Last Updated
Monday 05 October 2015, 11:33 am.
How activist journalism saved the Okavango

Nomination of the Okavango Delta as a World Heritage Site has prompted a journalist to 'dredge' his memory to find how a potent combination of activist journalism, community organisation and civic action saved the Edenic Park at the beginning of the 1990s
By Staff Writer Tue 06 Oct 2015, 18:20 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: How activist journalism saved the Okavango

MAUN: The Outstanding Universal Value of the Okavango Delta was always phenomenal even before the terminology was developed and filtered through to Botswana after the country acceded to UNESCO's World Heritage Convention in 1998.In fact, alongside other attributes that pre-eminently qualify the Okavango for listing as a World Heritage Site, it was the Edenic nature of this oasis that motivated one newspaper to singlehandedly challenge the combined might of government and the private sector when the Botswana Government decided to dredge one of the delta's channels, the Boro River, for the supply of water to Orapa Mine approximately 335 kilometres south-east of this resort town that lies on the southern fringes of the delta.

Maun itself is an unlikely thirstland that straddles the mighty Thamalakane River and might have benefited from the project, a grain of truth that lent itself easily as a cogent point in the language of those in government who were persuaded by the lure of big business and the distant glamour of diamonds by use of which the mighty mining giants cruelly tease ministers and their key operatives. But to the people of Nhabe - as the natives of what must certainly be Botswana's most cosmopolitan region often refer to their land - the verbal skills of these defenders of private capital sounded too slick to be true. And big business it was because in the entire history of this nation, nothing is yet to emerge that is larger than the colossal empire of Anglo American Corporation and De Beers. And in the overlapping cross-shareholding of the corporate world, it was LTA, a subsidiary of these two incestuous giants, that was to carry out the dreaded dredging of the distal Boro channel.  The people's sense of trepidation was heightened by what looked like consulting after the fact: the decision had already been made and mobilising at an advanced stage. 

Even at that time, the Anglo/De Beers colossus and the Government of Botswana had always had a curious confluence, a strange flowing together even where divergence was the obvious course dictated by the fault lines that lie under their foundation of calculated imbalance and methodical exploitation that eventually carried into the pre-eminent clone known as Debswana, the parastatal that dominates the country's private sector and wields enormous - even pervasive - influence on the government for the benefit mainly of the colossus. Over time, Botswana became a partner in De Beers, laying itself bare to the vicissitudes of the diamond market that are often manipulated by decisions that - in the byzantine management structures of the Anglo/De Beers empire - are made in restricted chambers far out of reach of government representatives by scions of grandsires whose lineage goes back to 1888 when the indigenous people of Kimberly were cast aside but for their cheap labour in the bowels of their earth. Since then and throughout the 20th Century, De Beers has used its monopoloid hold on the diamond industry to control the market by stockpiling stones produced by other manufacturers to fix prices through supply, and then flooding the market with diamonds similar to those of producers independent of its single channel monopoly.Today, after more than five decades of a skewed partnership with the Botswana Government and exceedingly strenuous negotiations to relocate the Diamond Trading Centre from London to Gaborone, people holding the top jobs are also being transferred while an issue is being made of labour costs in Gaborone's fledgling diamond manufacturing companies. In the meantime, aggregation remains in London from where Botswana is already importing back its diamonds for sale to sightholders, distorting the country's balance of payments.

A few years before the dredging controversy, an Oppenheimer son-in-law named Clem Sunter had written a book titled "South Africa in the 1990s." Perhaps not surprisingly, the book ignored the appalling history of the Anglo/De Beers empire in entrenching apartheid that entailed - among other horrors - the stripping of grown African men to search for diamonds in their orifices and bowels, the dehumanisation of these miners by billeting them in single-sex hostels and the introduction of the migrant labour system as an instrument for the suppression of trade unionism and collective bargaining inside South Africa.Significantly, the book offered no alternative to the curse on Batswana that diamonds had become mainly for lack of beneficiation. However, the vacuous argument that establishment of downstream industries was not economically viable primarily because Botswana's small population was insidiously implied. Unbelievably, this line of irrationality was inanely parroted by dyed-in-the-wool members of President Ketumile Masire's cabinet for the benefit of their tractable kgotla audiences for which they manifestly had little respect. 

Similarly, Sunter's book mentioned nothing of the frustrations of an elite crop of Batswana mining engineers who, after being top of the class at the world's best mining engineering universities, especially in Canada, were being made to work under half-baked Afrikaner artisans at Orapa.  Or of how these young Batswana, who had been selected for their exceptional perspicuity after Form 5 in the mid-1980s, were steered to the exclusive study of extraction. Partly to defeat agitation for localisation - these young Batswana, mostly young men - were often sent for short 'upgrading' courses at a training facility owned by the Anglo/De Beers empire in Johannesburg. The principal of this facility was once quoted in the school's magazine as saying: "The trouble with Africans is that they don't respond to aptitude testing."  Of course, Clem Sunter's book did not see the incongruity of having 'diamond centres' in far-away lands - Antwerp, Israel, London, and so following - that did not produce a single stone, or with the exportation of well-paid jobs to these places by countries like Botswana, in that manner. At least South Africa, albeit under apartheid, had over the years built a fairly flourishing beneficiation industry that could serve as a basis of future expansion.

In the course of time, Sunter came to Botswana on a wing-footed lecture tour to promote his book. He was full of verve and sizzling with zest because he had just been promoted to head the Gold and Platinum Division of Anglo in South Africa. Without a doubt, the man had married well! President Masire was present at the two lectures Sunter gave in Gaborone - the first at University of Botswana, the second at the Gaborone Sun. At UB, Douglas Tsiako, then something of an intrepid reporter, took a strategic position behind Masire's seat from where he fired relevant questions at the appropriate time. Those present said the chagrin on the President's face and the egg on Sunter's offered a perfect subject for an artist working with oil on canvas.
To his credit, however, Sunter eventually admitted that the so-called policies of the mining giants were 'erroneous', though he would not concede that the fundamental flaw of their discreditable approach was rooted in apartheid. He also accepted the essential unreason of use of measly population sizes to justify underdevelopment and stinting people employment in downstream industries and that if there was an export market for raw diamonds in raw form, there should certainly be a market for finished products - jewellery and tools. Nevertheless, it was pointed out to him that rather than the dirt, the more toilsome overburden was the layer of racism that had prevented people of a darker hue access to the gemstones in the kernel with which the people shared a common provenance.

Tsiako commented recently in an interview: "Those who see Marikana and the return of the brute force of apartheid there last year must also view the cruel expulsion from work of the Debswana 461 and its subsequent endorsement by the courts in the same light and against a similar background of the legacy of a heresy that won't go away even from what is supposedly Africa's oldest democracy and multi-racial society. The children of the Debswana 461 immediately dropped out of school because their hot-headed parents had unionised where it is an abomination to do so. "In fact, Botswana is becoming a veritable outpost and preferred colony for white supremacists. Racially exclusive neighbourhoods and enclaves are rising everywhere - the Tuli and Gantsi are among the earlier ones, the Chobe and Ngotwane near Gaborone the more recent, though some were a creation of the colonial government that is proving difficult to eradicate. It was not for nothing that Orapa started off as a closed town and that it retains some of the restrictions of old to-date. In fact, the government is to be commended for resisting attempts to do the same at Jwaneng, though elements of the scourge are there still. "The trouble is that in insouciantly multi-racial Botswana, this is a sensitive subject even among victims of the blight of racism and heresy of apartheid mention of which can cost employees their jobs as troublemakers! It is this miserable lot that see no evil that the bard of the Lost Years, William Shakespeare, wrote that 'cowards die many times before their deaths' while Chinua Achebe tried to assuage the consciences of the fainthearted when he observed that 'heroes are to be found in many graves'.

At any rate, the newspaper campaign against the dredging of the Boro channel, which often took on the aspect of an ugly wrangle, lasted nearly one-and-a-half years beginning in the second half of 1990 until the latter part of 1991.  It was then when the government retreated under a steadfast barrage of dissent after the struggle to save the Okavango became a veritable worldwide movement. In hindsight, it must be a matter of contentment - at once personal and vicarious - for the journalist involved, Douglas Tsiako, who must have fought hard to suppress an exclamation of victory when he recently took to the podium at Riley's Hotel in Maun to share with younger journalists his experience of the campaign that he started. Tsiako, who is now News Editor for Mmegi and The Monitor, had been asked to speak on the 'Role of the Media in

Issues of National Interest: the Case of the Okavango Delta'. The occasion was a two-day media workshop on the World Heritage Convention (WHC) and Nomination of the Okavango Delta for World Heritage Listing. He took the invitation as an opportunity to make a case for activist journalism, civic action and community organisation. At  the time of the anti-dredging campaign, Tsiako was Political Correspondent, then Editor, of Newslink Africa, a defunct newspaper that was as controversial as it was evidently effective, the latter mainly because, as Tsiako put, "it was quite well resourced". 

As it turned out, he would have been justified to smack his lips and exclaim: "We are here today speaking of listing the Okavango Delta because I saved the Edenic Park!" Yet he did not. Even so, a murmur that ran through the conference room compelled him to explain the controversial Newslink Africa, a diabolical project of apartheid South Africa that was run by its military intelligence.Focusing on the matter at hand, Tsiako said because southern Africa is extremely arid, the thirsty countries of the region often eye the Okavango River as a wasted source of much-needed water.  Hence it was important that once the decision to launch a campaign against the dredging of the River Boro was made, basic facts about the Okavango Delta were grasped. In a nutshell, Tsiako noted, the oasis supports a full range of life forms - from humanity and plants to game, birds and livestock. The people of Nhabe, then numbering approximately 100,000, are a rich ethnic diversity similar to the biblical Babel without the bewilderment, and depend to varying degrees on the breathtaking wetland system in the middle of the desert.The delta is a massive body of water that covers 16,000 square kilometres. However, in a region where temperatures can go beyond 40 degrees Centigrade in summer, 96% of the water is lost through evapotranspiration, two percent is soaked into the sands as groundwater while another two percent is lost as surface flow. What was little known to the world at the time was that the authenticity and integrity of the system had been grossly violated before.But the people of Nhabe - among them Bagubakwe, Dxeriku, Hambukushu, Wayeyi, Xanekwe and Batawana - all fishing communities that harvested the water lily from the Okavango's multiple channels for food and reed for building material - remembered only too well that 20 years before, the Boro channel had been dredged, evacuated and bunded and that the results were disastrous.

The immediate consequence of that desecration was destruction of in-channel flora, including the delectable and nutritious tswii, as Batawana call the water lily whose white petals float on the surface of the water to present a beautiful sight to behold.Tsiako said after this tragic transgression against nature that took place between 1971 and 1974, it took 20 years for aquatic flora, including tswii, to return to the excavated channel. Even so, there was little recovery along the channel reach that had been excavated. Instead, something disturbing happened - there was encroachment of terrestrial plant species in the region of the dredged channel. Much worse, dredging had created a nickpoint, a sudden change in the gradient of the channel that was soon migrating upstream by erosion of the bedrock at the rate of 500 metres per annum, resulting in the formation of a channel similar in form to the dredged channel. Tsiako said this similarity was mainly the dearth of in-channel flora, again including tswii.What followed was a work, probably unprecedented, that entailed a potent combination of activist journalism, community organisation and civic action. "The figure that immediately springs to mind is that of the late 'Papa Bingos,' the regent of Batawana who, though frail of health, commanded the respect of his people," Tsiako said. "Kgosi Mathiba Moremi was decidedly against the project and lost no time in calling kgotla meetings at which he rallied his people behind the campaign against the dredging of the River Boro. He, the Queen Mother and several other Batawana royal notables, were a mighty force behind the campaign."

Another eminent figure who immediately joined the campaign was the late Motsamai Mpho, an accomplished community organiser who drew on his experience as an underground activist of the Africa National Congress on South Africa's Witwatersrand. Then president of the opposition Botswana Independence Party, Tsiako said he had ready access to Mpho because of the ANC stalwart's friendship with his father that had long been cemented by the mutual discovery that in addition to their political convictions, the two men were only 20 days apart in age, Mpho's birthday being 3 February 1921, his father's 23 February 1921. And then there was the clergy, among them the original protestants, the Lutherans, who commanded considerable following among the people of Nhabe before the invasion here of today's pauperising, tithe-based denominations. Although himself a Baha'i, Tsiako knew he could count on his Lutheran roots - his late father, the late Motheo, having been a lay priest and an outstanding choirmaster in the church in South Africa and Botswana - for support.  Present too were their erstwhile adversaries, the Catholics, who had come around to the Lutheran position that God forgives sin out of His grace, and not on the basis of the meritorious conduct of the sinner (see Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification), an issue that had been the crux of all disputes between the two since the 16th Century.  From this ecumenical standpoint, the prelates recognised the metaphysical yearnings of the people and presented a potent petition to God."And so we spoke and prayed together at the kgotla," Tsiako said. "For a change, equal access and fair play were not an issue. We spoke with the people of Nhabe to the same degree that ministers and their support teams did. While Radio Botswana and the Daily News were often predictably biased, it was of little effect where it mattered.

The battlefield was here in the Okavango; the frontline, the kgotla here in Maun. And it mattered little that we were such a motley lot because the lesson of history is that communists and anarchists have often been comrades-in-arms. Some in government were on our side, but they could not say it openly."  But the University of Botswana's Department of Environmental Science had been the first to join the bandwagon, lending the necessary technical expertise of hydrology, geomorphology and biology two weeks into the campaign, and helping to focus attention on the ecological and social impact that dredging would result in. Said Tsiako: "Over the next few weeks, the SABC's incisive 50-50 crew arrived, followed by Carteblanche from the same stable. Soon after that, I was delighted to welcome the BBC, for whom I also reported, to the Okavango. "Several international conservationist outfits also came to Maun to ensure that the campaign had the upper hand.  The arrival of Greenpeace International signalled an irreversible leeway for the campaign, and I was delighted to add the role of 'fixer' to my repertoire of activism. When the then Director of Water Affairs, the late Moremi Sikwale, began to look wearied and sound unconvincing when he spoke, I knew that victory for the people of Nhabe, for the world and for democracy was well nigh. As a hydrologist, he had been the most effective of the pro-dredging lot. Mercifully, even he eventually tired of having to turn issues, which was inevitable."

Thankfully, incidents of outright intimidation were few and quite half-hearted. Tsiako says the worst was once or twice when a convoy of army trucks arrived at the kgotla and disgorged enthusiastic soldiers when a well-attended meeting was underway.However, they were soon bored and rendered irrelevant because people gave them no more than a cursory glance and proceeded with the matter at hand. It was only when they began - quite lackadaisically - to pace the sandy grounds in the background that Ian Khama, then the Commander of Botswana Defence Force, was spotted among them. They provided an intriguing backdrop to the discussions - men in green who were here at the beck and call of a powerful anti-green government.When the plan was eventually aborted, it was the natural end of an ill-conceived gestation that portended a life of torment for both mother and child, if delivered. In the end, the campaign won because it was more robust and spirited. But its greatest attribute was that the world agreed with it, giving it a universal value that was as outstanding as the delta's.

A few years later in 1996, Namibia had a critical water emergency owing mainly to drought. In response, the government there formulated a plan to construct a pipeline in the Caprivi Strip to Windhoek at a point just before the water flows into Botswana.Horrified, Botswana raised objections using much the same line of reasoning its erstwhile enemies over the dredging of the Boro channel had advanced. Botswana was thankful when NGOs, both here and in Namibia, joined its call for a halt to the Namibai plan, using decreasing levels of water in the Okvango River and the delta as its major objections. It also resorted to the social impact assessment on the Okavango Delta that the campaign in Botswana had insisted on because it was focused on the negative impact that dredging would certainly have had on the traditional lifestyles of people downstream.Mercifully, the rains came and ameliorate the drought in Namibia. That spelt an end to the water crisis and the Namibian plan to draw water from the Okavango River. It was as a result of these wrangles that OKACOM, the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, was formed in 1994.Says a fact sheet: "In response to the acknowledged need to minimise negative impacts on the unique Okavango river system, while assuring satisfaction of the legitimate social and economic needs of the riparian states, the three Okavango Basin states Angola, Botswana and Namibia signed an agreement in 1994 that formed the Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM)."


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