One of the late Bangwato regent Tshekedi Khama’s greatest contributions to Botswana is protection of the country’s mineral rights, historian Michael Crowder has insisted. The closure of BCL and failure by government to diversify the economy of Selebi-Phikwe might have made him shed a tear as what he fiercely fought for failed to materialise. The loss of jobs by more than 4000 BCL employees ring true to then 23-year-old Bangwato regent’s statement, who on the 1st of April 1930 said that – "With full knowledge of the fact that there is not one of them who ever returns from the mines with anything. The money that they earn at the mines they spend in food’s far as I can see their wages are inadequate”. Some 86 years later his word become prophesy as BCL workers prepare to go home empty handed. According to the paper presented by Dr Michael Crowder at University of Witwatersrand in South Africa in 1985, Tshekedi Khama and mining in Botswana 1929-1959, the Bangwato chief was the true proponent of minerals beneficiary for his people. Professor Crowder attributed the country’s success in mineral exploration which propelled development in Botswana after 1966 to the agreements negotiated by Khama. “These agreements owe much to the efforts of a remarkable man who died seven years before independence and sixteen years before production began at Selebi-Phikwe copper mine,” reads part of the paper.
Khama was initially against mining in his territory, reasoning that he needs to benchmark first within the region especially in South Africa if his people will benefit from mining. When negotiating the BCL deal with the Rhodesian Selection Trust Group, he ensured that there was a clear provision for Bangwato to participate in any benefits that might result from exploitation of minerals in their territory. The agreement, according to Crowder, gave the company a 10 year concession to carry out prospecting and, if this were successful, 15% of the gross profits of the resulting operations were to be paid to the tribe. “The real innovation came with the agreement that the tribe would have 15% free participation in the equity of any company formed under the agreement and be able to nominate two directors to the board,” noted Crowder. Kgosi Khama, who seemed to have done his works, had clear reasons for resisting mining at first. “If mining begins, it is not that we shall be enriched by it. The large portion of the wealth obtained from the mines will go to other people, the Europeans,” he reasoned in 1930. When he signed the deal on the 2nd of June 1959 while on his death bed, the controversial Bangwato chief who had just reconciled with his nephew founding President Seretse Khama wanted most proceeds to be used to develop the area. Currently with BCL facing complete closure, most of the things he advocated for didn’t happen.
One of his dreams was to see Phikwe turned into an industrial town just like Johannesburg and Kimberly – places he had visited – though hating the immorality coming with it. In his agreement for the exploration and mining of minerals in his territory, he wanted the welfare of the workers to be a priority. After his death in 1959 Seretse Khama ensured that mining rights were held by the nation as mining operations began, leading to the emergence of Phikwe as a town that hugely contributed to the nation’s development. Between 1974 and 1980 the modification of processes and installation of redesigned equipment progressively led to higher production capabilities. There was economic boom in the copper nickel mining town and people started to migrate to Phikwe seeking employment. In the late 1980s it became clear that the lifespan of BCL won’t last long and government started coming up with ways of trying to diversify the economy of the town from mining. This time dark clouds of BCL Mine closing hovered and was made worse by the spread of HIV/AIDS in the area making it the worst hit in the country. The words of Tshekedi Khama came up again in fore as the dreaded disease wiped out the miners and women in and around Phikwe. “I felt more afraid than ever of having mines in my own country – if mines spring up in my country, I am concerned about the women of my Tribe. I know what happens if Europeans of the mining class enter into a native country. Another thing which spring from mining is intoxicating drink,” Kgosi Tshekedi was quoted saying.
How Phikwe diversification failed
In 1996 government through Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) built factory shells to the tune of P6.9 million. The factory shells were to be used by foreign investors who were lured to open textile industries in Selebi-Phikwe as a way of diversifying its economy and to turn the town into an industrial hub. Government introduced the Financial Assistance Policy (FAP) under which foreign investors in the textile sector received grants as start-up capital. The companies were also granted a five-year tax holiday as an incentive. This proved to be a disaster as all investors closed shop and left the town, adding misery to the region when thousands of workers lost their jobs. A year before he left office, by instigation of the private sector, President Festus Mogae’s government with assistance from the European Union (EU) conducted the maiden study on the economic diversification of Selebi Phikwe. The study was conducted by CSA Consultants. The study made two main recommendations that there was a need to set up an independent unit responsible for the economic diversification of Selebi Phikwe and that the economic diversification of the region should consider a wider economic sector base as opposed to emphasis on the manufacturing sector. A College of Applied Arts and Technology proposed to be built in Selebi Phikwe using funds from the Selebi Phikwe Economic Diversification Re-employment Account was later moved to Oodi. Another project that was earmarked for Selebi-Phikwe was the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) which has since been built in Palapye. The botched Fengyue glass project in Palapye was initially proposed to be built in Selebi-Phikwe but was moved mysteriously.
Immediately after he occupied office, President Ian Khama issued a presidential directive establishing SPEDU. Its mandate was 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. In 2014 SPEDU was declared a parastatal company with 100% shareholding by Botswana Government. A P6 million food processing plant was commissioned in 2016 and was established under the Poverty Eradication Programme. It is being run Naftec Investments (Pty) Ltd, a company wholly owned by NFTRC. The plant would be processing the excess produce into some value added products that have a much longer shelf life such as pickled and dried products (beetroot, cabbage, carrots, peppers, onions, mixed vegetables) tomato puree and sauce.