The tragedy of the beads continues

Recognition does not buy bread. According to some historical accounts, Lobengula, chief of Matebeleland, which incidentally included the Tati in Botswana, ceded his territory to Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company for a handful of shiny beads. Infact, he was conned and swindled out of control in exchange for 100 rifles, ammunition and protection from the Boers from the Transvaal who also had their greedy eyes on the mineral-rich country.

However, this myth of colonial capitalist adventurers being able to acquire huge tracks of land in Africa, in Asia and in North and South America in exchange for shiny baubles continues in some history books. North America was stolen from the Native Americans by English and French colonialists with bogus treaties in exchange for crates of beads and necklaces given to leaders who had no authority from their people to give away their land. The Portuguese and Spanish did the same in South America, backed by guns, disease and threats of annihilation.

Flash forward 250 years, and neo-colonialists are still working the same magic to con and steal land and resources from their rightful owners. However, the beads and necklaces now come in the form of luxury cars and palatial houses filled with bling acquired during ‘free’ trips to Dubai and other destinations frequented by rich and famous wannabes.

In Botswana, we continue to give away our most precious possessions, minerals and land, to giant (and not so giant) multinational corporations for trinkets, which now include seats on boards and ‘free’ shares as the 21st century’s equivalent of Rhodes’ beads and necklaces.

But some would argue that in the era of globalization (read re-modelled impoverishment of the global south by the global north), what else can Botswana do? At least we are getting something! Afterall, a peanut is better than no nut at all! The so-called deal with De Beers (now owned by Anglo American) is held up as “a shining example” of cooperation which has “developed” Botswana. Indeed, compared to the basket case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the civil war-ridden countries of West Africa where squabbles over minerals have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, ours may be a unique example of corporate theft without violence.

But we really can do better. There are two things the very rich love – diamonds and looking at wild animals, both of which are not available in their own countries and which Botswana has in abundance. However, both resources are declining and we have not been getting a fair deal from them. Even though we are the world’s biggest producer of diamonds, we do not own any intellectual property over mining technology or jewellery, and through the practice of management contracts, transfer pricing and control over the value chain relative to our economy, we are receiving a smaller share of the shiny beads.

Similarly, we are not getting a big enough share from the wildlife sector of tourism where a massive American company is now the major shareholder in Wilderness Safaris, a company that dominates the tourism business in the Okavango, the Chobe and the other parts of Botswana’s lush northwestern region that teems with flora and fauna in Edenic proportions.

Most of the money generated in tourism never even comes to Botswana as visitors pay for their high-priced safaris in their home countries or in neighbouring South Africa. What little does trickle down to Botswana is also swallowed up in management fees, expatriate salaries and transfer pricing.

And we must deal with the problems that the overpopulation of elephants are causing to subsistence agriculture and increasingly human lives.

Instead of taxing profits, we should start thinking about taxing revenue as well so that we get a bigger slice of hard cash instead of “shiny things.”

The latest example of this colonial belief that Africans can be bought off with shiny things is happening right now in the diamond mines where workers are up in arms over Debswana’s plans to reward long service with watches and necklaces.

While appreciation of loyalty and service is needed, “recognition does not buy bread”. The last time we checked stores do not accept necklaces and watches as payment for groceries, and they do not pay school fees.