The conspicuous absence of SPEDU Chief Executive Officer Dr Mokubung Mokubung from the Wednesday meeting at Hotel Selebi between the Business Community and the Minister of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security, Sadique Kebonang, has fuelled growing speculation that he could tender his resignation soon. SPEDU Regional Director, James Mathokgwane, was the 'stand-in' facilitator at the meeting where government sought to assure the business community that economy activity in the town will not collapse. Although Public Relations and Communications Manager at SPEDU Keleabetswe Punah Molebatsi denied that her boss is on the way out sources close to her say he is likely to drop a bombshell by tendering resignation citing ill-health. Dr Mokubung was recently hospitalised at Bokamoso Hospital after he collapsed when appearing before the Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Bodies and State Enterprises. He is currently on sick leave and has not reported for work for approximately a month. Molebatsi confirmed that Dr Mokubung is currently on sick leave but could not state how long he will be away from office. Sources say government is in panic mode and is working around the clock to prevent Dr Mokubung's resignation now as it would worsen the crisis in the town. SPEDU has become the focal point to execute the mandate of diversifying the economy of the region and create jobs for thousands laid off by BCL. All eyes are on Dr Mokubung and there is mounting pressure for him to steer Selebi-Phikwe out of economic doldrums. He has allegedly confided in his close associates that he can no longer cope with work pressure at SPEDU, especially the growing political interference.
Another issue that is a said not to be sitting well with Dr Mokubung is the alleged recommendation to appoint the wife of a recent prominent opposition politician who defected to Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) for the post of Community Facilitation Executive. It is alleged that Mokubung is not comfortable with the appointment as it will make it difficult for him to fulfill his mandate at SPEDU. Another post that has pitted Mokubung against his board of Directors is the appointment of a former BCL employee to the post of Internal Audit and Risk Manager. Mokubung was appointed the CEO of SPEDU after three years of the agency operating without a substantive head. He previously worked as Director of Competition and Research Analysis at Competition Authority. He holds a PhD in Technology and Innovation Management from the University of Manchester, a Master of Philosophy in Monetary Economics from the University of Glasgow as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics from the University of Botswana.
At the Wednesday meeting the business community criticised government for the abrupt decision to pull the plug on Selebi-Phikwe by closing BCL and throwing about 5 000 workers in the streets despite other available options which could be explored. Kebonang said government will act on the advice rendered by the appointed liquidator – Nigel Dixon-Warren – in a report expected in February 2017. He said Government has made a commitment to pay only October salaries, which left businesses in different sectors like education, suppliers to BCL fuming over uncertainty going forward. Others decried lack of consultation from the side of government and said closing down BCL is tantamount to killing the town. Government parastatals among them Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA), Local Enterprise Authority (LEA), Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC), Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), attended the Wednesday meeting to pledge support for the resuscitation of the economy of S/Phikwe without the mine. According to CEDA acting CEO Andrew Madeswi, they have injected P86 million to resuscitate Pula Steel – a 71 % subsidiary of BCL. The agency has also funded horticulture projects to the tune of P40 million in the SPEDU region. A day earlier, senior cabinet ministers led by Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi told thousands of BCL workers that government will expedite projects under SPEDU to save the troubled mining town. It was announced at the Wednesday meeting that a SPEDU Region Revitalisation Task Team has been formed, made up of officials from Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry (MITI) and Ministry of Minerals, Green Technology and Energy Security, Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO), S/Phikwe Town Clerk and Deputy District Commissioner.
Even as a dark cloud hovers over Selibe Phikwe region due to closure of the town’s cash-cow BCL copper mine, Dr Mokubung remains confident that the region cannot collapse under his watch. In a recent interview, when SPEDU launched a revamped image and new strategy he said to turn around the economy of the region they will look to sectors like tourism, manufacturing, agriculture and infrastructure development. He said several projects falling within these sectors are at various stages of development. During interviews conducted during the week with business owners, the general public and some BCL workers – who suddenly became unemployed last weekend – none of them is convinced that SPEDU is the answer. All of them point to failure at project implementation by government agencies, saying though SPEDU has been in existence for many years there is nothing to show on the ground. All of them point to the dismal failure of the Financial Assistance Policy (FAP) and the Special Incentive Package of the 90s, when companies ditched hundreds of workers and abandoned factory shells in Selebi-Phikwe.
Platjaan Bridge project
One of the multibillion Pula projects giving Dr Mokubung sleepless nights is the construction of the Platjaan Bridge to connect Botswana and South Africa, to boost cross border trade, travel and the economy of SPEDU. The project was recently moved from Ministry of Transport and Communications to SPEDU-as sponsors-after the former failed to execute the project on time. The bridge – regarded as economically strategic for SPEDU region – has been postponed on numerous occasions as the ministry failed to award the tender. The tender was first awarded in August 2014 and the evaluation by the consultant indicated that all tenderers were not compliant with the requirements and were all citizen-owned companies. Dr Mokubung and his team are under pressure to ensure that the tender is awarded to a local company preferred by government, sources said.
Government has established a horticultural processing company National Agro Processing (NAPRO) – a subsidiary of National Food Technology Research Centre (NAFTRC) – which will need to be supplied with agricultural produce for processing. Although the plant is yet to produce at full capacity, it produces tomato sauce, mixed veggies, pickled beetroot, and dried vegetables. The much touted agro-processing plant has failed to live up to expectations. Farmers in the SPEDU region dismiss it as a joke because of ridiculously low prices it offers, which they argue cannot sustain production. "Last year we were encouraged to increase production to sell to Napro. We were shocked to learn that their prices are way below market rate. Even selling to the open market is more profitable," said Keikanetse Sekwatse, a farmer in Tobane. SPEDU region has fertile soils, best suited for horticultural production. The unit consulted several farm owners in the region to encourage them to increase production promising that there is ample market for their produce. SPEDU also says they have identified a 4000 hectares piece of land to be used by various farmers in the region for agricultural purposes. The agency is working with Local Enterprise Authority (LEA) to equip farmers with latest farming skills.
SPEDU has just completed the refurbishment of Selebi Phikwe airport at a cost of nearly P15 million. Dr Mokubung recently said the refurbished airport will come in handy for the region. SPEDU is upbeat that the airport will attract tourists and business travelers who come from Johannesburg and abroad, travelling through Gaborone to the town or Mashatu Game Reserve. SPEDU is said to in negotiations with some airlines to launch the Selebi Phikwe/Gaborone route.
What is SPEDU?
The Selebi-Phikwe Economic Diversification Unit (SPEDU) Regional Economic Development Agency was formed as a result of a number of initiatives to diversify the regional economy from mining. These initiatives are inclusive of the Selebi-Phikwe Development Programme of 1985, the Selebi-Phikwe Regional Development Unit of 1987 which culminated in the Financial Assistance Policy (FAP) and the Special Incentive Package. By the year 2001 the Selebi-Phikwe Diversification Committee was established following a private sector led initiative. In 2006, a consultancy firm, CSA, was appointed to carry out a study on Regional Economic Diversification following the failure of the FAP and the Special Incentive Packages. The main recommendation of the CSA study was the establishment of a Unit to coordinate the Diversification Programme of Selebi-Phikwe and the region, hence the birth of the Selebi-Phikwe Economic Diversification Unit (SPEDU). SPEDU was established as a regional economic development agency in 2008 through a presidential directive. This unit - set up to spearhead the implementation of the economic regeneration programme for Selebi Phikwe and surrounding regions – is under the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry (MITI). Its functions are to manage the diversification programme; identify projects and progress them to potential investors; work with existing project promoters and with government in respect of public sector projects; help promote and enhance the image of Selebi Phikwe and identify and secure outside technical assistance to carry out feasibility studies and other specialised tasks. Some of the villages covered under SPEDU are Tsetsebjwe, Goo Tau, Lerala and Mmadinare.