Olifant Mfa is making friends in factory floors and enemies in boardrooms. The gamble is likely to keep him in parliament but may force him out of Cabinet
The “delete” button on Olifant Mfa’s cell phone handset has lost its colour. Every morning, the Assistant Minister of Labour and Home affairs punches the key to create room for new messages.
His cellphone number, office number and post office box number have become the hottest digits in the government enclave.
“Let’s see,” says Mfa, totaling the number of messages he receives a day. “It depends on whether you are referring to phone calls, SMS messages or letters.”
We are sitting in a small office, one door away from the parliament bar and Mfa is going through some of the messages he has been receiving lately.
He remembers a complaint from Botswana National Front President and Official Leader of opposition Otsweletse Moupo who is unhappy with an investor who has opened a sweat shop in his constituency.
He remembers an agitated phone call from Member of Parliament for Mogoditshane, Patrick Masimolole “mentioning something about unfair labour practices by investors operating from his constituency.”
He also remembers a phone call from Gaborone North MP Keletso Rakhudu complaining about a retail chain store from South Africa which had unfairly fired local employees.
Rakhudu had tried to resolve the labour dispute, but the company managers would not listen to him and were sticking up their index finger at the Labour department which had summoned them for a dispute hearing.
“Every day I receive at least two written reports and 95 percent of them are from Batswana complaining about their expatriate employers.
There are cases where employers fire workers at the end of the gratuity period because they do not want to pay gratuities. Other cases involve expatriates who have been working in Botswana for seven years or more without an understudy.
And then there are cases of employers using abusive language against workers. Some of these companies are a law unto themselves and will not listen to MPs, that is why they end up coming to me.”
Until Mfa started withdrawing work and resident permits of “offending expatriates” the issue was like a big elephant in the living room that no one wanted to talk about.
Among the few voices that spoke out was Bamalete Chief, Kgosi Mosadi Seboko, who referred to Zheng Ming knitwear as “the company that does not adhere to labour laws.”
As it turned out, Zheng Ming Knitwear, which was operating a sweat shop in Ramotswa, was part of an international trade in modern day slavery.
Industrial Court Judge, Elijah Legwaila would later rule that, “it appears that Chinese nationals pay large sums of money to recruit agents who send them abroad with all sorts of promises and that some Chinese nationals even leave China with promises of work in developed countries and that by the time such people land at any destination they have neither the money nor the bargaining power to protect their rights.
“These Chinese nationals are then housed and fed in compounds at the pleasure of the employer. Their passports, air tickets, work and residence permits are retained by the employer.”
Legwaila was passing judgement in a case in which Bin Quin Lin, a Chinese national working for Zheng Ming Knitwear, was held in forced labour without pay. Chinese investors are the biggest investors in the textile industry which exports garments to America under the lucrative AGOA agreement.
By 2000 Chinese had already opened 176 textile shops in Botswana. Rakhudu says Botswana’s textile industry is the most problematic. “At the moment I am wrestling with one Chinese textile investor who has opened a sweat shop in my constituency.
This is harmful trade, I do not subscribe to harmful trade. It does not add any value to our economy; we should not sell our people for the American dollar,” Says Rakhudu.
He seems to have found a willing ear in Mfa who never passes up an opportunity to bash “offending expatriates.”
As a backbencher in 2000, Mfa suggested that government should set up a commission of inquiry to establish “reasons behind the influx of foreigners who end up taking jobs that could be performed by citizens.”
This week he told The Sunday Standard that “there are a lot of Batswana walking the streets because expatriates have taken up posts they should be occupying.
I have nothing against expatriates, but I have a problem with expatriates displacing citizens from their jobs. I have not been expelling expatriates indiscriminately. I know that there are sectors like the medical sector that still need the services of expatriates, and I respect that.
I want to put it on record that I have never expelled an investor, but I do not rule out the possibility that if an investor abuses Batswana, I will expel him. I will not make such a commitment. No. If an investor abuses Batswana I will act, believe me”, Mfa says.
Although Mfa is making friends on factory floors, he is also making enemies in boardrooms. Powerful business interests are understood to have started lobbying President Festus Mogae to drop him from cabinet.
“I have heard that some people have been lobbying Mogae to remove me from the ministry. I have confidence in our President. I know he is an independent man who is not easily influenced and if he ultimately decides to move me from the ministry it will not be because of the lobby,” he says.
Mfa, however, seems to have strong support in Parliament. The words “expatriate” and “residence permits” cropped up at least ten times in the past two weeks during the parliament question and answer sessions.
Ngwaketse Mp, Reatile on Thursday asked the minister of agriculture to tell parliament the number of expatriate officers working part time at Botswana College of Education.
The question followed the emerging pattern in parliament where MPs seem unhappy with the number of expatriates in the civil service.
Tswapong South MP Oratile Molebatsi asked ministers of education and Lands to disclose to parliament the total number of expatriates working at Botswana Housing Corporation and the Ministry of Education.
Mfa is on song and says things like “This issue will not go away even if I were to be moved from the ministry.”
He says it is only in Botswana where foreigners have the guts to question official position. “They do not do it in their countries. They should not take us for granted,” he says.
Mfa may be on the side of angels, but he is, however, punching above his weight. The Botswana’s textile industry is controlled by Chinese investors who have a stranglehold on the Botswana government.
A confidential report which was sent to the ministry of Foreign Affairs six years ago by the then ambassador to China, Alfred Dube, suggests that Botswana is worried about Chinese immigrants.
Botswana has, however, chosen to look the other way because “despite her own problems, China has offered generous assistance to Botswana in the form of concessional loans and scholarships” said the confidential report.
The issue is so sensitive that when the paper was tabled at the 1999 Conference of Botswana’s Heads of Missions, the page that addressed the issue ÔÇô page 14- was removed from the document.
The tourism sector, which is controlled by strong local political and expatriate European interests, is also believed to be on Mfa’s hit list because of alleged racial discrimination and unfair labour practices.
Last month The Sunday Standard carried a front page story based on a leaked secret memo describing Batswana as “inherently lazy people.”
The memo fomented a racial storm in the Okavango tourism enclave.
The memo, written by English-speaking white South African Grant Woodrow, drove a wedge between citizens and the white expatiate managers who are mainly from South Africa. Woodrow is a director of a safari tour operation, the Okavango Wilderness Safaris in Maun.
In the same confidential memo, Woodrow also complained about theft by Batswana employees working for his company.
He said the cultural set up of Batswana makes them vulnerable to a lot of pressures which they cannot cope with, ending up with them being thieves.
“I have always said theft is going to hit us hard in the camps ÔÇô it is an environment where staff is battling to survive due to high costs of living.
”Issues such as HIV/AIDS and related illnesses and expenses are affecting their daily lives financially.”
Woodrow said Batswana culture, which requires them to make contributions to funerals of their relatives and their communities, often outweighs what they earn.
“The Batswana are also inherently lazy people; one person per family works and supports the rest of them ÔÇô impossible in the real world, but they don’t think so,” wrote Woodrow in a letter circulated among the exclusively white senior managers at Maun.
A few years ago, the then minister of Commerce and Industry, Tebelelo Seretse warned safari owners to desist from discriminating against Batswana. Officiating at a Hotel and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) open season in Maun. Seretse warned that government would not turn a blind eye to investors who discriminated or undermined efforts to empower Batswana.
She said Ngamiland residents had alleged in kgotla meetings she addressed that safari and tour operators discriminated on the basis of colour and at times barred Department of Wildlife and National Parks from entering their camps.
Seretse’s predecessor, George Kgoroba had to fend off threats of an international boycott against Botswana’s tourism following reports of discrimination and unfair labour practices.
Kgoroba said he was inundated with letters from tourists who complained that in some camps they visited in Botswana, managers were expatriate white camps owners and their only qualification was that they were related to the camp owner.
“Most of these investors come from countries which do not have a culture of democracy, that is why they think nothing of abusing our democracy and hospitality”, Mfa said.
He is particularly unhappy with the language expatriates use when talking to citizen workers.
“The language they use is very abusive, very bad.
Why is that? The answer is simple. Botswana is a peaceful and stable nation and some expatriates are abusing these attributes because they never had them at their own countries.”
He says when such expatriates get into Botswana “they think they are in heaven.”
Another reason, says Mfa, is that over and above being slow to react, Batswana never fought for their independence, so they tend to take it for granted.
“Such things will never happen in Zimbabwe, Namibia or South Africa where black people fought for independence,” he says.
He says for as long as he is at the Ministry of Labour he will do what the law expects him to do.
“I find it strange that when we expel them they take us to court. Will they do that in Namibia or South Africa? No, it’s only in Botswana where they do such things.”
He says he is, however, aware that there is a tiny section of Batswana who are against what he is doing.
“These are beneficiaries of these expatriates. These abusive expatriates always surround themselves with some citizen lackeys for protection.”
He insists that “the issue is not Mfa but time and circumstances. Batswana are now more educated and they believe certain things are theirs. So with or without Mfa this issue is not going to go away.”
He says he will not budge.
“I am not going to stop. They can insult me but I will just continue as if nothing is happening. The right expatriates will stay but where I think we have citizens expatriates will have to make way,” he said.
He says he is working on one case in Selibe Phikwe where one Zimbabwean expatriate manager is busy employing his countrymen at the expense of citizens.
“In Botswana tribalism is not allowed. But this guy has turned one street at Selibe Phikwe into Mutare. I will deal with it until they are phased out,” he said.
Mfa may, however, find himself running in against strong tourism interests some with direct links to cabinet. He says the situation is made difficult by cartels of tour operators, police officers and some labour consultants who help them get work and resident permits.
“These people have contacts in all relevant government departments who alert them before we can raid or take action against them”, he said.