SA Ambassador hits out at Botswana

SHARE   |   Monday, 16 May 2016   |   By Phillimon Mmeso
South African High Commissioner to Botswana; Lembede South African High Commissioner to Botswana; Lembede

The South African High Commissioner to Botswana Mduduzi Lembede on Thursday night put aside his diplomatic cap and accused Gaborone of using his country as scapegoat for lack of development in the country. Speaking during the panel discussion on the theme “50 Years of Botswana’s Foreign Policy: Reflections and Lessons Learnt” organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Botswana (FES) and the Alumni of the “Youth Leadership Training Programme Botswana” (YLTP), Lembede said that he has heard on several occasions Botswana accusing his country for lack of industrialisation. “Botswana should stop using us as a scapegoat for their failed projects because we have nothing to gain from that,” he said answering a question from one of the delegates at the panel discussion.

He said some of the projects that have failed to kick-start in Botswana and blamed on his government include the Palapye Fengyue Glass project and the Mmamabula coal project. The glass project which cost Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) P500 million was dumped by the Chinese contractor and is currently an eye sore in Palapye. Upon completion the plant was expected to supply glass to the SADC region. Some people felt that it was sabotaged by South Africa as they feared that it will kill their glass maufacturing industry. In 2008 the promoters of the Mmamabula Energy Project (MEP), CIC Energy signed a power purchasing agreement with Eskom of South Africa.

CIC Energy were to built a 1200 MW plant in Botswana which was expected to boost the economy of the country but in 2009, Eskom could not commit to the purchase of electricity from the project because it had not yet finalised its funding model. The power purchase agreements were discussed with the governments of Botswana and SA, and there was an understanding that the Mmamabula power station would be constructed in four 1,200MW increments.This led to the project collapsing and this was blamed on South Africa’s big brother mentality but Lembede had none of it accusing Botswana of just relying on one country. Another thorny issue that the South African Ambassador touched on is the South African Customs Union (SACU). South African government has been pushing hard for the "unfair" revenue-sharing agreement between the SACU members to be reworked, both in terms of the formula itself and the way in which the money was used once it had been distributed.

The issue has been on the agenda for several years and has been prioritised by SACU heads of state as one of the organisation’s priority work streams. In response to the topical issue, Lembede said he is surprised that the other members of SACU don’t want to agree on the issue yet they found no problem doing business with apartheid government. “You started this customs union with an apartheid government and when we say let us negotiate you start complaining. If Botswana want to leave SACU and form a regional customs union let it be,” said Lembeded adding that his government is used as a cash cow by other member states. He said that some of the countries use the money distributed to them to pay salaries of their public employees instead of developing their countries’ infrastructure. In 2014-15, SA paid R51.7bn to SACU. “SA would like to see the cash used for development purposes, such as infrastructure investment and promotion of intra-regional trade, which would be of mutual benefit not to pay salaries,” said Lembede.

Recently Botswana and South Africa clashed over the reservation of retail businesses for citizens in which Pretoria accused Gaborone of trying to sabotage their businesses. The statement was released through statement from the Ministry of Trade, Investment and Industry and in response to that Lembede said that they don’t want to be addressed through press releases. This was after one of the panellists Spencer Mogapi said that Botswana’s diplomatic approach has changed recently and can communicate with another country through a press release as they did with China. Early this year Botswana through a press release condemned China over the dispute of the China Island Sea.  This led to the Chinese government closing their embassy in Gaborone temporarily. Botswana had to do a damage control and apologised to the Chinese government.

Last month during the launch of South Africa Business Forum in Gaborone Lembede revealed that South African businesses in Botswana are complaining about the unfavourable operating environment especially those in the retail market.  In a direct shot to government, Lembede said that bureaucrats should leave the running of businesses to business people. “Weakening the strong does not empower the weak and is not helping anyone,” he hit out in direct to the government policy to reserve 51% retail market to citizens.