Tuesday, January 18, 2022

‘Okavango Delta a whites-mostly fiefdom’

Speaking during the GabZ FM debate a fortnight ago, the Botswana Congress Party parliamentary candidate for Maun West, George Lubinda, lamented that Ngamiland people are not benefitting from tourism in the Okavango Delta.

By his estimate, whites control between 85 and 90 percent of the Delta tourism while Batswana only work as tourist guides and cleaners at hospitality establishments for very paltry pay. If there is any basis to the fears of the incumbent MP, Tawana Moremi, Batswana may no longer even qualify to work as guides beginning next month because entry requirements have been rigged in favour of whites.

His understanding of the matter is that the Botswana Qualifications Authority has commissioned some whites with a background in the tourist industry to develop skill requirements for guides. One requirement is that the guides must master certain (purportedly western, non-indigenous) swimming techniques which will result in Batswana not qualifying to work as guides. The MP added that the Delta tourism has a lucrative value chain which is nepotistically and overwhelmingly dominated by whites.

According to Lubinda, the Delta’s lodges are perpetually managed by whites who are assisted by blacks who are never deemed good enough to be promoted.

“When the contract of a white manager ends, he is not replaced with the black assistant. Another white person – who is completely clueless about tourism management, is brought in and trained by the black assistant manager,” the BCP candidate said.

The Delta attracts the rich and famous from around the world. Prince Harry of England is said to be a regular visitor, the former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, injured himself there during an elephant-hunting trip two years ago, someone spotted Oprah Winfrey at the Maun airport and many more Hollywood celebrities unwind at the Delta. However, the Botswana government itself is not benefitting as well as it should: it retains only 10 percent of the earnings while the rest is repatriated abroad – South Africa especially.

The lease agreement between the Tawana Land Board and tour operators contains a right-of-first-refusal clause. Right of refusal is a legal principle in terms of which a seller must give a party an opportunity to match a price at which a third party agrees to buy a specified asset on the same terms offered to the third party. When the lease for a concession area ends, all bidders, including the sitting tenant, compete in an open tender and upon evaluation, the latter given the opportunity to match the overall highest bidder’s proposal. In the event the sitting tenant has to vacate a site, s/he has to be fully compensated for a site that would have been developed with huge sums of money over a period of time.

Speaking after the delta’s UNESCO listing, tourism minister, Tshekedi Khama, said that the enhanced visibility of the Delta would be a boon to the people of Ngamiland. On the other hand, a speaker from the floor at the Tuesday parliamentary debate said that there was nothing to celebrate about the listing and expressed fear that the Delta’s new status would bring more vulture capitalists to Ngamiland.

To illustrate the larger point of how the government has severed the link between the tourist assets and the rightful owners, Tawana said that even MPs (who represent the people) were not formally briefed about the listing of the Delta. He added that a parliamentary committee on environment, wildlife and tourism that he is a member of knew neither about the listing nor what benefits would accrue to the nation as a result.

This past week, the MP made a follow-up on media allegations that some safari workers in the Delta go to Maun very late to fill their prescriptions because their employers would not have released them well in time to do so.

“It is not always possible for them to come on time because makgoa ba tla a bo ba gana ba tsamaya ba re go busy,” a healthworker source had alleged, meaning by the Setswana that their “white employers refuse to release them when they are doing brisk business.”

The end result, the source claimed, was that these employees defaulted in taking their HIV/AIDS medication which can have the result of aggravating their medical condition.

Unless one is prepared to take an extremely long and endlessly meandering trip by motor boat, the easier, quicker and more convenient way to travel from the Delta to Maun is by air. The source alleged that one employer charged employees a stiff fare to airlift them to Maun where they fill their prescriptions and back to the Delta camp on what would otherwise be scheduled flights to do company business.

“The result is that practically all their earnings go towards the airfare,” the source said.
On Friday, Tawana (who has decried the exploitation of Delta workers in the past) asked the Minister of Health to state whether there was any requirement that compelled employers in the Okavango Delta to release employees so that they can collect anti-retroviral medication for adherence purposes “as government outlays considerable resources on the programme.” However, the Acting Minister of Health, Gaotlhaetse Matlhabaphiri, sidestepped the question saying that it should have been directed to the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs as it has the portfolio responsibility to intervene on behalf of employees to safeguard their interest whenever it is threatened. He stated though that “in order to minimise frequent clinic visits to collect ARV monthly, as is the current policy, a special dispensation has been accorded to Okavango Delta employees to refill their medication every three months to ensure optimum adherence.”

A representative of the Letsholathebe Memorial Hospital said at the time that while review dates are supposed to be synchronised with off-duty days to enable employees to travel to Maun, that was not always the case.

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