Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Looks like Masisi’s ‘Mpeechane’ speech fell on deaf ears

On the eve of the first national Covid-19 lockdown President Mokgweetsi Masisi made a speech that did not only get citizens talking but also had some corporations issuing ‘reactive’ press statements relating to their commitment to Botswana. In the speech, Masisi accused some companies/investors of ‘forgetting’ the country that buttered their bread. That was in April 2020. Fast forward to early September, on the 4th to be precise, when Ngami constituency Member of Parliament – Carter Hikuama tabled a question to the Minister of Finance and Economic Development Minister – Dr Thapelo Matsheka about the total amount of money contributed to the national Covid 19 Relief Fund he might not have been aware that he is also exposing the reluctance by Botswana’s private sector, more especially multinationals to give back to the community. 

The answer as given by Dr Matsheka shows that cumulatively and with the help of civil societies, development partners and members of the public a small fraction of P126 million came from the private sector. 

The P126 million attributed to the private sector by Matsheka against P2 billion seed paid to the Fund by the government is not even close to what several multinationals which rakes profits from the local economy pays to its executive officials on annual basis. The expectation was that at bare minimum the multinationals, more especially those in the financial services and retail which never stopped making money even during the pandemic would make a significant contribution towards the national Relief Fund. Many, if not all multinationals in this country – including those in the tourism sector which unfortunately are now out of business have been making a lot of money from our resources including human capital. That is why a good number of them, not all, should have been the first to heed the call made by the government in April when the Fund was set up. Many of them have been expatriating 100 percent of the profits they make here without even second thoughts of giving a Thebe to the communities they operate in. It is a shame that these are the same companies that occupied the first space in the que at the Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) for the wage subsidy.

No one is asking these companies or suggesting that all of them should give back to the communities of Botswana. But any person who has lived in this country even under a year will tell how some of these multinationals have been exploiting our people and by extension our economy. If anyone doubt, they should visit the latest survey carried by Statistics Botswana on labour and employment. The survey shows that a majority of the working class in our society is earning less P10 000 per month and yes, this cannot be blamed on Covid – 19.

This pandemic much as its easily turned into a scape goat by many, is new in our shores and is not responsible for failure by these big corporations to pay better wages to their employees or at bare minimum set up workers shares schemes. This commentary should not be misinterpreted as an attack on the private sector but rather should be read as a wake up call to the leadership of this country to consider speeding up all the processes geared towards the development of citizen owned enterprises. Some of these multinationals decided to look the other way at a time when we are facing the worst crises in history.

They do so because they have not attachment to this country. That is why each passing year they repatriate all the profits made here without blinking or without thoughts of ploughing back the money into our economy. They do so because of the loophole brought by our obsession with the so-called open economy. If the powers that be insist on keeping the current economic model, then they should also ensure that they fully support development of citizen owned enterprises. The attachment that Batswana has to their country surely can not be matched to that of some of these foreign owned enterprises which showed their true colors during the pandemic that we are still battling. There is no guarantee that all local companies would give back but surely, they would not be as detached as some of these foreign owned multinationals. Our leaders should surely keep in mind the global political and economic context that led us where we are now.

They must not ignore the fact that one reason the Covid-19 pandemic, will have, and has already had, such a serious economic impact is that countries, including ours, have organised their societies in ways that render them extremely vulnerable. Botswana has over the decades joined the world in creating a reward structure that benefits an increasingly small and select elite while devaluing the majority. The last time we checked Botswana was described as the third unequal nation in the world. While not easily available, enterprises ownership (in high returns terms) statistics would surely show that ownership is skewed towards foreigners thus leaving the people of the land with crumbs. 

This speaks to us on how we do things and certainly should direct how we share the cake going forward even during crisis like this. 

From where I stand, our start of point should be at securing the future of citizen enterprises, particularly of the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and informal sector where a majority of the people of the land are earning a living. 

Supporting both the SMEs and the informal sector by building their capacity will go a long way in playing such an important role in the economy in the medium – long term. The #Bottomline is that if we are to turn tables to favour us, our eyes must be set on supporting the SMEs and informal sectors because that is where a majority of our people are and by nature those businesses are engines of any given economy. Our aim should be positioning such enterprises to be able to meet the demand that will someday return and most importantly turn them into competitive multinationals in the long term. 

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.