The Resurrection of Nchindo’s Unknown Legacy

Last Saturday marked a decade since Louis Nchindo’s controversial and historic departure. He died on 8 February 2010 and those very close to him say he was, at the time of his death, writing a book. What and who was Nchindo writing about and what would have been the title of his book? TEFO PHEAGE resurrects a forgotten demigod widely credited to have been a kingmaker and crafter of Batswana’s destiny and discovers an inexplicable manuscript proposing the future of Botswana.

Nchindo’s life was not ordinary, having achieved prominence through his association with De Beers and later Debswana, companies with a strategic role to play in the economy and later politics of Botswana. His life touched many in many different ways and it is widely believed that he was a closed book of Botswana’s dark secrets, hence perhaps his desire to some day unleash a best seller.

But to his family, Nchindo was a mere father and husband. The media-shy family did not accede to this publication’s repeated requests to have a word for this article. “We don’t want to speak to the media,” responded Gavas Nchindo, the eldest of Nchindo’s children who has borne full witness to his father’s fall from grace. But the family certainly miss their father. On October 2016, Nchindo’s daughter, Nicola, who was once presented with air tickets to the Seychelles for their honeymoon with her newly married husband by Nchindo, posted a non-captioned picture of her father on Facebook, leaving its interpretation to social media users.

Despite being far well off, the family has never really been theatrical as is often custom with the offspring of the rich and famous. Those close to them say throughout their lives they kept a good distance from their father’s economic and political businesses, an attitude that has since come back to haunt them in recent times as they sometimes struggle to reconcile the present family challenges with a past known only to Nchindo himself.

Nchindo conducted the public side of his life with a heightened sense of pomp, style, pride and dignity but not many seem to know what else Nchindo stood for besides this. His name, for so many years, was synonymous with diamonds and politics although the media never miss an opportunity to paint him as the only true hedonist of our time. Nchindo, they say, was the only rich man who knew how to lavishly spend his money out in public, comparing him with the Dadas, the Jamalis, and other millionaires in this country.

But what really did Nchindo stand for? A number of his close associates interviewed by this publication portrayed Nchindo as a tabooed subject which they could only discuss off record. Ironically almost all labelled the man as one of the most misunderstood people in the history of Botswana, saying Nchindo hated poverty in all its manifestations and never wanted to see anybody suffer. Despite contradictions on his role in Botswana politics, all across the political divide agree that he should be remembered most for his undying voice on citizen economic empowerment as the panacea to Botswana’s economic woes.

This is admitted by even the spokesperson of the opposition coalition, Moeti Mohwasa, who describes Nchindo as “the personification of the rise of the local oligarchs, a rampant and predatory compradore bourgeoisie” because “he always made sure he controlled the development path and agenda of this country”. Says Mohwasa: “Nchindo amplified the call for citizen economic empowerment and was clear that the citizen who needed to be empowered was the indigenous one and it was also under his watch that Debswana ventured into agriculture through Masedi Farms.”

Nchindo ‘s passion for citizen empowerment was echoed by businessman and treasurer of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, Satar Dada, at Nchindo’s memorial service in 2010. “Nchindo’s passion for citizen economic empowerment was known to all,” Dada said in his speech. In September 1998, Nchindo penned a sobering document titled “Citizen empowerment” where at some point he likened Botswana to a foolish parent who neglects her children for gifted neighbours. “If Botswana is to sustain its economic development, then it must invest in its own citizens. A parent who neglects his own children and devotes his attention and love on those of his neighbours because they happen to be more gifted than his own is foolish,” he wrote in a document confirmed by former Debswana spokesperson, Jacob Sesinyi, who termed the document an old free lecture from his late boss. Nchindo, a schooled economist, wrote that “the major task of citizen empowerment falls on government”.

“There is an almost a universal rush towards free competition and open markets on grounds that this is the way to promote global economic efficiency,” he continued. “One of the great problems with so-called free competition is that it favours the strong and further disadvantages the weak. The strong have more resources at their disposal to protect their own position and further improve their future prospects. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even in a fairly static mature society, this is not desirable. The level playing field is an attractive notion, but it doesn’t necessarily produce the right result. On a level playing field, the soccer team which starts with the financial resources and the reputation to buy all the best players is likely to emerge top of the league – nothing breeds success like success itself.”

The government’s policy, he wrote, may have been consistent with global economic efficiency but it should have been obvious at the time that it was not likely to provide any lasting benefits to the Botswana economy. “The foreign firms, with some exceptions, made their money and left behind some pretty inferior monuments to so-called free competition. After having climbed the mountain of achieving the necessary quality standards, Batswana battle for an appropriate slot in their respective market place. What they face is discrimination and prejudice of a much more subtle and insidious kind than that which simply used to say ‘whites only.’”

Everything, Nchindo wrote, is now in the hands of the rich but the state cannot fold its arms and say what can we do? “Economic development is not just an end to achieving other objectives,” he said. “Development which leaves citizens and citizen companies wandering around on the margins of the action may produce a good result in terms of GDP growth, but it will not meet objectives of human development and citizen empowerment which are vital to our wider, longer term of Botswana’s future,” he said, further emphasising on mindset change.

According to Nchindo, addressing unemployment in Botswana would remain a pipe dream. “The history of economic growth seems to suggest that any strategy of economic growth and development that does not include, as its central theme, the control of the major portion of the economic assets of the nation by citizens or citizen groups is not sustainable in the long term. The Botswana experience so far also seems to suggest that policies designed to create citizen employment which does not include the development encouragement and nurturing of citizen development as part and parcel of the effort to create employment is highly unlikely to succeed in the long run.” Batswana, he wrote, “are the primary asset of Botswana ahead of diamonds, cattle, copper tourism or anything else.”

Nchindo proposed some ideas, among them the creation of an “Empowerment Fund” which he said would provide long term credit facilities for citizens to enable them to obtain medium and long term investment capital at reasonable and affordable interest rates to help citizens keep their commercial properties which were being taken away by their debts and situations. The facility would help middle income citizens to purchase BHC houses because citizens’ salaries were being severely eroded by inflation and decline of the pula against major currencies. Such a facility would also serve as a micro credit facility to provide small revolving loans to poor citizens who wished to start small businesses in the informal sector while a medium and long term facility would enable citizens to start new ventures or to participate in new joint ventures with foreigners.

Nchindo also called for the creation of a citizen entrepreneur support network system, saying a team of experts should be engaged to formulate a comprehensive training programme for aspiring Batswana entrepreneurs in the key aspects of business like financial management, marketing and organisational methods. On policies, Nchindo said there is need to create an economic empowerment board which would monitor the empowerment policies and see to their enforcement. The board, he wrote, would also monitor and advise government on localisation of the key areas of the private sector, especially the financial sector.

The Oxford-educated economist was against civil servants being part time entrepreneurs, saying it “puts them deeper into debt and makes them less productive at their full-time jobs”. Rather, he advocated for better pay “compared to their South African and their Namibian counterparts. “Our ministries, parliamentarians and other elected officials, as well as senior civil servants are grossly underpaid. Maybe if our senior officials were better remunerated the public would also be in a better position to attract and retain high calibre people. Better pay for senior employees, both in the public and private sectors, would mean less temptation for Batswana to try and be part-time entrepreneurs.”

But inspite of these seemingly state interventionist ideas, Nchindo was a proponent of privatisation. “It goes hand in hand with the creation of a long term credit fund so that groups of Batswana can be in a position to participate in the purchase of those assets that the government decides to privatise.” Telecomms and CTO, he said, were good examples. Regarding skills transfer, Nchindo said there was need for foreign firms and citizen partnerships as an empowerment tool, saying in rapidly developing countries such as the so-called Asian tigers, foreign firms are required, by law, to have citizen partners. “The only foreign investors exempted from this requirement are very large ones,” he noted. “This system not only ensures that citizens get direct benefit from new business investments, but also encourages the transfer of management skills and knowledge from the foreigners to the citizen.”

Nchindo had issues with the country’s monetary policy. “Our interest rates are too high,” he wrote. “Tight monetary policy, although adopted with good intentions, has brought with it job losses and a slowdown in business activity. The policy is more appropriate for high income countries where there is a legitimate purpose to encourage savings and discourage spending. In this country, where more than 50% of the population are living below or only marginally above the poverty datum line, it is obviously difficult to encourage savings and any effort to do so is not likely to be successful. We ought to be concerned about poverty and design policies which are based towards stimulating economic activity to generate employment and new income opportunities.”

He continued: “Real interest rate is too high a price to pay by a developing country. Raising interest rates in perpetuity has adverse consequences of penalising marginal projects. The scope for developing small and medium scale enterprises is removed completely. Rural projects, with all their other disadvantages, suffer even more. The small man is pushed out of business. Not to mention the high mortgage rates which are so crucial to the financing of one of the very basic needs – shelter. At present, just as it has been for the past two decades, a shortage of savings is not an issue. The problem is the opposite – a surplus of savings which exists side by side with unemployment and low investment activity.”
But Nchindo is dead and a book that he was reportedly writing may never be published.