Friday, April 16, 2021

Debswana’s charm offensive hits a snag!

Undoubtedly one of the country‘s foremost publicity strategists and the past master of spin, it will be interesting to see how Jacob Sesinyi will dig Debswana out of its current public relations nightmare, touched off by revelations that the company has been using secret cameras, planted in toilets, to spy on its employees at Orapa.

You know things are bad when a company decides to spy on its staff. The Debswana bad-o-meter recorded “worse” this week on the back of news that employees at the company’s Orapa Mine Treatment Plant have lodged a formal grievance after they found out that a covert camera had been planted in one of their toilets.

This is a public relations nightmare for a company that is losing the hearts of workers and partners alike.

Once an employer of choice and a media pin up company, the credibility of the world’s leading diamond miner is on the skids.

The blue chip has never fully rebounded from the fall out of the bruising tussle with staff over a pay rise two years ago.

Although management won the legal battles and sacked close to five hundred employees, it lost its place in the hearts of Batswana and is still to redeem itself.

The general feeling was that while the union leaders were, to a large extent, somewhat wrong in misleading the workers, management on the other hand reacted with disproportionate high handedness.

Then there were rumours (never formally denied) that morale in the Group is at an all time low, with the company staff and crack engineers leaving in droves to join competition as conditions of service deteriorated and the company becomes less competitive than it used to be.

Debswana slid off the rails when executives and their board decided to trash almost all of citizen empowerment initiatives that had become the group trade mark; the Masedi Farming Project in Pandamatenga, the much talked about world class chain of hotels the group had promised to develop, as well as canceling the scholarship programme that had become the flagship of their impressively superior training code.

News that the company management has been spying on their employees, using a secret surveillance camera planted in a toilet at one of the company’s highly automated treatment plants in Orapa, has only played into the hands of critics.
This week Managing Director, Blackie Marole, held an impromptu meeting with a number of Board of Directors to brief them about the problem.

As part of the company’s damage control strategy, he also dispatched a memorandum to the Group’s entire 6000 strong workforce to break the heartrending news that he had instituted an investigation “following the lodging of a complaint about the existence of a security camera in a particular area of the Completely Automated Plant in Orapa.”

Already, the Workers Union are up in arms, and would not only want to pounce on the management when at its weakest, but would also, if possible, want to use the crisis as an opportunity to extract the best bargain to compensate for their past losses.

Even public relations wizard, Jacob Sesinyi realises that there will not be any easy way out of the current problem facing him.
Sesinyi insists the matter is a subject for the ongoing investigation instituted by Managing Director Blackie Marole.

“It is a sensitive issue. The matter is still under investigation, therefore, it is only logical to allow the process to be completed,” was the farthest he could go on the matter.
But at least as a premier brand, Debswana is in many respects losing its sparkle and winning back the shine may not be easy.
And there are other problems looming on the horizon which will undermine the charm offensive meant to expedite the comeback.

The De Beers Group is pushing to relocate a significant portion of the Debswana procurement budget to South Africa. And early signs are that De Beers will succeed in that endeavour.
That would mean that, instead of buying key commodities like fuel and tyres from local suppliers, Debswana would procure under the banner of De Beers in South Africa.

And this despite the fact that tax complications and other price structures support the case for Botswana than they do South Africa.
Relocating such a huge procurement budget to South Africa would mean Debswana would lose its power to buy citizen support at home.
Debswana Deputy Managing Director, Len Makwinja, has conceded that a debate to that effect is ongoing, if not at the boardroom level then at least at shareholder level. He has also conceded, that given Debswana’s significant procurement budget, the shift of influence towards South Africa will in a big way undermine Botswana government’s citizen empowerment policy.

But the pain of the whole new development is that, inevitably, Debswana will forfeit what has always been its chip in the scales of influence.
Used to getting preferences in the group’s share of the huge procurement budget, Botswana citizens have been complaining that most such benefits have now shifted to South Africa at the behest of De Beers who are using the tilt in their favour to honour their Black Economic Empowerment obligations in South Africa at the expense of Citizen Economic Empowerment here.

Even as Makwinja says no decision has been made, in the eyes of Botswana suppliers, the decision to shift the centre of Debswana supply chain management from Gaborone to Johannesburg has long been made.

As a result, there was little excitement even as Makwinja, standing shoulder to shoulder with Sesinyi recently, broke the news at a recent press conference that Debswana would want to see Batswana form joint ventures with foreign companies so as to be able to extract a significant share of the budgeted P6 billion expansion projects.

But even with Sesinyi, Debswana’s public relations come back will not be easy.
The days of the exuberant Louis Nchindo are long gone and the introverted Blackie Marole is of another era.

Another meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at which Makwinja will again push the charm offensive to new levels, by meeting the Debswana Suppliers face to face to tell them about the Group’s future projects, procurement policies, procedures and the P6 billion worthy of projects.

But lurking somewhere on the horizon and certainly lingering at the back of his mind will be the specter of a covert camera in a toilet at Orapa where he was General Manager before his promotion to Head Office.

Again, it will be interesting to see how the Public Relations wizard, Jacob Sesinyi, will help him reconcile and settle between the inherently conflicting shades.


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