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Fort Desperation: Troubled Voices and Phantoms in Selibe-Phikwe

Teedzani Thapelo

Institute of International Education Fellowship Award Winner and runner up poet to the 2016 Share Botswana Tourism Fiction Award, Teedzani Thapelo* arrives in Selibe-Phikwe mining town following the catastrophe at BCL mine where 5000 workers lost their jobs to find the township prostrate, the local economy somnolent, and residents comatose in their bewildered anguish. BDP is talking about impromptu and senseless rescue plans, many residents are bolting to start up again in their villages-even the rats are scuttling out, fast; it is a perfect nightmare, not the town he knew as a student when he first prophesied this impending disaster in his PhD thesis, and dramatized it in his controversial polyphonic novel, Seasons of Thunder, under the lead character Batjibilibili Madandume.


We are sitting round some caricature of a table, a most rickety contraption. Its unsteady posture seems ordered for the illustration of life in this dying township, something that, even within the tumult of events here, might stand as a symbol of existence. The men are talking incessantly, and I listen. No subject is taboo here; fights, work, sex, suicides, murders, theft, divorces, betrayals-even matters of sexual infertility, and infidelity.

Politicians in this country, it seems, lead very sordid lives, and the voters are not at all impressed by this charlatan libertinism. They associate it with moral sickness, and political decay. The root of our national problems, it would appear, stem from sexual pervasion, promiscuity and moral darkness on the one hand, and political profligacy and wanton greed, on the other. The argument is Freudian to the core, but not one of the people I am listening to knows anything about psychology. I am puzzled but decide to keep my counsel.

Studies about politics and psychology are nothing new to me. Not one person has a good word to say about the BDP. Ruling party politicians are derided, ridiculed, and yes, insulted as well. These people seem to even know a great deal about the private lives of these politicians, right from chequered public and political careers to their sexual habits and preferences. It’s like I am being introduced, for the first time here, to some obscure, but extremely tantalising, Botswana encyclopaedia; a macabre world of exotic knowledge and rituals, and all these because of the recent catastrophe in Selibe-Phikwe.


Writers are rarely shocked by public utterances. If anything it is our works that often shock and scandalise public sensibilities. But I must admit I find some of these utterances shocking though I am really, I think, beginning to get used to this sort of thing. Everywhere I go in Botswana I come across similar disclosures. How Batswana know these horrifying things is something I still have to fathom. I just wonder what our foreign visitors say when they hear these salacious stories being thrown about with such reckless abandon.

Four police constables walk by, and they are shooed away like some unruly chickens. There is plenty of beer around. It is as if beer is the food of life here, and gossip, the soul of the nation. Such public utterances are, however, more than just amusements of life. They are life itself. Public anxiety, I begin to recall, is a terrible thing. Talk like this has been known even to originate bloody revolutions in some countries.

 

In their fight against authority, people often start by belittling it. Talk like this is no different from undressing public figures, and exposing their nakedness to brutal violence. That rare thing, the internal gift of simplicity of heart and rectitude of the soul, the very thing that has defined a Motswana public persona for so many years, I note with sadness, is beginning to disappear.


No, Batswana are not becoming sophisticated. Far from it. Sophistication is a mark of civilized conduct. We are just becoming bitter, and vulgar, and unless something is done to trunk this moral decline, from here we can only slide into violence. This I find frightening. I look at these people, and one thing, I discover to my troubled conscience, is that if a government official, a ruling party politician, fell under a bus, right here in the awed presence of this bitter small community, these people would not hesitate to finish the poor fellow off.

Not one of them would call an ambulance. First, they would laugh, and then, in a most casual manner imaginable, finish the person off before quietly disappearing into the gathering darkness. Around the wobbly huge table I notice a lot of rust, dust, grime-soot aloft, and a lot of dirt. But the gathered crowd are mostly well dressed, articulate young folk, and full of so much gossip, I begin to wonder, if they have always lived like this.

But they tell me that is not so. Since the collapse of the mine, and the loss of jobs, people feel a strong affinity to come together, and talk. What about? Anything and everything. Do they intend sticking around? No, what is the point. I venture to murmur something about government help…and a few chaps move away from me. Mentioning such things in Selibe-Phikwe is like farting in public. People just move away from you, especially the youth.


One young lady tells me even the rats are scuttling out! Rats? I am not telling a lie, she vows. Rats are indeed scuttling out. Where to? Simple. Many people are returning to their villages. Do the politicians know this? Oh, yes, she says…and they don’t care. Truth of the matter is madokrag want the land of Selibe-Phikwe for themselves, their children, and their foreign friends. So, re ba tohelela lefatshe la bone. They don’t want us here. Ah, I see. I had not prepared myself for conspiracy theories in this wretched town.

A ba sale ka lefatshe la bone. Oh, I see. But what really happened here? Who knows a chorus of unconcealed indignation shoots back, followed by a peel of brittle laughter, disturbing and frightening. I soon meet something even more strange in this small crowd; an amateur philosopher. The people of Selibe-Phikwe, he says garrulously and impatiently, have always lived with trouble. We have always lived with trouble, or expected to be in trouble. It seems people here can never be happy unless something goes wrong.

Trouble is our name. Now this is deep stuff, profound. Something that some busybody like Freud might want to investigate. So I asked why. He smiles at me uneasily. He looks dismal, but naughty. A real philosopher, perhaps? Then he says something most unexpected, a small whisper just above his breath; I know you, he says. You are Teedzani. As a writer you must be able to figure such things out. I was staggered. But then I noticed something else.

He had delivered this shocking revelation clandestinely, almost above a whisper, smiling knowingly and mischievously. The revelation was just a secret between us two; he didn’t want to endanger my life, he just wanted me to know that he knew me, he knew what I was up to, but that was not his business. This touched me a great deal. I have written about Selibe-Phikwe before, in both my PhD thesis, and the novel Seasons of Thunder. Yet I had forgotten there were such people in Selibe-Phikwe, smart, considerate, hardworking people. I felt sick.


But I had set myself an assignment and I wanted to see it through. So I thanked him, with a smile and conspiratorial eye. There is always a touch of romance in writing. Once you get your teeth into something, it is never easy to let go. We sat rather silent for a while. Till someone bought some more beer. Then we returned to philosophy again. I was reminded that everything dies; youth, wealth, achievements, human strength, genius…le madomkrag tota, and that in Botswana nothing really ever endures.

So the mess at the mine was expected? No, says the philosopher; we never thought they could go this far, the bloody wretched bastards! This outburst draws a lot of snorting and sniggering. I should admit it was quite an experience to hear a philosopher swear. I was beginning to absorb this new intellectual novelty when all of a sudden everybody started talking excitedly; all at once. Mapolotiki kill everything willy-nilly every day, without mercy, without rest.

It is not an easy thing to live with a politician. Ga e le madomi bone…phooo! Ga ba lapisewe ke go senya. Madomkrag mistrust other Batswana, they mistrust the youth, they mistrust common sense…and they make a point of showing all these things in a thousand little ways. Like closing the mine? Oh, that was a trick. There is more to it than sees the eye. They like to create confusion. They love moments of great confusion…a useful smokescreen for stealing public assets.

Did I notice lately a lot of BDP granddads and grandmamas were retiring? Ba ya go ja eng? Ke batho ba dijo…mo dijong o ka ba bolaa.  Ah. Of course. That rotten habit of colossal greed again. I hear about it everywhere I go.  I was not about to engage this noisy but amicable enough crowd in technical economic arguments. Nobody wants to make an enemy in Selibe-Phikwe right now, and I am not a fool. So I agreed with them that the mouths and bodies of madomi are designed for eating only.


Shit happened in this beastly hole, says a skinny boy inhaling cigarette smoke with such desperate effort I feared he would overdo the whole thing and faint. Miraculously he survives. I notice his fingers, which tremble a little, are dark like a smoked ceiling. He could not have been more than fifteen. I looked at the weary and serious faces of these unlucky people. Selibe-Phikwe is going away from them piecemeal. This has been happening for more than twenty years.

I wonder how many of them noticed. It is not an easy thing to live in a town that is being gutted bit by bit every year, being stupid with fatigue and thinking of nothing but empty existence and survival…without spirit enough to even wish yourself dead. For most of these people there is no longer any real life here, only angry crowds and benumbed political authority, indifferent and reckless. They are exposed to extinction like some sailors on a raft at sea.

They grope in ruins, surrounded by wreckage, jabbering cheerfully to themselves, clinging on to their berth, hoping for miracles, and meantime inexorably drifting to the fag-end of their endurance. Crowded in that carcass of a township, the hungry crowd has to contend with endless official tinkering and mock rescue plans that never come to anything. Is it any wonder even the rats are scuttling out? The young lady confides to me that magodu a fodogetse ko Palapye…go maswe rra.


The smoking kid says mining is a foolish business. He always knew it would end badly. It is not even possible now to buy anything on credit in the town. Every shopkeeper knows us, he says laughing. You just cannot lie to anyone. Ba re itse sentle!  I ask about the miners. What happened to them? O se ka wa bua ka matagwa a le, says the young lady furiously; ba ile…ka bontse…ba re togeletse bana ba ba senang maina …ba ile.

I see I have touched a raw nerve. So I retreat. It is a terrible thing to live the life of youth in ignorance and hope. The youth of that young girl is right where she is and so long as she lives in that wretched town it will always throw her years and her weariness in her face.  She was born in that city, reared in it, has lived all her life in it, and most probably she will never know another town again. And yet people still want to see her only home die. Things like this break my heart. Of course, there is still her youth to make her patient.

But really how many youth in Botswana have any hope about their future lives and happiness? Absurd delusions, like absurd dreams, have long ceased to sit well with the placid ignorance and agitation of our youth. The loneliness and emptiness surrounding their stolid souls are things so deep our officials no longer bother to look too much into them. Sadly even most parents are giving up on them. Generally, our youth are no more than just children of the streets and birds of the night.

They are like people who have been blown up in some miserable ship at sea, and government, it is obvious, is already done with their ridiculous troubles. In fact nobody cares about them at all. They are regarded as profane scallywags with no redeeming points.
Yet in reality these are really frightened children, and this unconcern, is hurting them deeply.

The real people to blame are parents, public professionals, and politicians, all of whom now are very expert at how to shirk, and laze, and dodge when it comes to looking after young people in times of crisis. Selibe-Phikwe is no exception. I never bothered to go into government offices and talk to BDP officers about these things.

I have always found their stupid arrogance and ignorance too annoying to help such situations. I also happen to know our youth have neither time nor respect for government officials, and I know why. It will take more than the racket in that town to unite our youth to the bosom of parents and the care of bureaucrats. The real tragedy is that on the surface of things one is inclined to think these children are actually capable of making merry in the midst of all this violence and disasters.

But truth be told, these children are suffering, terribly; and it won’t be long before the weary ghost of their wholesome miserableness bursts into public life like a maddening grace, like a gift of sorrow, to this unfortunate country, further obliterating hope and public security. Feeling frustrated, and already tired, I rise to leave. I take infinite precautions about my movements. People are known to die in the night in this country. We have become a land of incorrigible vultures. My host is a homeboy who styles himself a small businessman. What do you do, I want to know. But he only laughs.


I dare not live in any public place. Bakalanga are generally very upright people. So I really don’t expect my host to be some rotten cannibal. After ten he announces he is going to church. Don’t worry cousin; he says, cheerfully, I will see you in the morning. I am reassured when he brings in the landlady and tells her, I am a trusted relative, and that I won’t cause any trouble. She looks at my luggage, and writing gear, and nods her approval. She is a huge woman, rather sullen.

Left to my devices, I start pondering events of the day, and the preceding few months. I am a little ashamed to see my room is sparkling clean. Obviously my young host went to a lot of trouble to make me feel at home…in this town where nothing can be bought on credit anymore. I feel guilty as hell. A faint breeze through the boarded-up window feels me with breathless delight…till I remember where I am. I pity these people for the unlucky choices they have made.

The town is plainly not much of a home but they have lived here all their lives, and it is now evident the prop they chose to sustain their lives is a rather poor walking stick. There is trouble everywhere, every time. Do they really apprehend the fatal signs? After the present stage of stupor, of incredulity, and of indignation, there must at some point appear the poignant finger of fatal encounters. I doubt even BDP is prepared for this, if they really anticipate this eventuality. All signs, though, are that it will come.

These people must open their eyes to the fundamental changes of the modern world. It is not only the known things and good men of our time who have departed. Departed too are the opportunities which we used to know how to seize. It is no use mincing matters. Words like progress, prospects…are now things we can only murmur with caution. A black night has descended on the fortunes of man and his prized possession; society.


I sat thinking for a very long time. Batswana, I considered, had long thought, and felt, they could depend upon the country to make her courses through any troubled waters. But now her compasses are out, and there is no telling what might happen to you before the week is out. We had always assumed her great age had given her wisdom, knowledge, and steadiness. But we had never really reckoned with those bumbling misfits at Government Enclave. I felt great anger mounting in my breast.

I once thought I knew well the order, the sights, and even the people of this country. Now I am no longer so sure, and this I always find terribly irritating. Even when one is going round many parts of this country, it is becoming well-nigh impossible to hear the same voices in the same places. Certainty and consistency, the hallmarks of all civilizations, are things we still need to nurture.

Unpredictability and personal endangerment are still marks of daily human experience-not a very enterprising life for a small country that once held so much promise for so many. The downfall of Selibe-Phikwe, which has shaken thousands of people like an earthquake, is just one instance of incessant human vulnerability in this country. We should expect more, and if you doubt me, start counting.


Many people are ashamed about the ruin of that town. The really surprising thing, I discovered to my shock, is that many had even believed in the stability of BCL groups of companies and their mining ventures; the result of misinformation by BDP officials. It is natural, I suppose, that people should take genuine pleasure in their possessions, in the dignity of their reputations and their wealth.

But to live a lie; that is worse than a sin. To mistake a town like Selibe-Phikwe for a garlanded perpetual festival with an unfading wreath is nothing more than self-delusion. Don’t even ever feel the same way about Botswana; not unless you wilfully want to set yourself for a horrible disappointment. BDP’s punctuality in failure is a matter of recorded history. It doesn’t really matter where you live. Always expect national failure to visit you there. The people of Selibe-Phikwe must now brace themselves to the derogatory nature of failed human experience.


Unfortunately, many are defenceless before this insidious work of adversity. That much I saw with my own eyes. The more rigorous the open assaults on their fate and fortunes, the poorer the firm front they can present. The more open the battering of the sea of endless problems and troubles, the weaker the cliff gets, and far too many people are tumbling over, astounded and miserable.

Men and women once substantial and dignified now find themselves confronted with the unenviable task of reassessing their fortitude. What to the nation was merely a rushed closure of the mine is to them a momentous event involving a radically new view of life, and many do not like this at all, not a bit of it. The hopes of their youth, the exercise of their abilities, every feeling and achievement that gratified their great expectations, had all been indissolubly connected with that wretched mine. Now they are asking themselves, what next?

The propositions by BDP to do something about the situation are treated with scorn. They are used to this kind of empty talk, it is a creed traced in obsolete words-in a half-forgotten language. To accept this phony political pity is like stripping naked so they can be kicked again to the ground. They are not going to give themselves away for less than nothing. They have no use for anyone’s pity. I sat thinking these things for half a night while the township slept, its sorrows heaving uneasily in the hearts of thousands of disappointed souls, and then, as usual, around three, I started writing.


I wrote for a long time. At daybreak my young friend returned. How was church, I asked. He laughed. He was already dressed for work…another phantom of the dark night. He noted I hadn’t slept and proposed breakfast. I kindly declined. An hour later I was on my way to Gaborone. I figured I had stayed long enough in this heart of darkness. Only five days, and I had gathered enough material for a book. A good writer does not need details. They tend to muffle and stymie the perception of things. Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe is now with a publisher.


Teedzani Thapelo* is former Distinguished Africa Guest Researcher at Nordic Africa Institute, Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Policy in Southern Africa, Economic History Lecturer at the University of Botswana, and author of Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe: abandonment and revolt, forthcoming in 2018.

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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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