Zim business trickles to Botswana amid tensions

DOZENS of Zimbabwean companies have relocated to neighbouring Botswana, perceived as the region’s most investor-friendly country, while inflation in Zimbabwe is expected to hit record levels before the end of the year as the economy continues its downward spiral.

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mbabwean-run small- and medium-scale business, such as bus and truck operators, funeral parlours, vehicle repair shops and sawmills, have mushroomed in the northern city of Francistown and the satellite towns of Tati and Tonota to the south of it, all near Botswana’s border with Zimbabwe.

The steady influx of Zimbabweans, reportedly up to 125 000 a month since the country launched its chaotic fast-track land reform programme in 2000, has created tension between the two countries, with Botswana blaming the immigrants for increased crime. Botswana flogs people who cross its borders illegally, which has not helped defuse the situation, despite years of talks between the two governments. Botswana has clarified that it does not single out Zimbabweans, as corporal punishment is legal and applied to anyone breaking rules.

However, in 2004 it pointed out that 26 214 Zimbabweans were involved in criminal activities in Botswana. “There is a clear correlation between the increases in the rise of crime in Botswana with the presence of illegal immigrants, most of who are from Zimbabwe,” the government said in a statement.

Described by the International Monetary Fund as one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the past three decades, Botswana has opened its doors to skilled Zimbabweans and businesses, while less cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and low taxes have lured Zimbabwean businesses to set up shop across the border, within easy access of operations back home. According to popular assessment, there are two kinds of Zimbabwean businessmen in Botswana: optimists and realists.

The optimists keep their businesses in Zimbabwe operational because they believe the crisis will end and they will be able to go back; the realists have shut down their Zimbabwean operations and relocated to Botswana because they think the government is neither serious nor honest about tackling the socioeconomic emergency in the country.

“Anyone who allows a crippling crisis of the Zimbabwean proportion to roll on for six years is not serious, and they cannot be sincere. That is why I think it is more practical to prepare for a long stay in the diaspora,” said Mkhululi Bhebhe, a Zimbabwean businessmen living in Botswana.

Unable to cope with crippling shortages of foreign currency and fuel that drove the cost of inputs beyond reach, migrant businessmen said moving was a question of survival. Among them was Thulani Sibanda, owner of a bus and truck company, who established a cross-border operation as a result of the foreign currency and fuel crises.

“Two things combined to push me out (of Zimbabwe),” Sibanda told Irin. “The fuel crisis worsened so much that for one week my trucks remained on the fuel queues. I had the foreign currency to buy fuel then, but government laws banned private operators from sourcing their own fuel – I could have been arrested for dealing in fuel in the black market.

“So I realised that I was incapacitated by the laws governing the business environment . . . I started relocating my trucks to Botswana, got registered and moved into Francistown.”

He said his Botswana business operations had been profitable enough to enable him to maintain a fleet of 10 buses that were still operating in Zimbabwe. Botswana’s business-friendly tax regime and immigration laws, which allow migrants to take up citizenship after working and living there for five years, have helped.

“In Zimbabwe, nowadays, companies make losses, not profits. Because of a stringent tax regime and a highly regulated foreign currency system, they pay more taxes than their annual earnings. Across all the sectors companies are retrenching or scaling down, if not closing shop altogether,” he added.

Construction companies have also taken advantage of Botswana’s business-friendly climate. “The death of the construction industry (in Zimbabwe) almost killed us by extension, but when we looked across the border we saw the sector growing and came here to set up as suppliers. I can safely say what we were doing in Zimbabwe now looks like child play, because we are now making very good business,” said one manager.

The going has been so good that the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe-Botswana (FCZ-Botswana), an offshoot of the Forestry Company, the parastatal charged with managing state forests and wood products in Zimbabwe, has also relocated to the neighbouring country. Irin was unable to contact the company, which has also posted profits, for details.

Although most Zimbabwean professionals complain of growing xenophobia, businessmen appear unaffected.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is indeed a group of locals who believe that local construction or transport tenders, for example, should be given to local companies. The same is being said about jobs in the mines, where we are told there are too many Zimbabwean and underqualified South African technicians at the expense of locals. But that has not really affected the way tenders are given, because they are still being won by the best bidders,” said Bhebhe.

However, Zimbabweans working in Francistown told Irin about a growing tendency towards xenophobia by the local population.

Besides competition for jobs, the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease linked to Zimbabwe, has aggravated the situation. A shortage of dipping chemicals, the break-up of large commercial farms and the resultant loss of fencing allowed the disease to spread from Zimbabwe to Botswana, causing Botswana’s export beef industry, already limping after successive droughts and a series of disease epidemics in recent years, to collapse.

“Being a Zimbabwean here is not easy. The people hate us because they say we take their jobs, although they hate doing most of the menial jobs we do. Those without valid travel documents can be employed on the promise of payment, which may, in fact, be delivery to the local police station as soon as the job is done,” said Charles Nkonjeni, a Zimbabwean graduate in Bostwana.

“They say we should go back to Zimbabwe and vote Mugabe out, yet they know that Zimbabwe does not hold presidential elections every day. These days we are also being blamed for causing the death of many Batswana cattle, because the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak has been traced back to Zimbabwe. Judging by the importance of cattle among the Batswana, I think the hatred has a strong motive and could be genuine,” he added.

Although the government itself has employed over 100 Zimbabwean nationals, a public outcry against hiring foreigners bore fruit last year when Botswana announced that it would not be renewing the permits of those working as teachers and drivers and would probe the hiring of artisans in the mining sector.

However, local residents stressed that only certain Zimbabweans were unwelcome.

“Illegal immigrants are the same (as criminals), because the thieves often turn out to be undocumented people: because they are undocumented, they can break the law and escape to Zimbabwe,” said Letsile Silaigwana, a civil servant in Francistown. “We just hate the criminals, as we believe they also do in Zimbabwe.”

Many Batswana interviewed by Irin admitted that the abusive exploitation of desperate Zimbabwean job-seekers was a growing problem which they strongly condemned.

“To be honest, almost everyone here knows of a Zimbabwean who was abused one way or the other. The most common method is giving them a huge job, like weeding the fields, and promising them good pay. When the job is done, the employer just calls the police and reports that they have seen an illegal immigrant. The police then ask them to detain the person until they come, from there they are deported without ever getting their pay,” said Kefilwe Molefhabangwe, a businesswoman in Tonota.

“First, they cannot complain because they are illegal, and secondly they have no work permit, and therefore no right to work in the country. It has been done by far too many people, and I also believe that this unfair treatment is the cause of many serious attacks when the Zimbabweans come back to exact revenge for the abuse, and they often do,” she commented.

Rampant stock-theft along the common border, and low-intensity feuds over cattle grazing and watering have all aggravated relations. The thieves are blamed for cutting big holes into many sections of the new electric fence erected as a livestock disease-control measure.

The rustlers have caused havoc on both sides by stealing cattle from Botswana and selling them in Zimbabwe and vice-versa. Although they deny it, Batswana butchery operators in rural areas near the border are accused of abetting the thefts by buying stolen Zimbabwean stock at give-away prices.

Not many large-scale Zimbabwean farmers have relocated to Botswana, which is mostly arid and more suitable for ranching.

Botswana’s President Festus Mogae was among the few African leaders critical of the Zimbabwe situation, but has since adopted the more low-key approach of trying to engage with the government. The unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe has had a ripple effect on the region’s economy, but perhaps the most serious consequence has been the brain-drain and the flow of much-needed investment from the crippled country.

Economist Tony Hawkins, of the University of Zimbabwe, pointed out recently that between 1995 and 2000 — before the crisis — the Southern Africa Development Community region, excluding South Africa, grew at less than 4% a year. Since 2000 it has grown at over 11% annually, underlining Zimbabwe’s relative insignificance. — Irin.

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