Monday, September 21, 2020

Home is where the devil is

The biggest decision made by Botswana Government this week had nothing to do with a cabinet reshuffle that saw foreign minister, Unity Dow dropping from government.That decision also had nothing to do with the abrupt removal of Joseph Mathambo as head of the corruption busting agency, the DCEC and banishing him back to the military barracks, from whence he had come.vThe second arrival of Tymon Katholo at DCEC has set tongues wagging, but that too was not by any stretch the biggest decision of the week taken by government. Cabinet reshuffles are often carried out to implement political trade-offs in government – more to appease and placate rivals and less to signal policy changes. TDow was for example one of the president’s most trusted hands – second only to the vice president and perhaps minister Kefentse Mzwinila. Yet still her departure means nothing to an ordinary man, other than what it is, which is a fall out of favour with the president. She has lost inner cabinet debates. And it was truly honourable of her that she offered to resign if she felt she could no longer conscientiously defend government positions.The answer to what has been the biggest decision in government can be found in a press release from the Ministry of Trade and Investment

.Early in the week government announced that henceforth bakery imports into Botswana will be banned. The press release ends by stating that the intended beneficiaries are SMMEs. Is it?As with most other things that are important to their lives, Batswana took little notice.Instead they are seized with trying to make sense of intrigues involved in a cabinet reshuffle. And also to second guess why Mathambo was removed from DCEC and why, of all the people Katholo was brought in – for the second bite of the cherry.Once again Botswana Government is barking at a wrong tree. The beneficiary of the move will not be the SMMEs owned by indigenous Batswana. The true beneficiary is going to be the chain stores that control Botswana’s economy. These are Pick ‘n’ pay, Choppies, Spar, Shoprite, Checkers and a few others.These or at least some of them benefitted handsomely with the banning of imported bottled water.Government had said they were banning imports of bottled water to benefit SMMEs. As a result many young Batswana rushed to CEDA to get loans to buy machinery to process bottled water.

Almost all those SMMEs have since collapsed. They simply could not compete with Choppies – which is now trading at a near monopoly on its multiple brands of bottled water.This is how an otherwise innocuous government policy intended for small man, SMMEs and indigenous Batswana has been hijacked by a multi-national behemoth operating in about ten countries. Government knows this pretty well. But then what can they do against Choppies!That does not mean that banning of bakery products is not significant. It is very significant. And it has a large potential to benefit indigenous Batswana if it was done properly.But as it is, the benefits will accrue not to local bakeries and confectioners, least of all in the rural areas, but to chain stores as that will become apparent in the near future.That is because the chain stores operate bakeries in their stores. The arrangement used to be to rent out the bakeries and the butcheries too. That has long stopped. Once again Botswana Government is giving chain stores an easy pass under a false pretext of citizen economic empowerment.

The question that SMMEs and indeed indigenous Batswana should ask themselves is how much of their world has been changed by such previous similar moves. The answer is zilch. The fact that Botswana Government is extending an imports ban using as its cover the intention to help SMMEs is wholly implausible. This invites wild guesses as to the true intensions of government. The first and more generous one is that government simply does not know what they are doing. The second and more cynical one is that government is developing cold feet and thus getting more doubtful about the true value of an economic policy that deliberately benefits indigenous Batswana – which would be a tragedy.There is no doubt that Government is losing its ability to influence events in so far as they relate to domestic market dynamics.Self-sufficiency on bakery products has never been such a big issue.Save perhaps for Woolworths, many of these chain stores do not import much of their confectionaries.Again, the devil is in the detail.

There is a seldom spoken burning issue. Government policy is crafted to simply skirt around this issue.Indigenous Batswana have been disempowered, not by any imports from outside but by being closed out to the margins of their own domestic market.Take the butchery business for example. Chain stores have killed corner butcheries through a predatory use of “Anchor Tenancy” which explicitly forbids competition from opening in the same mall where Choppies, Spar, Shoprite or Pick ‘n’ Pay have anchor tenancy rights. Just how closing any meat imports help revive the old butcheries that used to be profitably run by local families beats me!Protectionism at the border is totally misplaced. It will give protection to businesses who least need to be protected by Botswana Government.

Once again government empowers chain store supermarkets against the small indigenous man. Whatever the outcome, indigenous Batswana need to reclaim the driver’s seat of the economy of their country – a position currently occupied by native Indians and also native Europeans.As is the case with the poultry industry, indigenous Batswana have all the power in their hands. They should refuse the insult that they are simply consumers and demand to be allowed to come in as manufacturers, traders and exporters. They should not accept that they are only good as menial labourers. President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s success or failure will ultimately be judged on two things. First it would be the extent to which he was able to restore faith among indigenous Batswana. Second it will be the extent to which if he reviews the Constitution as he had promised. The final document has to be inclusive and all embracing. Anything else like foreign relations will be a cherry on top, but in the main incidental and secondary.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.