Francistown, whose traditional name is Nyangabgwe, has seen it all.
From a backward village populated by Kalanga gold diggers until 1871 to a white mining community before transforming into a bustling town and then being declared a city in 1997 and now complete with a spaghetti interchange, Francistown has seen it all.
Variously called Capital of the North, it is at the confluence of the Tati and Ntshe Rivers, and only 90km from the Botswana-Zimbabwe border to the north and about 500km from Gaborone.
Named after a gold-digger, Daniel Francis, himself one of the original directors of the Tati Company, Francistown holds the distinction of having a colonial name. The town was founded in 1897; the same year that Cecil John Rhodes’ rail-road, the Cape-to-Cairo railway line reached Monarch.
But even before the discovery of diamonds in 1868, which made Francistown the epicentre of Southern Africa’s first gold rush, there had been human settlement and economic activity in the area including mining by the locals. Touted as the City of All Things Precious or, the City Of Gold, Francistown connects Botswana to Zimbabwe, through the A1 road which has regrettably, not been busy due to the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.
The Capital of the North or Toropo as it is also called connects Botswana to countries in Central Africa such as Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through the Francistown-Kazungula road. This road is a critical artery to the economic well-being of this country as it facilitates the transportation of, among other things, salt from Sua Town to the central African countries, bricks from South Africa to Zambia as well as copper concentrates from the Zambian Copperbelt to South Africa.
The economic importance of Francistown to this country and to others dates even as far back as the discovery of gold in South Africa. As a result of the need for cheap labour in the South African gold mines, Francistown became the centre for the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WENELA), an agency that recruited migrant labourers for the gold mines in South Africa.
The WENELA “barracks” in Francistown gave temporary accommodation to recruits from Angola, Namibia, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi) and Tanganyika (Tanzania) on their way to and from South Africa. The miners spent a considerable amount of their earnings in the local shops. In his book, Under Two Flags in Africa, George Winstanley, who worked in Francistown as a cadet district officer in 1954, says that during his time, Francistown consisted of only one street, parallel to the railway station and a few houses, mainly to the east of the railway line housing the white colonial administrators.
There was then only a single row of shops owned mainly by Europeans and Indians. Now, Chinese own most of the retail shops. Racial discrimination defined Francistown during the colonial era as there were certain areas such as the Tati Hotel, the Grand Hotel and the Francistown Club, which were the preserve of the Whites only.
There is no doubt that 120 years after its founding, the town, which was declared a city in 1997 has transformed greatly. In the first instance, Botswana is an independent country now therefore obviating the absence of white colonial administrators and their racist orientation. With three constituencies and 19 political wards, the population of Francistown has grown in leaps and bounds.
During the 1960s, Francistown became the crucible of opposition politics, not only in Botswana but in Southern Africa as a whole. The nationalist Botswana Peoples Party (BPP), formed in 1960 on the platform of socialism and pan-Africanism, came into confrontation with the settler regime over the government’s racial practices.
The Tati Company, a prospecting company attracted the attention of the BPP for owning all the land in Francistown, while the people were overcrowded due to shortage of land. Further, this company, which ran a beer hall, forbade, with the support of the colonial administration, Africans from brewing and selling beer to avoid competition. Industrial strikes and boycotts became the order of the day as the BPP demanded even-handedness and racial equality.
The result was the imprisonment of several BPP activists and their leaders. The history of Francistown is intertwined with the history of the liberation struggle of Southern Africa. Many nationalist leaders from the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), South African National Congress (ANC), Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), either used Francistown as a transit point on exile or as a rendezvous to consult with their comrades.
Among the most notable were former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, former President of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, a government minister in Namibia, Herman Toivo Ja Toivo, former government minister in Zimbabwe, Dumiso Dabengwa, and the late John Mabunda of FRELIMO, Mozambique.
Preaching the politics of liberation, these freedom fighters found willing hosts in the BPP leadership and individuals such as Meshack Mathumo, a qualified guerrilla who had trained in Algeria under the auspices of the Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU) and became its clandestine representative in Botswana.
Like the other cities in the so-called developing world, Francistown is reaping the seeds of misdirected development policies, inappropriate planning and neglect especially by the capitalistic colonial administrators who had no regard for possible future expansion. During the colonial era, the colonialists, aware that they were not going to stay forever, created towns for their short-term convenience wary not to invest a lot of money in their development.
irector of the UN Human Settlements Programme Ann Tibaijuka, is quoted in the 2010 Africa Report blaming African leaders for continuing to use planning laws inherited from the colonial masters. She feels that African governments should come up with policies whose objective would be to reduce urban drift by improving the living conditions in the rural areas, supporting the informal sector by protecting it from police harassment and making available a credit facility to the informal sector.
Above all, Tibaijuka advocates for the devolution of powers to the councils so that they have the autonomy to raise funds and even approve projects themselves since they are, “on the ground.”
African cities, due to the neglected agricultural and rural development, are said to be growing at an alarming rate of 2.5 percent annually. This is because towns are regarded as areas of opportunity where the underemployed and unemployed migrate for economic opportunities. The biggest challenge for every African government is to minimise slums, which are the most visible dimensions of poverty in the cities.
Within this context, the people of Francistown still begrudge the powers that be for not making Francistown the headquarters of Botswana Railways (BR). They feel short-changed that the second university was not built here either.
The construction of the Francistown stadium, the expansion of the existing airport and the upgrading of infrastructure at Gerald Estates; the upgrading of the city’s road infrastructure complete with the Spaghetti Interchange, have, hopefully served as a kind of reparation for the losses.
Francistown is home to many government departments as well as big private companies that, no doubt offer employment and educational opportunities. Tertiary institutions as well as primary and secondary schools, hospitals, clinics, reliable transportation also offer sufficient attraction to somebody looking for means of a better life.
Despite the glamour offered by the bright lights of Francistown, the economy is not growing fast enough to cope with the demand for employment. Matters have not been helped by the closure of the Tati Nickel and surrounding mines.The people of Francistown have been agitating for the building of a district hospital in Francistown arguing that the Nyangabgwe Referral Hospital is not a substitute.
Clinics, schools and other social institutions are not expanding fast enough to cope with the demand either. In addition, there is the problem of inadequate housing, shortage of serviced land, environmental pollution, crime and juvenile delinquency. Motorists continue to be haunted by potholes. Taxi men and bus owners are clamouring for a spacious taxi and bus rank while vendors are demanding a market place where they can sell their goods in a decent environment.
The youth are crying for recreational facilities. The list is endless.