President Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi
Office of the President
I hope that you are in good health. The entire world is in a state of war against an invisible enemy, an enemy that has claimed many lives. This will undoubtedly be the greatest challenge you will have to confront as our President. We all look up to you to navigate our nation out of the turbulence we face with minimum deaths, and for this, you remain a part of our daily prayers.
Though not common in our politics, I have decided to share my thoughts with you through an “Open Letter” on the key issues, which if not addressed, will place our people under increased mental strain. As it is, the entire population is engulfed by a cloud of uncertainty and fear. Where possible, government should, as a matter of priority, address some of the predicaments facing households to help cushion them against the adverse impact of the national response to Covid 19. I have listed some of the issues for your attention below;
1. Business and Residential Rentals
A number of Batswana entrepreneurs do not own the premises that they occupy for their business operations. There is need to ensure that businesses owned by Batswana will be able to resume operations post Covid 19, failing which the campaign for citizen economic empowerment will be doomed even before a law on the same is passed.
As with business premises, home ownership is still low in Botswana. The low-income group, most of who are in the informal sector, are tenants and risk being evicted as at the end of April by landlords. Kindly consider opening up the Covid Fund to property owners (commercial and residential) and directing Botswana Housing Corporation not to collect rentals from low and medium cost tenants for at least 3 months.
2. Informal Sector
Batswana in the informal sector, commonly referred to as “Hustlers”, are in dire straits. Compliance with the lockdown meant losing their entire income. This sector of our economy, though critical, is not under the watch of BURS and therefore not catered for by the Covid Fund. At the time when the Covid Fund was set up, a parallel facility should have been established for the likes of “Mma Seapei”, the airtime vendor, taxi man etc…
For the informal sector, I propose government urgently calls on operators to register their business interests and through a rapid self-assessment process, submit the quantum of the losses they have endured on account of the lockdown, and government to offer some financial relief. This is a project that LEA in conjunction with CEDA should be able to deliver with relative ease and build critical data needed for the development of the informal sector.
3. Farming Sector
There are reports of farmers being denied permits to attend to their farms and “masimo”. We are at a point where our ability to feed ourselves as a nation should be at the pinnacle of our immediate national strategic interest. Farming by nature, does not require high density of workers and allowing the sector to operate will not undermine our response to Covid 19.
Your Excellency, our current reality compels us to urgently reconsider our approach to agriculture. In the last debate of the national budget, all MPs who contributed to the agriculture budget debate noted that the allocated amounts are a small fraction of what is needed to turn the sector around. As part of the economic recovery strategy post Covid 19, consider launching an aggressive program of identifying farmers who can be assisted to expand their operations. Subsistence farmers should be hand held to graduate into efficient commercial operations. Senior civil servants who are part time farmers should be enticed to retire early and take up the new agricultural schemes geared at helping Botswana to produce enough to feed itself.
4. Provision of Food Baskets
I commend governments effort to ensure that no one is subjected to hunger at this difficult time. As you may have gathered, Mma Boipelego has become a national celebrity. However, the roll out of the food baskets has been dogged by our legendary government inefficiencies. Assessments have taken inordinately long in some areas and households are compelled to violate the lockdown protocols out of hunger and desperation.
As a response to the delays in the distribution of food, a number of your cabinet members have now resorted to set up their own constituency programs and use their ministerial positions to secure food hampers for their individual constituencies. They do not see the need to channel donations to the national fund but appear to be using the Corona crisis to endear themselves to those under the threat of hunger. I am sure that the DCEC, if asked to advise on this development, will inform you that this amounts to cultivating fertile ground for future corruption. The donors that are opening their doors for ministers’ constituencies, expect the favours to be returned at a later date. Kindly advise cabinet members to focus on the national fund and not be driven by narrow partisan interests at a time of a crisis.
5. Tourism, Creative Industry and Event Management
Long before the lockdown, some of the sectors that provide employment for the youth were compelled to close down. International travel was severely disrupted as early as January and tourism operators, particularly in Ngamiland, were compelled to shut down, many sending their staff on unpaid leave or terminating employment contracts. Most of those who work in this sector as bar tenders, waiters and waitresses, drivers and freelance professional guides are the youth.
The creative sector is also dominated by the youth. Young people whose companies specialise in delivering professional events mainly for corporate clients are now faced with possible closure. Special attention should be accorded to businesses that have suffered greater losses and whose wage bills are dominated by the young.
6. Personal Protective Equipment and Salary adjustment for Health Workers
In all the countries that have recorded a high number of Covid 19 deaths, health workers have formed part of the statistics of the dead. There is need for you to assure our health workers, who are risking their lives working in the frontline of this ravaging war, that government will avail adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Our 2 public universities (UB and BIUST) recently announced a number of innovations related to Covid 19 response. I commend the 2 universities for their innovations.
Kindly instruct the National Covid 19 Response Team to engage the 2 universities together with Business Botswana to explore the possibility of setting up production plants for some of the required equipment. This can be done! In response to Corona some countries were able to build specialised hospitals in a matter of weeks.
Kindly also consider exempting health care workers from the recently imposed salary adjustment postponement. Some countries have introduced special allowances for their health sector employees in appreciation for the burden they carry in responding to the crises. I doubt that the portion of the agreed salary increase that was budgeted for the health sector would break the camel’s back.
7. Coerced Donations from Disciplined Forces
Members of the Police Service as well at the Botswana Defence Force, have received communication from their superiors urging them to contribute their earnings or savings to the Covid 19 Fund. Fixed amounts have been set for each rank. Though the communication suggests that the contributions are voluntary, we all know that a request from the highest authority, in the culture of disciplined forces, is a command. Our men and women in uniform are part of the front line and have had to carry a heavier workload when we all took the back seat and worked from home. It is unfair to subject them to an additional financial strain. I therefore urge you to reverse the call for donations by the head of the police and army. Let those in the disciplined forces who wish to contribute follow the same procedure set for every Motswana, they can deposit directly to the advertised accounts and not through their superiors.
8. Education Sector
As the current lockdown comes to an end, there is need for you to give clear directions on what is to happen within the education sector. The State of Public Emergency (SoE) Regulations state that schools will remain closed for the duration of the SoE, which is six months. Minister of Basic Education has indicated that if schools are not reopened soon, all students will have to repeat. To the greatest extent possible, this should be avoided.
For all intents and purposes, learning in public schools has come to a halt while private schools continue to deliver content to their students through e-learning. Our public education has to transform and central to the transformation is the use of technology in the class room. The roll out of ipads to students, and associated internet infrastructure, is no longer a political rally issue, it’s an urgent imperative requiring your attention.
You probably recall from your brief stint as Minister of Education that the ministry employs a high number of temporary teachers. Most of the temporary teachers have the requisite qualifications for the jobs they do. The temporary teachers operate through termly contracts and are unsure of their jobs at the moment. Their work conditions are not conducive for the provision of quality education centred around a motivated teacher. We need to urgently confirm all temporary teachers as permanent employees.
Finally, I am alive to the reality that some of the measures I propose for your consideration will come with costs, at a time when our capacity to raise revenue is diminished. It has become necessary to reconsider the recently adopted budget for 2020/21. Approved development projects that are not absolutely critical for the current financial year will have to be deferred. Chief amongst these, will be our military expenditure.
Wishing you and your family continued good health.
Leader of Opposition