Over the past week, we witnessed a collision between private property rights, race and poverty.
A hotel owner- a Motswana of Indian descent - was subjected to social media outrage because he had barred hawkers from reoccupying his property without his permission.
To be sure, there was nothing illegal about the hotel owners’ acts. In fact, business centres, including the adjacent government-owned Rail Park, are chasing hawkers from their premises all the time. Unfortunately, this hotel owner’s property happened to be in the very heart of town; the main bus rank area. At the time Gaborone Hotel owners fenced up their property, the hawkers were not in occupation. COVID19 regulations had forced them out.
Had it been done at a time when the hawkers were in occupation, their acts would have been illegal. It was when they came to reoccupy the property, that they found the situation different. The situation was totally un-analogous to that of a lessee who locks a tenant out of his premises. A tenant is, by definition, lawfully resident in another person’s property and even in his physical absence, remains in occupation.
The fury, directed at the hotel owners had nothing to do with any wrong on their part. Frankly, any property owner would have done it and few, would have judged, their acts. It had everything to do with pent-up anger that continues to simmer between government and a section of the citizenry that feels frustrated with failing citizen empowerment efforts.
That anger is taking the path of least resistance. It is taking a racial route. This section of the citizenry is beginning to see people of other races as the reason for their pitiable economic state. It is not looking good.
I have learnt that the owner had been remonstrating with government and the hawkers for years. Government had not been responsive. The government would not want to interfere with the bus station hawkers.
They are a tightly bonded and feared community in the country and they are a significant voting block.
They have, however, not been able to harness the bargaining power in their numbers. As such, they remain a rather neglected community in government’s economic upliftment efforts.
It is a sad situation, considering that these are hard workers who ask for nothing from government except some small space to earn a living.
These are people who are not a burden to the economy in any way. These are people who were not even included in the COVID19 wage subsidy intervention by government. They were the most vulnerable to the economic effects of COVID19. They are a weight off the social security net. Were they all to sit at home, the social security net would not hold. It is time
What was disconcerting the most was how thick and fast the race card flew. In South Africa, the anger was directed at black foreigners. A student of psychology may one day discover how that was, considering that there were also Caucasian and Asian foreigners. In our case, the anger is hardly against black foreigners.
It is mainly against all people of Indians, Chinese and Caucasian descent in that order. Indians, because of the perception that they have corrupted our politicians and taken up the entire retail sector. Chinese, because of the perception that they have corrupted our politicians and taken up the entire mega procurement sector. Whites, because of the perception that they have corrupted our politicians taken up the entire tourism and hospitality sector. The Gaborone Hotel owners are innocent victims of these perceptions. Some Batswana are feeling displaced.
I am the most ardent proponent of citizen economic empowerment. I believe that indigenous Batswana must have a central role in their developing economy and that government policies must be tailored to achieve that outcome.
I also believe that all, including foreigners and non-indigenous Batswana, who come here looking for opportunities to invest and to help with our economic development efforts, have a place and deserve our appreciation and respect.
Whatever the case may be, I eschew racism and xenophobia. The response to the Gaborone Hotel incident bordered on such. No one sought to hear the other side of the story. Social media fired from the hip. All because, the owners of Gaborone Hotel are non-indigenous Batswana. We can do better as a nation.
The hawkers at the bus station may have had no right to the space concerned, but they had a right to earn a living. Sitting home could never have been an option. It is for government to ensure their welfare and to be responsive to their plight.
If the bus rank must be expanded, so be it. The plight of the Gaborone Bus rank hawkers is not just about them. It is about the non- formal business sector as a whole. It is about Batswana families struggling to survive in ever diminishing economic space. Fortunately, government holds the cure in our case and must act before it is too late. We cannot afford the simmering racial tensions. Congratulations to the hotel owners and the hardworking hawkers. I am happy to hear that an agreement has been amicably reached and the impasse is over. We must continue to model civility and racial harmony.