An unusual paradox is playing itself out in the new genre of COVID-19 philanthropy. Small businesspeople who have been supplying households with groceries have now been displaced by Choppies supermarket chain.The paradox here is three-fold. Firstly, Choppies is merely donating these groceries and the government is doing what anybody else or any institution would so if it had a choice between buying and getting things free of charge.
Secondly, as the pandemic devastates the national economy, the government has undertaken to keep all Batswana afloat and the food distribution programme is one aspect of such undertaking. Another is to provide stimulate the economy by providing business opportunities, especially for small business people. Some of those business people have been supplying households with groceries but have now been displaced by Choppies. Thirdly and in keeping with long-standing practice, a good many of those business people have been found to be over-inflating prices – as is the wont of most suppliers when doing business with the government.Government could have crafted a way to receive Choppies’ donations while keeping the small business people afloat but subtracted the latter from the equation.
The result is this arrangement comes at so great a cost to small business people that some of them may now need Choppies-donated food to feed their families.In the estimation of a Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, which is responsible for the government’s food distribution programme, Choppies’ donations are pure commerce and put it in an excellent position to corner the booming COVID-19 relief market.“The chain has national footprint and is developing systems and processes to distribute relief food on a national scale,” says this officer. “It is not going to donate this food forever and down the road when the government wants to engage a supplier on a commercial basis, Choppies will not have any real competition when it bids for that contract.
It is certainly going to make a lot more money from sales than it lost in food donations.” Some would see Choppies generosity as problematic at another level. For as long as it has done business, Choppies has been dogged by quality control issues, which has prompted some people to not buy from its stores out of an abundance of caution. A small businessman who was supplying groceries in the Kgatleng District says that he was buying his stock from Sefalana Wholesalers, a reputable wholesale that has been doing business in Botswana for decades. With small businesspeople such as this one having been displaced, households that would have preferred Sefalana over Choppies groceries are now forced to eat Choppies’ food.
On the whole, COVID-19 philanthropy has been deeply problematic. No less a person than the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Employment, Labour Productivity and Skills Development, Kabelo Ebineng, has publicly lamented that while some donors have shelled out millions of pula to the COVID-199 Relief Fund, they “have not paid their employees amounts as little as P3000. That is wrong.” Trade unions are as concerned. The Deputy Secretary General of the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSO), Ketlhalefile Motshegwa sees not charity but commercial motive in this philanthropy.
He says that beyond the photo opportunity at the Office of the President, these donors are softening the ground for future business deals with the government.While donating to the COVID-19 Relief Fund is welcome, Motshegwa bridles at the neglect of the welfare and torment of workers by owners of the companies that donate. He would have preferred these companies to finalise pending grievances with employees before donating to the Fund.
“Some of those companies have cases pending before the Commissioner of Labour and some courts of law,” he says, adding though that these donors may have borrowed a leaf from the government which has itself unilaterally deferred the salary increment of its employees under the pretext of an imperfect economic situation that is however, being attended by “massive corruption and looting.”