Sunday, May 31, 2020

Whatever initiatives Khama announces tomorrow will also fail

Addressing a political rally in Maun, Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi whetted his audience’s appetite with his own announcement that the state-of-the-nation address contains goodies. One is supposed to be a durable plan, wrapped in a set of new economic initiatives, to tackle unemployment. The historical record provides no incentive to wait for the Monday announcement with bated breath. On ascending the presidency in April 2008, President Ian Khama unveiled a 4Ds (discipline, development, dignity and democracy) roadmap to which he would add a fifth D (delivery) a little later. The irony of the fifth D was that when Khama relinquished his ministerial post in 1999 to supervise national development plan projects, there was no discernible improvement in project delivery. Numerous projects, notably the construction of the Morupule B power station, failed under his presidency. Last year, it emerged that the roadmap, that was announced and continually hyped with a lot of fanfare, has been quietly shelved because there were no tangible results to show for it. In 2012, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport (renamed the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development) introduced the Youth Empowerment Scheme which Khama was closely associated with. YES was to take “an integrated approach and offer opportunities for youth to gain experience whilst at the same time contributing to the scheme.”

Oddly for a civilian programme, YES participants underwent what sounded like para-military training at the army’s training camp in Pandamatenga. Monitor reported a story in which a group of participants who had sustained injuries during the training were rushed to a local health clinic. There were also media reports about plans ÔÇô which were never implemented ÔÇô to train participants in snake-handling.  One YES participant told Sunday Standard that when her group, which was ferried by an army bus, arrived in Pandamatenga in the dead of night, it was roughed up by buffed-up, muscle top-wearing army instructors. Later they were allegations that some of the soldiers at the camp had had sexual relations with female participants. Given the power relations, this amounted to sexual assault. YES has been discontinued. In the early days of his presidency, Khama announced plans to “eradicate” poverty, something that has never been done anywhere in the world. For purposes of policy, the language that is used has great significance. Policies that eradicate poverty are necessarily different from those that alleviate or reduce it. While the government proclaimed intent to eradicate poverty, the policies that were implemented both suggested and did otherwise. As Khama prepares to step down in four months, some Batswana still live in abject poverty. Ipelegeng, the labour-intensive public works programme that is supposed to empower the poor actually does the opposite. A good number of its beneficiaries earn P540 a month (and for a limited period of time) for mostly lazing about.

As a matter of fact, the World Bank says that Ipelegeng workers are overpaid. Khama came into office when Botswana already had a “working poor” phenomenon, some of those working poor being people who are supposed to be part of the middle class. Under him, however, the middle class suffered near-punitive neglect and as regards civil servants who went on strike in 2011, downright punitive neglect. He never had a plan to empower the middle class and to the extent that his meet-and-greet walkabouts were meant to acquaint him with problems that residents live with on a daily basis, Khama never visited middle class neighbourhoods and so wouldn’t know their problems. Interestingly, the middle class are who Khama should have partnered with if he wanted to tackle poverty. Going back decades, this class has itself served as the safety net for the poor where the government’s own fall short. The neglect this class has suffered means that it is now unable to take care of poor relatives who need more support than they get from the government.

Last year, the government introduced the economic stimulus package which was supposed to do wonders for the economy, one being job creation. However, not only has the programme failed, it has also led to speculation that its whole purpose was, as the Leader of the Opposition said when it started, to “loot” the national treasury. At this point, it is evident that ESP has failed. Another Khama initiative that has failed is Target 20 000 which was meant to target that many number of school drop-outs. It was meant to rapid-skill, upskill and retool unemployed youth with relevant industry skills and now has either been suspended or discontinued. Not one of Khama’s initiatives has worked the way it was meant to and there is no reason to suppose ones that he will introduce in his lame-duck phase will work. The case of the private media provides a lot of irony in the context of Khama wanting to tackle unemployment through the economic package that he will unveil tomorrow.

Khama has never hidden his disdain for a critical media and as vice president, played no small role in engineering an advertising ban against Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun. As president, he has overseen historic advertising budget cuts that in turn have shrunk the revenue of newspapers. That has led to job cuts. The situation is not getting any better and according to the grapevine, some major newspapers are about to lay off many staff members because they are not getting financial support from the government. Needless to say, putting people out of employment causes them to live in poverty. This is odd for a president who has proclaimed intent to tackle both unemployment and poverty. A related point to note here is that some of the media workers who are being retrenched are breadwinners who provide the material support that the government doesn’t to financial dependents. By setting off a chain reaction that results in the retrenchment of media workers, Khama is actually deepening the poverty he claims to want to eradicate.

More than condemning people to a life of poverty with his anti-press campaign, Khama undermines both the personal professional development of media workers as well as the overall educational productivity of the nation because the government spends a lot of money educating media workers. In his citizen empowerment speeches, Khama refers to “all citizens” but clearly doesn’t consider all Batswana to be citizens for such purpose. ESP funds were drawn down from foreign reserves in the name all citizens ÔÇô including media workers. However, as has become clear and as Business Botswana and members of parliament have complained, only a few citizens are benefitting from the programme. It would be interesting to find out how many media jobs will be created by the new package that Khama announces tomorrow. Lastly, there is great oddity about Masisi talking about the use of government money to tackle unemployment.

As the Sunday Standard has reported in the past, the future president has, at a meeting with businesspeople at Notwane Farms, implored the latter to not advertise in private newspapers. It is odd that Masisi would fly 600 kilometres to Maun to talk about employment when he has actively sought to create unemployment at Gaborone media houses.


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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.