Thursday, June 13, 2024

MP laments domination of poultry market by ‘Gandhi’s children’

It is nothing President Mokgweetsi Masisi would approve of and it is more than likely that he will haul the “culprits” over coals at the next meeting of his parliamentary party. However, he wouldn’t be able to do that with the “ring leader” because while he ran on a Botswana Democratic Party ticket during the 2019 general election, Mephato Reatile, the Jwaneng-Mabutsane MP, has long left the party and is now a member of the Botswana Patriotic Front. Via amendments to the Livestock and Meat Industries Act and the Control of Livestock Industry Act, the Minister of Agriculture wants to establish a body that will be known as the Botswana Meat Industry Regulatory Authority.

The Authority will “provide for the regulation of the livestock and meat industry, and to provide for the control of the grading, marketing, sale, importation and the exportation of, and the imposition of levies in respect of, livestock and meat products; and other matters related thereto.” When contributing to the debate on the bill, Reatile complained about a certain race (“letso lengwe”) which he then identified as “bana ba ga Gandhi” (Gandhi’s children) dominating the poultry market. He also made a startling allegation. All along poultry farmers have had leeway to set prices as they see fit. As it currently stands, Clause 47 of the Botswana Meat Industry Regulatory Authority Bill seeks to change that.

The Clause says that the Minister of Agriculture, may in consultation with the Authority, prescribe the prices for any category or class of livestock and meat product.” The Minister of Agriculture, Fidelis Molao, has revealed that Clause 47 will be removed when the bill reaches committee stage. Additions and subtractions are par for the course in as far as legislating goes but Reatile smells a rat. His suspicion is that behind the scenes, the said group of poultry farmers lobbied the government hard to have the clause removed in order that they can continue settling prices for themselves: “Ha ba kgorotha, molao o ntshiwa ka ponyo ka leitlho to cater for their interests,” he alleged about his so-called Gandhi’s children, meaning by the Setswana that when they complain, the law is changed in the blink of an eye. “They regulate the air we breathe.” Returning to his substantive argument, Reatile alleged that if poultry wasn’t included in the clause, it wouldn’t have been removed.

Just in case anyone was confused about whom he was talking about, Reatile said that these businesspeople are the sole franchisees of chicken outlets like Nandos Fried Chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chicken Licken. On being prompted by Gantsi South MP, Motsamai Motsamai, Reatile further complained that while cattle farmers are typically taxed on their sales, the so-called Gandhi’s children are not taxed on their chicken sales. “If cattle farmers are charged 4 percent, why is the same thing not done with poultry farmers who make millions and millions of pula in profit?” he posed. “That is why I say some people regulate the air we breathe. Poultry farmers make more money than cattle farmers: a farmer who owns five cattle is taxed while a poultry farmer who owns 200 000 chickens is not taxed.” He added that ordinary Batswana look at legislators “with sad eyes and ask themselves why fellow Batswana that they voted into parliament make laws that oppress them and another set of laws that gives preferential treatment to a certain race.” Reatile and Motsamai belong to the Opposition Bench and while the third speaker, Tonota MP, Pono Moatlhodi, came to parliament on the ticket of the Umbrella for Democratic Change, he subsequently defected to the ruling BDP – ostensibly in exchange for being made Deputy Speaker.

As Reatile before him, Moatlhodi expressed grave concern about preferential treatment being extended to two groups: one of unidentified cattle barons who control the beef sector and another of a group that controls the poultry market. While Moatlhodi didn’t provide as much identifying detail as Reatile had, his immediate audience wouldn’t have struggled to identify. While he asked Moatlhodi to enlighten the house on the identity of the cattle barons who control the beef sector, Bobonong MP, Taolo Lucas, certainly knew whom the former was referring to. That was actually the response that Moatlhodi gave. “Yes, those ones – you know them,” said the Tonota MP who then related an anecdote about what he learnt during an international trip that he made to the Fiji Islands in his capacity as the chairperson the Botswana chapter of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The late Ray Molomo was Parliament Speaker at the time of this visit. Moatlhodi said that what he learnt during his time in Fiji was that the native population was being dominated by an immigrant community which had “snatched” the country from it.

While he didn’t identify the identity of the latter, he had revealed more than enough detail for those who follow international news to know whom he was talking about. Moatlhodi quoted this anecdote to relay a warning to Batswana that if they don’t wake up and smell the coffee, the people he didn’t want to name will hoard all national resources for themselves: “Ha re sa thoahale, ra ntsha matho dikgapheng, batho ba, ba a go helela ba re tsetse sengwe le sengwe.” This anecdote was immediately followed by another revelation: that he spends “sleepless nights” agonising over the domination of the poultry market by a certain group of people. He added that when Batswana try to venture into poultry farming, their businesses collapse overnight as a result of the sabotage of the group of people whose business practices give him sleepless nights. “Kgalema!” he said directing his words to Molao, meaning by that Setswana that the latter should intercede on behalf of Batswana farmers. To a chorus of voices asking “who are those?” the only response Moatlhodi would give was, “You know them.” While she used more diplomatic language, Specially-elected MP, Beauty Manake, also expressed similar concern about the poultry market having been captured by “very few people.” She said that these people, who are “protected’,” by those in high places, have benefitted from the long-standing ban on poultry imports. The end result has been that “there is a lot of unfairness that is happening and Batswana are unable to penetrate this market and be equal players in it.”

She pointed out the irony of these sacred cows being in the habit of complaining bitterly when some business opportunities are reserved for Batswana: “O ta a utwa jaaka ba ta a be ba kua ba bangwe ba re ba itseng: ‘Hee-wee go protect-iwa bo MmaManake, hee-wee go protect-iwa bo-semangmang’.” Of all MPs who contributed to the debate, Manake is in a unique position to appreciate this issue because she served a stint as Assistant Minister of Agriculture. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the contribution of the three MPs was that while they didn’t name names, they were merely echoing sentiments that are publicly and periodically litigated in uncoded language. By Gandhi’s children, Reatile was using a generic descriptor for Asian businesspeople. Indians were the first Asians to come to Botswana and “Indian” is typically used to refer to all Asians – except the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. Gandhi is Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian nationalist leader who fought British colonialism. Fiji has two main groups: native Fijians and the economically dominant Indo-Fijians who are originally from India and still enjoy a lot of political support from New Delhi. In the beef sector, white cattle barons, especially those in Gantsi, have been accused of dominating the sector to the detriment of small Batswana farmers.

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