Friday, July 12, 2024

MP laments ‘unusual cruelty of today’s BDP’ on opposition businesspeople

In a country where the government is the largest supplier of services and products, one of the really painful things about doing business with that government is having to wait for literal months on end to get payment for services rendered. In the interim period, operating funds dry up, salaries can’t be paid, bills pile up and unserviced loans accrue interest and charges. In extreme cases, children whose school fees can’t be paid and who can’t be fed and clothed properly, become collateral damage.

Debating a bill through which the Minister of Finance, Peggy Serame, seeks authority to borrow money from the African Development Bank, Mahalapye West MP, David Tshere, made a startling allegation against the current Botswana Democratic Party administration: that it deliberately sabotages businesses owned by members of the opposition.

“It is very cruel of this BDP of nowadays,” he said, adding later that only one set of people were benefitting from the public procurement system – BDP members.

Another startling allegation that the MP made was that the ruling party creatively uses legal-administrative subterfuge to punish those who donate to the opposition parties. In his telling, if a benefactor makes a donation of P10 000 or more, their bank account is immediately frozen for purposes of carrying out a know-your-customer (KYC) audit “which takes forever.” The result would be that the targetted business is unable to operate, bills pile up and it ultimately collapses.

As regards his charge about today’s BDP being particularly vicious, Tshere said, citing personal experience, that members of the opposition who have done business with the government in the past, now find it extremely difficult to do so. That is because they are being deliberately targetted in an elaborate sabotage scheme. He sought to give a case of members of the president’s family as an example of how some people are being favoured but met stiff opposition from the Assistant Minister of Basic Education, Nnaniki Makwinja. The latter argued that the issue didn’t belong in parliament and that those Tshere was referring to couldn’t defend themselves because they are not MPs.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s sister and nephew are subjects of an explosive court case in which the latter alleges that he is being cut out of a P500 million tender. The main issue is not that the family members are fighting over a lucrative tender but that Masisi’s family suspiciously started winning big-money tenders after he became president. 

Naturally, the BDP allegations were met with strong pushback from the Government Bench. The Minister of State President, Kabo Morwaeng, said that what the Mahalapye West MP was saying was untrue and unparliamentary. Vice President Slumber Tsogwane, who is also the Leader of the House, said that Tshere was in the habit of bringing false allegations to parliament. Tsogwane added that if public officers do indeed do what Tshere alleged, then he should bring evidence that they did so on the instructions of the BDP. The Vice President asked the Speaker, Phandu Skelemani, to rein in the Mahalapye West MP because “you can’t preside over a house of allegations.”

In response, Tshere said that he was merely relaying concerns that have been relayed to him by equally concerned members of the public not just in his constituency but the entire country. He couldn’t provide evidence, he explained, because the information had been relayed to him in confidence. On that basis, he added, he couldn’t possibly betray the confidence of those who trusted him well enough to confidentially tell him about their experiences with the public procurement system. On the basis of the latter, he argued that BDP MPs challenging him on the truthfulness of the allegations themselves knew that this information was highly confidential.

Interestingly, at a time that Skelemani had managed to convince Tshere to leave the BDP angle out of his debate and concentrate on late payment, Tsogwane reverted to that same angle, which was when the Speaker said the MP had gone past that issue. Past that issue, the MP said generally that late payment had resulted in most citizen companies closing down and employees being retrenched.

The Lobatse MP, Dr. Thapelo Matsheka, also raised concerns about the latter and pointed a finger of blame at the public procurement system. In lamenting a “cost-of-living crisis”, the former finance minister said that some companies had relocated to South Africa and others are planning to retrench staff. He cautioned that unless the finance minister ensured that money that was being borrowed from AfDB “trickles down quickly” to the private sector, then her ministry will have a budget that supports the government as one of the direct beneficiaries.

The issue of money that doesn’t trickle down quickly to the private sector goes back decades. Despite assurances made by President Masisi in 2020 that the government will “give businesses some cash-flow relief”, late payment is still the norm. Following such assurance, then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Dr. Wilfred Mandlebe, notified the nation, through a public statement, about the Ministry’s economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the “Ease of Doing Business” sub-section, he stated the following: “All Government institutions to pay purchase orders within 5 days and parastatals to pay within 24 hours”; “Address GABS downtime related issues”; “Improve efficiency of procurement processes”; and “Government to pay all outstanding invoices (arrears) in 2 weeks (P530million).” That was a pipe dream that Tshere moaned about.

Going back to the presidency of Festus Mogae, there has always been grave concern about late payment which, in some instances, has caused some businesses to collapse. Former finance ministers in Baledzi Gaolathe, Kenneth Matambo and Matsheka himself have been quizzed about this issue in parliament. That this issue keeps cropping up despite assurances that the Ministry is a problem on its own and portends a future in which more businesses collapse. A year after Masisi made his assurance, Sunday Standard was able to confirm that hospitality establishments that had been used by the Ministry of Health to quarantine Covid-19 patients, were going for months on end without being paid. What made the financial situation even worse was that these establishments had to use their own resources to cater for these guests. This happened at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when the government was the only source of business for hotels, lodges and guest houses. For as long as they did business with the government, the spectre of income instability and collapse of total collapse of business operations loomed large.

The late payment is the nub of economic empowerment because there can be no greater empowerment than actually putting money in the bank accounts and pockets of citizens. While they express concerns about late payment, MPs themselves have never systematically, substantively and consistently spotlighted issue, either in the house or on other platforms at their disposal.

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