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Matsheka maiden Briefcase Affair packed with fiscal consolidation headache

When many take their thoughts off this weekend, the next thing that should come in mind is an iconic black briefcase which is synonymous with the biggest annual national event in this country, where it seems fashion meets serious fiscal business action, slated after the next 48 hours -the Budget Speech.

Thoughts right now move to the legendary Parliament building corridors with a lot of anticipations to see the Oscar Awards-esque figure of a black-suited Dr Thapelo Matsheka, strutting on a much photographed red carpet while clenching onto the symbolic black briefcase. The next step will be for Matsheka to take on the altar inside the Parliament chambers where he will give audience to political figures inside the building, which might also include President Mokgweetsi Masisi.

For legislators across the political divide, it will be business as usual inside, but for the business community it will be the most attentive affair, economists will be listening  in coming with a lot of burden of expertise on their shoulders. As for the nation; those at vendor markets, some at drinking spots, others holding slashers clearing out long summer grass along the roadsides, and folks who will be inside their cars as radio sound systems broadcast the Budget Speech.

Some will be sitting under shades with pulled out radio antennas at some village corner while others will have their eyes fixated on Matsheka through their television sets or some viewing livestream broadcast pop ups on their mobile phones trying to make sense out of the thick fiscal language which will come out of the minister’s debut fiscal speech.

The political figure with the briefcase and his audience

More than 95 percent interacted with Matsheka on his personal Facebook page this week, of those more than 50 commentators, were all positive on that he will deliver their promises through the Speech. In an announcement where he stated that he will tour all the five national radio stations before and after the Budget Speech is read, he received more than 300 positive reactions from followers with some “hoping for more enlightenment, considering your past as a lecture”, some reminding him that “public servants and Vocational Training Colleges and brigades are waiting patiently.”

Some were fixated at an apparent democratic or a political gesture of having a Minister addressing the public on the national budge. While one advised the Minister to “be careful of negative voices….this is your first as Minister.” Some, a minority of the interactors, “don’t want to hear politicians talk…we want to see tangible developments….you probably want to lie to us”, someone expects “talk talk but no action, an all-time song put on repeat always”.

Speaking from legislators’ Budget Speech retreat this week at Selibe Phikwe, Matsheka said he would not mind any economic or fiscal issues discussion with the media, but this publication could not engage him further since he was held up at a cabinet retreat.

But Matsheka’s suitcase could be containing a negative budget


During one of Matsheka’s first task in the treasury, the draft mid-term review of National Development Plan (NDP) 11, which covers government’s planned project expenditure for the years running from 2017 to 2023, the Minister painted a gloomy picture of this country’s purse, something which might also reflect on his briefcase this coming Monday.

This year is the halfway year bridging government plans towards the end of NDP 11, to 2023, but according to Matsheka last year, government continues to tackle simmering and growing budget deficits which needs to be tackled amid diamond revenue failing to square up with the ever increasing government revenue.

It was like a good dream when the government foresaw a minor six year budget surplus of just over P1 billion for NDP 11. But a contradicting projection shows that this country will have a budget deficit of over P18 billion over the six year period, which is now on its fourth year. A disturbing trend of budget deficits has been traced back to NDP 10 or the budget of 2013/14, where a shortfall of P7.2 billion was recorded, crossing over to the next financial year where it fell down but only at P -4.8 billion. 

Towards the current NDP, in the 2016 financial period, government had a budget surplus of P8.3 billion before a meagre surplus of P27 million during the beginning period of NDP 11, then a promising P2.7 billion in 2017/2018. After that, government budget has been appearing on a negative, P7.3 billion in 2018/19 and P7.79 billion in 2019/20.

It is not over until the fat lady sings with government budget deficits as they are expected to run over the whole of NDP 11. A notable deficit is expected to record P6.94 billion in 2020/21 financial year, but a revival by a surplus in the year before the end of NDP 11 is projected at P4 billion 2021/22.  

Public wages hike to also weigh in on Matsheka‘s briefcase

In a brief interview with BusinessPost this week, economist Othata Batsetswe said an expected budget deficit will come mostly as a result of planned salary increment which was made by President Masisi last year to run for two financial years. Government should now feel the pinch of public service salary hike, according to Batsetswe.

The economist explained that the last 10 percent salary increase on public service Grades A to B and a 6 percent increment for Grades C and D which would eat away P2 billion from the national bill will be felt even in this financial year. Government has further increased disciplined forces’ special allowance by 20 percent.

Government revenues failing to go up against the ever stubborn expenditure

Diamonds revenue continue to fall with the unreliable rough diamond sales always going down and the production being restricted by the slowing of demands.  The downward revision of P24.1 billion for extension of the lives of mines dubbed Cut 9 and 3 projects will also hold down Botswana’s dividends.

Latest released statistics from Statistics Botswana, shows Botswana choking at a trade deficit of more than P3 billion. And this current drift is contributed mostly by the dwindling diamond exports, a red flag for the diamond dependent economy. Latest released International Merchandise Trade Statistics which covers the last quarter of 2019 until now for a period running from October 2019, shows Botswana registered a trade deficit of P3, 425.1 million.

Matsheka’s gamble on fiscal consolidation and increase of revenue

Last year Matsheka revealed before Parliament that government plans to increase revenue by increasing taxes. This country‘s tax to GDP is at 22.3 percent and remains below the benchmark of emerging economies. Botswana’s tax to Gross Domestic Product ratio is still below the benchmark for emerging market economies such as South Africa, whose ratio currently sits at 26 per cent compared to Botswana’s 22.3percent for the 2017/18 financial year. Botswana Unified Revenue Service (BURS) in its recent Strategic Plan 2019 to 2024, requires the improvement in the tax to GDP ratio to reach by March 2024.


Increase on taxes in the coming Budget Speech

In the 2017 Budget Presentation, former Finance Minister Kenneth Matambo, hinted that government should increase its revenue base by hiking taxes. Matsheka echoed his predecessor’s words suggesting that government is not ruling out the possibility of increasing tax anytime soon. He is quoted by newspapers saying that Botswana has one of the lowest VAT rates in the world and that government is mulling at extending its tax base to informal or cash-based activities or considering new taxes, increasing tax rates or reducing exemptions.

Tax consultant Jonathan Hore told this publication that it is apparent from the above quotes that there is pressure on government to find ways of increasing tax revenues. He contrasted this country’s VAT with its SADC counterparts and said it is lower and should be from the current 12 percent to 14 percent or 15 percent.

“Economists have pointed out that the Botswana VAT rate is too low and this would be unsustainable in the long run. It is a well-known fact that Botswana has the lowest VAT rate in SADC (12 percent), whilst the average VAT rate in the region is 15.3 percent,” Hore said. The Tax consultant said considering that an increase in the VAT rate automatically increases the prices of goods and services, such a move will be technically correct but it will cut everyone’s purchasing power and significantly hurt the lowly paid and the poor.

“Inflation shot up in 2010 after the VAT rate was increased effective 1 April 2010 from 10 percent to 12 percent and this is expected to also happen should the authorities up the VAT rate. As an alternative, the authorities could consider introducing a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) at a minimal amount on financial transactions such as bank deposits and withdrawals (both electronic, physical and at ATMs), swiping for purchases with a bank card, the purchase of shares (listed and unlisted), conversion of currencies, international money transfers through designated agents and money transactions facilitated by telecommunications giants, among others,” said the tax consultant.

He said the magnitude of these transactions is so huge and a minimal tax of say P3.50/transaction could raise around P1bn/annum, based on the author’s assumed transactions of 700 000/day. A 3 percent increase in VAT, according to Hore will only yield around P180m/annum, based on BURS records that it collected about P6bn in 2016/2017 year. He further said: “The beauty about FTTs is that they only target the ‘haves’ and they are not inflationary. Other countries which have introduced FTTs or some form/s of FTTs are South Africa, Egypt, UK, Colombia, Zimbabwe and USA.”

Hore also expects the Budget Speech to come with corporate tax hike. It will not be surprising to get a corporate tax hike from the current 22 percent to +/-25 percent, based on previous indications by authorities for the need to increase revenue. Botswana has the second lowest corporate tax rate in SADC as the average corporate tax rate in the region is 28.03 percent.


PAYE is also lower, with South Africa PAYE rate said to be higher at 45 percent. While Botswana’s PAYE is at 25 percent the average PAYE rate in SADC at the highest bracket is 32.6 percent. Hore expects both PAYE and VAT to be increased on Monday, but that will result reduced purchasing power for the public, as increased PAYE takes away part of disposable income and so does a VAT increase. The tax consultant said this may further contract the economy due to reduced disposable income.
Hore also expects government to also introduce presumptive taxes for the first time and this will mean taxing even the informal sector.

But tax experts believe there will rather be reduction of tax exemptions than increase of tax rates by government. This is because some see increment of taxes to be an economic impediment while minimizing exemptions would be more efficient.
Economist Batsetswe is of a strong view that government should rather maximize its collection of taxes than to jump at the decision of increasing tax rates. He believes when government increases taxes they will have far reaching consequences on the working population and the poor. He also said minimizing exemptions and increase of taxes may also scare away investors.  

Advice

Batsetswe expects Matsheka to mention reinforcement of moratorium on new parastatals; rationalization of parastatals and some being privatized. He also advised that government should refrain on building new offices or buildings and give the task to the private sector or a PPP arrangement takes over, something which should start with the Monday Speech. As it was said in last year budget planning paper and the State of the Nation Address, Batsetswe also agrees the public service should be rationalized and a freeze of new jobs is needed as Botswana wage bill is high.

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Travel ban unfair and unjustified – Masisi

7th December 2021
President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi

For the past two years, the world has been at combat with various COVID-19 variants. A new variant of concern which is considered to have a combination of the greatest hits (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta) has sent alarm bells around the world.

Botswana’s COVID-19 genomic surveillance, which actively monitors COVID-19 variants in Botswana, picked four samples that were concerning and discovered a completely new variant. In accordance with international obligations, as a responsible member state under the International Health Regulations of 2005, Botswana submitted the suspected new variant for the entire global scientific community to respond to this early finding. Shortly after, the Republic of South Africa, also submitted a similar concerning variant.

The new variant, ‘Omicron’ is named after the 15th letter of the Greek Alphabet to avoid public confusion and stigma.
The news spread like wild fire which resulted in European Union member states, the United Arab Emirates and United States of America imposing travel bans on Botswana and other sister SADC nations, resulting in drawing a wedge between nations.

In his address on the occasion of an update on Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi has shunned the response by some countries to Botswana’s detection of the Omicron variant stating that it is unfortunate as it appears to have caused unnecessary panic amongst the public across the world. He considers it defeating the spirit of multilateral cooperation in dealing with this global pandemic.

“The decision to ban our citizens from travelling to certain countries was hastily made and is not only unfair but is also unjustified while remain confident that reason and logic will prevail, the harshness of the decision has the effect of our shaking our belief in the sincerity of declared friendship and commitment of equality and economic prosperity for us,” he said.

President Masisi has appealed to the nations that have imposed travel restrictions on Botswana to reflect and review their travel restrictions stance against the Southern African region.

African leaders and heads of state are in agreement on a matter. Some stating that the travel bans are ‘uncalled for, afro phobic, unscientific, strict, unfair and unjustified’. They have come out to bash the unilateral travel bans and request immediate upliftment of the restrictions imposed on SADC member states by European Union member states, the United Arab Emirates and United States of America.

While Batswana are banned from international travel, locally as at 26th November 2021, a total of 195 068 COVID19 cases and 2 418 deaths had been reported since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We have been steadily witnessing a decrease in the number of new cases and deaths in the last three months. We are currently reporting an average of less 10 infections per 100 000 people compared to 648 cases per 100 000 people at the peak of the third wave. We have also observed a gradual decline in hospitalizations across the country with an average of less than 10 patients at a time at Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital (SKMTH) and our other health facilities countrywide,” pointed out President Masisi.

Masisi encouraged Batswana not to despair as to date, all the nations’ key indicators remain stable. “This is comforting although it still does not warrant any complacency on our part in terms of behaviour and other attitudinal patterns towards this dreadful disease. We are actively monitoring the evolving situation in view new variant of concern,’’ he sternly advised.

Government through the different Ministries leading the different sectors, has been working tirelessly to prepare for potential outbreaks and a fourth (4th) wave. This will be achieved through; installing oxygen generating plants and increasing skilled human capacity.

With regards to the vaccination programme; as of 29th November 2021, an estimated One Million and Fifty Three Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty One (1 053 361) people translating to 75.7% of the target Batswana citizens and residents over the age of 18 years have received at least 1 dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. A total of Nine Hundred and Fifty Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventy Three (950 973) people translating to 68.4% have been fully vaccinated. This number exceeds the 64% target Botswana has set to achieve by end of December 2021.

Masisi enthusiastically revealed that; “We are one of the three countries in Africa that have achieved the World Health Organisation target of vaccinating at least 40% of the entire population by December 2021. We are committed to ensure that all is done to reduce the transmission of the virus in the country.

More vaccines are being procured to ensure availability for those who have not yet received any dose. Government is also considering booster doses for those who may be identified as qualifying for them.”

President Masisi urged Batswana to continue observing the COVID-19 health protocols of social distancing, washing hands or sanitizing and wearing masks and avoid unnecessary travelling.

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China pledges a billion vaccines to Africa

7th December 2021

As COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake the world, China has promised to donate a billion coronavirus vaccines, advance billions of dollars for African trade and infrastructure, and write off interest-free loans to African countries to help the continent recover from the coronavirus pandemic. All these promises emerged at the Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Senegal at the end of November 2021.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China will provide one billion doses of vaccines to Africa when delivering keynote speech at the Eighth Ministerial FOCAC via video link on 29th November. Of those, 600 million would be via donations and the rest would be produced jointly by African countries and Chinese companies. In addition, China would send medical teams to help the continent deal with the pandemic.

President Xi also announced nine programmes that China will work closely with African countries in the next three years. He mentioned the medical and health program, the poverty reduction and agricultural development program, the trade promotion program, the investment promotion program, the digital innovation program, the green development program, the capacity building program, the cultural and people-to-people exchange program, the peace and security program. President Xi hailed China-Africa relations as a shining example for building a new type of international relations.

Furthermore, Xi said Beijing would pump US$10 billion into African financial institutions for onward lending to small and medium enterprises. He promised to extend another US$10 billion of its International Monetary Fund allocation of special drawing rights, which would help stabilise foreign exchange reserves. In addition, China will write-off interest-free loans due this year, to help the economies that had been ravaged by the pandemic. Last year, China also promised to write off interest-free loans due at the end of 2020.

Beijing pledged US$60 billion to finance Africa’s infrastructure at the forum in Johannesburg in 2015, and a similar amount when the gathering was held in the Chinese capital in 2018. But in the past few years, Chinese lenders, including the policy banks – Exim Bank of China and China Development Bank – have become more cautious and are now demanding bankable feasibility studies amid debt distress in the continent.

Besides seeking more money for projects, Xi said China would encourage more imports of African agricultural products, and increase the range of zero-tariff goods, aiming for US$300 billion of total imports from Africa in the next three years.

China would also advance US$10 billion of trade financing to support African exports into China. He said the country would also advance another US$10 billion to promote agriculture in Africa, send 500 experts and establish China-Africa joint agro-technology centres and demonstration villages. African countries are pushing to grow exports of agricultural products into China. At the moment, Beijing maintains an enormous trade surplus over the continent. African imports from China include machinery, electronics, construction equipment, textiles and footwear.

Meanwhile, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi summarized FOCAC achievements when meeting with journalists ahead the 8th FOCAC Ministerial Conference. Wang said that the FOCAC is a crucial platform for collective dialogue between China and Africa and an effective mechanism for practical cooperation.

He said since the inception of the FOCAC 21 years ago, Chinese enterprises have built over 10,000 kilometers of railways, nearly 100,000 kilometers of roads, nearly 1,000 bridges, nearly 100 ports, and over 80 large-scale power facilities in Africa.

In addition, they have assisted Africa in building over 130 medical facilities, 45 gymnasiums and more than 170 schools, and training over 160,000 professionals in various fields. Chinese medical teams have provided medical service to an accumulated number of 230 million, and China’s network service has covered around 700 million user terminals.

Yi said that the Eighth FOCAC Ministerial Conference was a great success. According to Yi, the success of the conference confirmed the strong will of China and Africa to work together to overcome difficulties and seek common development, and showed the huge potential and bright prospects of China-Africa cooperation.

Wang summarized the most important consensus reached at the conference as following: 1) both sides will promote the spirit of China-Africa friendship and cooperation; 2) China and Africa will work together to defeat the pandemic; 3) both sides will work to enrich China-Africa cooperation in the new era; 4) the two sides will work together to practice true multilateralism; 5) China and Africa will jointly build a China-Africa community with a shared future in the new era.

FOCAC, is one of the developments that came as a major shift in the dynamics of the China-Africa relationships came about in the 1980s when China embarked upon its “Opening up and Reform Policy” –a wide-ranging policy that gave birth to the new China. Economic and geo-strategic interests rather than the desire to export a specific political philosophy drive China’s current relationship with Africa.

For Africa though, the key problem is that our economies are weak in value creation. 
As argued by one economist, what workers and factories produce is produced more efficiently, with better quality and at lower cost, by other economies. “In such circumstances, making money is easier through rent than through value creation.

African governments should be capable of guiding their private sector towards value creation, a key factor for achieving a sustainable competitive edge in the global market. Furthermore, partnerships that Africa forges should be targeted to enhance such an environment”. The question remains as to whether China’s intervention in Africa will help address this challenge.

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COVID-19 has pushed cost of living up – report

7th December 2021

A report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU) has given its outlook for the rise and fall of living costs around the world.

The report is based on current and past trends impacting the cost of living, including currency swings, local inflation and commodity shocks. In addition, it compares more than 400 individual prices across over 200 products and services in 173 cities.

The Worldwide Cost of Living (WCOL) rankings continue to be sensitive to shifts brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have pushed up the cost of living across the world’s major cities. Although most economies are now recovering as covid-19 vaccines are rolled out, the world’s major cities still experience frequent surges in cases, prompting renewed social restrictions. In many cities this has disrupted the supply of goods, leading to shortages and higher prices.

The report highlights that “the inflation rate of the prices tracked in the EIU’s WCOL across cities is the fastest recorded over the past five years. It has accelerated beyond the pre-pandemic rate, rising by 3.5% year on year in local-currency terms in 2021, compared with an increase of just 1.9% in 2020 and 2.8% in 2019.”

However; supply-chain problems, as well as exchange-rate shifts and changing consumer demand, have led to rising prices for commodities and other goods. The most rapid increases in the WCOL index were for transport, with the price of a litre of petrol up by 21% on average.

Tel Aviv, a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast tops the WCOL rankings for the first time ever, making it the most expensive city in the world to live in. The Israeli city climbed from fifth place last year, pushing Paris down to joint second place with Singapore. Tel Aviv’s rise mainly reflects its soaring currency and price increases for around one-tenth of goods in the city, led by groceries and transport, in local-currency terms. Property prices (not included in the index calculation), have also risen, especially in residential areas.

The cheapest cities are mainly in the Middle East and Africa, or in the poorer parts of Asia. Damascus has easily retained its place as the cheapest city in the world to live in. It was ranked the lowest in seven of the ten pricing categories, and was among the lowest in the remaining three. While prices elsewhere have generally firmed up, in Damascus they have fallen as Syria’s war-torn economy has struggled. Tripoli, which also faces political and economic challenges, is ranked second from the bottom in our rankings, and is particularly cheap for food, clothing and transport.

“Over the coming year, we expect to see the cost of living rise further in many cities. Inflationary expectations are also likely to feed into wage rises, further fuelling price rises. However, as central banks cautiously raise interest rates to stem inflation, price increases should moderate from this year’s level. We forecast that global consumer price inflation will average 4.3% in 2022, down from 5.1% in 2021 but still substantially higher than in recent years. If supply-chain disruptions die down and lockdowns ease as expected, then the situation should improve towards the end of 2022, stabilising the cost of living in most major cities.”

“The survey has been designed to enable human resources and finance managers to calculate cost-of-living allowances and build compensation packages for expatriates and business travellers. It can also be used by consumer-goods firms and other companies to map pricing trends and determine optimum prices for their products across cities. In addition, the data can be used to understand the relative expense of a city to formulate policy guidelines,” highlights the report.

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