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Botswana : Stop privatization of Gaborone bus rank !

D 29 septembre 2013     H 05:59     A Moore     C 0 messages

On September, 3, 2013 I listened in utter disgust as Gaborone Mayor Haskins Nkayigwa told Radio Botswana that as Gaborone City Council they have resolved to privatize the Gaborone Bus rank. The nagging question is ; why should an opposition-led council choose to jump onto the BDP bandwagon of neo-liberal privatization of public services ? Since the 1980s global capitalism has been trying to prise open public services for capital accumulation in order to counter the historical tendency of the rate profit to fall. The majority of the Gaborone councilors are BMD and BCP members. Mayor Nkayigwa is a member of the BMD which has entered into a united front with the BNF and the BPP and is therefore expected to implement some of the alternative opposition policies in councils controlled by the opposition. Even the BCP, to the best of my knowledge, does not condone privatization of services like transportation. During the harmonization of Umbrella polices the BCP described their policies in these words which are similar to the UDC philosophy ; ‘The BCP’s philosophical framework is the Social Democratic Programme’. All four parties, the BNF, BMD, BCP and BPP are broadly agreed on the establishment of a developmental state or Social Democratic Programme whose ideology is to the centre-left of the political spectrum. Social democracy guarantees universal or equality of access of all citizens to basic services like water, electricity, housing, basic education and heath as well as transportation. And this can only happen when these services are provided by the state.

It is therefore something of a puzzle that Gaborone opposition councilors comprising mostly of the BMD and BCP should embrace such a blatantly BDP policy of privatization of transportation that will hurt the workers, Gaborone residents and underprivileged members of the community who survive at the margins of the economy by selling an assortment of commodities as street vendors and hawkers. These councilors are out of order. One can only hope and pray that their principals will instruct these councilors to desist from a suicidal implementation of BDP policies particularly when general elections are just around the corner. The BNF must wage a campaign against the privatization of the bus terminus to protect the interests of petty commodity traders at the station.

In my our view transportation is one of the basic services that is too important to left to the vagaries of the market and the devices of profit-making companies. Transportation is not a commodity for profit making but rather a social service to ensure the basic needs of the people – their right to travel in safety, comfort and speed as an extension of the right of every person to freedom of movement and the free exchange of thoughts and experiences. UDC policies clearly state that we are opposed to the privatization of basic services, including public transport. UDC embraced the BMD idea of Executive Mayors who are directly elected by the people and are therefore accountable to the electorate. The privatization of the Gaborone bus terminus runs counter to these policies. Executive mayors will have increased powers including drawing up their own budget. Currently mayors are ceremonial figures with no powers and no budget. The council staff is supervised by central government.

Over the years central government has consistently refused to decentralize political, economic and legal powers to councils. The Report of the Second Presidential Commission on Local Government Structure 2001 chaired by Pelonomi Venson laments having ‘to repeat and revive recommendations approved for implementation in 1981’. Most of their substantive recommendations were rejected by central government. Historically the institutional and legal structures of local authorities bequeathed to most African nations by the colonial administration were meant to deal with predominantly rural and agricultural societies, not rapid urbanization. The framework of laws and procedures inherited from the colonial government are inappropriate. Hence local authorities lack the political, economic, institutional and legal capacity to influence the direction of urbanization and manage the problems of rapidly expanding towns and slums. They are effectively reduced to administrative institutions and powerless appendages of central government.

Government subsidizes the foreign dominated formal sector at the expense of its own people concentrated in the margins of the city in neglected market places such as those in Gaborone station and scattered general dealers. And yet ironically these are the people who vote the BDP into power in large numbers. Some members of the ruling class are shareholders in the foreign enterprises dominating the formal sector. Services in the informal sector are generally conspicuous by their absence. The toilets at the station are never properly cleaned. Small Batswana businesses are not protected from big and mostly foreign enterprises and the reservation policy designed to protect local businesses is not being enforced. Foreigners, including chain stores, sell firewood and fat cakes which should be exclusively for small Batswana businesspeople. Consequently, the advent of the Chinese business and the Choppies chain stores has resulted in the collapse of Batswana businesses that used to operate in the city centre. They cannot obtain loans from commercial banks because they do not have security.

Inevitably, if a private company driven by the profit motive takes over the bus terminus the vibrant informal sector of hawkers and street vendors of poor people who survive by selling various items would be driven out of business thereby increasing poverty levels in the city. Already Gaborone has been described in international literature as ‘a city of tycoons and paupers’ because of its radical inequalities and the last thing an opposition council can do is to be seen to be contributing to this state of affairs. We cannot afford to preach principles of justice and equality at freedom squares only to implement BDP policies in councils which are harmful to the very poor people we purport to represent. Typically, in order to cut corners a private company is likely to start by indulging in downsizing by laying off some of the workers and reducing the wages of those who will remain in its employ. As a public service the bus terminus belongs to the people who can hold council workers to account. But once it falls into the hands of a private company the people of Gaborone will have surrendered their democratic right to a private company they have not elected and therefore cannot hold it accountable for its actions. We also know that privatization, especially, in third world countries cannot be divorced from corruption. The very bureaucrats preaching privatization become the beneficiaries of the policy. And the promised ‘efficiency’ is rarely delivered and yet almost invariable, the cost of services will start escalating and skyrocketing.
Opposition parties must begin to embrace strategies of positive action leading to development and struggle, instead of promising that all their policies are only implementable after they have captured state power. The often cited example of positive action and development and struggle is that of the Italian Communist Party (CPI) which won elections in the 1970s in 29 cities, including Bologna and Genoa and made major changes in the development of those towns. The Italian Communist Party was essentially a European Social Democratic party and not a strictly Leninist party. Because of the transformation of Bologna along socialist lines it was even renamed at that time ‘Red Bologna’.

We expect an opposition controlled council to try and implement alternative policies in their party manifestos, even though the hostile mainstream capitalist environment of the BDP government will always constrain such initiatives. This is not utopianism or Owenism, it is a way of raising the political consciousness of the masses and demonstrating, even before attaining state power that our policies are superior to those of the BDP regime. Liberation movements like FRELIMO started implementing their alternative polices in the liberated areas before the collapse of Portuguese colonialism.

In Botswana Patrick van Ransburg’s innovative brigades movements and education with production are a good example of positive action which was supposed to complement the main struggle and lead to development and struggle. This was an essentially socialist approach to education which was implemented within the hostile capitalist milieu or mainstream development of the BDP regime with very good results. Explaining the role of brigades as an example of positive action van Rensburg stated that ‘positive action confronts the system in new ways and also proves that many of the demands of the exploited are capable of achievement’. From an ideological standpoint the aim was to ‘create through progressive practices and in a new learning environment, the conditions in which class consciousness and awareness of struggle can be aroused and constantly raised’ (van Rensburg). He was well aware of the importance of linking his alternatives to ‘the broader struggle of the workers and poor peasants, which would sooner or later become the main motor of social transformation’, even though he acknowledged that ‘the absence of a strong working class movement’ in Botswana was a major constraint.

Most of the problems that bedevil Gaborone are not very different from those of other towns in Botswana or third world cities in general. Any serious attempt to deal with the problems of Gaborone must not be divorced from the national development strategy, especially in so far as bridging the gap between town and countryside, industry and agriculture, mental and manual labour is concerned. Colonial capitalism grafted a capitalist mode of production onto pre-capitalist forms of production in a distorted manner – a form of capitalism which lacks the capacity for dynamic growth and development. This resulted in enclave development with entrenched distortions and disarticulations which perpetuate underdevelopment and a ‘dual economy’ – the existence of the formal sector side by side with the urban informal sector with its highly differentiated rural sub-sector. The formal sector is driven by linkages to the external sectors such as exports, imports, the elusive pursuit of foreign investment, so-called aid and outflows of capital. The BDP regime’s forlorn dream is that one day the formal sector will be the engine of growth and development. However this strategy flies in the face of reality of peripheral capitalism. The non-virtuous relationship between these three sectors and the global capitalist world economy reinforces the marginalization of the majority of the people trapped in low productivity urban informal sector and the communal sector. It constrains and hampers the country’s development prospects. An export-led strategy pursued by the BDP regime is harmful to the development needs of the country in that it distorts development priorities, diverts resources away from the needs of the local population and renders the economy vulnerable to the unequal terms of global capitalist trade.

Although we loosely talk about the ‘dual economy’ of the informal sector and the formal sectors as if they are distinct and independent of one another, in reality the informal sector is not self-contained, but rather organically linked to the rest of the economy in an exploitative way. The ‘dual economy’ is very pronounced in towns with the formal sector being more of an extension of the colonial enclave, rather than a natural outgrowth of local society - geared primarily towards facilitating the extraction of raw materials, their export to other countries, the recruitment and exploitation of cheap labour and importation of manufactured goods. On the other hand, the informal sector is characterized by low productivity, self-exploitation through extended hours of work and over-utilization of family labour power for little or no pay and the saturation of the market because of easy entry. Under the flawed development strategy of the BDP regime the formal sector enjoys a disproportionate amount of direct and indirect government subsidies, foreign exchange allocations, access to infrastructure, education and training, access to credit facilities, access to land, a favourable legal and regulatory regime, and it is the main beneficiary of donor and direct foreign investment

The traffic crisis in Gaborone is rooted in the capitalist system with its rapid development of shopping and administrative centres which attract more and more traffic. Of course, lack of imaginative planning adds to the crisis. Peripheral capitalist development is driven by private foreign investment which is incompatible with balanced regional development hence the overcrowding of most industries and services in the capital town of Gaborone. For a long time since independence the Botswana government has been spending a disproportionate amount of the budget on urban development at the expense of rural areas thereby attracting more and more people to the capital city. The collapse of agriculture and lack of industries in the rural areas compounds the crisis of rural-urban migration which outstrips the ability of powerless and resource-poor councils which are not decentralized to deliver quality services to the people.

The planning of the roads must be based on the rights of the average citizen who will always be a pedestrian and their right to freedom of movement. The transportation system must primarily serve the interests of workers, residents, school children, the elderly and the handicapped. It must not be seen as a technical problem where pedestrians are relegated to 2nd class users of the roads. Rather, it must be determined democratically by committees of politicians, the community, workers, planners and technicians. Our towns are planned exclusively by technicians with the motorists in mind and with little or no consideration of the interests of pedestrians. There are virtually no cycle ways in most of our roads and consequently almost no people who use bicycles to go to work or schools. The roads are built as if one day all the people of Gaborone will be driving. This is simply not possible nor is it advisable because the traffic gridlock in the unlikely event of all of us owning and driving cars would be too ghastly to contemplate. It never ceases to maze me why in a city like Cambridge in an industrialized country like Britain there were over 20 000 bicycles in 1998 while in a third world country like Botswana there are virtually no cyclists. This is partly attributable to the poor road system. Community interests must take precedence over individual interests i.e. priority must be given to public transport. Too much emphasis on private traffic hinders the transportation of people and goods and also damages the environment, especially in a country like Botswana where there are no tollgates. Strictly speaking Botswana has no public transport because buses and taxis are privately owned and poorly regulated.

Government and opposition councils must support the informal sector that usually involves ¼ or ½ of the city providing important services like selling food, vegetables and various goods. Gaborone bus terminus is a hive of such activities. It is not fair for this market niche discovered by the poor to be taken away from them and given to profit-making companies that are most likely to evict the petty commodity traders or simply drive them out of business. There are about 130, 000 people in the informal sector ¾ of them women. Clearly, a take over by a private company would hurt women because poverty in Botswana has ‘a woman’s face’. These people work over 15 hours a day to survive. They hardly drain the country’s foreign reserves ; they are more flexible than government in providing services ; they are not capital or technology intensive or energy intensive yet they suffer from police and council harassment. Banks will not give them credit facilities because if their businesses collapse they have no security. Local authorities are unable to provide them with proper infrastructure.
There is a growing artificial problem of traffic congestion in our towns, especially Gaborone and this calls for more imaginative planning. In some big cities like London most major roads have a maze of flyovers as you approach the city that considerably ease the movement of cars. There is no doubt that the Gaborone Bus terminus is a classical case of organized chaos. Services are poor and atrocious but it is wrong to think that the private sector is better placed to improve service delivery. Gaborone bus terminus looks like a kraal with one entrance and is also used as the exit thereby creating unnecessary traffic gridlock. This problem could be easily dealt with by creating flyovers or underground tunnels at the railway line to enable traffic to move more freely to the east of the terminus. Furthermore, buses must have bells mounted on some rails for alighting passengers to trigger off when they get to their destinations instead of having to shout ‘e tshware hoo !’

It is high time all long distance buses had toilets for the convenience of travelers. I was embarrassed when I took someone to the Gaborone-Francistown bus at Sojwe a couple of moths ago and as we approached the bus stop one lady bolted out of the bus because she wanted to relieve herself. She looked this and that way for some bush but because there was none in that semi-desert she squatted right in front of us behind the bus and answered the call of nature. She was also under pressure to do it quickly because the bus does not really stop there, all it does is to drop off passengers and allow others to jump in while the engine is idling. Imagine the problems faced by passengers suffering from lifestyle diseases like sugar diabetes who must frequently stop the bus in order to pass water.

An opposition controlled council must develop an alternative urban development master plan geared towards reorganizing the retail sector or the consumer system in towns and big villages to ensure ultimate control and ownership of shopping complexes by Batswana along cooperative lines. They must ensure that trade and licensing laws and regulations are not biased against the informal sector and organize the informal sector into unions to give them bargaining power or encourage unions to organize the unemployed used by the employers to drive down their wages. Councils must build market stalls, flea markets and open up markets for the informal sector to prevent the town from degenerating into a slum with open spaces, thoroughfares and parking lots being used haphazardly by vendors, barbers and those engaged in food vending.
Councils must harmonize the development of the formal and popularly based development in the informal sector - promote both large-scale high productivity technology and smaller technologies for small and medium-scale enterprises. Furthermore, they must institute differential taxes on products of the different sized enterprises with different technologies. Councils must also put an end to discrimination in the licensing of small scale enterprises. A deliberate policy of deconcentration of large cities must be undertaken i.e. no more generous provision of urban infrastructure, or excessive concentration of administrative power in Gaborone. Most industries, and I institutions of government such as parliament, House of Chiefs, Ministries, National achieves, the university, national stadium, college of agriculture, BTV, etc. need not be all located in Gaborone. There is need for identification of secondary centres of growth or intermediate urban centres in order to spread services there evenly across the country.

Comrade Moore is a former member of the BNF Central Committee