Thursday, October 28, 2021

‘Between them ministers own over 300 huge farms in the Kgalagadi Desert’

Cabinet ministers attempted to use sarcasm to obscure a startling (some would say depressing) detail that the Gabane-Mankgodi MP, Pius Mokgware, revealed in parliament.

It turns out that away from city lights and media spotlight, ministers are quietly amassing huge parcels of agricultural land in the middle of the Kgalagadi Desert.

“Just between themselves, the ministers that other side of the house own over 300 farms at the Western Sandveld – ministers alone,” said the MP using the following Setswana: “Borara jo bo tletseng ka koo go na le over 300 farms tsa bone ka kwa Western Sandvelt – borara joo fela.”

In the next instant, he named four ministers among the beneficiaries: the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Slumber Tsogwane; the Minister of Transport and Communications, Kitso Mokaila; the Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs, Edwin Batshu; and the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Thapelo Olopeng. Mokgware shared an additional detail about Tsogwane: he is in the borehole-drilling business as well.

The Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, asked for information about the size of each one of the farms. Mokgware answered not by quoting figures but using metaphorical Setswana (“Rraetsho thoto ya lefatshe; lefatshe la teng le a fetelela jaana ga o ka ke wa le re sepe”) whose substance was that the farms are extremely huge.

Not once did any minister refute what the MP said; what they (with the assistance of the Chobe MP, Robert Shamukuni) did instead was take turns interjecting with remarks that sought to portray Mokgware as a hypocritical big landowner who wasn’t talking about his own farm. The difference though was that the latter at least denied ownership of a farm in the said area. With the exception of President Ian Khama but inclusion of Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Botswana has 29 full and deputy ministers in all. Mokgware wasn’t specific with regard to who among them holds farmland in the desert but assuming each has a farm, that would more than 10 farms per minister.

In terms of the standing orders, MPs are allowed to interject and correct false information. Not one minister interjected on a point of correction, only point of clarification (Mmolotsi, Shamukuni and Olopeng) and point of elucidation (Mokaila). MPs get worked up when falsehoods about them are peddled in parliament and ask the Speaker to direct that such falsehoods be expunged from the Hansard. Mokgware’s startling statement was not challenged ÔÇô only undermined with sarcasm. For that reason, the Hansard will reflect that in March, 2017, Botswana cabinet ministers owned over 300 farms between themselves.

To an outsider, the light-hearted manner in which the ministers treated this subject would have had the effect of obscuring the fact that landlessness in a vast country with very few people is a sore point with most Batswana. The irony of a minister having more than 10 farms in the Western Sandveld is that it is extremely difficult for ordinary people to get a small 30-metre-by-40-metre residential plot. Earlier, the Assistant Minister, Investment, Trade and Industry and Tati West MP, Reverend Biggie Butale, was only half-joking when he said that in his constituency, land is so scarce that people don’t have ploughing fields but backyard gardens. Everywhere else in the country, applications for land are processed at a snail’s pace and the task of ensuring that enough land is freed up and allocated speedily lies with cabinet ministers. Part of the ministers’ cavalier attitude is explained by the fact that, to a large extent, the civil society is an extension of the government.

The Western Sandveld situation raises two issues. The first is that going as far back as the 1994-1999 parliament, the powers-that-be have thwarted all effort to introduce an assets and liabilities declaration law. In terms of the latter, elected officials would be compelled to declare their assets and liabilities in a register that members of the public would have access to. The second is that, next to having rich parents, politics has become one of the most lucrative professions in the world that require little to no toil on the part of politicians.

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