for either a citizen of foreign descent or a total foreigner to succeed and prosper, but when it comes to an indigenous Motswana, the first thing people are going to say is, ‘o batla gore ka moso a sena go huma a ba a re roga ha?’, “ he says.

All the individuals in the list of the richest people in Botswana published in the business magazine Forbes Africa a few years back were of Indian extract, and clearly that is still very much the case. I ask Healy how it made him feel.“It’s an area of great concern because you ask yourself the question, ‘do Batswana ba sekei not know how to create enterprises? Do they not know how to run a business?’ Then you immediately say that is not true because we have many luminaries, whether you’re talking of Rre Seabelo Tlhaselo and TJ Motlogelwa in the transport business, whether you’re talking of construction companies that were started by the likes of Rre Modiri Mbaakanyi and Rre Tlholego Seretse such as Tswana Construction and Boswe Construction, whether Sefalana, which was started by Batswana and exists to this date as a successful enterprise.

“So we have many examples that show us that Batswana can build enterprises. The question that follows is how come they didn’t break the glass ceiling to become wealthy? Those are the issues that we need to speak to. Do we lack capacity? Do we lack the knowledge? If so, how can we build capacity? How can we have the knowledge? I don’t think there is any particular race or a people who it’s engrained in them to be better businesspeople than others. It’s only by systems and design that this happens. Other people capacitate themselves better than others both in learning and in resources,” he says.Is there political will to see the change he speaks so passionately about?“Definitely,” he responds. “That is beyond doubt. The BDP manifesto clearly states that. Even the BDP constitution addresses this question. The opening line [of the BDP constitution] says the BDP stands against domination of all sorts. And this is economic domination. The tenets of the BDP constitution speak against this because right now we have a certain section of society dominating the economy over others.”

I ask Healy why he has chosen to align himself with a cause that would lead him to step on too many toes with vested interests. He mentions a number reasons such as his belief in social justice which was his reason for joining politics in the first place, the desire to correct the inequalities that exist in Botswana’s economic setup, the historical appreciation that the republic was carved from different ethnic kingdoms that believed in a common destiny, the frustration of seeing young Batswana who had brilliant business ideas being sabotaged, and the need to prevent an explosion that could happen if the impatience of the youth is left unaddressed. Then he mentions something else. His three children. If things ever go bad, he wants to be able to look them in the eyes and say, “I tried. I did what I could”.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.