PALAPYE: Only over 12 months ago, the streets of Selibe-Phikwe were buzzing with happy people looking forward to the following day and beyond.
The roads were packed with traffic made of a mixture of public transport, BCL and external contractor’s trucks as well as private vehicles. Traffic congestion along certain roads made the town even more relevant and inspiring for some. However, all that belongs in the past.
That mood ended abruptly on October 20, 2016 when the government announced the closure of BCL mine, the town’s biggest employer. BCL was not only the breadbasket for Selibe-Phikwe, it also served as a source of hope for the Bobirwa and Tswapong region which comprises of villages like Mmadinare, Bobonong, Tobane, Sefhophe, Sefhare, Molalatau, Lerala, Maunatlala and others.
The year 2017 has ushered in a new and unconducive status rendering Selibe-Phikwe a ghost town where hopelessness rules supreme. Alcohol and drug abuse, petty crime, and family break ups amongst other social ills have found home in the town, as everybody struggles to put food on the table.
A recent study conducted by Botswana Council of Churches in partnership (BCC) with Botswana Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (BOCONGO) found the dire situation moving from bad to worse and attributed all the social ills to the closure of BCL mine.
In her presentation at the BCC 5th Alternative Mining Forum held here last weekend, one of the task team members Boitumelo Kopane said the closure affected quite a lot more than the official 6000 employees because majority of small and medium businesses, schools and other private entities depended on BCL and its employees. As matter of fact, they were in Selebi-Phikwe because of the mine.
“There is a huge difference in the lives of the residents of Phikwe, most people have become violent, crime has escalated and the use of drugs and alcohol have also gone up. Many perpetrators are the youth most of whom have been left alone in BCL houses since their axed parents have gone to their places of origin. What only remains in the town are child-headed households hence too much risky behavior,” Kopano told a gathering in Palapye last week. She painted a gloomy picture of what was once a thriving town.
“One may not believe during month end as some people are even ashamed to associate themselves with other. They have lost their dignity and queues at labor offices are unbelievable, moreover some of the axed employees are afraid to go back home as they think they will be rejected,” she added.
Some businesses have shrunk by 50% since the closure of the mine, as the majority of their customers were miners and their families. It is clear that BCL was holding the lives of the Selibe-Phikwe people as even Pre-Schools are said to be registering a very lower number of pupils ever since the tragedy. Many families have since relocated to their home villages and have drastically killed enrollment in Selibe-Phikwe schools.
Panic has struck pre-school owners who now fear that some of their schools might be forced to close in 2018 due to lack of pupils.
Moreover, Kopano has revealed that most tuck shops in Selibe-Phikwe and Tobane village have closed, as there is no business at all while the public transport businesses have also declined. Adding onto that, despite the fact that divorce cases are already high in the country, it is said that Selibe-Phikwe will soon lead in numbers as woman are leaving their husbands for ‘greener pastures’ in security personnel from the army and Botswana Police.
According to Kopano, Selibe-Phikwe has been leading in prostitution and some organizations had already reached out to try to help them accordingly as a way of fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS. This led to enrolling some prostitutes on treatment, but most of them have disappeared and have defaulted from the treatment.
The findings also noted that churches have not been spared the pain that accompanied the closure of BCL and some of them are struggling pay rentals whilst members are leaving in in large numbers. On the other hand, pastors who have not been paid salaries have engaged in private businesses to make a living.
Father Gabriel Batere of Roman Catholic Church said what was being revealed by the study was the opposite of what they always hear in the news. He said it seems like there is no future for the town of Selibe-Phikwe, saying the fact that people are now involved in unpleasant things is because they are confused. However he said churches they shall continue praying for the situation and have forums with the government to come up what can be a possible solution.
On his part, the president of Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC), Philemon Motlhagodi called for partnership of church organisations saying if they can partner and work together they can find a remedy for the problem since they will be approaching the leaders as one church voice. He said if OAIC, BCC and Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana (EFB) can address the issues of national interest as one voice, there could be solution.
Other people were of the view that what happened to Selibe-Phikwe residents must be a learning curve to other Batswana living in the mining towns. They advised that people must always be prepared for such misfortunes to avoid the same situation
The much-touted SPEDU has not brought any relief to Selibe-Phikwe and the residents have given up hope of ever seeing their town functioning again. What compounds the problem is the lack of skills in the ex-miners most of whom have known copper mining for the better part of their lives.
Furthermore, some people are said to be clueless about any policies available in the town and what they only want is for their mine to re-open to avoid more sex work, crime and divorces.