There is something in the air, and it smells so much like a version of the Arab Spring. As with most popular and spontaneous revolutions that result from long suppressed disenchantment, this one is led by a most unlikely individual.To many people, Bissau Gaobakwe is known more for the much-publicised indiscretions of his youth, than his business acumen. Even at age 45, he is pilloried for the sins of his 20s. He remarks that what’s often overlooked is that he not only served punishment, but has been forgiven by, and reconciled with, the people he wronged.
The son of one of Batswana pathfinders in business, the late Ophaketse Gaobakwe, the younger Gaobakwe is intent on being a groundbreaker as well. He is driving a concept that seeks to finally change the colour and face of business and wealth in Botswana – for indeed business and wealth in Botswana do have colour, and it’s not the colour of the indigenous Motswana, and they manifest in a face that’s not representative of the majority. Gaobakwe may have been the one to finally take the decisive step, but the mood is evident all round. There is a new awakening by a generation that is not content with merely singing the national anthem, and carrying the national ID card, while wealth is not in their hands.
For Gaobakwe, a revelation from the recent national lockdown is that Batswana are economic slaves in their own country. He talks of the long queues that formed at different outlets wherever people went to restock on household essentials. Throughout the country, the picture was of indigenous Batswana lining up at shops that are not owned by their kith and keen. He found the scenario deeply embarrassing, and has decided to throw himself in the work to bring about meaningful change in Botswana’s economic ownership. If ever there was a moment for Batswana to come together to reclaim the wealth of their country, he says that time is now.Being locked at home with close family has allowed him time to think hard about the best way to effect that change.
“We must pool our money together,” he suggests. “That’s why I am calling for 100, 000 families to contribute P100, 000 each so that we raise at least P10 billion. When we raise this P10 billion then we can immediately start to buy or set up businesses that are lucrative in terms of cash generation, such as businesses that support communications.”He has identified a commercial law outfit and a firm of accountants to be the custodians of the money once collections start rolling after all legal and regulatory requirements have been complied with.He asks why Mascom, a company that generates money out of conversations of Batswana, should be owned 57% by MTN, which is a South African entity, and 7% by a Zimbabwean national, leaving Batswana with a minority stake. For Gaobakwe, Mascom is one of the early targets for takeover by indigenous citizens once they have consolidated themselves. There are many others on the radar, mostly Indian owned.He says trends show that 60% of household income is spent on essentials such as education, food, communication, transport, and fuel. The idea, therefore, is to target businesses that make up this sector, and buy them.
He emphasises buying existing businesses as the first priority.“We are not talking citizen empowerment because so many people are citizens and they are not black and they don’t share the wealth with black citizens. That’s a fact, so let’s stop beating about the bush and say citizen empowerment. We don’t have a problem of citizen empowerment; we have a problem that our black citizens need to be empowered. And unless you are bold about it, nothing meaningful is going to happen,” he points out. He recounts the tale told in every village of how Batswana who were in the retail sector for years have been forced out of business.
“When you open a supermarket they open a Choppies, or Sefalana store owned and run by our Indian brothers. Ba bula go bapa le wena, ha ba hetsa go bapa le wena, because they have a chain of shops ba rekisa sengwe le sengwe at a loss in that particular shop that is next to the black Motswana owned shop. So what then happens is that customers would buy in the cheaper store not out of spite for the black Motswana, but because of the price. Your shop will then inevitably close down because you won’t be able to pay rent and your employees.“The other thing is that they will never give you credit where they hold distribution rights for different products. They say you are not credit-worthy; yet they give each other credit. So you can’t survive in retail in such a hostile environment. But the painful story is who enriches them?
It’s us Batswana. So why don’t we own these things? But we can’t enter the market if we get in as individuals,” he says.He says once Batswana have come together to build the envisaged financial muscle, the owners of the enterprises targeted for takeover by would have to sell, and if they refuse “we won’t support them any longer”.This is his reasoning for the 100, 000 families. He says in Setswana culture the conception of a family is different from the western framework; the unit extends far beyond the nucleus. We all look out for each other – grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. He suggests that people who are interested in investing in this initiative should adopt the same mindset in which nobody is left behind, and encourage everyone to contribute what they can.
He simplifies it by saying in each family every member can contribute a cow. He insists on this being a family-driven investment vehicle for two reasons: first, to spread the opportunity as much as possible and make it easy even for those without much income to participate, and secondly to encourage Batswana to reach out to relatives, unite and stand together just as they do during times of bereavement and weddings.“In our culture, when we say family we include our parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. We even extend it further and include those we are related to through marriage because we marry into different families. So when I say family I am talking of a proper wholesome family just as you see us at family meetings,” he says.
Gaobakwe insists that there is no one individual that can change the situation alone, and neither is there any one politician that can change it either because politicians are funded by the same people who drive Batswana out of business, or put barriers to those seeking to enter.“Politicians are forced by our reality to go to Indians for campaign money because they are the only ones who have cash businesses. We (indigenous Batswana) may have the vote but we have no money to give to a politician, no matter how much we may love and trust him. We have had politicians who stand for equal opportunities for us all, and fair and equal distribution of Botswana’s wealth. And even if they are as well-meaning and patriotic as President Masisi whom we so love, they are helpless. And it’s not like they have an option. It’s testament to the fact that the financiers of the two leading parties in the country, UDC and BDP, are not black Batswana.
Nobody should lie to you. There is no one who hands money over to anybody without expectation. And not just expectation, but guaranteed expectation. How can we continue like this when it’s so apparent that we are economic slaves?” he asks.He envisages a setup that will even pay a fair price to the farmers for their produce, and thereby give incentive for even more Batswana to farm.“If you go to the farmers right now they will tell that they get squeezed, and that’s how Dada owns all the chickens. Because they own the shops they tell you how much they are buying your farm produce for. They don’t even let the laws of economics take the lead, they use monopoly because they own the shop, yet the shop is supported by Batswana. So until we unite as investors, until we unite as producers and suppliers, until we unite as customers, we will have no explanation to give our children when they ask us why they are slaves in their own country and all the wealth is in the hands of Indians.
“The economic problems in Botswana are at a stage where we can’t ignore them anymore. Stop wasting your time saying Batswana should create jobs. How do we create jobs when we can’t enter industry because one race can decide to just lock you out of entering a business? Their shops refuse to stock goods produced by Batswana. When people say the country has money what do they mean when the citizens have no money?” he says.Gaobakwe cautions that Batswana should be vigilant so as not to be hoodwinked by those who may want to stem the tide, or even frustrate the effort to effect genuine change. He makes reference to the South African scenario post-1994 when the black economic empowerment policy was rolled out; white-owned businesses co-opted a few politically connected black faces, gave them token shares, and thereby ensured that real wealth remained where it always resided.“What Indians are going to try to do is go to every black person and say, ‘become my partner and be the face of the company’.
Once you fall for that, which is exactly what happened in South Africa when white people took the Cyril Ramaphosas and made them directors, we won’t be able to effectively spread the wealth around. We are not interested in enrichment of a few black brothers; we want fair and far-reaching distribution of wealth so that nobody ever has to go home only to see their children go to bed hungry,” he says.This initiative, Gaobakwe insists, is also about correcting certain wrong narratives that have been repeated so many times Batswana even believe them without realising that they are meant to keep them in their current state. One such story line is that indigenous Batswana are not born entrepreneurs. Gaobakwe’s argument is that there historical context here, and it’s that at independence the only educated Batswana were preoccupied with setting up government and its structures. Some were sent for undergraduate studies after the age of 30.“My father went to university at the age for 30, and graduated when he was in his mid 30s,” he says.
“So when our parents were busy setting up government and foundations of the new nation state, trade was neglected. In the meantime, our Indian community who can’t participate and win in politics even now, because in politics we are equal the way we should be in business, got a head start in business and because they started first, they sought to monopolise it.”The other stereotype he says Batswana should get over is that they can never get certain businesses. “Some people say you can never have a Toyota dealership; it’s strictly Dada’s. That’s a lie. There has never been an attempt, and we will prove it when this revolution starts,” he says.Then there is the common refrain that “businesspeople don’t sleep well at night because they always have too many worries”.
“That’s another lie,” he says. “I retired at 35. My income is in properties like this (the house in a quiet neighbourhood in Gaborone West where he wanted to set up a rehab facility). I am comfortable but I don’t want to exist in an environment where everyone around me is depressed…. And I have literally been robbed around here one evening. We can’t address crime by tightening the laws as some people may say. We must address it by tackling the source of the problem. We must make sure that people become economically empowered.”What if there is a fight back?“Everybody has the right to fight for what they believe in,” Gaobakwe answers.
“If the Indians decide to fight back the way white people fought back to defend apartheid and colonialism, that’s their choice. But they must ask themselves if they want to continue to live in a community where the majority of the people are hungry and angry because if the true picture of Botswana’s wealth distribution was ever hidden, it has now been exposed and it’s not pretty.”
Next week, we will talk to the MP for Gaborone Central, Tumisang Healy, one of the proponents of indigenous citizen empowerment, for a politician’s perspective.