Three weeks ago when names of the 2017 presidential honourees were officially announced, Sunday Standard was particularly interested in one: Soares Katumbela.
Botswana has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose Article 24 provides for the right to rest and leisure, which activities are important for one’s overall health. As a music promoter and jazz entrepreneur, Katumbela provided opportunities for rest and leisure and was very good at it. The customer service standards at all the leisure establishments he operated were first class. Both the interior and exterior design showed that he could a lot with less. Whether it was Ritzma in Francistown, Village Gate in Molepolole or Take 5 in Mogoditshane, Katumbela could spruce up the image of a building, create a friendly ambience and attract a huge patronage. Back in 1979 when few even knew about the jazz genre, Katumbela co-founded what may well have been Botswana’s first jazz club and would singlehandedly pioneer today’s structured Sunday jazz format.
The biggest feather in his cap, however, was the 2012 “All That Jazz Concert” in which his company, Streethorn Promotions collaborated with Urban Motion Communications Group, the First National Bank Botswana and Dialogue Saatchi and Saatchi to put together a concert that was headlined by David Sanborn, a multiple Grammy Award winner. This was the first and so far only time that a Grammy Award winner had played a gig in Botswana. Streethorn was mainly responsible for technical aspects (sound equipment, lighting and video screens), the meet-and-greet session, backstage management, liaising with the Botswana Power Corporation, clearance of equipment at the border gate as well as securing work permits for the artists. Even by today’s standards, the price for the ticket (P950) seemed steep but Katumbela reasoned that “Batswana are thirsty for high-quality entertainment.” He deemed the show to be comparatively cheaper because someone who attended it would ordinarily spend more by flying to Cape Town to attend a high-profile show and paying for accommodation as well.
Not only did Katumbela have a good story, he also happened to be a good storyteller. And so when his name appeared on the honourees list, Sunday Standard called him up, seeking to do an interview that would be published the last Sunday before Independence Day. He was in Francistown, he said, preparing for a long-awaited jazz festival on September 9. He sounded despondent on the phone. Tickets were not selling as well, not enough companies were willing to sponsor the festival and the government (which had partnered with Streethorn through the City of Francistown Council) was not doing enough to seek sponsors and he was only hoping to deliver the festival on a wing and a prayer. The latter notwithstanding, he had invested a lot of his own money in the festival preparations and naturally expected returns on such investment. To be fair to the government though, it had undertaken to let him use the stadium free of charge but that was far from adequate.
Katumbela had no problem with doing the interview, he said, but was too mentally preoccupied with the festival.
“Let’s do the interview after the festival when my mind would have cleared and I would be more relaxed,” he said.
Exactly one week before the festival, tragedy struck at the National Stadium in Gaborone. A mostly youthful crowd had turned out for a music concert featuring some of the big names in the industry. Serious security lapses led to a stampede and a young female reveller was trampled to death. Government response was out of the ordinary. The Office of the President instructed local authorities to suspend the issuance of permits for music festivals and the ministries of Local Government and Rural Development as well as Culture, Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture were directed to ensure compliance. Basically, that meant that the Francistown jazz festival was not going ahead. A day after this announcement, Katumbela was found dead, supposedly by his own hand.
Originally planned for April, the Francistown festival was postponed due to lack of adequate sponsorship. This time around it would either have to have been indefinitely postponed or cancelled altogether. Either way, the investment that Katumbela had poured into the preparations has gone to waste and cannot be recouped.