Monday, November 29, 2021

The current woes bedeviling Selebi Phikwe are a result of flawed gov’t policies

Try suggesting to anyone from Selebi Phikwe that you want to relocate to that town from Gaborone and the invariable response would be, “But why, there is nothing there.” Many people believe that if you take BCL out, Phikwe will remain a ghost town.

But what transpired in Selebi Phikwe is entirely the fault of government, for centralizing everything in Gaborone. Think of Lobatse and the judiciary. Lobatse could have been established as the judicial town of Botswana, the headquarters of the country’s jurisprudence. But Bandleng was left to rot and deteriorate into oblivion as the High Courts and the Court of Appeal were moved to Gaborone in a controversial decision that many believe was reached with minimal, if any, consultation. Like Selebi Phikwe, if it was not for BMC, Lobatse would be virtually non-existent.

Last week, President Ian Khama and his entourage, which included members of the Botswana Economic Advisory Council, swaggered to Selibe Phikwe to assure residents of that poor town that they are with them. They visited projects in the Selebi Phikwe Economic Diversification Unit (SPEDU) region. Previously uneasy, the fears of the people of Phikwe, that their town was destined for ruin, were somehow assuaged. Poor folks; they should not have been fooled that easily. After all, this is an election year. They should expect to hear all kinds of promises about economic diversification and resuscitation of their ailing mining town. Yes the officials visited some SPEDU projects in the area. But are these projects enough to resuscitate Phikwe or to lure investors to set up shop in the town?

In his message during the visit, President Khama said he believes Phikwe can be turned around. True, it can, but it takes much more than ceremonial visits, a lavish conference, exclusive interviews and live coverage by Btv. Much more is needed to bring Phikwe back on its feet. That this once glorious town, Selebi Phikwe, now finds itself on its knees, on the brink of collapse, is living proof of government’s flawed and destructive policies. This situation is a result of poor economic planning by government, if there is any planning or any policy in existence. SPEDU’s history traces back to December 2006 when CSA Consultants embarked on an EU-funded study on how to save the town and surrounding areas. The agency was launched in 2008, the same year when Khama became the President. Since then very little has been achieved. In fact, nothing has been achieved.

Phikwe is still on its death throes, still not attracting investors and still unable to diversify its economy. This suggests that SPEDU is failing, primarily because it isn’t getting the support that it needs. What is needed in Selebi Phikwe is action, not conferences which are attended by uncommitted speakers who languish in their swivel chairs and make empty promises that they know they can’t keep. For them, the sojourns to Selebi Phikwe are just a chance to spent government funded nights in lavish hotels and claim exorbitant night out allowances just so they can repeat the same speeches and make the same empty promises they delivered two years prior.

To show that they are serious about developing Selebi Phikwe, let’s see government being bold enough to take one of the major projects in the country to Selebi Phikwe. Now that would be a serious statement of intent. Just as an example, when it was announced that De Beers had finally bent to Botswana’s demands and agreed to diamond beneficiation, Phikwe could have been the first target for beneficiation. The project could have created 300 plus jobs in the small town, and we would be singing a totally different song today. It would have been a vote of confidence on the people of Selebi Phikwe, and a clear declaration that government means business. That would have created something to attract young people, foreign investors and business to come set up shop in Selebi Phikwe. But, alas, that was not to be. Instead, Gaborone was chosen as the diamond hub, despite the fact that it already it had its own problems like shortage of land. A lot of people are not living well in Gaborone because everything from food to accommodation is just too expensive. The rich are getting richer and benefitting from an artificial property boom created by unbridled rural-urban migration. The same problem of rural-urban migration was one of the root causes of the near collapse of Selebi Phikwe.

It was a result of lack of foresight from government to turn mining into Phikwe’s comparative advantage. We all know that Selebi Phikwe was supposed to house the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), but politics prevailed over rationalism. BIUST went to Palapye when Phikwe was more advanced in terms of infrastructure development.

As it later turned out, Palapye was not ready for such a project. Lack of infrastructure readiness in the village compelled BIUST to team up with BCL in projects like mining museum, tourism enterprises and educational facilities for science and environmental research. The university was also to use the decommissioned shaft at the mine for research. Selebi Phikwe was once a textile hub, but collapsed because everyone was heading to Gaborone. And then a second blow was delivered; diamond beneficiation went to Gaborone. While there are projects that have been suggested around BCL mine, the process has been slow and tedious. Government should also engage Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) to run the proposed hubs around the country so that some of the ideas do not become projects run by civil servants. BDC wants to run a dairy farm, so why not operate it from Selebi Phikwe since there is ready infrastructure. Why not take some of BDC’s new projects to Selebi Phikwe? Why not change BDC’s mandate and give it powers to advise government on where it can invest?

We have many projects that are facing collapse, but employ many people. For example, it has been suggested that government should consider buying Tati Nickel and Boseto mines, and thereby build a case for setting up a refinery in Selebi Phikwe rather than sending the BCL matte to Norway and Zimbabwe. This project, estimated at less than P15 billion, could be financed by borrowing money from the pension funds. Unless government sends a statement by bringing a major project to Selebi Phikwe to compliment the horticulture and fishery projects in the area, SPEDU will remain a pipedream like many other government projects. Next consultancy please….

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