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Maipato Kesebang normally grows maize, jugo beans and sweet reed on her 20-hectare plot of land northwest of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. But last year, worsening drought and heatwaves destroyed much of her harvest.

“The little that grew feebly we just ate. Nothing was left for storage or to sell,” she said.

Usually when her crops fail she turns to collecting wild spinach to sell, to support her two sons. But even that is now disappearing as climate change brings harsher weather and more people turn to harvesting the vegetable to survive, she said.

So last year, for the first time, she signed up to Ipelegeng, a long-standing government safety net program that provides temporary jobs for those struggling to make ends meet.

Now she works one month out of four cutting back overgrown grass and trees, desilting dams and drains, collecting litter or cleaning streets.

She’d prefer to work every month – but demand is so high for the jobs that there aren’t enough slots, she said.

“We only work for a month, then we go home and wait for three months before we apply again. That’s because there are too many people now needing the relief,” said Kesebang, as she pulled weeds on her parched plot of land.

As harsher droughts and hotter weather linked to climate change ruin crops more frequently in Botswana, the country is facing a new challenge: growing demand for social assistance programs.

About 68,000 people worked for Ipelegeng as of March 2018, according to figures from Statistics Botswana, up from about 64,000 in March 2016. Of those on the rolls, about 47,000 were women, according to the agency.

To accommodate rising demand, Botswana’s government last August increased the number of Ipelegeng slots by 5,000, after declaring 2018-2019 an expected drought year.

That will cost the country an extra $2.7 million – money that it does not readily have as its national budget does not specifically set money aside for drought relief, said Billyboy Siabatho, deputy director of the rural development council at the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

“Often, when drought comes, we end up borrowing from funds that would have been set aside for infrastructure development projects,” he said.

Ipelegeng’s main objective is to provide short term employment and relief, while helping carry out development efforts the country sees as important, he said.

“During drought periods, there are fewer farming activities. Therefore most people relocate from farms to villages, looking for alternative sources of income,” Siabatho said.

“Due to limited job opportunities in rural areas, most people rely on Ipelegeng as an alternative source of employment,” he noted.

But as droughts continue to worsen in southern Africa, Siabatho wonders whether the government will be able to keep pace with growing demand.

He also worries whether people will begin to see dependence on safety nets as an easier route than farming, as crop failures worsen.

Botswana’s government, aware of the risks from worsening drought, began in December working on a new drought management strategy that aims to improve planning and budgeting for threats and not focus simply on responding to them, Siabatho said.

For Kesebang, such help can’t come soon enough. Her farm, a few kilometers out of the town of Molepolole, sits in Kweneng District, which has the highest poverty levels in the country, of over 50 percent, according to 2018 report by Statistics Botswana.

Most of the 567 pula ($55) she earns each month she works for Ipelegeng goes to keep her youngest son in primary school.

“I buy books and uniform. Often nothing is really left. Life has become difficult,” she said.

The new planting season isn’t looking much more promising either, she said. Most of the maize, beans, sweet reed and watermelon she planted in late December are struggling, she said.

“The beans are already burning. I have no hope of harvesting maize. Maybe the watermelons will survive,” she said, hopefully.

She’s already given up plowing three-quarters of her farm, to avoid greater losses, she said, though she has allowed a friend to try her luck farming a four-hectare section.

For now, Kesebeng heads to town each day to join hundreds of other temporary workers trimming tree branches that obstruct traffic.

Harsher weather isn’t hitting only the poorest farmers, either. Oduetse Koboto, who heads the environment and climate change unit at the United Nations Development Programme, said he saw little harvest from his own farm last year, in part because of floods.

“I planted tomatoes on 1.5 hectares. I expected to make 200,000 pula ($19,000). I lost. I had also planted a hectare of green peppers, expecting 600,000 pula ($58,000) from it. I lost all that too,” he said.

His 600 mango trees produced not a single useable fruit, he added, and “this is regardless of the fact that I use drip irrigation, solar pumping, and spent on farm maintenance all year round”.

Botswana for over a decade has invested in helping farmers boost grain production and improve food security, including through measures such as better access to credit, technology, seeds and water.

But with droughts worsening, improving harvests remains a challenge – and the country continues to import over 80 percent of its food from South Africa.

“Low production in the agricultural sector due to drought has led to high import bills in cereals, dairy, poultry products and feeds, to name but a few,” Siabatho said.

Costs for programs like Ipelegeng also are rising, he said, noting that the program now costs over $28 million a year to run.

For Kesebang, stress levels are also rising. After watching her new crops wilt, she was nearly hospitalized as a result of anxiety and high blood pressure, she said, and had to remain in Molepolole for two weeks.

“A week into February it rained at least twice. The few plants that survived are recovering. I have hope,” she said. -Reuters

A month before South Africa’s elections, one of the country’s leading political figures exposed a number of his former comrades for corruption with evidence to the Zondo Commission on State Capture. It was box office material, yet just another eventful period in the turbulent life of Robert McBride – guerrilla fighter, policeman and death row prisoner.

Robert McBride has one of those faces full of character that looks like it has endured life as much as lived it. A glance through his tough years of struggle yields a list of reasons why: five years on death row to screams and tears of the condemned; scores of beatings over decades; shooting his way out of hospital; years of the shadowy and violent life of an underground guerrilla fighter.

McBride was born in Wentworth, just outside Durban, in 1963, and grew up amid racist insults and violence. It swiftly politicised him and he was taken into the military wing of the African National Congress where he carried out sabotage with explosives.

Even by the standards of the desperate days of the gun in South Africa, McBride’s political activity is remarkable. In 1986, McBride fought his way out of an intensive care ward in a bizarre rescue of his childhood friend and fellow fighter Gordon Webster. It happened at Edendale Hospital in Durban where Webster lay, with tubes in his body, under police guard.

McBride posed as a doctor, with an AK47 hidden in his white coat; his father, Derrick, was dressed as a priest with a Makarov pistol under his cassock. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard, in 1999, that hospital staff cheered them on and held back an armed policeman as the McBrides shot their way out, pushing the wounded Webster to freedom on a trolley.        

Thirty-three-years on, McBride went into battle again for his beliefs, this time with words and documents, against a more insidious and formidable foe than armed police – corruption. He gave evidence before the Zondo Commission, in Johannesburg, springing from his days as head of IPID, the independent police investigators.

He spent more than four days on the stand – longer than most cricket matches last these days. He told of missing police evidence, claims of sinister moves to remove corruption busters and the misappropriation of money, under a cloak of secrecy, by the crime intelligence agencies.    

“People don’t like me because of my anti-corruption stance, their dislike of me I wear as a badge of honour. Those who dislike me for other reasons, it is a free country and you are entitled to your likes and dislikes. I have no problem with you. But wherever I am, I will do my work and will always be against corruption. I understand how corruption affects the ordinary man and means there is so much less to go around,” he says.   

To give a little more context, McBride’s erstwhile job went with unpopularity. The head of IPID is a post that politicians, plus probably more than a few disgruntled policemen, wanted him out of. They ended his contract and he assures me he is going to court to get his job back. His stance may give clues as to why some wanted to see the back of him.

“I have spoken loudly every time I have seen something wrong and raised unpopular issues. Some of the issues we picked up early on was police involvement in cash-in-transit robberies… The looting of police funds, the corruption, the wastage and the leverage, we then began to understand it; the leverage that some policeman have over politicians… Any criminal syndicate that is operating requires police to help them otherwise they will be found out in the normal course of events,” says McBride, the month before the hearing.

“Rogue activity by certain elements in the prosecuting authority, the willingness to prosecute people for non-criminal acts and unwillingness to prosecute when there is a pile of evidence…We will also speak about the abuse of state funds, the abuse of power by the police by negating investigations. Most of our evidence is backed up by court papers, evidence and affidavits,” he says.

Many activists who saw the nasty, ugly, side of the struggle often are the first to come down, hard, when they feel freedoms they fought for are being abused. You could argue McBride, an intelligent thinker, is very much one of them.

You could also argue that McBride has been cut adrift by many former comrades and demonized as the Magoo’s Bar bomber – the 1986 car bomb on the Durban beachfront that killed three and wounded scores. Others, on both sides of the South African struggle, who issued orders, or did worse, are undisturbed and anonymous by their swimming pools. Any regrets? I ask.

“It’s like asking me ‘do I regret living in a free and democratic country’, the answer can’t be yes… We would have preferred that things went differently. If you are in an armed struggle, you are the cause of hurt to other people and as a political activist, as a revolutionary you can defend that and justify it.

“But as a human being, you know that when it concerns other people, it is not the right thing to do to cause the hurt of other people. I have expressed myself as a human being on this, not because I was trying to elicit any sympathy or anything; I have never asked for redemption, I have never asked for forgiveness. Those who know me know what I am about and those who understand the circumstances in the early 1980s when we became active; those who are old enough to remember that was what the circumstances were.”

Those circumstances recede further into the darkness of memory of democratic South Africa every year, yet, in the minds of those who suffered, it stays pin sharp. McBride spent five years on death row, in Pretoria, after being sentenced to the gallows for the Durban bombings.

He reckons the prison hanged more than 300 prisoners in this time. Through the cell door, he heard the condemned screaming and crying as warders dragged the condemned along the passages to their fate. The hanging warders used to bring back the bloody hoods from the gallows and force the next batch of condemned men to wash them.

In May 1990, the sun shone as hope visited death row in Pretoria. The prison management summoned McBride and a group of fellow condemned activists, to the main office at the maximum security prison. Each were given green prison jackets – the garb of special occasions. Warders drove them, in a van, to a distant part of the prison and all feared they were either going to be executed or allowed to escape and shot in the back.

“We were told not to talk and then we were put in this big room with a steel of security around the room and after about 45 minutes the former president (Mandela) walked in and it was the most beautiful sight on earth; the greatest feeling ever and when he walks in, he says: ‘Ah, Robert! How are you!’ As if he knew me forever. It was the most important meeting I had in my life. It was like a God-like environment. He gave us a rundown of negotiations and what can be expected and that we must not worry, we must be patient and sit tight, he knows all of our backgrounds and will do his utmost to get us released and we will never be forgotten.”

It took more than two more years, in the shadow of the noose… until a fateful Friday. September 25, 1992. McBride will never forget the date.

“Round about half past four in the afternoon, I got a call to come to the office, I didn’t know what it was about, and when I came there, the head of the prison said: ‘You have a phone call’. It was my first phone call in prison. On the other end of the line was comrade Cyril Ramaphosa and he says: ‘Hi chief’. I keep quiet and then he says: ‘Monday’. I say: ‘What’s happening Monday chief?’ He keeps quiet, then he says: ‘You are going home!’ There was a bit of a smile you could feel in his voice,” says McBride with a huge smile on his face.

Long after Mandela had completed his long walk to freedom for his country, McBride was to yet again hear the click of a prison key and feel the pain from a warder’s boot.

It was the summer of 1998 and in Maputo, the sea was warm and the prawns were hot. The police in Mozambique picked up McBride, then a high-ranking official in foreign affairs, on alleged gun running charges that appeared to be trumped up to us journalists. We scoured the streets of the capital, for weeks, in search of witnesses.

McBride argued that he was on an undercover operation for the National Intelligence Agency trying to uncover gun runners who were flooding neighbouring South Africa with illegal weapons and fuelling crime; a counter that eventually set him free.

Despite this, McBride spent six months in the capital’s notorious, grim, Machava maximum security prison, where he told me violence was meted out.

I covered that story for many months and came within a split ace of interviewing McBride in his cell. We spent hours plying the Portuguese-speaking warders with beer and the story, through an interpreter, that we were friends visiting from South Africa and we just wanted to say hello. We told them our friend was a big man in South Africa.

We convinced the guards and as they moved towards the prison doors, keys in hand, our cover was blown. One of the not too bright colleagues from our TV station strolled into the prison waving his press card.

“Hello Chris!” says he. The none-too-pleased prison guards threw us out.

A phrase I always remembered from those many hot, crazy, days in Maputo was a quote we got from the late presidential spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa when McBride went behind bars yet again.

The Zondo Commission and scores of corrupt policemen last month found out how tough.  

Ahead of the May elections in South Africa, the country’s Minister of Public Service & Administration, Ayanda Dlodlo, gives her take on simplifying government processes and ensuring public services are available for all on digital platforms.

It’s a very short year because we are going to elections, but the major plan for me now is finalizing the Public Administration Management Act regulations; so that we can fully implement on that piece of legislation. The second one that is important for me is a fully functional government employee housing scheme. If I can do that by the time we go to elections, I will be very happy. It is not an election thing, it’s just that we all do not know where we are going to be after the elections, so I am pushing hard to ensure that even when I do leave, that is what I would have done and completed as a minister in my time.

What are some of the opportunities that lie within a digitized government?

We have many processes in government that if digitized could be much simpler. The dissemination of information, for instance. If we vigorously work towards fully implementing on our vision of a government portal where citizens can access any information on government that they need on a single portal — that is a digitized government that would have been able to provide people easy access to information. For instance, we launched the Z83 Application Form, the e-recruitment strategy and it’s much cheaper if they use the internet to apply for jobs online. There are quite a few things we are looking at as government to ensure services are brought to our people on digital platforms so that they can access them even easier.

What are some of the developments with the enrolment scheme and how is it affecting employment rates in South Africa?

We have a large youth contingent that is unemployed but, more so, those that have graduated return home to the rural areas with a university qualification but can’t access any employment opportunities… You could be the only one in your family who has ever gone to university… What does that say to people around you?… So we are doing away with the two years’ experience for certain categories of jobs. But also… we will put in place training programs, mentorship and clear programs to monitor and evaluate the growth of that individual and the job they will be occupying.

What are some of the developments regarding the public sector wage bill?

We are seeing an increase in the wage bill because of the agreement that is in place. But we are trying to ensure that we do not go beyond what we had agreed upon with labor. But, what we have done in the process is that we have introduced regulation six of the Public Service Act where we are allowing people, between the ages of 55 and 59, from April 1 to the end of September, to exit the system without incurring any penalties. The reason we are doing this is because we want to bring young people into government but, over and above that, we are trying to deal with the runaway wage bill.

With the upcoming elections, where do you see the public sentiment laying?

I see the African National Congress (ANC) at the very least getting 62%. Because if you go by what your polling says, it changes from week to week and that is dependent on what is topical in that week or on that day.

To me, they will be very important because it is the 25th year of democracy… With all its (the ANC) flaws, with all its inadequacies, we have to change the face of our country.

It is difficult to bring wholesale change, in a 25-year period, to a system that has been in existence for more than 400 years. It will take much longer than that. And as society progresses and goal posts change, it will become difficult. But for any government that is going to come, they will never be able to do what we have done in the last 25 years. 

Southern African Countries Won’t Manage Disasters Unless They Work Together

Cyclone Idai, which recently devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southern African region. It killed at least a thousand people and caused damages estimated at US$2 billion.

The response from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states, civil society, the private sector and individuals in the region points to the need for a collective, regional approach to addressing natural disasters – rather than individual countries working alone.

Idai also showed, once again, just how unprepared SADC is to respond to major natural disasters. It doesn’t seem to have learnt much from earlier ones.

In 2015, floods and torrential rains associated with the tropical storm Chedza, and Cyclone Bansai left about 260 people dead and 360,000 homeless in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

About a year earlier, flash floods killed, displaced and left thousands homeless in Zimbabwe. However, the storm that remains most vivid in many people’s minds is the one that hit Mozambique 19 years ago in 2000, killing 700 people and leaving two million homeless.

Disasters of this kind know no boundaries. That’s why they require thinking beyond the narrow view that individual governments should respond to crises alone.

The first regional response to Idai came from the South African National Defence Force and South African disaster relief NGO, Gift of the Givers. These responses followed a request by the Mozambican government.

The United Nations responded with aid operations in the affected countries a few days later. Other SADC countries, NGOs, the private sector and ordinary citizens also donated to the relief efforts.

For its part, however, SADC’s voice was conspicuously absent for at least a week after the devastation. Ordinarily, it should have led relief operations.

It was disconcerting to see UN Secretary General António Guterres appeal for help and outline a plan to respond to the disaster at a Security Council stakeout, while SADC remained missing in action.

SADC has a dedicated Disaster Risk Reduction Unit. It coordinates regional preparedness and responses to trans-boundary disasters and hazards. But, as South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said, the regional body was completely unprepared for the disaster.

Of SADC’s 16-member states only Angola, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa contributed to the relief efforts. This reflects the prevailing preference for a bilateral approach to regional challenges within the SADC.

At the heart of this are narrow nationalistic interests and a preoccupation with sovereignty. The member states are unwilling to surrender control over policies to be administered by the regional body for the collective good.

But, natural disasters like Idai doesn’t respect national boundaries. Their very regional scope requires solutions that integrate domestic actions into a regional governance framework to address them effectively.

When SADC eventually responded, it pledged US$500,000 for relief efforts towards a disaster that cost over US$2 billion in damages to infrastructure alone.

Instead of acting individually, SADC countries need to work together to pool resources and mobilise disaster relief efforts and resources to be more effective. This could be done through the SADC Secretariat.

Funds for immediate humanitarian assistance and the rebuilding of infrastructure should be held in a preexisting, dedicated facility, like a regional disaster risk fund.

This would provide southern Africa with risk financing for climate-related and other disasters. Funds that are often donated by SADC member states, private sector, NGOs, and ordinary citizens for relief efforts can also be pooled and placed in the permanent regional mechanism.

The major challenge to establishing a sub-regional disaster fund probably lies outside SADC, and even Africa. The idea might not sit well with some governments. For example, an attempt to create an Asian Monetary Fund after the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis failed because the US strongly opposed it, and China didn’t support it.

But, SADC could work with global financial institutions to surmount this challenge. The World Bank, for example, already runs disaster risk programmes. SADC could approach it for support and partnership in making the facility a reality.

Cyclone Idai has once again shown that natural disasters are capable of wreaking havoc across southern Africa. It’s also shown that affected countries are too poor to respond to the devastation of their infrastructure and the accompanying humanitarian disaster.

It is thus necessary for countries in the region to work together to devise sound contingency plans, including a permanent regional disaster fund, to help cushion them against the effects of natural disasters.

-Chris Changwe Nshimbi; Director & Research Fellow, University of Pretoria

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