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The great, great depression

We live in an age where the rate of change has been colossal. Colossal. Almost every week there’s some transformation of some kind, whether technological or political or scientific, whatever. And I think it’s bewildering to human beings to live in a time when they can’t take anything as fixed – when everything is shifting and changing all the time”. Salman Rushdie

Reviewing my last 14 articles its incredulous to think that they have all been about the same subject -Coronavirus.  I hoped that maybe last week would be the last but, no sooner had I written, musing about how we may have overreacted to the whole thing, than we were back in lockdown.

Three days later the situation had changed again, and we were back to ‘normal’ (am I the only one that that is starting to feel distinctly annoyed by that word which has been hijacked to take on a distasteful and near-obsolescent connotation?).

The speed at which our lives have changed and continues to change is bewilderingly fast. One minute I was having a board meeting realigning a marketing strategy for the year ahead and two weeks later I was getting my head around part-time and remote working and re-jigging financial budgets for the next quarter.

Overnight some staff found themselves stuck outside the country, another was placed in quarantine, a new employee was just about to start, some staff felt panicked while others were simply thinking ‘what just happened’? Today I am working on a recession strategy and all of this in the space of three months.

And it is not just the situation on the ground that has changed. I have changed my viewpoint so many times during this pandemic that I no longer know what to think or predict. At the beginning I kept prophesying a quick disruption to business and life, soon to return to normal (that bloody word again), justifying my thinking by how unsustainable isolating citizens and effectively closing a country down is.

I anticipated that as quickly as it happened, the return to business as usual would be the same., the virus a mere flash in a medical pan,  soon under control and  the world could breathe a sigh of relief and move on. Today I think that this crisis, like no other, will not be killed off easily and will have a lingering unpleasantness like a rotting carcass.

There is so much uncertainty around the duration and intensity of Coronavirus with people now talking about a second wave and so the pandemic may not recede in the second half of this year. That spells more confinement, worsening financial conditions, and more isolation which all adds up to a negative impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Of course, this may not come to pass with the development of therapeutics and vaccines but even if we get over the worst of it, at least from a health crisis perspective, we will still be in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis of the Noughties.

On the ground business activity has been frozen in some sectors such as tourism and entertainment, while in others its semi frozen as in education but nowhere and no-one is immune from the chill wind of undermined confidence in the future. As restrictions have been eased, the path to economic recovery remains highly uncertain especially when we are still  vulnerable to a second wave of infections.

By most accounts, this is going to be a long recession, and we’re only at the start of its downward slope. The pundits are saying don’t count on a recovery until mid-2021, and even then, it may be slow. Not one for negativity, usually but I am assuming it may well get worse.

Viktor Frankl wrote “when we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves”.

There are typically three things which companies will do when faced with periods of change or recession.

  • Be in denial and do nothing, like a sort of organisational paralysis and in hope that somehow you survive.
  • Another common route is to go into adaptation mode which is where you make minor adjustments such as efficiency gains, cutting back on expenses, effectively nips and tucks to the existing business model.
  • The third and the place I feel we need to go at the moment is to  have a fundamental rethink so that when the upturn comes which it always does (it can take a while, though the Great Depression actually lasted 10 years!) At the risk of sounding trite we need to view the crisis as an opportunity to fundamentally review our business model.

    Many organisations can survive a recession but there is no guarantee you will survive the aftermath. Often during an upturn the organisation which hunkered down finds itself unable to compete due to lack of capacity or simply left behind because they failed to innovate.

    If during a recession the organisation focusses only on cost reduction, efficiency etc. they can suffer ‘corporate anorexia’ by just having pared down and tweaked what’s there and starved the organisation of developing new ideas. Similarly, while trying to get people and things to work better may seem like a good idea, the focus needs to be on working differently.

    So, this is the challenge we find ourselves with. Staying afloat AND fit for the future. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate before all of this! Of course, it all could change tomorrow as nothing is fixed but we will still have everything to fix, that much is certain!  In the words of W.B Yeats in his poem Easter 1916

   All changed, changed utterly: 

  A terrible beauty is born.

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Moses vs Ramesses

28th July 2020

Moses returns to Egypt to reclaim the Pharaonic throne

When Moses was deposed as Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt in 1352 BC, General Atiku, he was not officially banished from Egypt: he was obliged to flee Egypt as he was not hundred percent sure of his safety.

Ideally, the place he should have headed to was Harran, in modern-day Turkey. Harran was apt in that not only was it the place of his ancestry but it was the major domicile of the Hykso-Hebrews. There, the Hykso-Hebrews abounded more than in any other place on the globe, including Canaan.

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Turn CEDA into a Commercial Bank

28th July 2020

The announcement by President Mokgweetsi Masisi that CEDA now was in position to loan sizeable and therefore worthwhile sums the nation as a matter of course greeted with enormous glee.

As much as I too was euphoric at the news, I could not at the same time help a feeling of censorious pique which dates back to the time I was CEDA chairman from 2006 to 2008.

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Parley July meeting: an executive affair

28th July 2020

Monday the 27th Parliament will resume its July meeting. What is specifically on the agenda of Parliament in this coming meeting? A lot! There will be government and Private Bills, policy proposals, questions, themes and motions.

The meeting is also likely to be punctuated by statements from ministers on a variety of issues. Some statements may come as preemptive strikes to prevent the opposition from either making speeches on the subjects ahead of the government or to simply forestall questions on same.  The House is expected to be active for five weeks nonstop. It is obviously a very short time considering the agenda.

Before its adjournment sine die in March, Parliament was supposed to discuss the National Development Plan 11 Midterm Review. This is what will become a priority of the government in its order of Business or scheduling. The government is expected to table an addendum to the already tabled review document.

The reason is simple, COVID-19 has not only gobbled funds from the fiscus, but has also resulted in a sharp decline in government revenue. The mainstay of the economy is mining, particularly diamonds revenue. These germs are mainly luxury commodities which are prone to international market changes.

Diamonds and other precious goods are seldom needed in large quantities during turbulent times such as these. Those countries that depend on them, such as Botswana, are always at high risk of external shocks. Southern African Customs Union revenue is also likely to decline because of slump in trade.

Tax collection has gone down due to many obvious reasons. Tourism has been shattered. Non-mining sector has also been negatively affected. Therefore, the estimated revenue has declined, necessitating a serious review of the development plan.

Which Bills are likely to be debated in this coming meeting? Two Botswana Defence Force Amendment Bills have been Gazetted; one is Private and the other a government proposal.

The private Bill is proposing to rectify the injustice of not fully paying soldiers who are on indictments or suspensions. The government Bill is a minor amendment relating to the BDF Court Marshall Judge Advocate General position.

Other government Bills include Income Tax Amendment, BURS Amendment, Citizenship Amendment, Legal Practitioners Bill, Environment Assessment Amendment, Financial Reporting Amendment, Accountants Amendment, Citizen Economic Empowerment Bill and a controversial one on Floor Crossing.

More interest will be on the anti-defection Bill and perhaps the citizen economic empowerment proposal. Other Private Bills to be tabled include Police and Prisons Amendment and the Media Practitioners Repeal Bill. Parliament will also debate the following policies; Climate Change, Tourism, National Energy and Minerals.

Whilst there is nothing on COVID-19, MPs are likely to ask questions on the pandemic. So many things come to mind as possibilities of issues likely to be raised. MPs are likely to ask the Ministry of Health, Office of the President and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development about the whole pandemic fighting strategy.

There may be questions on the capacity and reliability of COVID-19 testing. Questions may be asked on positive cases that quickly become negative and or false alarms cases etcetera.

More focus may be on the budget and procurement. Some controversial tenders are likely to be questioned by MPs. It is expected that given the chance, MPs will likely lament the stoppage of food rations distribution by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

MPs will raise other miscellaneous issues on corona virus related policy decisions. These include the terms of engagement of the COVID Task Force and enlisting of the public relations private persons team from outside the government to help.

There may be questions by MPs on the business dealings of the President and his intention to acquire a government ranch, Banyana Farm. Clarity may be vehemently sought on these issues. Corruption related issues may be on the agenda of Private Business. So many issues have been reported; direct appointment of the 100KM NSC water pipe tender and other controversies may crop up.

There may be clarification required from the ministry responsible for international relations on the implications of the engagement of an Advocate working for Afri-Forum white supremacist organisation. The consequent and seeming tension between South Africa and Botswana will probably be on the agenda of MPs.

Recently the country has experienced serious fuel shortages. It is likely that parliament will raise issues on this matter and get the Minister to explain further.

Whilst this issue has been all over the media with clarifications offered by the Minister and the Permanent Secretary, parliament is likely to engage on the matter to get assurances into the record.

Answers will be demanded on the exact cause of the shortage, policy failures to predict the crisis and to avert it as well as the way forward.

Power issues have also irked MPs, particularly the recent tariff increases and recent threats to increase them even. All is definitely not well at Botswana Power Corporation, so MPs are probably going to probe these matters further.  It is clear that there is a lot that Parliament will deal with.

The disheartening fact to note is that most of the Government Business will be expected, by the executive, to pass through parliament rather than be passed by it. There is condescension for free and adequate debate as well as ostensible intolerance of alternative views from the backbench and the opposition by the frontbench.

The ruling party caucus will discuss all these matters and once explained fully by technocrats, the expectation will be for MPs to swiftly rubberstamp executive ideas without raising controversial issues or simply reasoning on the floor.

There will be no time to reason! There is likely to be limited time allocation, in terms of minutes allocated to individual MPs per debate, on all these matters aforementioned. The Speakership, which traditionally is the gatekeeper of the executive, is likely to fully cooperate and not protect the MPs against the executive wrath.

The executive will reason that five weeks is too short and that all business must be dispensed with before time elapses. Whilst the backbench will be unhappy with these decisions, there’s nothing it will do, it is numerically weak in the caucus.

The opposition will face the whole ruling party bench and be defeated in their protest for adequate debate time. That’s just how things work in Botswana parliament. The legislature is a governing tool of the executive; it is used to pass through policies, laws and budgets for the ruling party’s own political ends.

It is not an independent institution which can hold the executive accountable effectively. If Bills or policies are not completed and there’s about week remaining, everything could be squeezed into that one last week. It has happened before; the House can pass many Bills in one sitting, even if it means staying up until late night or wee hours of the morning.

There are private motions which if not withdrawn and replaced with new ones, may not address topical issues that arose as a result of or during COVID-19. These are motions which may seek accountability of the government on corona virus related policies.

One of the likely motions is the motion touted by one of the opposition parties; motion of no confidence on the government. If this motion comes on urgency, it may die on arrival.

The ruling party MPs will be under strict instructions to kill it the moment a question is put on whether the agenda should be changed to allow a debate on it.

The only way it can be debated is if it comes in through the normal process. Even that way there is no guarantee; the ruling party MPs may stay outside to kill the quorum like they do with motions they don’t want debated.

They may also debate it and unleash their ‘attack dogs’ and put their views across before defeating it. Other motions which may be tabled include COVID-19 related motions. Expectations of the general public should be managed; the next meeting may be the usual ruling party show to do as they please.

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