Gobabis Takes Two Steps Back

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– Finger-Pointing at Why Town’s Economy Has Stagnated By Mbatjiua Ngavirue GOBABIS Gobabis, like so many other rural towns in Namibia, seems to have stagnated and regressed economically since independence. Local residents and officials hold widely divergent views on the reasons for the decline in the town’s fortunes. Gobabis’ destiny, like that of most other rural towns however, is closely tied to the health of the local agricultural economy. There is evidence pointing to a seismic, but little documented shift in the size and pattern of the cattle-ranching economy in the surrounding region. The changing nature of cattle farming in the area has almost certainly had a major impact on the Gobabis economy. Local accountant and financial consultant Mike Kirsten, who has an intimate knowledge of local business, says cattle ranching forms the backbone of the town’s economy. But Gobabis has suffered particularly badly this year because of the drought affecting many parts of the country. Kirsten further said the Namibian government’s land resettlement programme has without any doubt had far-reaching consequences for the Gobabis and Omaheke Region’s economy as a whole. He however said this without passing any particular judgement on the merits or demerits of the principles behind the land resettlement programme as such. “It is a noble idea to want to resettle people, but the reality is that it is killing our local economy.” Estimates are that in the last six to seven years government bought at least 40 farms from local farmers for resettlement purposes. He said the average running costs for a 5,000-hectare farm amounted to roughly N$20 000 a month, of which 80 percent or N$16 000 might be spent in Gobabis. Multiplying N$16 000 by 40 farms over 12 months, he estimated resettlement had sucked N$7,68 million a year in consumer spending out of Gobabis. “For a small town that is a huge amount. Ninety percent of resettled farmers have nothing to spend. You can’t survive on five goats and one cow,” he said. This suggests government might have conceived policies such as resettlement in complete isolation without considering all the possible consequences. There is no evidence to suggest government ever made any calculation of what the impact might be on economic activity and employment in country towns. Some towns, such as Witvlei, are already at death’s door with one foot already in the grave – possibly as a result of these policies. Kirsten said the squatter problem in Gobabis’ Epako Township had grown 100-fold in the 16 years since independence, and with it the associated social problems of alcohol abuse, street kids and HIV/AIDS. “Our community is so small that you are confronted with joblessness and hunger on a daily basis,” he said. One economic reality the town and the region faces is that last year a 230-kg weaner fetched approximately N$3,335 at auction. At present a weaner of the same weight sells for only N$2,415, or N$920 less. In practice, this means that local farmers have roughly 28% less disposable income that they can spend on goods and services in the town. Local black politicians seem slow in catching on to some of these economic realities, and still seem to show a tendency to want to blame all the town’s woes on the white community. Gobabis “boers” were never known for their genteel manners or refinement, and blacks in the region suffered far more harshly under the whip of apartheid. This always made the region a fertile recruiting ground for Swapo, but also a hotbed of radical black consciousness, “Patji” Swanus and “kill all whites” style politics. One can still feel the tension between the races more acutely in Gobabis than in other Namibian towns, such as Otjiwarongo or Grootfontein. Local Economic Development Officer Festus Marenga talked about the thriving dairy that once existed in Gobabis. “I don’t believe there were more cattle then than now. Milk used to be brought from Aminuis, Epukiro and even Otjombinde. “I cannot understand why the Gobabis creamery cannot be revived. It is a lack of will by the town, region and the politicians,” he said. For anyone who has driven through resettlement areas such Kaukurus it is however pretty obvious that the level of agricultural activity is very low. Those resettlement farmers that are prospering and making a genuine economic contribution tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The argument about the dairy further ignores the fact that modern logistics in the form of high quality roads and efficient road haulage trucks simply make it cheaper to transport dairy products from Windhoek than produce in Gobabis. These same factors led to the closure of the Rietfontein dairy outside Grootfontein – a town much further from Windhoek than Gobabis. There is a common belief among local black politicians that the white owners of commercial property along Church Street – the main commercial hub in the town – are deliberately sabotaging business by charging exorbitant rents. The allegation is also made that most owners of the retail space are not even residents of Gobabis, but live the high life on money taken out of the town in places such as Henties Bay, Swakopmund and South Africa. Kirsten, who however knows the owners of virtually every major property in Church Street, dismissed this as a complete myth. His calculations are that 71 percent of retail property in Church Street is owned by Gobabis residents, with 29 percent owned by non-residents, including government institutions. He further estimated that only three retail properties in Church Street are currently vacant, indicating high demand for retail space in the town. The argument of the politicians is also based on the highly questionable premise that, if Frans Indongo, Mathew Shikongo or John Akapandi Endjala owned the properties in Church Street they would somehow charge lower rents. There is no evidence to suggest that Frans Indongo charges lower rentals in his Frans Indongo Gardens in Windhoek than any white property owner would. The politicians seem to have forgotten the old adage, “the price of anything is whatever the market will bear”. Instead of looking for white villains under every bed, perhaps local politicians need to start seeing the high rentals in Church Street as an opportunity rather than a constraint. There could be a wonderful opportunity for a major shopping centre development by a black empowerment group in Gobabis. Otjiwarongo developed a new shopping centre long ago, which has made the old main street almost inconsequential. Grootfontein is already drawing up plans for a major new shopping centre, while in Gobabis they are still busy with never-ending recriminations. The law of demand and supply will also automatically ensure a fall in rental prices for existing properties in Gobabis if new retail space is added. Kirsten expressed scepticism about the claim that members of the white business community were refusing to join the Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) because of racism. He attributed it more to suspicion of each other among businesspeople. “Because the economic cake is small, people like to keep things close to their chest and keep their affairs secret,” he said. He however acknowledged that as long as the present generation remains alive there would always be mistrust between the races. It is however difficult to see how the town is ever going to overcome the economic difficulties it faces without some attempt by the races to find common ground for the sake of the town. Kirsten felt the Trans-Kalahari Highway has really not done much to boost the town’s economy. Government, he felt, first made the mistake of building a by-pass that makes it unnecessary for transporters to pass through the town centre. The additional problem associated with the Trans-Kalahari Highway is that petrol in Botswana is 60 cents a litre cheaper than in Namibia. This ironically includes petrol sold at the first stop on the Botswana side, Charles Hill, even though the petrol is delivered from a depot in Gobabis. The Trans-Kalahari has however managed to boost local tourism and accommodation establishments, with guesthouses rarely less than 30 percent booked. There were various attempts to launch industrial projects in Gobabis over the years, including factories to build the Romanian Aro vehicle and the Uri 4×4 pickup based on the Toyota pickup chassis. Kirsten described the plans to build the Aro as “a stillborn dream by opportunists”. The idea of building the Uri 4×4 in the town had genuine potential. The designers however based the vehicle on using rebuilt Toyota parts, and there were not enough rebuilt Toyota parts available in Namibia. The virtually indestructible Uri is now successfully built in South Africa, where the South African Police Service is a major buyer. He suggested that instead of looking at highly capital-intensive, pie-in-the-sky type projects the local community needed to look at enterprises that require little capital but create jobs quickly. The municipality, for example, owned many farms around the town that are heavily invaded by bush. Meanwhile, there is a serious shortage of braai wood in certain South African provinces – particularly the Western Cape – that Namibia could exploit. “There are simple things that can be done to create work without huge capital cost. At this stage our main aim should be looking at providing work. “If a person has work, he can buy what he needs to look after his family. Let’s forget about what was in the past,” Kirsten said. Owner of the local Spar Supermarket Marius Venter complained that a great deal of money leaves Gobabis, because people do their shopping in Windhoek. The reason for this is that consumers cannot find many of the things they need in Gobabis. He however remains optimistic about the town’s prospects, saying Spar has grown continuously since he took over the supermarket last October. Since taking over the business he has added a delicatessen and a range of different cheeses that customers could not find in Gobabis before. “If we can lift standards of service and provide clients with all their needs – including those they did not even know they had – there will be no need for them to travel elsewhere,” Venter said.