When delivering his maiden budget speech on 3 January 2020, the Hon Minister of Finance and Economic Development Dr Thapelo Matsheka constantly referred to the phrase, it will not be ‘business as usual.’ To my surprise and having read the entire budget speech, nothing much indicates that his speech has fundamentally departed from the previous ones to render it fundamentally transformed. Except for a few add-ons here and there. Budget speeches I have read including Hon Matsheka’s come out as more of documents of intent by government on one hand and which in the view of those who know, is the case. On the other, the next budget speech doesn’t provide an update on the achievements or failures of the previous ones. Consequently, it becomes a question of, if you like, throwing huge sums of money at problems without expected commensurate outcomes as it has become somewhat of the norm. My point of departure is that Hon Matsheka’s budget speech is more of the same than fundamentally transformational. What is transformation in the context of Hon Matsheka’s budget speech and his government?
Business dictionary defines transformation as ‘a process of profound and radical change that orients an organisation in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness….Transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.’ The current budget speech as will be shown hereunder, resembles ‘the past configuration or structure’ where there is no ‘profound and radical change.’ The same applies to the overall government machinery that is said to be transforming albeit with very little in that regard. The current government has replaced Rre Kgosi with Rre Magosi with the management of the intelligence agency largely if not worse off than during Rre Kgosi’s tenure as some people argue. State institutions like the DIS, Ombudsman, DCEC whose other key mandate is to perform oversight function over State officials are still managed and controlled from the highest office in the land. In fact, the DIS is committing too many costly legal errors where it stands to be sued by a number of individuals and organisations for that or the other thing. Government could be looking at parting with large sums of money should parties suing the DIS be successful in court. No measure of transformational movement is evident at key State institutions and for obvious reasons. During election campaigns, the slogan was that government will create jobs and thereafter, it is no longer her responsibility to do so but the private sector. Whatever changes have been made are nothing more than cosmetic. Consequently, the transformation agenda talked about this far is more of theoretical, populist than in practise.
Most of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Members of Parliament interviewed soon after the budget speech harped on the narrative that the budget speech was transformational presumably pursuant to President Masisi’s stated desire to transform the economy of this country. Like all other previous budget speeches, Hon Matsheka’s speech failed to update the nation on the achievements or lack thereof, of the 2019/2020 budget as stated above. These MPs seem to conveniently suggest, directly or indirectly, that previous budget speeches were not delivered by one of their own. The fact of the matter is that no other political party in the history of this country has delivered a budget speech. Hon Matsheka’s budget speech is the second under the presidency of President Masisi and if the transformation agenda is anything to go by, lack of ‘profound and radical change’ from the previous budget speeches post 1 April 2018 is not difficult to find.
Government has over the years committed to creating a conducive environment for the private sector to create jobs. In delivering the 2019/2020 budget speech, the immediate past Minister of Finance and Economic Development Rre Kenneth Mathambo said at paragraph 24 that “Madam Speaker, Government has long identified the private sector as key in driving economic growth, diversification and employment creation.” At paragraph 25 he continues to say “…..This government is committed to implement existing and new initiatives to improve the business environment during 2019/2020 and beyond, to ensure that the private sector becomes the effective future engine of growth for the country.” At paragraph 45 of his budget speech, Hon Matsheka says “Mr Speaker, the 2020 Budget Proposals are a first deliberate effort to align to the transformation agenda, with a focus on the promotion of private sector-led growth and job creation.”
But the President of Business Botswana Rre Gobusamang Keebine whose organisation is supposed to be at the epicentre of job creation, looked seriously despondent both in his body language and his comments when interviewed by Botswana Television immediately after the budget speech. He seemed less impressed in my view, by the budget speech to the extent that he indicated that he was going to meet Hon Matsheka the following day presumably to raise the issue of the role of the private sector in the mainstream job creation agenda. I am not surprised by his despondency given that Business Botswana has constantly suggested that while government may be having good implementable policies for job creation, there is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that seems to scupper the private sector input in the job creation agenda. If transformational agenda with respect to the private sector as the engine of job creation was truly in motion, Business Botswana would not be crying foul. Business Botswana has made it position clear for example on the question of public servants’ businesses engaging in business dealings with government. It firmly holds that such conduct is a catalyst to corruption. Government is unmoved in engaging in business dealings with her own employees. In this regard therefore, government and Business Botswana appear not in sync with each on the important issue of job creation.
State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have for time immemorial, received large sums of public funds whose outputs have not been commensurate with those funds. Issues of poor governance and lack of accountability have amongst others been, and still are the sources of poor performances by the SOEs. Consequently, poor workers in these organisations have constantly and consistently bore the brunt of being the first to be retrenched when the financial books of their organisations ‘fail to balance.’ Still at paragraph 24 of Rre Matambo’s speech last year, he talked about the privatization of SOEs. This year, Minister Matsheka spent a lot of energy on SOEs by saying at paragraph 36 that “Mr Speaker, Government spends substantial resources on parastatals…..For instance, an amount of P 4.9 billion is proposed as subventions to various state owned enterprises for the Financial Year 2020/2021.” Problems afflicting SOEs do not need a rocket scientist to find and fix. They are in large measure, caused by what South Africans refer to as cadre deployment- a process where the ruling political party members are deployed as a reward, to run these entities without requisite qualifications and experience; board members appointed along similar lines; intense and unlimited political interference in their operational functions. Senior public officials and SOE executives who have left have confirmed these challenges.
Billions of Pula have been pumped into the Ministry of Basic Education. I presume this was for a good reason-to facilitate basic and good education to the learners for the knowledge based economy. But ever since billions of Pula have been pumped into this Ministry, very little returns fitting the expenditure have been realised in light of the immediate past and current examination results. In the 2019/2020 financial year, basic education ministry was allocated P 8.24 billion. In the current financial year, Minister Matsheka has allocated the same ministry P 9.01 billion. The total budget allocation in the two financial years is P 17.25 billion.
Yet a good number of learners still attend classes under trees; the school infrastructure has collapsed; the recent state of Moeng College infrastructural outlook as it appeared on Botswana Television recently was jaw dropping. How does one expect Moeng College students let alone learners who are taught under the trees to post good examination results? Is this budget properly used? Has the Accounting Officer at the ministry given a proper account of the funds under him/her? Has the Minister properly accounted? I am not suggesting that the budget will take care of every desirable need of the ministry. But surely, there should amongst others be notable and improved quality of examination results as an indication of the transformation agenda coupled with the huge budget allocation. The less talked about the military constantly receiving huge money, the better. Government is failing to make a case why this is so.
I had expected Minister Matsheka to have spent a better part of his speech on the corruption issue because it is the greatest threat to the performance of government. Part of the reason Botswana is running on a budget deficit and the economy growing at 4% or so against the desirable 6% is to a large extent, because of the runaway corruption that has become a highly rewarding vocation. In his 138 paragraph budget speech, he mentions fighting corruption once and in passing at paragraph 5. This is telling.
The transformation agenda is a welcome thing for the spin-offs are so immense for the citizenry. But I am not oblivious to the fact that the transformation agenda is principally and for purposes of execution, in the hands of the politicians. Botswana is in this morass principally because of the politicians’ omissions or commissions. Austin O’Malley says “A politician is like quicksilver: if you try to put your finger on him, you find nothing under it.”
From where I stand, the transformation agenda will not be anywhere near starting line when State institutions are still under the complete control of the highest office in the land; when parliament still wilfully and unashamedly fails to hold the executive accountable; when the All Party Conference is still dis-functional; when the Assets and Liabilities Law still has the present lacunas as pointed out by experts. Hon Matsheka looks a decent gentleman but he has joined a club called politics where quid pro quo is the name of the game. And there are so many people waiting in the queue for a reward as it has become the norm. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise as always. Judge for Yourself!