Tourism sector grapples with ‘imported’ racism

SHARE   |   Monday, 29 August 2016   |   By Staff Writer
Tourism sector grapples with ‘imported’ racism

The ‘special treatment and preferential choice’ allegedly given whites in Botswana’s tourism sector is said to have worsened the racism situation in tourism hub areas of the North West. According to some players in the tourism industry, although the sector has never been user friendly to indigenous operators as far as operating rights and accessibility is concerned, the situation has worsened. The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism is being blamed of allowing things to go out of control. This week the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Edwin Batshu took the battle to tourism operators, warning them against abusing their employees and practicing racism against locals. He said those found doing that will be expelled from the country. 

Minister blamed
Tourism minister Tshekedi Khama has been blamed for not intervening with some going to the extent of saying he was strategically appointed by his big brother President Ian Khama to safeguard the Khama dynasty’s interests and investments in the sector. “It is no surprise that locals are suffering racial discrimination at the hands of some of these operators,” one operator said. They accused the minister of divisive leadership which will not only serve a few elites only but also stand to exacerbate incidents of racism in the sector.

Minister Khama responds
In response, Minister Khama dismissed as baseless the accusations he faces.  “I do not have interests in the tourism sector; neither do my twin brother and my sister. My elder brother has businesses yes, but there have long been there even before my appointment,” he said. Although he did not deny nor confirm the existence of racism in the tourism sector, Khama said his ministry has recently arranged pop up surprise monitoring visits at camps in the delta, targeted at bursting offending camp operators. “I can confirm that I have even received reports from other camp operators who were concerned about the state of affairs in other camps where they felt workers’ rights were violated,” said Khama. He said although he is of the stance that foreigners and locals alike need to be given a chance if they possess a certain specialty, locals need to be given priority. Khama said his ministry aims was to rectify all anomalies. “I found some of these things in the industry and they are already imbedded,” he said.

Racism long been rife
Racism in the tourism sector especially in the lucrative Okavango Delta is in fact not a new phenomenon. A 2002 study by University of Botswana Professor, Joseph Mbaiwa for example captures these blunt and unfiltered facts about racism in the sector.  In the study particular attention is paid to the relationship between whites and blacks with the tourism industry in the Okavango Delta and in Maun. According to the study 57.1% of the respondents (workers and managers) indicated that racism is a problem in the Okavango delta where white operators discriminate against blacks (ironically, all the managers that were interviewed in the safari camps in the delta were white) and about 64.9% of the safari managers in the delta noted the existence of racism in the industry especially in the various camps and lodges. Professor Mbaiwa‘s study further shows that respondents explained that racism in the tourist industry in Okavango Delta is associated with factors such as discrimination into positions of employment, ill-treatment and unfair dismissal from work of black workers by white employers and the unpleasant working conditions that they are subjected to by employers.

According to the study, ill-treatment of black workers was further explained by the long hours that black workers were subjected to in safari camps with no overtime allowances. This, according to the study, was also shown by frequent dismissals and retrenchments from work of safari workers.
Though the department of Labour in Maun was not able to provide figures on the dismissed workers, at the time, it, however, confirmed dealing with such cases time and again. It also confirmed dealing with cases of abusive language that is often used against black workers by safari managers.  “Furthermore, these workers noted that while in the Delta, they are provided with water from the river or borehole for consumption while their white counterparts are provided with mineral water from Maun.

In some camps, workers complained of water which they assumed is not healthy for consumption,” the study revealed. Racism is also reflected in this 15-year-old study, in an observation made by a manager of one of the camps in the Okavango Delta about black Batswana. The manager is quoted for having said black Batswana are “… generally ignorant, lazy and promiscuous. It’s not unusual for a black Motswana to have thirteen sexual partners…” According to study this not only explains the manager’s “deep rooted prejudice” against black workers in the Okavango Delta and the nation of Botswana as a whole but  It showed the manager’s lack of respect and her negative attitude and looking down upon black citizens of Botswana as a cultural group. Though this study is close to 15 years old and there has not been a recent one done, Mbaiwa says the situation is still the same. “We have not done any similar study, afterwards, but from where I stand, nothing has changed,” said Mbaiwa.

South African operators blamed
The President of Botswana Guides Association Kenson Kgaga also confirmed that indeed discrimination based on race was rampant in the sector. According to Kgaga, as a leader who also happens to be a player in the industry, he can attest that local are given a raw deal by the management in their work places who are often of South African descent. According to Kgaga, in majority of the camps managerial roles are often held by foreigners whose mistreatment of local workers range from denying them access to medical attention to imposing unfair rules on how one should use their food rations. “Although the food rations are charged on one’s salary, one can be dismissed from work for packing home some of the leftovers from their own rations,” Kgaga revealed. In fact Kgaga said the situation has now transformed into a sophisticated and organised web in a sense that while it is foreigners who hold high positions and discriminate against black workers to the extent of firing them, the actual firing is left to the Human Resources personnel who are mostly locals and used as scape goats. “The HR personnel are just used to do the dirty work,” he said.

Unqualified foreigners hired
Kgaga also bemoaned the fact that to date the industry is still giving posts to foreigners who contrary to belief are not even qualified and are instead trained on the jobs by locals. “I still cannot understand why managerial positions are offered to them than to locals who I can confirm hold qualifications from reputable universities,” he said. Kgaga said if indeed Minister Batshu delivers on his promises then the sector will be rescued from the ugly grip of racism that only stand to disadvantage locals further. “A large percentage of the sector is controlled by foreigners. Even those locals in high places who are shareholders in these big companies are often just pawns roped in to safeguard interests,” he said.

Khama on Dithebe’s resignation at BTO
On the resignation of Brian Dithebe as CEO of Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO), Khama denied ever sidelining him in decision making, saying Dithebe has in fact been aware of every decision made regarding his organisation. “I understand he has issues that are personal.  As a leader I respected that he had the right to make the decision,” Khama said. Minister Khama said he was in fact at peace and had no qualms with Dithebe’s decision, further denying that his ministry might have already found his replacement. “How can we replace him when we were not even aware that he was resigning until recently?” Khama asked. He instead praised Dithebe for the good job that he has done at the BTO since his appointment, saying he has an efficient team that helped in advancing the organisation’s projects even those which were recently introduced after he (Khama) took over the ministry.