Francistown Thrives on Zimbabwe Crisis – By Bashi Letsididi

When she says that for the sake of her business she hopes the Zimbabwean economic crisis lasts a while longer, a manager at a Francistown bookshop is only half-joking.

Just the previous day a Zimbabwean businessman had bought up all vista foils at her bookshop and taken them back home where he runs a similar operation.

Francistown does indeed do a lot of business with Zimbabwe. On a daily basis, Zimbabweans pour in and out of Francistown to buy all sorts of goods. On some days, it is near impossible to find rented accommodation in the city because of patronage from across the border. Some of the guests would be in town to collect remittances sent by relatives living and working abroad.

Former Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower president, Iqbal Ibrahim, says that he has always held the view that the economic crisis in Zimbabwe has been good for the city that he was once mayor of.

“We have benefitted from the misery of other people,” Ibrahim says.

That view is echoed by Mosalagae Sesupeng, another Francistown businessman who happens to sit on the all-powerful High Level Consultative Council.

Zimbabwe is Botswana’s second largest regional trading partner after South Africa. In some months, Botswana does more business with Zimbabwe than it does with western nations that agitate for southern African countries to be more confrontational with and punitive to Robert Mugabe.

The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that in December last year, Zimbabwe received a monthly total of P53.6 million worth of imports from Botswana. The goods comprise mainly of salt and soda ash, copper/nickel ores and concentrates, bituminous coal, recovered (waste or scrap) paper and paper board as well as copper/nickel mattes.

However, for Francistown, the party may be coming to an end. After a months-long standoff, Zimbabwe has finally formed a government of national unity that has startled the mammoth task of rebuilding the national economy. The idea of adopting the South African rand as official currency has been mooted and endorsed by South African president Kgalema Motlanthe. While that has yet to happen, use of the currency is already widespread in Zimbabwe and there begins trouble for Francistown.

Ibrahim, who still serves as a member in the BOCCIM council, says that the use of the rand is already having a negative impact on cross-border trade.

“Zimbabweans find it cheaper to buy goods in rand in their own country than buy in Francistown. Speaking to some of them personally, I learned that they prefer to buy goods in Zimbabwe rather than come to Botswana and experience the hostility of customs officials,” Ibrahim said.

Anti-Zimbabwean xenophobia is nothing new and episodically strains relations between the two countries. In the early 1990s, a delegation that included a Zimbabwean cabinet minister and a television crew travelled all the way from Harare to Plumtree railway station to investigate allegations of the ill-treatment of their compatriots on Botswana Railways passenger trains. That was when the BR passenger train went up to Bulawayo.

A camera pointed at him and microphone thrust in his face, a Botswana immigration officer was asked: “Is it true that you harass Zimbabweans on your train.” Scared out of his wits, the man fled onto the train, objecting as he did: “Hey, don’t patrek me!” The latter verb is slang for springing a surprise attack on an adversary.

The footage of the fleeing Botswana officer and his words were replayed on Zimbabwean national TV the following day.

Such harassment reportedly still goes on and by Ibrahim’s account, its victims have reached their tolerance level and are literally voting with their feet.

Sesupeng’s observation is that trade from across the border is declining rapidly as a result of big haulage trucks transporting directly to Zimbabwe what is available in Francistown.

Faced with such situation, Ibrahim says that the local government and the business community should devise strategies of attracting cross-border business in a normalised Zimbabwe.

Sesupeng says that Francistown, a city that “has always survived on its own”, will go back to what it was before. In the short term, he considers taking the city forward economically to be unrealistic because of the severe global recession. (Sunday Standard)