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Selebi Phikwe Post-Mining Economy: The promise and the dream

Botswana’s fifth president, His Excellency Mokgweetsi Masisi took office on April 01, 2018. Welcomed by a heavy down pour, it appears even the heavens approve of the presidency.

But the presidency has a mountain yet to climb with interest to the revitalisation of the ailing economy of Selebi Phikwe and the SPEDU region which suffered a heavy blow following the closure and liquidation of BCL mine. Will Masisi bring hope in the face of the deeply hounded people of Selebi Phikwe? To answer this question, president Masisi declared in his maiden speech as president of the country that his “Government will particularly intensify its efforts to revitalise the economy of the SPEDU region to effectively respond to the closure and liquidation of BCL”.

It is important to note that Masisi was the chairperson of the parliamentary committee that investigated BCL and made recommendation to shut down its operations. It remains to be seen if indeed president Masisi has the will of steel to turn around the economy of a region whose economic mainstay was the mine that he closed.

With his promise to turn things around, it is worth mentioning that several promises have been made since the closure of the mine. There have been attempts to identify opportunities that would invigorate the economy of the town but it seems all this remain a challenge in practice.

Despite his predecessor having been a sworn believer in action-oriented service delivery, there has been no noticeable action on the ground to deliver Selebi Phikwe from the harrows of economic shock that has since suffocated the town of its only capital oxygen being the BCL mine. With the change of guard, the people of Selebi and the SPEDU region can only hope that Government will move swiftly beyond rhetoric and paying lip service to practical programmes and projects.
 

The promises made that have since varnished as a distant dream in the minds of the people of Selebi Phikwe include the classification of Selebi Phikwe as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) where economic value can be unlocked from agribusiness and tourism. However the president noted in his inauguration speech that his Government will expedite the implementation of the SEZ which will contribute to the socio-economic development of the country. If this is finally implemented, it could boost the economy of Selebi Phikwe.

Government through the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry (MITI) introduced investor fiscal and non-fiscal incentives that include low general tax rates in order to attract investors both domestic and foreign to be able to set up businesses in the SPEDU region.

This incentive package through vigorous marketing and scouting for investors by both SPEDU and Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC) saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between BITC, SPEDU, Ngwato Land Board, Selebi Phikwe Town Council (SPTC), Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana (CAAB), Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) and Brite Star Aviation. Brite Star Aviation of Texas signed an agreement with these agencies to build a P1.4 billion aircraft manufacturing and assembly plant in Selebi Phikwe.

The project which was said would be completed in a period of five years was to expand into an eco-safari centre, hotel and conference centre, composite manufacturing plant, aircraft service and maintenance centre as well as a research and development centre that will house a pilot and flight training academy. The project was to create 3000 direct jobs for the region upon completion.

The announcement of this project was welcomed with mixed reactions as some people felt the project prospects seemed too good to be true with others questioning the credibility of the company which appeared to not have enough experience in the aviation space. Perhaps now dampening the hopes of the people of Selebi Phikwe further are the recent reports that seem to confirm Brite Star as a “fly-by-night” company taking its chances with the unsuspecting Government of Botswana.

With the promise of the setup of a company that manufactures mobile telephone handsets and a technology service provider in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Selebi Phikwe having not been fulfilled, doubt was cast over the Brite Star project which seemed bigger in scope than the laptop manufacturing business.

The company was to expand in its second phase to manufacture other electronic goods such as television sets and assembly of computers. Another ICT company which was to provide technology solutions like e-pay solutions and livestock identification solutions is yet to establish in the region as it was promised. Another dead dream.

Another deal, which now it appears, was but a pipe dream was the promise of a Pharmaceutical Medicine Park which for some time the scapegoat for lack of its delivery was that it was undergoing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultative process.

Another initiative is the set up of BIUST campus in Selebi Phikwe. Last year March, parliament adopted a motion by Selebi Phikwe West legislator, Dithapelo Keorapetse, requesting Government to consider relocating the College of Engineering and Technology to Selebi-Phikwe. There is still no sign of the envisaged satellite campus in the town, albeit a year now having passed.

Also last year when addressing a Kgotla meeting in Sefhophe Village, Former president, Lt Gen. Dr Seretse Khama Ian Khama announced that five manufacturing companies will set up in Selebi Phikwe in the next two years. The unidentified companies are also yet to establish in Selebi Phikwe.

Another company which residents doubt will ever set up in Phikwe is an Oxygen Gas company whose construction was expected to have commenced by the end of the 2017/18 financial year. The company is expected to build an air separation plant for the production of oxygen, nitrogen and other gasses. Even after former president, Lt. Gen. Dr Seretse Khama Ian Khama appointed former Bank of Botswana governor, Linah Mohohlo to the position of coordinator of Selebi Phikwe Economic Revitalisation programme, nothing much has been achieved so far and the gloomy economic situation continues.

Selebi Phikwe needs immediate rescue lest its virtually collapsing economy causes other more awful consequences worse than the deserting of the town by residents. The social and economic consequences triggered by the decline in population will eventually lead to the loss of the consumer base leading to a non-appealing business environment that will not attract investors.

The lack of the consumer base will also lead to downscaling of the remaining businesses leading to a further loss of jobs. Businesses in Selebi Phikwe either depended entirely or largely on BCL and its employees for capital as they constituted a significant percentage of the buying power.

The story of BCL closure and its devastating consequences have been told several times in graphic details by both political and economic commentators, civil leaders in the town and by former employees of the mine who are the direct victims who were at the eye of the storm when the curtains finally fell. If no urgent interventions are put in place and accelerated, there will be no sign of dawn appearing in sight as dark nights will last forever.

It is now for president Masisi and his administration to stem the tide by implementing achievable recovery strategies and initiatives. In his address to the nation as president, Masisi revealed that Government will prioritise the implementation of a combination of strategies required to stimulate accelerated economic growth noting further that practical and realistic strategies will be implemented as a matter of urgency.

The nation will be watching to see the urgency with which the Masisi administration will zealously embrace the challenges and meaningfully deliver the promise lest the dream of a better Selebi Phikwe post-mining remains a barren dream. A success in turning around the economy of Selebi Phikwe will serve as demonstration that in the event Botswana diamonds get depleted, Orapa and Jwaneng will not become another Selebi Phikwe. It will also serve as signal that the Government can indeed achieve economic transformation and diversification which the nation desperately needs to move away from over-dependence on diamonds as the economic mainstay.

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