An American impact Investment Fund’s promise of great returns and social impact to Batswana is floundering off the back of Wilderness Safaris’ alleged racial abuse of citizens.
Wrapped up in buzzwords, glossy brochures, soft-focus images and claims of ethical business practices, The Rise Fund, believed to be the largest private impact fund ever raised in Botswana, held great promise for Batswana. But indications are that all that glitter was a fool’s gold. The Rise Fund, a subsidiary of TPG ( one of America’s biggest private equity firms known for aggressive buyout deals), hoped to present a friendlier face to Botswana. The idea was also to convince its American investors that their environmental, social and corporate governance credentials are more than just branding.
An online petition by “concerned” Batswana that comes hot on the heels of damning video footage is at odds with the Rise Fund’s promise to its American financiers to deploy their money in socially responsible investments. The petition has revealed underlying tensions between the fundamental values of the American impact investment firm and the toxic culture and racial injustice allegedly entrenched at Wilderness Safari workplace.
The petition, led by one Setlhomo Stizzy is addressed to the Rise Fund board members, Rise Fund Board, who own 34% shares in Wilderness Safaris through TPG Growth. The board members are Bill McGlashan, David Bonderman and Jim Coulter, founding partners of TPG Capital; Jeff Skoll, first president of eBay; Rock star Bono; philanthropist Lynne Benioff, wife of a flamboyant tech billionaire, Marc Benioff; British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson (Virgin); Mellody Hobson, Vice-Chair of Starbucks, former chair of the board of directors of DreamWorks Animation and wife of Hollywood director-producer, George Lucas; Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn; Sudanese-British philanthropist and telecoms billionaire, Mo Ibrahim; Indian Mahindra conglomerate chairperson, Anand Mahindra; philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder, Steve Jobs; billionaire philanthropist and founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar; and Unilever CEO, Paul Polman.
The petition had registered at least 600 signatures by the time of going to press. In a world where the dual scourges of immense poverty and global warming often overwhelm even the most optimistic people, these Impact Investors see themselves as a new breed of socially responsible investors who are staking hundreds of billions of dollars on solving the massive problems facing humankind. And reports of racial injustice mar their efforts. The petition calls on the company to address a catalogue of issues including employee salary gaps, which they say is based on race despite both black citizens and white expatriates having the same experience and qualifications. The petition follows the recent emergence of damning video footage which appears to show a white expatriate manager assaulting a junior member of staff. Wilderness Safaris issued a statement maintaining the video was shot in 2019.
The company has come out to say they were dealing with the matter. But that has not stopped some citizens from raising complaints with the Wilderness Safaris board over the treatment of locals at their luxury camps.
“They must ensure that black managers are not forced to drive 10 hours to remote camps while White managers are pampered with 40-minute flights. They must ensure their language policy is standard. If Setswana, which is the official language of Botswana, is not allowed in their Safari camps this has to also extend to Afrikaans, which is not an official language of Botswana,” reads part of the petition.
“They must ensure they have incident reports in place. They must preserve the native language and culture. They must improve their Corporate Social Responsibility.”
The petitioners say they are basing their petition on various incidents that have been observed at the safari camps.
“On January 27th, a video showing a racial confrontation between Wilderness Safaris Concession manager, Johan von Backstrom of Afrikaans descent and Samba, a native of Botswana, surfaced on social media. The brutality of this assault was shocking as it showed not only abuse of power by White/Afrikaans managers at Wilderness Safaris, but also the racial violence meted on junior employees, the majority of whom are indigenous people.”
According to the petition, former employees took to social media platforms to share personal accounts of the racial abuse they have faced at Wilderness Safaris Botswana establishments.
“This racial abuse includes the disparity in the salaries of white and black managers. White managers, some of whom have less work experience, are paid four times higher than black managers despite the latter having extensive work and academic experience.”
The petitioners also claim black employees are not allowed to converse in their native language among themselves in the remote camps while their Afrikaans colleagues freely converse in their own language.
“These acts of racial discrimination and other complaints have long been reported to Maun Labour Department. Sadly, nothing has ever been done. Therefore, we are calling on the Rise Fund Board, who own 34% shares in the Wilderness Safaris through TPG Growth, to intervene.”