Saturday, February 27, 2021

Gaborone City; A case for relocating Botswana’s capital

In an essay titled ‘Gaborone Planning: Problems and Prospects’, veteran Town Planner Jan Wareus writes that ‘…the new capital (Gaborone) was chosen primarily because of the availability of water supply from a suitable dam site and of course, land belonging to a very humble and understanding tribe’. Wareus further reveals that originally, Gaborone was envisaged as a garden city restricted in growth to about 25,000 people. Essentially, Gaborone was designed as ‘a small administrative place for the government ÔÇô nothing big with expansion possibilities’. Over the years there have been sustained complaints that Gaborone’s planning as the seat of government and Botswana’s biggest commercial city has been mismanaged and largely neglected.

The difficulty encountered by the city authorities to navigate Gaborone’s planning problems perhaps suggest that its planning problems cannot be overcome in spite of concerted efforts aimed at renewing the city specifically through the provision of modern roads and other requisite infrastructure. Such efforts included the replacement of roundabouts or what we commonly call circles with traffic lights-controlled intersections; construction of dual carriageways and flyovers. The construction of the western-bypass semi-highway was also undertaken to re-direct traffic especially that which is headed to the north or south, from the city centre with a view to easing traffic in the city.

Interestingly, it would seem as though every time new measures to ease traffic are put in place, traffic congestion reach record levels. This scenario could suggest that there is no feasible way out of the Gaborone traffic problem given its mismanaged planning. The government has consistently acknowledged and advised that Gaborone city’s land is exhausted, thus hugely limiting the potential growth of the city. It is noted here that Gaborone is virtually encircled by land belonging to tribes that of late have become very uncomfortable and vocal against the city’s encroachment into their tribal territories. Put bluntly, such tribes have become increasingly hostile to the growth of Gaborone and or the allocation of what they consider to be their land to aliens. In response to the acute shortage of land for Gaborone, the government has over the years sought to purchase private land to facilitate the growth of the city. This has cost the government dearly and given the dwindling public finances this approach may not be cost effective and would not be sustained into the future. Granted there is what physical planners often refer to as urban renewal.

This constitutes deliberate facilitation of the growth of cities in spite of acute shortages of land. While this concept has worked well elsewhere in cities like London and Cape Town, it is my contention that since the planning of Gaborone has been mismanaged and neglected from the start, its renewal is likely to be a near impossible mission. In recent times, Gaborone and the surrounding areas have been experiencing a devastating shortage of water and the situation is becoming desperate and potentially crippling. Gaborone dam which used to supply Gaborone and its outlaying settlements with water is drying up.

Painfully, at the pick of the current rainy season the damn continues to dry up whereas smaller dams that used to augment its capacity are experiencing insignificant inflows. A combination of these monumental challenges suggests that Gaborone has limited potential to grow into a truly modern city in the mould of London or Cape Town. In fact, its pretence as a big city in spite of its obvious flop is starting to reveal its artificial make up and beginning to unfold into a national embarrassment. Its growth is tragically weighed down by its countless planning problems that date back to the early days of its establishment; unavailability of surface and underground water; unavailability of land as well as its bizarre geographical location and so forth.

Thus, the nation must admit that Gaborone as the seat of power and the biggest commercial city in the country has limited possibilities for renewal or reconstruction. It has reached a dead end and the sooner the nation accepts this painful truth and search for an alternative capital the better for Botswana. The relocation of a country’s seat of government commonly known as the capital is not a unique phenomenon and has been done by many countries for varying reasons. Therefore the government of Botswana should not shy away from taking a bold decision to address our predicament with Gaborone.

Certainly a proposal of this nature is bound to generate heated debate, controversies, protests or even threats of mutiny by some sections of the population strongly opposed to the idea. However, sometimes it is necessary to take difficult and unpopular decisions to deal with a potentially ticking bomb. It should be appreciated that the proposed relocation is not in the form of transplanting Gaborone and resettling it elsewhere. However, the relocation could take the form of the transfer of government administration to a new location that is properly planned and its growth potential appropriately projected.

This format will ensure that in spite of the transfer of the seat of government or the administrative capital, Gaborone retains its city status and remains the commercial heartbeat of the country and trend setter for the rest of Botswana’s towns. Specifically, this suggestion proposes the separation of the seat of government from the commercial city. This would take on the model of South Africa and many other countries in the world. In South Africa – our sophisticated neighbour, Johannesburg is the biggest commercial city yet government has been split between three cities of Pretoria, Cape Town and Bloemfontein.

The suggestion to relocate the seat of government will obviously not bring water to Gaborone or secure free land for the city but it would ease water and land demand in Gaborone. More importantly, the phased relocation of the capital to a new place somewhere in the north or west of the country would ensure more balanced development systems and by extension even up wealth creation. It should be noted that for a long time people from the north and west have rightly queried the undue concentration of development in and around Gaborone, neglecting other regions to a point where the spectre of tribalism reared its head.

It also seems to me that the choice of Gaborone as the capital of Botswana was erroneous in the first place. For a dispersed country like Botswana where development is spearheaded by the national government, one would have expected the capital to be located more or less centrally to service all regions equitably and more conveniently – to bring the national government closer to the geographic centre of Botswana. Again, for security reasons, Gaborone’s closeness to the South African border compromises its strategic importance as the nerve centre of all government operations.

Perhaps this explains why it was much easier for apartheid bullies to bomb their targets in Gaborone and get back to South Africa without any interception. Concluding, it is proposed that Botswana consider relocating the seat of government elsewhere. This will, while easing Gaborone’s planning, water and land problems, also spur development in other regions without compromising the development of the south-eastern part of the country and by extension ease regional inequalities and promote nation building as well as enhance peace.

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