Despite a booming construction industry in Botswana, which accounts for 7% of GDP, President Ian Khama’s government faces a backlash from local business people over his government’s perceived bias in favour of Chinese construction firms.
A total of 24 Chinese businesses have been awarded lucrative government contracts for major infrastructural projects — they are building highways, hospitals and stadiums and refurbishing the airports in Gaborone and Francistown.
But the government has defended its choice of contractors, intimating that Chinese companies’ tenders were lower than those of their local counterparts.
According to Johnnie Swartz, Botswana’s former minister of infrastructure, science and technology, the government has paid Chinese firms more than 20-billion pula. But the costs are likely to be higher, as several Chinese companies have missed deadlines for the completion of projects.
Most notably, the deadline for the completion of the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, in time for the World Cup last year, was missed, putting a dent in Khama’s crusade for efficient delivery of services to Batswana.
Christopher Gofhamodimo, the chairperson of a consortium of contractors, Tshipidi Badiri Builders’ Association, has complained that the contracts awarded to the Chinese were not structured to ensure the meaningful participation of locals.
“These billions are fully enjoyed by the Chinese and the profits are siphoned out of the country, leaving locals with nothing at all,” Gofhamodimo said. The Chinese embassy in Botswana has identified the construction industry as “a key cooperative area where China brings in technology and creates new jobs for locals” and strengthens trade ties between the two countries, which stood at more than $200-million last year.
The Financial Times reported that in the past two years China has become the biggest lender to developing countries, overtaking the World Bank.
There have also been allegations of corruption by Botswana officials awarding the contracts.
Gofhamodimo said: “Government officials influence the awarding of contracts — they benefit hugely and that’s why they openly support the Chinese and discredit locals.”
Vice-President Mompati Merafhe, who has multiple business interests, is seen as a particularly strong supporter of Chinese business. But political observers expect that Khama will drop him in a Cabinet reshuffle expected early next month.
Workers and trade unions have also complained about the wages and working conditions in Chinese concerns. Botsalo Galetsang (26), a worker at a Chinese-supervised construction site on the Francistown highway, described relations with the Chinese as “very hard and made almost impossible by the language barrier”.
“Our government has not openly come out on how it intends to address the challenges faced by workers and I think it’s because it doesn’t want to chase away the business from China,” Galetsang said.