Khama’s blue-eyed minister

SHARE   |   Monday, 14 December 2015   |   By Phillimon Mmeso
Minister Thapelo Olopeng Minister Thapelo Olopeng

It would seem when Minister Thapelo Olopeng received his cabinet appointment letter in November 2014, it carried a special instruction with regard to his work – Deliver the Youth vote. His charm offensive on this key constituency has been pointed and aggressive at best. His Facebook page has over 25 000 followers and interacts with the youth on a daily basis, addressing their issues as raised. His party – the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) – was shocked at the polls last year, resulting with it holding onto power though it lost popular vote. This has been attributed to a disgruntled youth who though being the majority section of the national population reel from high unemployment and limited opportunities and hence chose to vote for the opposition. 

And hence Olopeng has to arrest the tide; stop the youth from dumping the BDP by providing schemes and life solutions to their everyday challenges. The former army officer and Khama’s blue-eyed boy didn’t waste time in rolling up his sleeves to face off with the most serious challenge of his political life. He trended in the social media space and asked the youth what they wanted government to do for them. Some decried high cost of registering their companies with Public Procurement and Disposal Board and long delays in acquiring land. While some obliged by listing their needs, some dismissed the minister’s agenda on grounds that they were tired of empty promises.

Youth businesses
In September this year PPADB announced that they will fast rack registration of companies owned by the youth and that the amount paid will be slashed by half from P5000.  This was a shot in the arm for the youth who had complained that the playing field was not level at PPADB as they were made to compete with big companies. As a way again of appeasing the youth, 15% of government tenders has been reserved for the youth and over P1 million has already been allocated to youth businesses. The Youth Development Fund (YDF) that gives youth returnable capital has been ongoing for some years and though its default rate has increased, government has accelerated its roll-out.  

Target 20,000 up-skilling and up-scaling
Recently government introduced the up-skilling and up-scaling programme of unemployed youth which targeted 20,000. Tertiary institutions have taken to this with great enthusiasm as it offers them additional revenue from the certificate programmes they are introducing. Youth enrolled under this programme are to be given monthly allowances.

Driving schools
The sponsoring of students to go to driving schools came against expectations. Having recognised that a key requirement to find employment was ownership of a drivers’ licence, government intervened on behalf of students to help them acquire licenses.  Government will for the students who enroll at recognised drivers schools. Recently department of Roads and Transport also took a step of offering  Public Service Vehicle Permit (PSV) to all licensed drivers who requested for them without the prior condition of doing road tests as has been the norm.

Unpopular GVS
With the youth unemployment standing at over 40% government in April this year, Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture which is under the auspices of Olopeng announced that they are introducing Government Volunteer Scheme (GVS). The main intention of the programme was to facilitate skills development and transfer them to graduates, promote the spirit of volunteerism, contribute to community development, improve resilience of graduates as well as to reduce their idle time.

The graduates were to be given P600 per month. This is one programme that nearly made Olopeng an unpopular minister as he was criticised for trying to undermine the youth but saying they must volunteer instead of creating jobs for them. Government has also reintroduced Tirelo Sechaba to absorb some of the unemployed youth and ensure they get much needed experience at the workplace. Minister Olopeng has also been very busy on the sporting scene and in the arts – sectors that are dominated by his major constituency, the youth.
Sponsorship of events

The ministry has been seemingly over generous with sponsoring most events from music festival, cultural revivals to beauty pageants. It is also currently overseeing Botswana’s preparations for the 50 years anniversary celebrations which take place next year. At his levers and control, the minister appears to have a budget to use for the welfare of most youth agencies and where a good case for funding is made, it is often granted. 

Parties, critics respond
Botswana Congress Party Youth League (BCPYL) spokesman, Pako Madigele, has dismissed the recently introduced programmes, saying that they don’t bring any solutions to the problems faced by the youth. “The problem with the current government is that it likes throwing money at problems rather than understanding the root cause,” said Madigele. BDP National Youth Executive Committee (NYEC) chairperson Andy Boatile is of the view that the programmes that the ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture are introducing are based on the consultations that were made.

“The programmes are meant to address concerns that have been raised by the youth building up to 2014 General Elections,” he said, adding that the programmes are aimed at empowering the youth. Asked if the BDP youth are happy with the programmes, Boatile said that they will have to wait for implementation to see their effectiveness. Asked if they don’t think that the programmes would entice the youth to follow the ruling party, Madigele answered in negative, insisting that Botswana youth are now fed up with government. Former Chief Executive Officer at Botswana National Youth Council (BNYC) Ndulamo Morima said though the government is trying to use Olopeng to lure young voters, the strategy will backfire.

“The BDP led governments have always tried to use the youth as their triumph card with various programmes but it has proven that they didn’t succeed,” observed Morima, giving example of programmes like Young Farmers Fund and Youth Empowerment Scheme (YES). He said the problem with the government is that they don’t review existing programmes before they introduce new ones. Nowadays, he said, there are no consultations but people are just surprised with programmes which they don’t have any input on, hence most of them fail. On the up skilling and up scaling programme, Morima said it is not something new as in 2013 government introduced back-to-school programme which was abandoned after the elections.

Olopeng says
Contacted for comment, Olopeng said that his aim is to ensure that the youth are empowered and benefit from government programmes which are aimed at helping them. On the use of social media to communicate with the youth, Olopeng said that it has helped him a lot in understanding challenges that they face. There have been concerns from some quarters that government is just imposing programmes on the youth without consultation, but Olopeng – the MP for Tonota - denied this. “Most of the programmes that we are currently rolling out to the youth I discussed with them first at different forums even on social media,” he said. Asked if he is the BDP trump card for 2019, he laughed off and said that he does not want to focus on politics for now. “But if someone helps you when you need help, it is natural that you become friends,” he answered figuratively.