Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The irony of Avani Sun employees complaining about racism

To be perfectly clear from the get-go, not all Avani Sun Hotel employees are rigorous enforcers of a racist and unofficial “moeng-o-etetse-mang?” policy that, ironically, is directed at black patrons.

The Setswana, which literally means “Visitor, whom are you here for?” is used in a folksy manner to refer to situations when someone who is supposed to be a host snubs a visitor. As Sunday Standard reported in its last edition, the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) and the Department of Labour and Social Security are investigating Avani for alleged racism directed at black employees by a white manager. This is the irony: some of those employees are in the Department of Food and Beverages and among them will be those who enforce the “moeng-o-etetse-mang?” policy against black customers who patronise the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, casino bars and coffee shop.

Generally, Botswana’s hospitality establishments invest a lot of money in the appearance of their facilities but evidently spend very little (if anything) in quality customer service. After what used to be Gaborone Sun changed management and became Avani, extensive renovations were carried out. What used to be part of the reception area has been turned into an exquisite coffee shop with an expansive seating area. A man who lives in the neighbourhood and would stop by once in a while says that he stopped going to the coffee shop after repeatedly being subjected to the “moeng-o-etetse-mang?” policy. He also realised that white patrons get prompt service.

Where blacks are not denied service by black waiting staff, it is offered grudgingly. All too often, “grudgingly” manifests itself in the form of waiting staff taking orders after a really long time, disappearing for a protracted period of time and taking as long a period to not collect used crockery and cups. In some instances, the waitresses would be attending to premium customers. Interestingly, one white man says that the persistent, tip-inducing “Is everything okay Sir?” really irks him because in some instances, it interrupts the conversation of very important business meetings.

There are black customers who would confirm rigorous application of this policy, even on very slow days, at the bar-restaurants of another major hotel across town – Grand Palm. To be clearer still, “moeng-o-etetse-mang? is applied across much of Botswana as punishment against blacks for not either not giving tips at all or giving little. A Gaborone woman says that last Sunday she went to meet someone at a restaurant within the Masa Square food court. Being a weekend, she was dressed down and when she walked in, none of the waitresses welcomed and sat her as they are supposed to. To waiting staff, how a non-white customer is addressed communicates an important message about their ability to tip.   

There is a level at which management is ultimately responsible for this conduct but it is not the motivating force behind this oddly racist policy. On their own, staff members – who are underpaid and overworked – have quietly developed a classification system for how different races collectively give tips. The quality of service that customers get is based on this classification system. A straw poll that Sunday Standard conducted among waitresses at different gastropubs in Gaborone show agree that in terms of tipping, whites take the lead, are followed by blacks and Asians (whom they divide into Indian and Chinese and reportedly follow in that order) bring the rear. This implies that Asians have it worse than blacks in terms of wanting customer service. It also explains why waiting staff at gastropubs literally fight over white customers walking in. The irony of Asians being at the bottom tier would not be lost on those who follow the Forbes’s world richest list because it shows that Asians are Botswana’s richest.

There is a special class of customers who subvert that order: overly generous black tippers – most of them tenderpreneurs – who can give a tip amount more than the bill amount itself. As one waitress at a Game City gastropub puts it, these are termed “makgoa a mantshonyana”, meaning “white blacks.” In terms of that waiting staff-developed classification system, they are above biologically white customers.

Blacks discriminating against other black people is a peculiar form of racism because but one which becomes outright racism in a certain context. With precise regard to Avani and Grand Palm, there is no way in the world that (white) management would not be aware of tendency by black waiting staff to either routinely deny service or grudgingly serve black customers. Failure by white management to take corrective action is mystifying because after all, these places have CCTV cameras all over. If the control room can trace and recover a lost wallet, why can’t it pick up bad customer service and get management to take corrective action? This level of culpability on the part of white mangers establishes racism.

All in all, Botswana has legacy of racism that can be traced more than a century back. In one too many instances, Boers and apartheid South Africa unfairly get all blame for Botswana’s racism but there is another culprit hardly ever talked about – the British. There was rampant racism in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and the historical record is replete with evidence of such racism. Cumberland Hotel in Lobatse was the first multi-racial hospitality establishment in Botswana. Before his death, the late trade unionist and Palapye kgosi, Klaas Motshidisi, recalled to Sunday Standard that in the late 1950s, one door of the Mahalapye post office was marked “Whites Only.” As Senior Education Officer with a master’s degree, future Minister of Education, Gaositwe Chiepe, was paid less than a white junior who didn’t even have a bachelor degree. Facilities at the Bechuanaland Protectorate headquarters in Mahikeng were segregated and when the headquarters were relocated to “Gaberones” ahead of independence, Notwane Club was established to welcome all races. In his memoirs, Gobe Matenge, one of the people who started the Club, recalls an encounter with Mrs. Morgan, the wife of a colonial government official, who didn’t want her hands to touch his as he handed over a telegram he had brought. She ordered him to get a stick, cleave one end into two, wedge the telegram in the cleft, then – holding the other end, reach over to her with the other to deliver the telegram “in such way that she could receive it without our hands touching!”

So, by the time Hendrik Verwoerd formalized apartheid, the British were already practising it in not just Bechuanaland but the two Rhodesias, Swaziland and Lesotho as well. As a matter of fact, this policy of racism was applied throughout the entire empire and to their credit, the culprits have done a good job of suppressing this information. Nothing much has changed. The first black bride at what used to be the Empire’s headquarters has fled to a Canadian island. In Botswana, a racial hierarchy introduced by the British has spawned racially-based customer service that is the reason a waitress somewhere is enforcing the “moeng-o-etetse-mang?” policy right this minute.

Complaints about racism by Avani staff members cannot be taken lightly because they have to be real but public sympathy is also very useful for a cause like theirs. They will certainly not be getting sympathy from a public they give the same treatment.

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