Sunday, May 29, 2022

In Dubai, Masisi markets lucrative tourist asset whose profits are repatriated overseas

Forget what textbooks say but when properly defined, “marketing” actually means the over-use of adjectives – especially superlatives. That explains why a posh-school-accented President Mokgweetsi Masisi had to over-use adjectives when he marketed Botswana from a Dubai podium: “one of the best safari destinations in Africa and the world”, “largest naturally-occurring elephant herd in the world”, “oldest, most consistent, most predictable democracy on the African continent”, “majestic Kazungula Bridge” and “largest inland delta in the world.”

If you have followed discussions on citizen empowerment, illicit financial flows and real ownership of the Okavango Delta, the last item should set off alarm bells. The latter is probably something that doesn’t happen often enough but a substantial portion of profits made from the luxury tourism ventures in the Delta don’t go to Batswana but entities within the global white economic power structure. One part of the latter is in Africa, which is why a company doing roaring business in the Delta might be South African but would still be hard-wired to such structure.

Stephen Corry, an unsung hero who helped Bushmen communities of the G//cui and G//ana in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve hold on to some of their ancestral land, has usefully described the most lucrative part of the Okavango Delta as “a white ethno-state.” The latter refers to areas within the Third World which, for commercial gain, are either monopolised or dominated by European colonial settlers or their European brethren. Right from its name, the Okavango Delta fits this description. To the unwitting, “Okavango” sounds authentically African but is actually European in origin. The first Europeans to reach what we now know as the Okavango River were the Portuguese. They named the Delta “Cuando Cubango”, Portuguese for “the end of the world.” On the tongue of some local people and over time, “Cubango”, which is retained in its original form in Angola, became “Okavango.”

Europeans were the very first people to set up shop in the Delta and in doing so, ensured that it acquired a western character.  Most of the lodges are managed by white couples, mostly from South Africa. The official language is English and as Sunday Standard has reported in the past, the use of Setswana is prohibited in some resorts. The cuisine is strictly western and the most preferred currencies are the dollar, pound and euro. The most preferred guests are white and western and blacks are creatively kept out. With regard to the latter, Sunday Standard has reported about a former minister who was treated dastardly by a resort owner until he (the owner) discovered who he was. Half of A-list Hollywood and European royalty holiday in the Okavango Delta and as research from the African Natural Resources Centre (ANRC) shows, a good chunk of the profits is repatriated abroad, mostly overseas. According to the Centre, Botswana’s tourism leakages are as high as “over 70 percent.” A substantial portion of them would be from the Okavango Delta, which remains the country’s most lucrative tourist asset.

The lease agreement which governs commercial use of this asset, whose custodian is the Tawana Land Board, has been crafted in such manner as to shut out a particular class of citizens – indigenous ones. It contains a right-of-first-refusal clause – right of refusal being a legal principle in terms of which a seller must give a party an opportunity to match a price at which a third party agrees to buy a specified asset on the same terms offered to the third party. When the lease for a concession area ends, all bidders, including the sitting tenant, compete in an open tender and upon evaluation, the latter is given the opportunity to match the overall highest bidder’s proposal. In the event the sitting tenant has to vacate a site, s/he has to be fully compensated for a site that would have been developed with huge sums of money over a period of time. Practically all operators are western and even among themselves, it is extremely difficult to buy back concession areas from the multi-millionaires who do roaring trade in the Delta.

In Dubai, Masisi essentially used the prestige of his office to market a tourist asset within a white ethno-state, an asset that figures from the ANRC suggest the nation doesn’t benefit much from. In fairness to the president, everybody else (from the Botswana Tourism Organisation to all government ministries and governments to the private sector) markets this asset at the expense of all other tourist assets. The latter include private media. Resultantly, the Delta is now so well-marketed that when Botswana was developing its developing its brand, one member of the Brand Leadership Team, a boisterous white foreigner who was rumoured to have been part of then President Ian Khama’s real kitchen cabinet, proposed that the country should be renamed “Okavango.” The reason he gave, which could well be valid, was that the Okavango Delta has a higher international profile than Botswana.

Oddly, the marketing that the Delta gets from all corners is denied other tourism sub-sectors (especially cultural tourism) that Batswana have a realistic chance of benefitting from. The Dubai event was supposed to be a cultural night but in a speech lasting 11 minutes and 52 seconds, Masisi dedicated only one minute and 14 seconds to talking broadly about culture and mentioning only two cultural products: seswaa (pounded beef dish) and morogo (vegetable). He wasn’t specific about the morogo variety.

Interestingly, some resorts within Corry’s so-called white ethno-state are harnessing (some would say appropriating) indigenous culture to enhance the tourist experience for their guests. It is standard requirement that indigenous people who work at camps in the Delta should entertain tourists by performing traditional dances. When Culture Botswana 2.0, an indigenous-culture-oriented Facebook page, published a post on Okavango Delta blacksmiths who used a centuries-old blacksmithing tradition, a Cape Town-based interior designer promptly bought products from a Beetsha workshop to decorate a luxury resort. (In a related development, a filmmaker from the same city contacted the blacksmiths to make arrangements for making a documentary film on this rare and coveted artisanry.) 

Brief though he was, Masisi sought to plug for Botswana’s culinary tourism. One ventures to suggest that the brevity had to do with either the president or his speechwriters not having enough information about cultural-tourism products. Generally and as a direct result of neglecting cultural tourism, there is no stock of knowledge on cultural tourism products – even for the seswaa and morogo that Masisi enthused about. A report compiled by European consultants says as much about Botswana’s tourism products generally. Seswaa is a whole category of odd because while it is a national dish, none of the agencies responsible for marketing Botswana’s tourism have systematically assembled information on it. Interestingly, while seswaa is what everybody else talks about at the podium, there is an even tastier meat dish (Central District mokoto) which is being denied the publicity that it certainly deserves. Mokoto is made from beef backbone and book tripe and culturally, is eaten by men only.

On the other hand, there are yards of information about Okavango Delta both on- and offline. One detail that Masisi shared with his Dubai audience was that “582 million cubic litres of fresh water flows in the most uncharacteristic manner inland, drains into the mighty Kalahari Desert and from there, the new Garden of Eden is created.” It would be more interesting to hear Masisi – or anyone else for that matter, talk about the culinary science and cultural protocols behind seswaa for a straight 15 minutes. In fairness to him, Masisi has, through parliament, introduced legislation that would help plug leakages from Okavango Delta tourism. If this legislation achieves its aim, it wouldn’t be eyebrow-raising to hear him marketing the Delta.

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