Friday, March 24, 2023

A tale of two unequal Phakalanes in different cities

Two months ago, the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Botlogile Tshireletso, found herself boxed in after she responded to what should otherwise have been a routine parliamentary question.

Up in Francistown there is an exclusive residential district in private hands called Molapo Estate. According to area MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, Molapo roads are in a “terrible” state of disrepair. Through a parliamentary question, Mmolotsi sought to know whether the ministry was aware of these roads and why they were being “neglected.” Tshireletso’s response was that while she was aware that Molapo roads needed “extensive maintenance”, such responsibility fell outside the mandate of the City of Francistown Council (CFC) as they are privately owned.

“Molapo Estate is on freehold land and all infrastructure within the estate is designed, constructed and maintained by the holder of the freehold rights,” the minister said.

That made perfect sense until Gaborone North MP, Haskins Nkaigwa, asked the minister through a supplementary question why the same government that maintains roads in privately-held Phakalane Estates in Gaborone cannot do the same with Molapo estate in Francistown.

“Is Phakalane not also in the same field of freehold land as Molapo Estate?” Nkaigwa posed.

The minister’s instinct was to attempt to weasel out with the aid of a technicality, telling Nkaigwa that she had to respond to a question about Molapo and not Phakalane. She added that since Nkaigwa has been Gaborone mayor he would understand the Phakalane issue better. Francistown West MP, Ignatius Moswaane, jumped into the fray by sharing intelligence he gleaned from people in his constituency.

“My question to the minister is did the Francistown City Council make you aware that one of its officers has made a mistake by approving the developments in Molapo, that now it is the responsibility of the Council? They are now pointing fingers at each other and nobody is taking the responsibility to intervene,” Moswaane said.

In response, Tshireletso said that she was hearing that information for the first time. Rising on a point of order, Nkaigwa, who is the former mayor of Gaborone, said that the minister was intentionally misleading the house.

“Government policy is that you develop an estate, you develop the road infrastructure and they are handed over to government for maintenance. So, that is why I was asking the honourable minister where is the consistency in terms of government policy,” the MP said.

In the end it was the Deputy Speaker, Kagiso Molatlhegi, who came to Tshireletso’s rescue by sweeping the issue under the carpet. Molatlhegi chose to focus on Nkaigwa’s subversion of the rules of the house (invoking a point of order instead of point of procedure) than on the contentious issue at hand. When Okavango MP, Bagalatia Arone, insisted that government policy be pronounced right there and then, Molatlhegi said that the issue would be discussed at the General Assembly, the closed-door meeting of MPs. In the end, when parliament moved to the next item, the Molapo issue had not been brought to finality and government policy had not been pronounced. If the matter was indeed discussed at the General Assembly, the information that came out has not been fed back to the public.

Sunday Standard’s investigations reveal that there is a world of a difference between Phakalane Estates and Molapo Estate, that there is no double standard exercised in favour of the former and in disfavour of the latter. As Nkaigwa said, Phakalane is indeed in the same field of freehold land as Molapo but the two are managed differently. According to the Managing Director of Phakalane Estates, Lesang Magang, the design and standards of the roads and storm drains in his estate are done by engineers and submitted to the Gaborone City Council (GCC) for approval. Owing to the fact that its standards must be met, GCC is updated during the construction period and invited to all site meetings. Phakalane undertakes all construction work at its own cost. On certified completion, the roads are handed over to GCC for maintenance. GCC collects rates and uses a portion of them to maintain infrastructure of roads and streetlights as well as to collect refuse. Magang says that the same process happens with the Botswana Power Corporation, the Water Utilities Corporation and the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation Limited. The consultants appointed by the developers design the relevant infrastructure – in BPC case, both the consultants and contractors are certified by the Corporation. The utility corporations approve the designs before construction starts. After certified completion by engineers, the corporations take over the secondary and tertiary infrastructure for maintenance. In order to have enough money to maintain the infrastructure, the corporations charge the relevant tariffs by law.

On the other hand, Molapo Estate doesn’t have as neat an arrangement with its own local government. According to Joseph Wasubera, the Senior Public Relations Officer in the City of Francistown Council, there are currently no arrangements between Molapo Estate and Council “as the owners have not yet handed over the roads to the Council.” With no formal handover having occurred, the CFC should be under no obligation to maintain Molapo roads but it has tied itself in knots. Sunday Standard has independently established that some time in 2009, CFC did carry out maintenance work on Molapo roads which, it turns out, have not been developed to the proper official standards. Naturally, the residents expected such maintenance to continue and legally, this may have established legitimate expectation. If that is indeed the case, the government may find itself in a legal cauldron because Molapo residents are deep-pocketed enough to afford high-priced lawyers to litigate this matter on their behalf at the High Court. Asked to confirm if the CFC ever undertook any road maintenance at Molapo, Wasubera merely stated non-commitally: “As Molapo is a freehold, Council has no jurisdiction in the area. It will only have full responsibilities when the property owners hand over the road and street light developments to the Council. That is when Council will be liable to maintain such roads.”

The CFC was also not helpful in illuminating the allegation that Moswaane, who has been Francistown mayor, made in parliament. Asked to confirm or deny the MP’s allegation, Wasubera said that “All developments in the city have to be approved by the Council.” Subsequent effort to get the Council to state in precise yes-or-no terms whether the Council ever maintained Molapo roads and whether any officer ever approved its developments drew a blank.

The situation notwithstanding, CFC collects rates from residents of Molapo Estate. Explaining the rationale for this, Wasubera said that rates (a form of tax) are levied on property for the raft of services that the Council provides.

“This tax is used by local authorities for funding public services such as waste collection, street lights, roads and other developments. Other services like waste collection are being provided to residents of Molapo,” he said.

Beyond its basic plot elements, the Molapo Estate story also highlights an imperfection in the government’s communication’s system and how that system can be costly to investors, both citizens and non-citizens. There is a knowledge gap that exists in both officialdom (Minister Tshireletso is a good example) and the public on this matter. When the matter should have been clarified in parliament and even as MP Arone pleaded that government policy be clarified, the Deputy Speaker chose to give priority to technical rules of the house and the issue has not been revisited since. Meanwhile, people continue to buy property in areas where they would be expecting local government services like road maintenance even when they don’t qualify for such.

Sunday Standard’s own quest to establish the facts on this matter was an uphill battle. In line with government practice (the government doesn’t an official communication policy), we submitted questions in writing to the CFC last month. We learnt that the City Clerk – who is in effect the spokesperson because of the power and authority vested in his office on matters of public relations, was away in Belgium. The incomplete response came a fortnight ago and to date, follow-up questions referred back to CFC have not been responded to.

In this particular case, this entanglement of bureaucracy happens at a time critical time in the development of the property market in Botswana. Over the years, this market ÔÇô at least at the level where it has allowed citizens to participate, has been upgraded from “train” hostels in urban areas to two-and-half cottages to multi-residential complexes and currently, to estates like Phakalane and Molapo. As Magang makes clear, the issue is not about Phakalane or Molapo but about what is supposed to happen for estates on freehold land in urban areas to qualify for local government services. Without this knowledge, some investors will buy property in areas where the local council doesn’t provide services, which state of affairs will impact on the quality and value of investment. Some people would have bought property in Molapo with the hope that the estate would enjoy the same status and benefits as Phakalane and are only now discovering that it is in a different (lower) class altogether.


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