Monday, September 25, 2023

Botswana gets its first world-class commercial centre

As the title of Sir Ketumile Masire’s book says, in seeking independence from the British, Botswana’s founding fathers were either very stupid or very brave. Some will contest the idea that Batswana ever sought independence and instead assert that a broke, post-war Britain couldn’t afford to finance its overseas colonies – Bechuanaland Protectorate was actually a colony – and thus shed them to ease such financial burden. However, if you are persuaded by the argument that Batswana lobbied for independence from the British, then that was a very brave thing to do for what was then one of the poorest countries in the world.

The colonial masters handing over independence on a silver platter didn’t think that a dirt poor country with a small population would ever have practical need for a central business district larger than the few blocks they built in what became the Gaborone Main Mall. The capital city of the new republic was on what had previously been called crown land – which was essentially a euphemism for “whites-only areas.” Within crown lands were white-owned farms with English names. Within what was then called Gaberones was a nine-hectare farm called Cotton Fields. In the 1970s, this farm was converted into a car racing track.

When what was once part of the British Empire becoming a republic, crown lands became state land. Thankfully, around this time, there was exploration for diamonds and when De Beers hit pay dirt, the history of Botswana would be changed forever. It soon became evident that Gaborone would require a much larger CBD and the result was that in 1979, a structural plan to develop Gaborone west of the railway line was developed. Resultantly, the government bought Cotton Fields and earmarked it as the future heart of the city for business and entertainment. In years to come, land pressure forced the government to turn a large chunk of that plot into a residential area that is now known as Phase 2. A rectangular strip of land on the eastern edge of the area remained empty.

While Sir Seretse wouldn’t live long enough to see this rectangular strip being transformed from a bush into a business district, his son would play as prominent a role when that finally happened.

The very first building at the new CBD (brown-bricked, unremarkable in appearance) was constructed on the southern-most, extreme right corner in the early 2000s. Shortly thereafter and at the tail-end of controversy that typically comes standard with big-money tenders, the Three Dikgosi Monument went up. The winner was an Asian company but not it was not Chinese and the citizen bidders were aggrieved as to precipitate a campaign that boomeranged on them.

When the P11 million tender was advertised, citizens artists bid for it and when it was instead awarded to a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Project, outrage followed. Why had the tender been awarded to a foreign company when there were citizen companies that were more than qualified to do the job? Down the road, Btv did a documentary that proved otherwise. The bidders had been invited to send samples of their work and prototypes of the three Batswana dikgosi. The hopelessly amateurish prototypes that Btv showed conclusively that there was clearly no local capacity to undertake the sort of project that the Department of National Museum and Art Gallery (as it then was) wanted. Design aside, the project entailed the moulding and casting of the bronze statues as well as civil works.

The choice of Mansudae was a gamble that paid off at first but later came back to haunt Botswana.

The largest art production factory in the world, Mansudae employs roughly 4000 North Koreans, including some 1 000 artists, handpicked from the country’s best academies. Monuments being a big thing in Africa, Mansudae has done work for countries like Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Senegal. In using Mansudae’s services however, Botswana was violating “UN” trade sanctions against North Korea – the sanctions were really imposed by the west and Third World nations like Botswana – which have no problems with the Asian nation, are typically railroaded into supporting them.

The Three Dikgosi Museum, whose business potential remains underexploited, has now become Gaborone’s favourite photography location and periodically hosts fashion shows.

All the while buildings were going up but it was the retail centre that houses Square Mart that breathed life into a place whose name has evolved from “new CBD” to just “CBD.”

Sunday Standard’s information is that there has been deviation from the original plan. Such information is that all buildings were to be at least eight stories but the very first building showed that wouldn’t be the case. In line with international convention for CBDs, none was to be fenced. The Administration of Justice (AoJ) was the first to deviate from that plan when it relocated headquarters of the High Court from Lobatse to Gaborone. The (quite well-intentioned if aesthetically ill-conceived) purpose was to provide extra security for court records but AoJ neglected to implement a complementary security measure – lighting all around the perimetre fence. Some more properties have been fenced, spoiling the aesthetic that the original plan wanted to create.

With the headquarters of many more government entities being set up, CBD has become an extension of the Government Enclave – which is just across the road.

Most importantly, CBD, which President Ian Khama launched on September 23, 2016, is becoming Botswana’s first real world-class commercial centre and is bringing unique business models. The CBD is home to the tallest public building in Botswana, i-Towers Complex, which itself is home to Regus. An international brand that operates in 2000 locations, 750 cities and 100 countries, Regus provides what it calls “flexible work spaces.” These spaces are fully-equipped with the equipment and facilities that a businessmen needs to conduct business.

With four world-class hotels, the CBD is already helping Botswana’s plan to harness MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism. Court documents have revealed that a cast of prominent Gaborone businessmen plan to introduce a world-class, high-roller luxury casino at Protea Hotel. The revelation came when Moonlite Casino (then at Gaborone Hotel but now at Airport Junction) sought to relocate to the i-Towers Complex.

Next to the luxury hotel in the CBD is the luxury restaurant, some with hip, if funny names. One on the first floor of the i-Towers Complex has a walk-in wine cellar which, if we are not wrong is Botswana’s first. There is also a Chinese restaurant with a feature that recreates a common night-time Shanghai sight: LED moving message signs, one announcing karaoke nights.

While it has been split in half, the Cotton Fields name lives on courtesy of The Fields Mall. As the sixth supermall in Gaborone, The Fields has been built on 27 000 square metres and houses 70 shops with Spar Pick ‘n Pay and Woolworths as anchor tenants. Opened last year, the mall, which has hosted two very spectacular exhibitions, is becoming popular with shoppers.

Sadly, there is a downside. As will all gleaming office buildings and supermalls in Botswana, the quality of customer service at one too many CBD establishments falls firmly between sub-standard and horrible.


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