Situated in the centre of the town, a stoneâ€™s throw from the bus rank, is the Selebi Phikwe Cooperative Society, a membership driven retail outlet dating back to 1975. To be accurate, it was there until 2011 when increasing competition, alleged corruption and economic ill-winds forced its closure. Staff Writer, ONALENNA KELEBEILE MODIKWA finds that the iconic institution has risen from ashes and is yet again a bastion of citizen enterprise
Albert Paki, Selebi Phikwe’s first mayor who served between 1981 and 1982, fondly remembers the early days of the Selebi Phikwe Cooperative Society’s establishment. As the town formed around the fairly new copper and nickel mining operations, the cooperative, popularly known as ‘Copa’ became its first retail centre.
The Co-op was the first to sell groceries, quickly gaining the hearts of residents. The establishment of a trendy bar also made it a magnet for social life in the blossoming town.
“When the Mall was extended, there were suggestions that the Co-op should acquire a piece of land at P5 per square metre for expansion,” he recalls.
“Proposals were made and finalised in 1979. We secured enough cash to acquire the plot from the Botswana Development Corporation.”
With help from the then Botswana Co-operative Bank, Co-op members engaged engineers known today only as Tlhabiwe and Kgalaeng to design plans for their entity’s home.
“Believe me they did a good job and it became one of the best buildings around town. It was serious in business as it sold everything,” says the former mayor.
Those early decades marked the Co-op’s heydays, as prudent managers secured products from South Africa as well as from local suppliers such as the late Sam Sono and Mmadinare Dairy.
Powered by a committee that included prominent names such as Sethibe Kgaleng, Ernest Higgins, Gilson Saleshando and Tlhabiwe, the Co-op thrived on the loyalty of residents and the rising incomes in the mining-driven town.
The mine also attracted highly skilled accounts who lent their talents to the Co-op, identifying loopholes and tightening systems.
“We were the first society to occupy a building at the Industrial site and we later opened another branch at the Western Area,” says Paki.
“When I left, the Co-op’s bank balance was well above P1 million.”
The former mayor left the mining town in 2003 and says he left it ‘bubbly with health’. Members of the original committee also left one after another, handing over the reins to new elected representatives.
Beyond this point, the story of how the successful Co-op deteriorated to its eventual closure in 2011 becomes hazy.
From all accounts, the Co-op’s demise is a combination of several factors ranging from the arrival of chain supermarkets, the global recession, alleged corruption and mismanagement as well as political influence.
“We do not know what happened after we left, but we learnt with shock and heartbreak about the status of the Co-op that led to it being closed down,” says Paki.
From success in the 1980s and 1990s, the 2000s were difficult for the Co-op as it racked up millions of Pula in debt owed to suppliers, utility companies such as the Botswana Power Corporation and others.
In 2010, technocrats from the Trade Ministry intervened ordering the retrenchment of workers amidst wide sweeping reforms aimed at rescuing an institution nearly as old as the town itself.
The attempts failed and the Co-op shut its doors, sold its remaining stock and rented out its physical assets.
Current committee chair, Tebogo Venson, takes up the narrative about the Co-op’s demise.
“We sold some of the property, equipment and stock from our shops to liquidate the debts,” he says.
“We even sold part of the building in the mall for around P1 million. Our debts were still not fully cleared as we owed a key supplier about P800,000 and they slapped us with a summons.”
Venson reveals that the new committee that stepped in, in 2011 commissioned an investigation into the institution’s fall, in conjunction with the deputy commissioner of cooperative development.
“The findings revealed that there was corruption and there were no internal controls in place hence a shut down was recommended,” he says.
However, mismanagement and trade ill-winds were not solely behind the Co-op’s failure.
According to Venson, there were also underhand tactics at play.
“Political involvement led to the collapse of the society and there was no supervision of staff hence mismanagement of the Co-op’s assets,” he says boldly.
Members who stood by their Society in darkest times and remained loyal to the committee have recently had reason to smile.
Having closed its iconic retail operations, the Co-op moved into real estate management, renting out its property to a supermarket chain, furniture store and a wholesaler in industrial site. A plot in Botshabelo is also being rented out.
At present, the society rakes in about P155,000 in rentals monthly and has been able to clear its mountain of debt. A sister organisation, the Bobonong Cooperative Society, also came to the Phikwe Co-op’s rescue with a loan, which was used to settle creditors.
Venson says moving from retail to property was difficult, but the society and its members are now thinking big.
“We intend to collect monthly rentals and then divide a certain percentage of annual proceeds among members so that they can also have a sense of ownership of the society,” says the chairman.
“We intend to reward our members’s loyalty and we will announce this at the next annual general meeting.”
From deficits running into the millions of Pula, Venson says the Phikwe Co-op has accumulated close to P2 million in its bank account.
As part of thinking big, the society’s recently concluded strategic plan includes the development of the Botshabelo plot into a lodge, cultural village or other business.
The society is also in negotiations with the Mmadinare Cooperative Society to buy the latter’s farm in order to venture into horticulture and thus benefit from the upcoming processing plant in Selebi Phikwe.
“We are looking at the town’s development plan to apply for land where we can build property and lease to tenants. We are also considering buying houses from Botswana Housing. Corporation around the country and lease these out.
“We want to tap into every opportunity that we come across,” says Venson.
Having received a bail-out from their Bobonong peers, the Phikwe Co-op members are also eager to extend the same gesture to fellow societies in trouble. Already, the Co-op has received proposals that it is considering.
The membership base has also been audited.
“We have 3,600 members although 1,600 are dormant,” says Venson.
“We decided to screen our membership in order to identify the dormant ones. Eligible members are allowed to buy more shares from the society.”
The old heart of Selebi Phikwe is once again beating, albeit to a tune different from the retail sector that first made it a hit among residents.