The news story is that the High Court and the Court of Appeal have moved from Lobatse to Gaborone; the business story is that this relocation has brought further ruin to a small town whose local economy has been slumped against the ropes for a long time.
“The relocation represents significant economic loss to Lobatse because lawyers patronised local businesses. Some would lunch at Cumberland Hotel, for instance,” says Lobatse mayor, Caroline Lesang.
Alongside those lawyers were Administration of Justice staff as well as all manner of people with direct or indirect stake in the judicial process. The busiest season was when the Court of Appeal was sitting and the single busiest day was when the legal year opened in pomp and ceremony. Henceforth, the bulk of the business that Lobatse got from High Court and Court of Appeal activity will go to the new central business district coming up in Gaborone.
Although Lobatse can, by no measure, be called a ghost town it is future gets bleaker by the year. Huge swathes of the town’s landscape are blighted with sclerotic infrastructure with serious abandonment issues. In 2009, the Lobatse College of Education closed down because it did not meet the University of Botswana’s affiliate standards and the ministry of education did not have money to do needful. The Lobatse Town Council has initiated a process to repossess abandoned buildings and undeveloped commercial plots that take up a sizeable chunk of land in the town centre. It has had to write absentee landowners – some of them living as far away as Europe – to put their land and buildings to productive use. If that doesn’t happen, the land will be repossessed and the relevant authorities have been notified of such intent. Manufacturing companies that are important to the local economy also keep shutting down. A few short months after the Lobatse Tile closed down, there were media reports that Lobatse Clay Works also faced similar fate. Worst of all, if the rumoured privatisation of the Botswana Meat Commission, the mainstay of the town’s economy and the largest facility of its kind in Africa, does happen, some residents will most definitely lose jobs.
In an effort to breathe life into the local economy, Lesang says that the town has to rely on itself.
“We have serviced land that we want to make available to business people to develop. Our experience has been that individuals don’t develop land, which is why we have consolidated our commercial plots and are offering them to developers. We want to have a modern shopping mall like Game City,” she says.
A new stadium was opened last year but has had to be temporarily closed while fix some of its structural problems are fixed. Lesang says that when fully operational, this stadium will be put to maximal use by providing certain complementary infrastructure alongside it. The town council plans to build a mall and hotel with conference facilities at the site of its own stadium in order to provide services for people who would be coming to the town to use the new stadium.
Lesang says that they have already initiated the process by applying to the Ministry of Lands and Housing for permission to change land use.
Last year LTC organised a forum to market the town as an investment destination. Held under the theme ‘When you think investment, Think Lobatse’, the forum brought together representatives from BMC, Botswana Development Corporation, Botswana Tourism Organisation National Food Technology Research Centre, Choppies Supermarket and various business sectors to strategise on how the town could be restored to good economic health. The forum was divided into four clusters of Property Development, Beef and Horticulture, Manufacturing as well as Hospitality and Construction.
Other than the business being taken away, Lesang says that the pride that the town had about its historical importance is been taken away.
“It was a source of pride to us that the headquarters of the High Court were in our town but what we have now is a regional High Court – like the one in Francistown. The government should emulate the example of South Africa where following democratisation, important historical institutions were not uprooted to new places.”
Although its tourism potential is not being fully exploited and pace of progress to do so is languid, Lobatse has tremendous potential of becoming an important tourist destination. At the said business forum, an official of the Botswana Tourism Organisation lamented that the town was not exploiting its tourist potential as the country’s first town. Radio Botswana started operating in Lobatse before it was moved to Gaborone. The first strip of tarmac road in colonial Bechuanaland Protectorate was laid in the town ahead the visit of British royals. According to Kopano Lekoma (a former underground operative of the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto WeSizwe, who later became Botswana National Front’s vice president under the late Dr. Kenneth Koma) the decision by the ANC to wage an armed struggle was taken at a meeting held in Lobatse at the Peleng home of late Rivonia trialist, Fish Keitseng. By Lekoma’s account, Nelson Mandela was smuggled into Bechuanaland Protectorate through a white-owned farm along the border into Lobatse. Subsequently, the town hosted both Mandela and the late Mozambican president, Samora Machel. Both men sought refuge in the town while undertaking covert missions to liberate their respective countries.
Lobatse would have hosted the independence talks in 1965 but some local politicians (notably Kgalemang Motsete) insisted on a neutral venue which was why the talks were moved to London in the United Kingdom. The first British Divisional Commissioner’s pro-consular residence in the town has effectively been left to rot when it could be restored to its former glory. In another very sad case, the old colonial house in which Seretse and Ruth Khama has been demolished.
In the final days of the colonial government when it appeared highly likely that Lobatse would become the capital, a white businessman built the country’s first multiracial hospitality establishment, Cumberland Hotel, not too far north of the town centre. Instead Gaborone was declared the capital, perhaps marking the first in a series of episodes that the old colonial town began losing business to Gaborone.