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Was Bot-50 Showboating Warranted?

David Magang    
VIEW FROM MANA HOUSE  
 
Last week, we celebrated our 50th independence anniversary with great verve and gusto.

Our national flag fluttered magisterially from every wayside lamp post. At the national stadium, the citizenry, all clad in our bland national colours, sang their voices hoarse, clapped and cheered till their palms were calloused and their vocal chords dulled, and danced every style in the book to music rendered by local and foreign artistes alike till their legs buckled.

The President conferred special honours on those he deemed deserving, many of whom have long gone to Glory.     

If there’s one country that lends demonstrable legitimacy to a verisimilitude of political and economic independence on this ill-starred continent, it is indeed Botswana. From a pauperish country 50 years ago that one colonial authority scorned as “this useless piece of territory” through gritted teeth, we have made phenomenal economic strides whilst some of our neighbours who in fact set sail way better-off than we were at independence have actually regressed and become the quintessence of a basket case.

As one of only 8 African countries who belong to the prestigious Upper Middle Income fold, we have earned the rather tenuous right to call ourselves an elite economy, one of the few tritons among a myriad of minnows with which our continental landmass teems. Better still, we have garnered an extra, personal-to-holder accolade – that of the economic poster boy dubbed the “African Miracle”.

I will not here launch into a laboured enumeration of our distinctive economic feats one by one:  economic pundits, as has my own duo-volume book Delusions of Grandeur, have waxed so lyrical about them they now border on outright tautology.  

MONEY GONE DOWN THE DRAIN

That is not to excuse the profligate lengths to which we went in gyrating and cavorting to the thrills and spills of the Golden Jubilee razzle-dazzle. For what it is worth, my take is that we over-celebrated: there was disproportionately too much fuss and fanfare.

In fact, I would go as far as to recommend that we from now henceforth simply passively observe the national day, like the Americans do, and not spoil ourselves with costly pomp and circumstance.

We set aside a whopping P100 million for this single day when our ministry of education is as broke as a church mouse, Selebi Phikwe desperately needs an economic uplift, and our chancellor of the exchequer has served notice that a budget deficit of the order of P7 billion is looming on the horizon with many more to follow in the coming years.

At a time when we’re supposed to gird our loins and use money frugally or devote it to purely productive purposes meant to stimulate our dismally stalled economy, we’ve had to splash a tenth of a billion Pula on some fleeting festivities which only serve to stroke the national ego.

This would have made sense at the height of the diamond boom when we had stacks of cash in central bank vaults and not in these trying times where every thebe ought to count.

Why have we gone up not by one bar but several in playing Father Christmas? Where has our vaunted “fiscal prudence” of yesteryears gone? Who says our economic stewardship is one of the soundest on the globe? Not anymore.

After all, this is a country, if you recall, where a state-owned corporation effectively donated a billion Pula toward setting up a brief case company from the orient in business amid cries of “wolf” from people with only a modicum of common sense.

Whilst it was clear to every individual Motswana that with shoddy “infestors” piggybacking on that corporation’s chuckleheaded goodwill the venture in question was doomed to fail, the corporation embraced the infestors with the vow “till death do us part”, an undertaking which was so spectacularly fulfilled and in record time!

It was the stuff of Cloudy Cuckoo Land, where every fancy, fantasy or whim is attainable, except in the corporation’s case, and by extension our case as a nation, the fantasy boomeranged  horrendously, without a single head having to roll oddly enough.

SINGAPORE WAS HEADED FOR THE ABYSS…

As all the shindigs and musical soirees were ringing round, I was one of those who refrained from twisting my decrepit frame into knots: after all, it is not as supple as it once was, when in my teen age it housed the maestro dancer for miles around in my native Kweneng.

Rather than get carried away with the hysteria of the occasion, I trained my thoughts on how short we had fallen in registering economic milestones  proportional to an economy of our prowess.

My frame of reference were the so-called Tiger Economies of East Asia, most notably Singapore, which having turned 50 in August last year is a virtual agemate of Botswana but which is now light years ahead economically.    

If you were to time-travel back to the Singapore of the 60s, you would be amazed at how economically backward the country was: your eyes would practically pop out of their sockets in disbelief. Its economic situation was by far direr than that of contemporary Botswana. Botswana at least had cattle, a huge swathe of territory with barely explored potentialities, and for those in the know a crust with breathtakingly promising mineral wealth.

Singapore on the other hand was without a single one natural endowment that made for a viable country. It was a mud-flat swamp, its only tangible claim to sovereignty being a pint-sized 700 km2 of real estate, 1/800th  Botswana’s size. This “tiny red dot” on the map was a slum country, with two-thirds of the population living in shacks and squatter, refugee-like  camps.

The only employment there was for its 2 million inhabitants was a flourishing entreport trade at the mouth of the Malacca Straits, on the shipping lanes between Britain, India and China, and a British military outpost that employed 70,000 people.

It was filthy, crowded, and hopeless. Water was so acutely scarce it was, and still is,  defined as a precious resource, having to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia.

To quote Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s case was of “a journey along an unmarked road on an unknown destination”.

… NOW THE LION CITY-STATE HAS SOARED BEYOND REACH

Today, Singapore is a First World country whilst Botswana remains very much part and parcel of  that  vast, godforsaken  wasteland known as the Third World, by all appearances in perpetuity. It is a gleaming global hub of trade, finance, manufacturing, and transportation (for a detailed exposition on the subject, I refer you to Chapter 16 of Delusions of Grandeur Vol. 2).  

Singapore is the third richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, after Qatar and Luxembourg. Its reserves stand at over $300 billion. Inflation is only 1 percent and at 1.9 percent unemployment (contrast that with Botswana’s official 20 percent, though in truth probably double that) verges on zero as any citizen  who wants to work can find a job without breaking a sweat. 

The country is said to be the “least miserable” in the world, which simply means it enjoys the highest quality of life.

As of 2015, it had 142,000 millionaires and 28 billionaire out of a population of 5.5 million. That translates to one  millionaire (in US dollar terms folks: not in Pula terms) for every six Singaporeans  you brush past in a wayside bustle.

Only Switzerland, Bahrain, and Qatar have more millionaires per capita. Singapore also has the highest home ownership in the world, with 90 percent of residents living in dwellings they own in a concrete jungle of tower blocks mainly as land comes at a premium in the byte-sized country.

Singapore’s stunning economic transformation, a miracle proper as opposed to the dubious miracle we’re hyped as by shallow-minded Western imbongis, took place in a single generation. In fact, for 30 straight years – irony of ironies – Botswana’s rate of economic growth outpaced Singapore by a significant 2 percent.

In statistical terms, our economy grew at a gallop folks, whereas that of Singapore did so at a canter. Our economy raced at a whizzing Usain Bolt-pace; that of Singapore did so at a comparatively low-key, Justin Gatlin-like tempo. But look at the gulf in our fortunes today: it is of Grand Canyon proportions.  

Singapore has become a paradise it could take Botswana multiple incarnations to attain given our now one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards economic locomotion.       

OF THE DIAMANTINE CURSE AND MORE

What did Botswana omit to do that Singapore did with a flourish?

First, we were our own self-inflicted victim of what I have called the Diamantine Curse in Chapter 6 of Delusions of Grandeur Vol. 1. The  proceeds from diamonds were such a deluge  we suffered a brain fade. They disorientated us from seriously contemplating alternative engines of economic growth.

In diamonds, we  had a hot-cake commodity that was not only bankable but abounded in the soil we trod upon. We took as gospel truth the clearly mendacious De Beers’ tagline, “Diamonds Are Forever”, which totally blindfolded us and scrambled our sense  of foresight.

On the other hand, Singapore from the get-go  sought to create a modern economy, a utopia if you will,  using labour-intensive manufacturing as a springboard and conveyer belt to  more skill-intensive manufacturing, and finally to a lead player in the global knowledge economy, with emphasis on more research- and innovation-intensive industry, not to mention being a pulsating financial nerve centre of East Asia.   

Second, we were stalled by a congenital handicap I would call the Neighbourhood Principle. Fate had placed us in the same geographical locus as countries whose economies were almost wholly  resource-driven.

Without models or archetypes in our vicinity, we strained to incubate alternative means of propelling our economy forward. Maybe South Africa was a shade different in that it was a fairly diversified economy but it’s very proximity exacerbated our sense of complacence: since we had a surfeit of diamond dollars and could buy whatever we wanted  next door just by the flick of a finger, our mindset became one of, “why rush into broad-basing our economy when Big Brother can supply all our needs and we can afford them to boot?”

We even changed our agricultural policy, on the advice of  the economic fundis at the exchequer, from self-sufficiency to food security as we had the pocket power to splurge on every produce imaginable from a leBuru’s farm across the Limpopo.

In other words, we lacked ambition, initiative, and finesse, whereas Singapore from the very outset determined  to transcend its regional peers and be on par with the more sophisticated and accomplished economies of the Western world.    

Third, we were not keen on beneficiating our mineral resources when that is where real wealth-creation stems from. For example, De Beers kept pouring cold water on intimations on the part of  our leaders to set up a slew of cutting and polishing firms, the reason obviously being that that would have an adverse impact on the economy of  Israel, the ancestral home of the Oppenheimers.

Israel does not produce a single gemstone but  it can export up to $7 billion worth of polished diamonds in only one year.  

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore who ruled the country for 30 years,  was wiser.  He made, perfected, and virtually patented  the art of “re-exportation”, whereby  Singapore imported potentially lucrative raw materials of every sort, refined them or re-processed them and then re-exported them.

Up to 50 percent of Singapore’s exports are re-exports, making it the 14th largest exporter in the world ($346.8 billion in 2015 alone).  Indeed,  last year, Singapore exported $6.7 billion worth of precious metals it doesn’t mine (the third-highest export) and $43.8 billion worth of oil it doesn’t produce (the tenth major export).

Singapore means “Lion City”. Whoever coined that name was prescient. The city-state has all the hallmarks of an economic King of Beasts. Botswana, meanwhile, remains no more than a paper tiger and that is putting it politely.

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Export Processing Zones: How to Get SEZA to Sizzle

23rd September 2020
Export Processing Zone (EPZ) factory in Kenya

In 2005, the Business & Economic Advisory Council (BEAC) pitched the idea of the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to the Mogae Administration.

It took five years before the SEZ policy was formulated, another five years before the relevant law was enacted, and a full three years before the Special Economic Zones Authority (SEZA) became operational.

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Egypt Bagged Again

23rd September 2020
Samson

… courtesy of infiltration stratagem by Jehovah-Enlil’s clan

With the passing of Joshua’s generation, General Atiku, the promised peace and prosperity of a land flowing with milk and honey disappeared, giving way to chaos and confusion.

Maybe Joshua himself was to blame for this shambolic state of affairs. He had failed to mentor a successor in the manner Moses had mentored him. He had left the nation without a central government or a human head of state but as a confederacy of twelve independent tribes without any unifying force except their Anunnaki gods.

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‘RO, ‘RO ‘RO YOUR ‘BOT

23rd September 2020

If I say the word ‘robot’ to you,  I can guess what would immediately spring to mind –  a cute little Android or animal-like creature with human or pet animal characteristics and a ‘heart’, that is to say to say a battery, of gold, the sort we’ve all seen in various movies and  tv shows.  Think R2D2 or 3CPO in Star Wars, Wall-E in the movie of the same name,  Sonny in I Robot, loveable rogue Bender in Futurama,  Johnny 5 in Short Circuit…

Of course there are the evil ones too, the sort that want to rise up and eliminate us  inferior humans – Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in The Terminator,  Box in Logan’s Run,  Police robots in Elysium and  Otomo in Robocop.

And that’s to name but a few.  As a general rule of thumb, the closer the robot is to human form, the more dangerous it is and of course the ultimate threat in any Sci-Fi movie is that the robots will turn the tables and become the masters, not the mechanical slaves.  And whilst we are in reality a long way from robotic domination, there are an increasing number of examples of  robotics in the workplace.

ROBOT BLOODHOUNDS Sometimes by the time that one of us smells something the damage has already begun – the smell of burning rubber or even worse, the smell of deadly gas. Thank goodness for a robot capable of quickly detecting and analyzing a smell from our very own footprint.

A*Library Bot The A*Star (Singapore) developed library bot which when books are equipped with RFID location chips, can scan shelves quickly seeking out-of-place titles.  It manoeuvres with ease around corners, enhances the sorting and searching of books, and can self-navigate the library facility during non-open hours.

DRUG-COMPOUNDING ROBOT Automated medicine distribution system, connected to the hospital prescription system. It’s goal? To manipulate a large variety of objects (i.e.: drug vials, syringes, and IV bags) normally used in the manual process of drugs compounding to facilitate stronger standardisation, create higher levels of patient safety, and lower the risk of hospital staff exposed to toxic substances.

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY ROBOTS Applications include screw-driving, assembling, painting, trimming/cutting, pouring hazardous substances, labelling, welding, handling, quality control applications as well as tasks that require extreme precision,

AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS Ecrobotix, a Swiss technology firm has a solar-controlled ‘bot that not only can identify weeds but thereafter can treat them. Naio Technologies based in southwestern France has developed a robot with the ability to weed, hoe, and assist during harvesting. Energid Technologies has developed a citrus picking system that retrieves one piece of fruit every 2-3 seconds and Spain-based Agrobot has taken the treachery out of strawberry picking. Meanwhile, Blue River Technology has developed the LettuceBot2 that attaches itself to a tractor to thin out lettuce fields as well as prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. And that’s only scratching the finely-tilled soil.

INDUSTRIAL FLOOR SCRUBBERS The Global Automatic Floor Scrubber Machine boasts a 1.6HP motor that offers 113″ water lift, 180 RPM and a coverage rate of 17,000 sq. ft. per hour

These examples all come from the aptly-named site www.willrobotstakemyjob.com    because while these functions are labour-saving and ripe for automation, the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the workplace will undoubtedly lead to increasing reliance on machines and a resulting swathe of human redundancies in a broad spectrum of industries and services.

This process has been greatly boosted by the global pandemic due to a combination of a workforce on furlough, whether by decree or by choice, and the obvious advantages of using virus-free machines – I don’t think computer viruses count!  For example, it was suggested recently that their use might have a beneficial effect in care homes for the elderly, solving short staffing issues and cheering up the old folks with the novelty of having their tea, coffee and medicines delivered by glorified model cars.  It’s a theory, at any rate.

Already, customers at the South-Korean  fast-food chain No Brand Burger can avoid any interaction with a human server during the pandemic.  The chain is using robots to take orders, prepare food and bring meals out to diners.  Customers order and pay via touchscreen, then their request is sent to the kitchen where a cooking machine heats up the buns and patties. When it’s ready, a robot ‘waiter’ brings out their takeout bag.   

‘This is the first time I’ve actually seen such robots, so they are really amazing and fun,’ Shin Hyun Soo, an office worker at No Brand in Seoul for the first time, told the AP. 

Human workers add toppings to the burgers and wrap them up in takeout bags before passing them over to yellow-and-black serving robots, which have been compared to Minions. 

Also in Korea, the Italian restaurant chain Mad for Garlic is using serving robots even for sit-down customers. Using 3D space mapping and other technology, the electronic ‘waiter,’ known as Aglio Kim, navigates between tables with up to five orders.  Mad for Garlic manager Lee Young-ho said kids especially like the robots, which can carry up to 66lbs in their trays.

These catering robots look nothing like their human counterparts – in fact they are nothing more than glorified food trolleys so using our thumb rule from the movies, mankind is safe from imminent takeover but clearly  Korean hospitality sector workers’ jobs are not.

And right there is the dichotomy – replacement by stealth.  Remote-controlled robotic waiters and waitresses don’t need to be paid, they don’t go on strike and they don’t spread disease so it’s a sure bet their army is already on the march.

But there may be more redundancies on the way as well.  Have you noticed how AI designers have an inability to use words of more than one syllable?  So ‘robot’ has become ‘bot’ and ‘android’ simply ‘droid?  Well, guys, if you continue to build machines ultimately smarter than yourselves you ‘rons  may find yourself surplus to requirements too – that’s ‘moron’ to us polysyllabic humans”!

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