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Gaborone Hotel 'war' a symbol of national economic unease

MBONGENI MGUNI
Showdown: Police arresting Gaborone Hotel hawkers last week PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
When hawkers pulled down the fence at Gaborone Hotel this week, the act was read by some as a symbolic victory for Batswana who increasingly feel excluded from their own economy by rich and powerful outsiders. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI notes that the Coronavirus is increasing already simmering economic tensions

If the economy is a cake, many would argue that indigenous Batswana have not been receiving their fair share. Historically, the country’s economic structure has leaned towards capitalism on one end, as espoused by free market policies and socialism on the other, as seen in policies that seek to distribute wealth at national level more equitably, as well as social safety nets programmes to protect the vulnerable.

Analysts say, in the absence of specific intervening policies, the result has been the entry and growth of moguls on the one hand and higher numbers of indigenous citizens supported by social safety nets. Botswana has one of the world’s highest inequalities and the anomaly is the focus of the current and upcoming National Development Programmes.

When finance and economic development minister, Thapelo Matsheka says the economy will shrink by 13.1%, he means the size of the cake will decrease. Those with smaller slices will have even less, but curiously experience shows that those who had more, could still enjoy the same or even larger shares of the smaller cake.

The difference is reserves. For many Batswana, their livelihoods are supported by monthly incomes, with little left over for savings. The last authoritative study into this by Statistics Botswana found that over 70% of all employed people in the country earn less than P4,000 per month!

Those privileged to live on the other end of the spectrum do not only count on monthly incomes, but have reserves in the form of assets such as cash balances, property, equities, business interests and others. In 2018, the African Wealth Report estimated that Gaborone had 1,200 US dollar millionaires, while the entire country was host to two US dollar billionaires.

With the coronavirus having shrunk the size of the cake, tensions have been rising between the different economic hierarchies. On social media, an inaccurate but readily available gauge, resentment has grown amongst Batswana at the apparent indifference of some tycoons to the suffering of others under the pandemic.

The fact that some

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business owners sought to retrench during the pandemic also worsened the tensions, particularly as many of these did not wait for the government-sponsored relief programmes.

Some unscrupulous businesspeople tapped into the relief programmes but did not pass on the benefits to employees. Others, as confirmed by Business Botswana president, Gobusamang Keebine, applied for government relief funds even when their own coffers were healthy enough to survive COVID-19.

Government leaders, including President Mokgweetsi Masisi, have publicly taken the rich elite to task for their apathetic response to the crisis, in some cases warning that there would be adverse consequences once the pandemic settles down.

Tensions have been simmering and plans by the Masisi administration to pass a Citizen Economic Empowerment law this winter, have been welcomed by the increasingly restless economic majority.

Gaborone Hotel owner, Bipin Awasthi, was presumably aware of these simmering tensions when he wrapped a fence around vendors’ stalls during the lockdown, in preparation for his property’s expansion.

As the dispute between Awasthi and the long-established vendors raged on and caught national attention, the symbolism was unmistakeable. For many the dispute epitomised the greater national economic tensions pitting average Batswana against their richer counterparts.

To some, the vendors’ fight for economic space against the hotelier, mirrored the fight over an economic cake shrunk by the pandemic. Thus, the tearing down of the fence over the weekend was welcomed by many on social media who saw a rare victory over the usually unstoppable forces of capital.

The informal sector, long marginalised and overlooked by policymakers and formal economic activities, has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic and the vendors’ fight was seen as literally one of survival.

Their guts and determination were hailed on social media by Batswana, who are drawing inspiration from the vendors to lay claim to their own share of the economic cake.

Awasthi and the vendors have since reconciled and it remains to be seen whether the broader economy will reach similar consensus amidst the damage caused by the coronavirus.



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