Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sale of Air Botswana has to be assessed vis-à-vis broader national tourism interests

The sale of Air Botswana to a South African company has to be looked into in a broader perspective of what impact such a transaction would have on Botswana government’s wishes to use tourism as a new national revenue stream.

The government’s strategy to use tourism as the backbone of efforts towards diversifying the economy away from the mineral sector, especially diamonds, is sound and fraught with potential.
But as a neighbour, South Africa’s history of sabotaging Botswana’s attempts to make meaningful headway economically is well documented.

Memories of what happened in the 1990s when Hyundai was setup here to produce cars are still fresh.

The hostility of the South African government to Botswana’s attempts at becoming a car producer played a key role in the eventual collapse of the car assembly plant.

Botswana’s efforts to turning itself into a regional financial hub through the establishment of the International Financial Services Centre have had to contend with naked sabotage amounting to bullying from the neighbour to the south.

In fact, the finance minister of South Africa has never made a secret of his disdain for Botswana IFSC, going as far as to say SA has to seriously consider creating its own IFSC to compete with Botswana’s venture.

We also know how Botswana businesses had to endure difficulties and cash flow disruptions as a result of the South African Value Added Tax system imposed on them unilaterally.

In all fairness, SA VAT issue was supposed to be a South African internal matter that did not have to affect, let alone disrupt, regional trade. But in the end it did, thanks to the SA government’s intransigence and insensitivity.

What guarantee is there now that selling Air Botswana to a South African company would not result in sabotage and frustration of Botswana’s efforts to use tourism as a new engine of national economic growth?

By all intents and purposes, should the sale of Air Botswana to SA Airlink go through, as some people in government seem hell-bent on doing, the new company will be managed by South Africans who do not have the same interests as Botswana, least of all on the tourism sector. A national airline is an integral component of any country’s tourism strategy. Which is why the South Africans themselves made a deliberate decision not to sell South African Airways even as the carrier was bleeding billions.

It is not the first time that Air Botswana has found itself in a difficult financial situation.

In fact, the situation has gotten out of control since the airline top posts were delocalized.

In the early nineties, when the airline was going through a difficult time after it was run down by a series of foreigners, citizen Joshua Galeforolwe was roped in to turn it around.

It is a matter of irony that it is now the same Galeforolwe who, as privatization Chief, has to preside over the sale of Air Botswana because after he left new expatriate managers undid his work and ran down the airline.

Tourism aside, what is of utmost concern is that, under the present circumstances, whoever buys Air Botswana will take it for a song.

It is, therefore, unwise for government to go ahead with the sale now; not just that it will defeat government’s broader economic goals but also that, as an empty shell, it will fetch close to nothing for the country and government.

Also there are allegations in the air of conflict of interests by some powerful interests inside government.

That weakens the case and credibility of Botswana’s privatization trail.

We think it is time for the ministry responsible for tourism to intervene on the side of a strategy to grow Botswana’s tourism sector which will require a reliable and efficient airliner that has people at its helm married to the country’s broader economic interests.

On that note, we think it is also time for the same ministry to make an assessment and recommendations to government of whether the sale of Air Botswana is in the best interest of the country, especially when looked against what the country wants to achieve on the tourism front.
As a newspaper we support privatization.
But our loyalty and support to the process is conditional.

It has to be done fairly and honestly. More importantly, privatization has to enhance Botswana’s broad economic interests. And, on this front, we think the sale of Air Botswana to SA Airlink is ill-advised and will give the South Africans a blank cheque to sabotage Botswana’s tourism potential.

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