When scribes become vultures

Journalists descended on Selebi-Phikwe in recent weeks
Journalists descended on Selebi-Phikwe in recent weeks

FRANCISTOWN: Journalist Thalefang Charles was spot on when he recently described the local media’s camping in the beleaguered town of Selebi-Phikwe as akin to vultures camping around a beast’s carcass.

Following the abrupt closure of the BCL Mine and its Tati Nickel Mining Company’s Phoenix mine, all the media houses literally camped closer to their story and for the past two weeks, the mine story dominated the news headlines.

Almost all the print and electronic media houses camped at both the city of Francistown and the town of Selebi-Phikwe in an endeavour to tell the story of the falling mines closer to the sources.

In the past, the word ‘vulture’ was used with a derogatory meaning in Parliament when President Ian Khama (Vice President then) had set tongues wagging in the august House calling MPs vultures when they debated in favour of a salary increment.


In the above context, a vulture is a contemptible person who preys on or exploits others. But in the case of media workers it holds a different meaning portrayed in good light. Newspapers’ front pages nationally led with the story of the mines closure. They tackled important issues ranging from what the government did not do to save the mines from going under and that the two mines have a combined lifespan beyond 2025 as profitable entities.

For two weeks, other national news played second fiddle as the media feasted on the BCL/Tati story from all angles. Special reports on the mines story dominated the pages of the main newspapers. Infact, even what are considered to be the tabloid newspapers abandoned their business line pursuing the story of the closing mines.

Even people who are generally considered voiceless, had their voices heard as the newspapers kept in touch with their story. The scribes dug deeper beyond the expectations of their readers rendering the newspapers very important vehicles of communication to the mineworkers and the reading public.

The workers under the guise of the Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU) became an important link in the story as over 5,000 of them are jobless following the mines closure. The story was stretched even further as the reports managed to expose the ripple effects of the mines closure beyond both Tati and BCL mines.

The newspaper reports made sense, as there were exposes that the government hurried the decision to place the BCL mine and its TNMC under judicial management as an endeavour to protect its assets.

This follows a collapsed deal between the government and the Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel Africa. Botswana government had offered to buy 50% stake in Norilsk’s Nkomati Mine in South Africa in 2014, but the deal collapsed. The media was able to clear the confusion created by Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi and some of his Cabinet colleagues who claimed that workers should not be worried because they would be paid for the next 12-18 months.

The confusion then shifted to a claim that now miners will be paid for the next four months until the liquidator handed his report when infact, they knew that the workers will only be paid their October salaries.

Masisi chose to deliberately misinform the nation as part of his Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) strategy to score political points in the midst of the crisis at both BCL and Tati mines. At a BDP press conference in Gaborone, Masisi told the press that the government has secured a monthly bill of P60 million to mitigate against the effects of closure of the BCL and TNMC mines.

Addressing the monthly BDP press conference, Masisi explained that the funds are for 12-18 months period.

“This money is for two mines which are TNMC and BCL. It includes salaries and expenses of maintaining the mines,” Masisi had said.

Two days after the BDP press briefing, the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and its Botswana Congress Party (BCP) partner held a massive press conference and political rally in Selebi-Phikwe bringing their fresh angle to the story.

Veteran journalist Douglas Tsiako says it is not surprising that the media followed the story of the mines closure because the whole saga has exposed the degree to which government has been dishonest as a major shareholder in the mines on behalf of the nation.

“The story of the BCL mine is one of subvention after subvention as government rescued the mine from what seemed like mismanagement of the whole thing. The BCL mine went aggressively not long time ago on an expansion programme especially the smelter that cost nearly P1 billion as an investment,” noted Tsiako indicating that the mine management targeted ore concentrate from the region.

He says hordes of journalists were attracted to the story especially that there was aggressive acquisition that left people thinking that it was for a just course when infact nothing came out of such a hefty investment.

So, the media was partly attracted to the story by some of the false promises that went up in smoke rather than benefitting the mines. University of Botswana media studies lecturer, Seamogano Mosanako finds justification in the media houses camping in a town like Selebi-Phikwe and Francistown and shifting their attention to the mine story. She attributes this kind of attitude in the coverage to the prominence of the story, as the mines closure is a national issue.

She traces the significance of the mine story to the fact that it is multi-faceted as it is the people of the mining towns who are affected by the negative developments, the society and the nation at large, hence the media attention.

“When it all started it was sort of reality coming to us as people have been wondering what will happen post-mining in Selebi-Phikwe,” Mosanako said indicating that it does not mean the media should completely shift its attention and abandon other equally significant emerging stories.

The UB academic observed that it is a common trend in the media to follow a breaking story to its logical end and often times shift attention from other equally important developing issues. 

Editor's Comment
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