Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Botswana’s free-spending poor who complain about poverty

Simple Days is a 1996 hit song by an African-American R&B superstar known professionally as Babyface. In it, Babyface (real name Kenneth Edmonds) pines for “those simple times/when a man was a man/and a friend was a friend.” Maybe a Motswana artist with knowledge of yesteryear’s Botswana should compose a song through which s/he would mourn even simpler times when poverty looked, smelled, felt and tasted like poverty. Why? Because some of the much-lamented “poverty” in today’s Botswana looks, smells, feels and tastes like a gourmet meal at a high-end gastropub that sits at the top of the food chain.

To be perfectly clear, there are Batswana who are dirt poor, the kind that is often publicly humiliated with grand philanthropic spectacles that go straight to Facebook. However, there is another very peculiar class of people who identify as poor but don’t live like the poor. Being poor should mean that one makes themselves scarce around shopping malls but today, some of the biggest shoppers are from this peculiar class of the poor. One of the items they buy are iPhones that directors in government departments can even imagine ever owning.

Next to the shopping by the poor who live it up is merrymaking which takes various forms and goes by different names. These people are a big part of this sub-culture. On Wednesday, a poor person in this class is at a bring-your-own, all-black party and would likely have bought the white clothes two days before the party. On Thursday, the Botswana weekend officially starts and she is hopping from bar to bar and often end ups at really pricey “lounges”, newspeak for nightclubs. She repeats the routine on Friday, barely beating the sun to get home and sleeping a couple of hours. When she gets up, rather than cook soft porridge, she makes a short trip to the neighbourhood tuckshop or restaurant to buy greasy food for breakfast. There is an all-white friend’s birthday in the evening and so another shopping trip to get that attire (and present) is absolutely necessary. When the party ends in the dead of night, another lounge-hopping excursion starts and ends in the morning. Sunday’s routine is almost similar to Saturday’s except that the merrymaking starts earlier at a neighbourhood shebeen to pluck the hair of the dog that bit our merrymaker – go ntsha babalase in South African Setswana. A little later in the afternoon, there is the obligatory Sunday trip to a “jazz” joint – not to listen to jazz but to make merry with 200 other people who themselves don’t like jazz. It is as likely that there might be a Franco, Vee or Makhazi music show or camp-chair merrymaking at a garden on a weekend day. Our “poor” merrymaker, who could also be male, will definitely be there.

Inbound tourism among Batswana has really taken off and among the major participants in this type of tourism are the poor living it up. On Facebook, there are pictures of them living it up in places that, in some cases, are a good 1000 kilometres from where they live. They also dabble in outbound tourism, in some cases having a whip-round with like-living and often socio-economically-stationed friends to hire taxi minibuses to take them to Sun City resort in South Africa for a days-long excursion. As is common knowledge, cross-border travel is expensive, not least because it requires a special budget for incidental expenses.

There is evidence that some of these people do really fall within a socio-economic bracket that renders them poor and officially, would be so categorised. However, there remains the question of why people who are supposedly poor can afford to live large and why these people have to complain about poverty at all. Some of these people have decided that the ruling party is failing them and in literal translation of a Setswana proverb, that President Mokgweetsi Masisi “has eaten a mongoose for the very last time” – o jele kgano o mo laetse, and that they won’t give him another term. In some cases, this lamentation is made in the midst of merrymaking. An issue that is supposed to be black and white becomes murky.

No less an institution than the World Bank has studied Botswana’s poverty and came to the conclusion that it is of a peculiar kind. On studying the Destitute Persons’ Programme, the Bank’s researchers found that some people don’t want to graduate from the Programme because the benefit is higher than what they could earn working at the minimum wage in agriculture. On the basis of this, the report concludes that this element “may become appealing to non-intended beneficiaries.”

The Bank recommended that over the medium term, the government should consider enhancing social-protection programmes by introducing work requirements for able-bodied individuals (in areas where Ipelegeng, public works programme, does not operate) and by tying cash assistance to certain behavioural changes related to the use of nutrition, health, and education services.

“A programme of this type offers the opportunity to promote behavioural changes that help families increase their children’s human capital, helping break the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have been successfully implemented in a variety of middle-income countries. They have been rigorously evaluated and found to be highly effective in improving child outcomes, including poverty status, nutrition, health, and schooling,” said the Bank’s report, giving Burkina Faso as a recent example.

In the past, Sunday Standard has illustrated the absurdity of Botswana’s social protection system with a true-life anecdote of a middle class family collecting monthly food rations at a store in Block 9, Gaborone for a “destitute” relative. Heaving plastic bags full to bursting, family members filed out of the store and packed the grocery in the boot of gleaming UKong (a fong kong from the United Kingdom) car backed up within some two or so metres of the entrance.

This peculiarity manifests itself in another way. Botswana’s social protection system has three major categories: social insurance, social assistance or safety nets, and active labour market programmes. In the social safety net category are scholarships and sponsorships which support students in tertiary education, accounting for 1.4 percent of GDP and nearly half (45.3 percent) of total social-assistance spending. With Botswana’s tertiary education gross enrolment rate itself being low for a middle-income country, the overall programme coverage is small, with only 1.4 percent of the population living in recipient households.

According to the World Bank, “the richest fifth of households take 55 percent of [government] scholarships; the poorest fifth get only 7 percent.” This serves to widen wealth and income inequality. The Bank found that almost 40 percent ofpeople in the richest 20 percent quintile receive some form of government aid. One such is the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture Development (ISPAAD) which was introduced by President Ian Khama in 2008 to support and develop the agriculture sector. A poverty and social impact analysis of ISPAAD by the UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) Botswana has found that the programme was not means-tested but was instead made universally accessible. Its eligibility criteria allow all active persons (including multi-millionaires) with access to arable land to benefit.


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