Economic diplomacy: The ace up Seretse’s sleeve

Seretse says the country's foreign policy is based on its values PIC:KENNEDY RAMOKONE
New Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation minister, Vincent Seretse, plans to turn the country's diplomats around the world into ambassadors of economic growth. Through economic diplomacy, foreign policy will not only aim to position the country as the premier investment destination, but also secure greater access for the local products, services and skills. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes

In his mission, Seretse’s background serves him well. The country’s top diplomat was formerly the Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry and the assistant Minister of Finance and Development Planning, the latter being his debut Cabinet appointment, after joining Parliament in 2009.

Prior to joining Parliament, Seretse served at the helm of the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (now BTCL) and the Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC).

“My mandate is very clear. It is to make sure that as a country we have good, strong, dependable relationships with other member States. “The other half of the coin is to create opportunities for Batswana to be able to enter markets outside the country and at the same time to create an enabling environment that will make Botswana the number one destination for foreign investments,” Seretse says in an interview from his Government Enclave offices. Within this two-pronged mandate, the minister places greater emphasis on the latter objective.

“If you have a country that’s not developing, that’s poor, that’s not strong, then its voice is not there. “You cannot find the simple things you would expect such as peace, tranquillity, and security. “I’m working on this balance to make sure we go all out to attract people and at the same time make sure the environment here is good.

“I have already made it very clear to my diplomats out there. I have said to them that I want delivery. I don’t want a situation where Foreign Service is only about saying I have attended these many meetings. “Even though meetings are important, we want to be able to make sure that you are looking at opportunities that you can send home for us to share with the private sector which has an important role to play. “That’s what I do everyday and what keeps me going at all times.”

The fact that President Mokgweetsi Masisi hit his term running with regional State visits has enabled Seretse to quickly spread his economic diplomacy. Seretse’s approach, informed by the brief he received from Masisi, appears to be part of a Cabinet-wide push to bolster economic activity and create employment, particularly amongst youths. The transformational tide in government suits Seretse well, as his career in the private sector attests.


Code Name Mirage

In his life before Cabinet, Seretse founded the country’s first citizen-owned real estate firm, before heading both the BHC and the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC). Both assignments involved significant transformations for the entities.

“BHC’s accounts were always qualified, every year and we worked hard to turn this around. We managed to get to where the accounts were unqualified and clean which was a milestone. Those accounts have never gone back to being qualified,” he says. During his tenure, the BHC also introduced various schemes to encourage home ownership, including the Tenant Purchase Scheme, while also spearheading property developments in Gaborone, Kasane and other areas.

In 2004, Seretse was appointed BTC CEO, leading to a historic project he dubbed “Code Name Mirage,” the covert operation that eventually formed beMOBILE, the country’s third mobile carrier.

“When mobile telephony was introduced, it was done via tender and BTC, which had partnered with a certain group, lost. One of the things I insisted on when I joined was that BTC needed to have a mobile company and this was a big hassle.

“The regulator had their Act which stated how to introduce new players but we felt that as a public institution, BTC could not miss out on mobile telecommunications and we could not take the chance of bidding and losing in a new tender.

“Government finally saw that this was critical and gave us the go ahead.”

Even though no one at BTC had experience in setting up a mobile company, Seretse set up a crack team of highly qualified citizen engineers, finance, human resources and technical staff who operated under a code of silence in order to protect the fledgling company from being crushed by the two existing operators. “When there are other existing players, you cannot be out in the open.

We met the team, put them in a room and called them Code Name Mirage and it did very well under wraps, without competitors knowing anything. “I’m talking about the capacity of Batswana when they are given the opportunity to do things. Those brains showed that this country has talent.” Seretse’s team was also able to work on the BTC’s backbone infrastructure, ensuring that Batswana were given space in the project, alongside external contractors. The

development of beMOBILE and the backbone would later prove essential in the Corporation’s privatisation.


Of malls and tax

Seretse’s seven-year career in various Cabinet positions stands him well in both economic diplomacy and creating opportunities for citizens in the economy. He proudly recalls working with his then superior, Dorcas Makgato on the Economic Diversification Drive, the multi-billion pula programme designed to boost the local economy by redirecting government procurement and promoting import substitution.

Seretse also worked on the reservation policy under which certain economic sectors and activities are ringfenced for citizens in order to encourage their participation in the economy. His diplomacy skills would be tested in 2015 when he questioned why the country’s burgeoning retail malls were nearly exclusively occupied by foreign businesses. At the time, Seretse had risen to become the Investment, Trade and Industry minister.

In October 2016, the Trade Ministry began enforcing a section of the Trade Act which reserves grocery and clothing retail for citizens, requiring any business with a turnover of P1.5 million per annum to have a 51% citizen partner. At the time, the Ministry explained that the decision was meant to drive citizen empowerment as the trades are “easy to operate and do not require technological or special skills”. Those businesses seeking exemption would have to demonstrate citizen economic empowerment initiatives such as buying local, corporate social initiatives and a level of citizen equity participation. “One memorable period at Trade was a war where even my countrymen were on the side of those I was dealing with. I was arguing that we cannot have all these malls occupied 100% by foreigners. I believed that we needed to find some way where our own people could occupy these malls as well.

“Some of the developers of these malls tried to misrepresent what I was doing, but I told them that we need to find a formula.”

More diplomacy would be required when the Trade Ministry negotiated a special dispensation for Selebi- Phikwe in the aftermath of BCL Mine’s closure. By nature, fiscal authorities are reluctant to extend tax incentives, but in this case, Seretse says the arguments his former ministry put across were compelling. The special dispensation for Phikwe was gazetted in February this year.


The job ahead

Seretse’s experience in the corporate world and on the fiscal side of Cabinet, underpin his belief that economic diplomacy is the currency of global politics. That clear mandate is a break from years when academics and ordinary members of the public debated fiercely about the country’s foreign policy.

Many critics have argued that the lack of a codified foreign policy has led to divergent positions being taken within government on foreign developments, creating uncertainty amongst the country’s “friends”.  This argument rose most recently when Seretse’s predecessor, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi lost the race for the African Union’s (AU) chairmanship. “Ours is anchored on our values which are democracy, peace and Therisanyo,” explains Seretse.

“Those values are our DNA. The UK does not have a constitution, but they are a country that runs regardless. We are saying these are our principles which have stood the test of time and remain unshaken. We will not support any regimes that don’t subscribe to these.”

What about the view that Botswana is anti-AU? Is there not a need to mend fences there? “There’s nothing to mend because there’s nothing broken. We are part and parcel of the AU, a member in good standing. I have heard that view that somehow Botswana is against the AU and we must tackle that perception seriously.”

Part of tackling this perception is a commitment to participate in all regional, continental and multilateral meetings of institutions that Botswana has signed up for, in order to give Batswana a voice at the table. 

“A month ago we had a meeting in Kigali where I was there as acting Foreign Affairs minister and we were talking about the African Continental Free Trade Area,” Seretse says. “We raised our issues, points and participated and we believe we have started to make sure that we are there at the table. “At the last AU meeting, the President made a statement and indeed, in another month, we will be attending an AU meeting. “If there were perceptions, they must be relegated to the past.”

The transformational approach the new administration is leading will certainly be felt across the country’s borders. Seretse hopes that its impact will be felt within the economy by way of value creation and employment.





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