Aided by a collusive British colonial government, the exclusion of Batswana in lucrative tourism operations started way back in the Bechuanaland Protectorate era. Independent Botswana should have brought radical changes but, as a new book shows, government officials continue to rig the rules in favour of whites because they don’t have confidence in fellow blacks.
“Chiefs, Hunters and San in the Creation of Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta; Multiracial Interactions and Initiatives, 1956-1979”, by Dr. Maitseo Bolaane of the University of Botswana links the current low participation rate of locals in the lucrative Okavango Delta tourism market, back to an order that was inaugurated during the colonial era. While the book is essentially about a half-century-old past, it is still in conversation with present-day Botswana.
In 1963, the Maun District Commissioner was a man called Eustace Clark who did everything in his power to try to sabotage the establishment of the Moremi Game Reserve.
Bolaane writes: “Clark saw no place for Africans in managing safari hunting. He pointed out in confidential correspondence that safari hunting ‘is a highly skilled job needing considerable capital and experience.’ Officials further argued that ‘a tribal or amateur African company would certainly not have sufficient experience and would not be likely to attract the best type of professional hunter ... it would not be possible to use African professional hunters for many years to come (if ever).’ The colonial administration was clearly backing the white safari firms against the new set up,” Bolaane writes, referring - with “new set-up”, to the coming into being of the Ngamiland Fauna Conservation Society (NFCS) that was in the process of establishing Moremi.
What she finds “interesting” is that the debate in the 1960s echoes “the current Batswana concerns on lack of state confidence in local community participation and poor representation of Batswana in the tourism industry.” The book says that while the government may now be advocating local control of safari firms, whites still retain a disproportionately large stake in the sector.
“Government officials are still sceptical about locally managed firms, and the safari firms themselves do not employ enough local people,” Bolaane writes.
“Still” is also relevant with regard to the placing of indigenous Batswana in key positions within the tourism sector. In 1963, NFCS argued that safari operations like Safari South (which was a partnership between local whites, Lionel Palmer and Kenny Kays and Bill Siebert from South Africa) should bring Batswana on board as shareholders.
“The District Commissioner was reminded that there was no safari firm willing to have adequate representation of responsible members of the indigenous population on their boards of directors in order that they might learn the safari business,” the book says.
The one concession that the colonial government made was to appoint black members of the Legislative Council (like Tsheko Tsheko, a future cabinet minister in independent Botswana) to the newly established Game and Tourism Committee. However, it “was not yet willing to encourage Africans as shareholders in the operations of the safari industry.”
Against a situation where whites dominate the lucrative tourism in the Okavango Delta and where there are still huge income disparities between them and blacks, the vision of the latter getting into this niche market remains impossible in the near future. A standard lease agreement between the Tawana Land Board and tour operators contains a right-of-refusal clause which gives the sitting tenant the right to match the price of a third party vying to replace him/her in a particular concession area. In the event that the tenant still loses and vacates the site, s/he has to be fully compensated for infrastructural developments that, in most cases, would have been carried out over an extremely long period of time at prohibitive cost.