Saturday, September 25, 2021

Khama’s contempt for the middle class has undermined Botswana’s economic dynamism

Poverty eradication was supposed to be President Ian Khama’s signature project.

From the early days of his presidency, Ian Khama came up with a host of initiatives all aimed at lifting the poor from poverty.

Now with less a year left before he leaves, office, it would be interesting for him to visit the projects he started to see if his legacy will outlast him.

Our view is that there is not much to show for the millions of pula poured into these half-baked ideas.

The biggest undoing of Khama’s ides is that they were all premised on populism.

Another factor is that from the beginning, such ideas were crafted not only to be pro-poor, but also anti-middle class.

In short instead of bringing the nation together against a common enemy ÔÇô poverty, Khama’s projects divided the nation.

This has been a kind of political extremism never before known in our shores, not even during the cold war when communists and socialists looked to the East and the conservatives, looked to the west.

Botswana has always been a bastion of midway politics.

Khama came into the scene fully converted to the idea that the economy had for far too long worked for the middle class while leaving the poor far too behind.

He might have been correct in his assessment that too many people had been left out.

But he was dead wrong to blame it on the middle class. Or in his belief that economic growth and carrying out were mutually exclusive.

Khama’s greatest misfortune has been to come at a time when the economic pie was no longer growing in size.

But instead of using the middle class to help him retain the country’s economic dynamism he not only turned his back on them, but came up with economic policies that were hostile to them in posture.

That delayed recovery, undermined dynamism and in the end defeated even his signature priority to fight poverty.

Khama’s open hostility to the middle class and excessive populism that was premised on handouts polluted the air and in the end made it impossible for him to carve himself a lasting legacy.

As a thoroughgoing populist Khama bought into the narrative of exclusivity, which he refined to new measure.

The biggest tragedy for the contempt that Khama has shown for the middle class is that it divided the country ÔÇô which it did- but rather that it robbed the country of its most needed skills in the middle class.

That robbed the country of the kind of dynamism needed today as the country grapples with moving away from reliance on commodities, and towards being skills based.

It will take longer than ten years, which is the length of time that the middle class in this country was as a matter of official policy squeezed, to rebuild stronger institutions that the economy will need to be more dynamic.

To put it on record, poverty reduction (not eradication) was a sensible course of action if supported by way that would ensure sustainability.

But cutting off the middle class from the economic mainstream and then embarking on non-sustainable poverty eradication measures like backyard gardens among others was a sure way to economic disaster.

In the end, Khama’s policies of economic eradication were confirmed dead before arrival.

By its very nature, Botswana’s economy relies excessively on Government.

And targeting the middle class, the academia, the media among others created superficial distortions from which recovery will be longer than the time spent administering the sour dose.

It will be a long time before the real effects of Khama’s economic populism are felt.

These effects are not limited to his attitude towards the middle class, but extend to his trigger happy attitude when it came to levies.

Under Khama the country came up with a plethora of levies that are a real albatross on the economy.

The Alcohol Levy for example has literally killed the alcohol and entertainment industries in Botswana.

To make matters worse, while the alcohol industry has paid millions towards that levy, almost ten years on, not a single rehabilitation centre has been built.

This notwithstanding the fact that when it was introduced, Government said it needed Alcohol Levy to be able to help victims of alcohol related accidents including alcohol addicts.

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