While other businesses in the economy have reopened since the COVID-19 restrictions last year, nightclubs have remained closed since March 21, 2020. Nightclubs have become a forgotten sector comprising nearly 40 businesses and about 1,700 direct jobs. Club owners and managers say even if restrictions are lifted tomorrow, most of the businesses will be gone. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes
The snowball effect of the March 21, 2020 decision to close nightclubs and discos has shattered an industry and ruined lives. Lessors owe the banks, nightclub owners have not been able to operate since that day and even with the most lenient of arrangements, rental arrears have ballooned with no hope in sight of settlement.
A popular nightclub in Gaborone, which was one of the city’s favourite nightspots, reportedly owes P2 million in rental arrears.
“At Mariot, we owe P800,000 in rentals and other places owe even more,” says Peter Noke, shareholder of Mariot Premier Lounge in Block 6 and also chair of the Botswana Beverages Association. “Just because we know the lessors, we have negotiated to hold onto the premises, but the rest will be evicted because they cannot pay. “We asked government to help us with relief funds to reset this sector and our businesses and nothing has happened. “We are left with giving up, but giving up after such investment, with those assets packed in there, where will they go?”
Noke says he is aware of businesses in other parts of the country that have been turned from nightclubs into 'Chinese shops' because cash-strapped property owners have run out of patience waiting for rental arrears. With no positive signals from government, official communication or responses to appeals from the Botswana Beverages Association and other industry groups, nightclub owners cannot even give their landlords any promise of when they will be able to pay the arrears.
Noke says last year’s wage subsidy was a drop in the ocean for the sector, as its troubles mounted with the continued ban on operations. The country has approximately 38 nightclubs and the chairman estimates that even if restrictions were lifted tomorrow, only those supported by external franchise partners would be able to restart operations. The rest used the funds they had for stock in paying rental last year after the closure. This means even if they were allowed to open tomorrow, most nightclubs would struggle for funds to buy stock and restart operations.
“The franchise can open and even now, some are operating selling food. Food doesn’t bring in the money, so it’s clear they have support as franchises from their parent companies. “The most badly affected are the citizen-owned. “Investment has been made here and our workers call all the time asking if anything positive has happened.”
Workers, in fact, are bearing the brunt of the closure of nightclubs. At least 1,700 direct workers, including servers, bouncers, cleaners and other staff, were employed in the nightclub industry before March 21, 2020.
After the initial closure, many stayed put in the areas near where they worked. COVID-19 was by then a poorly understood virus and it was not clear how long it would last or how long the workers would have to remain at home.
Today, many have returned to their home villages, fighting to eke out livings any way that they can. Official statistics shared this week by the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry indicate that 1,010 workers of the 1,700 in the industry, lost their jobs in the nightclub sector, but most industry stakeholders believe the number is far higher.
Kealeboga 'DJ KSB' Sedumedi, a freelance promoter and DJ who has worked in all the top clubs in Gaborone with a residency at United Lounge in Block 6 and B6 Entertainment, says he had to make a plan to survive what he describes as “the darkest two years of my life”.
“I had to come up with a plan which happened to be opening a small food joint called Kota Junxion, which basically sells burger-like meals and fries,” he tells Mmegi. “The business managed to get me from point A to B but it was not enough because I have too many bills to pay because of family and lifestyle that I had. “So I also had to ‘drop’ music since I produce as well (and) I have a trending song titled Phendula, which is currently doing well on radio airplay across SADC and digital stores, which I hope to generate royalties from as another way of making that cash to cope with the situation.”
On the impact of the nightclubs’ closure, he adds: “It took away 80% of my finances/income, especially that I had a tour, which had a budget invested on. “So yeah, I went on a huge loss because of the suspension and it’s not easy finding other means that can get me through by the day since I knew my hustle well.”
Sedumedi says many nightclubs have dissolved their businesses and estimates that even if restrictions were lifted today, 50% or less would reopen. Other premises, he says, have converted into warehouses and restaurants.
Frustrations are boiling over in the nightclub sector and government, which instituted the restrictions, naturally is being asked more questions. Across the nightclub sector, many say their recommendations on safe relaxations have been ignored and their pleas for assistance or relief cast aside.
Business owners had hoped to receive a special dispensation of relief from government over and above the wage subsidies and industry support funds. Workers had hoped the wage subsidy would be extended as was provided for workers in the tourism sector last year, which has since reopened.
In Parliament, few legislators have spoken up for the nightclub sector and any discussion on them has been within the broader context of the alcohol and entertainment industry.
“Sadly, even though most received a form of relief, I have never got any form of relief from the government and I’m still trying to understand why because I submitted my files too,” Sedumedi says. “I would suggest government revisit our plea on giving us a capacity percentage for us to open up and manage to pay the bills and do what we know best. “The streets are packed now with people selling the same products trying to survive but we no longer have customers since we are all sellers. “It would be great to negotiate with us a certain number of people to enter a club because we already know the precautions laid before us on how to fight COVID-19 and we need to live with it.”
Zaine Aftermath, who has managed several nightclubs and entertainment spots including the popular Bahama Lounge in Gaborone, recalls another popular nightspot that spent P150,000 on renovations and was due to relaunch just as COVID-19 hit last year.
Within the industry, former workers have turned to anything to survive, from selling masks to the food industry. They have also tried to support one another, in the absence of income or hope within the industry.
“I got a call recently saying we should try and help out one of our guys who had COVID-19, to help him survive,” Aftermath says. “I did that and he did survive. “The impact is great and you must remember that even for artists, they make money through shows because COSBOTS (Copyright Society of Botswana) is failing them with royalties. “Artists’ lifeline has been the clubs, the bars and weddings and without any of these, imagine how they are surviving,” he says.
At the trade ministry, the cries of the nightclub sector appear to have reached empathetic but ultimately helpless ears. In public statements, the minister, Mmusi Kgafela and his assistant, Molebatsi Molebatsi, have both singled out nightclubs and sympathised with their plight, while also pointing out that their hands are bound by the guidance of health authorities.
“Nightclubs and discos were closed and after that, we started seeing a loss of jobs. “We have found that at least 1,010 jobs have been lost because of the closure,” Kgafela told a televised brief this week, adding that he “feels from the bottom of his heart” for the alcohol industry.
Meanwhile, in Parliament in March this year, Molebatsi said nightclubs were "the most affected" business as they had not operated since last year.
“As part of efforts to continue supporting of the industry, the ministry is looking into how the nightclubs and discos can be assisted to cushion them from the long closure,” he said.
The ministry also says support has been provided to the alcohol sector through CEDA (Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency), although a list shared by Molebatsi in March did not show nightclubs.
In the meantime, it appears the nightclub industry is staring the death of their sector in the face. Investors, workers and their families are bearing the brunt of a pandemic driven by a virus so sinister that whenever it senses defeat, it mutates into an even more dangerous variant.
Noke, however, retains a measure of hope in the nightclub industry.
“It can be revived if we are helped with relief funds by the government,” Noke says. “Right now, we are hoping to meet the President and appeal to him directly to say your children are suffering.”