Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Should Chinese shops, supermarkets sell leteisi and menoto?

If you put that question to Thamsanqa Metsing, his answer would be an unequivocal “No!”

Metsing is the Executive Secretary of the Botswana Informal Sector Association and was featured as a panelist at the recent Institute for Labour and Employment Studies (ILES) labour conference. Going back to the administration of President Sir Ketumile Masire to date, the government has been incrementally reserving certain businesses for “citizens” as part of effort to economically empower them. The most recent addition happened at the height of Covid-19 (June 2020) when more goods were added to the list. 

Today the following trade in the following goods and services is officially reserved for citizens: bread and confectionery, ice making, meat processing, peanut butter, purification and bottling of water, traditional sour milk, sorghum, bricks, burglar bars, gates and windows, candles, fencing material excluding gum poles, floor polishing, packaging, protective clothing, roof trusses, school furniture and uniforms; screen printing and embroidery, signage, including electronic signage; traditional craft, traditional leather products, agentry, auctioneering, car wash business, cell phone shop, cleaning services business, curio shop, dry-clean depot, flower shop, general dealer, general hire services, imported pre-owned motor dealership, Internet café and copy shop and laundromat.

Metsing doesn’t consider that list long enough and wants two more items on it: traditional snack meat dishes like mala (intestines), mogodu (tripe) and mokwetjepe (boiled beef seasons with salt only) as well as leteisi, the ethnic cotton-print fabric. Speaking at the ILES conference, he pointed that supermarkets should not be permitted to sell the meat dishes in question and Chinese shops should also not be permitted to sell leteisi.

Since they started doing business in Botswana, the Chinese have proved to be uncommonly skilled in making use of every business opportunity that presents itself. The harbinger Chinese traders arrived in the last days of Tirelo Sechaba (TS), the national service that was started by President Sir Seretse Khama. TS participants were given service T-shirts written “Tirelo Sechaba” in the front. After realising that one too many people in the street were wearing these T-shirts, the Chinese traders placed a special order to their home country.  However, when the consignment arrived, the printers had flubbed the spelling, writing Tirelo Sechaba” as “Tirelo Sebacha.”

Metsing’s argument is that when well-established commercial enterprises sell the products he mentioned, they compete with small businesspeople that his Association represents. However, history shows that acceding to the Association’s demands legislatively could have very limited benefits. For every item on the list of goods and services that are supposedly reserved for citizens, there are countless foreigners selling such and it is a now a matter of public record that some big-name supermarkets use the names of their citizen employees to get licences to trade in products and services that are reserved for citizens.

One too many people will never come anywhere near a food stall at the Gaborone bus station or open-air food markets around town. Their main concern is food safety and hygiene. They prefer to buy food at supermarkets because they know that on occasion, public health inspectors from the Gaborone City Council make spot checks to see whether such supermarkets comply with public health and other relevant pieces of law.

Part of the reason this happens is that some consumers are unaware of legal protections they have. All traders, be they big or small, licensed or unlicensed) are bound by a raft of consumer-protection laws. The Consumer Protection Act provides that consumers have a right to safe food and that they can also seek compensation where they are sold unsafe food. While most people have general awareness about legal protection they have as consumers, they tend to think that applies to big businesses and not small, unlicensed operators like street-food hawkers. It is this lack of awareness drives them to licensed operations.

Metsing accepts that in one too many instances, food hygiene standards in the informal sector are sub-standard.

“That is one of the areas that I am concerned about,” he told Sunday Standard in a follow-up interview after the conference.

In conceding the premise of the question that we had asked, he added that with cooking oil prices going through the roof, some food sellers may be tempted to recycle oil over a protracted period of time and for different foods. He also raises concern about the hygiene practices of roadside aphrodisiac sellers in Dibete.

“Where do they get the 2-litre bottles they sell their medicine in? Are those bottles sterilised before they pour the medicine into them? We want to provide training to them so that there are no public health concerns arising from their trade,” says Metsing adding that the Association also plans to make arrangements for members in the food sector to undergo training on food handling. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure that consumers have complete peace of mind when they buy goods from informal sector traders.”

As regards fronting, he says that not only has the Association educated members on how self-defeating this practice is, it also has a code of conduct that guards against and discourages it.

“Punitive action will be taken against members who go against this code of conduct says,” he adds. “We also encourage members to report those who front for foreigners.”

Official use of “citizen” is another contentious issue because the same foreigners that Metsing is complaining about doing trade can very easily become citizens. In one respect, such ease is a result of application of the law having been relaxed below what the Citizenship Act requires. According to that Act, a foreigner has to speak Setswana (the national language) or any other indigenous language in order to qualify for citizenship. However, a good many foreigners become citizens when their Setswana is limited to little else besides “pula” and “thebe.” The result is that most foreigners become citizens even when they remain foreigners in every other respect. So, even when leteisi and mokwetjepe are added to the reserve list, foreigner-citizens would still be able to trade in them.

A radical solution to this problem was proposed more than a decade ago by former Shoshong MP and current Botswana High Commissioner to Kenya, Duke Lefhoko. During a parliamentary debate on citizen economic empowerment, Lefhoko proposed that for purposes of this ambitious undertaking, “citizen” must refer to indigenous Batswana only. Indeed, he had a valid point because no group of people need to be economically empowered than indigenous ones: for 81 years, the British colonial government systematically undermined their empowerment.

Metsing told Sunday Standard that likewise, his Association makes a distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous Batswana and wants the economic empowerment of the former.

Hearing “informal sector” doesn’t cause one to sit up and listen carefully but as one speaker at the conference said, it makes a substantial contribution to the national economy.


Read this week's paper