Rags to riches

Anver Versi

In Focus: Botswana

In 50 years Botswana has transitioned from being Africa’s poorest nation to its richest. The discovery of diamonds has played a big part, as has its corruption-free style of government


President Ian Khama. Photo: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

President Ian Khama. Photo: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras


Botswana, at least from the outside, has largely been spared the Chinese curse of ‘living in interesting times’. This southern African country, the size of France but with a population barely nudging the two million mark, has moved serenely from being the continent’s poorest nation at independence in 1966 to its richest (in terms of per capita GDP) and best governed.

But as the country prepares for its next election in October this year, there are signs that, for the first time since independence the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) may not get things all its own way.

Botswana owes its world-record growth figures – averaging around seven per cent for almost three decades – to two factors: the intelligent exploitation of perhaps the world’s largest reserve of gem quality diamonds; and, perhaps more importantly, an exceptional cadre of political leadership. The latter has kept at bay the infamous ‘resource curse’ that has blighted so many African countries similarly endowed with valuable natural resources.

Political power has been passed down from each of the previous three presidents to their successors, without rancour or drama or unseemly attempts to hang on to office. The immediate past President, Festus Mogae, is one of a very select band of African leaders to have been awarded the US$5 million Mo Ibrahim Award for Leadership. As one of Africa’s ‘wise old men’, he is in constant demand to help diffuse tense situations or resolve crises all over the continent.

Successive leaders (there have been four presidents so far: Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile ‘Quett’ Masire, Festus Mogae and the incumbent, Ian Khama) have carefully husbanded the enormous revenues realised from the sale of diamonds to develop their country and vastly improve the quality of life for their people.

But this transition from a colonial backwater known as Bechuanaland – reluctantly kept under British protection only to prevent it falling into the hands of the Germans in neighbouring Namibia – to becoming the glittering African star it is today, was overseen by only one political party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

The BDP, which evolved from the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, was founded by Seretse Khama in 1962. Khama, king of the Bamangwato, the greatest of the eight ‘recognised’ ethnic tribes of Botswana, was not only larger than life but also one of the most controversial figures of his time. He succeeded to the throne at the age of four and, while his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, ruled as regent, immersed himself in study to satisfy his exceptional curiosity.

While in Britain to study law, he fell in love with and married Ruth Williams, an Englishwoman. This caused enormous furore in apartheid South Africa (which was poised to annex the protectorate); Botswana itself, where the regent Tshekedi demanded that Seretse renounce the marriage and return immediately; and also, to a much smaller extent, in Britain, which was alarmed by the South African reaction.

Seretse did return and was allowed to plead his case in front of various chiefs who held, and hold to this day, considerable cultural and spiritual power over their tribes. They sided with him, infuriating the South Africans for whom this interracial marriage involving a high-ranking personage so close to home was unacceptable. Seretse and Ruth were sent into exile to Britain where, in Surrey, Ian Khama, the current President, was born.

As a result of public pressure in the UK, Seretse’s exile was rescinded and he returned home to engage in politics. Bechuanaland narrowly escaped being incorporated into South Africa as a ‘homeland’ and Seretse formed a party to agitate for independence from Britain, although at the time, contemplating a land composed largely of the Kalahari Desert, even he wondered if this was not a case of descending into madness.

His Botswana Democratic Party duly won the election and he became the country’s first President. A year later, in 1967, diamonds were discovered in the land and everything changed. Botswana and De Beers formed a joint venture, Debswana, and between them have ruled the world’s gemstone diamond industry ever since. Botswana is a deeply conservative country. The very harsh environmental conditions under which most people lived prior to the discovery of diamonds has inculcated caution in the very genes of the people. The same word is used to describe rain, water and money – pula. There is no tolerance for waste or profligacy. The group is everything and individuals must blend in or be ostracised. Discussions and debates are designed to produce consensus, not confrontation.

One of Botswana’s strongest institutions is the Kgotla, which stands for the full spectrum of discussion and consensus forming. It is present at the basic village level, the powerful chieftaincy level and right up to parliament. The objective is to give all involved parties the right to express their views. The chiefs, it is said, should not utter a word until all have spoken.

While this system produces homogeneity and stability, it rubs against modern democratic practice and can be ossifying. It can also perpetuate power within certain groups. One of the major criticisms of the current system is that power resides within the Setswana-speaking peoples. These comprise eight tribes who speak mutually intelligible dialects and share similar cultures and histories. These eight tribes, which form around 20 per cent of the population, were ‘recognised’ by the British colonial government who ruled indirectly through them, conferring privileges, especially over land ownership. There have been attempts to give similar recognition to the other tribes but progress has been slow.

The DBP has won every election held so far and dominated the 57-seat national assembly. There is a second, 35 member, chamber, the Ntio ya Dikgosi (House of Chiefs) which is an advisory body, counselling especially on matters relating to customary law, property rights and customary courts. The President is not directly elected but nominated by the winning party.

Since 1965 Botswana has been the continent’s longest continuous multi-party democracy. According to Transparency International, it is relatively free of corruption. Elections, which have been held regularly and on schedule every five years, have been generally declared free and fair by outside observers, although there have been periodic cries of foul play from opposition groups.

At the time of going to press, there were nine political parties, of which the Botswana National Front (BNF) and the Botswana Congress Party are the strongest. But chronic infighting among the opposition parties has left them unable to mount a serious challenge to the BDP.

However, matters took a dramatic turn in 2004 when President Festus Mogae stepped down at the end of his ten-year term and handed over power to the Vice-President, Ian Khama, in 2008. Khama duly began his first full term following elections a short while later, but his arrival caused the biggest disruption in the history of the ruling party.

He had called for ‘discipline, dedication and determination’ but now senior party members were accusing him of ‘ruling the party with an iron fist’ and displaying ‘dictatorial tendencies’. They split away and formed the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). He was accused of ignoring the Botswana tradition of Kgotla.

To make matters worse for him, large sections of the civil service, including teachers, went on a series of strikes over pay. Khama dug his heels in and refused to budge.

Meanwhile, the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF), Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) agreed to join the BMD to form a united front to fight the BDP. But shortly after, the alliance collapsed with BCP opting to go it alone. The BMD, BNF and BPP then formed and registered a joint party, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), but without the BCP within their ranks, their chances of beating the BDP have become very slim.

To add to their troubles, in late July, Gomolemo Motswaledi, the leader of the BMD and deputy president of the UDC, was killed in a car accident.

Conspiracy theories abounded. One newspaper’s screaming headline asked ‘Who killed Gomolemo?’, suggesting that his death had been caused by agencies other than purely an accident. The matter was under police investigation at the time of going to press, but political assassinations are so out of keeping with the Botswana character that it is unlikely that anything suspicious will emerge.

The rise of Ian Khama to the presidency is seen as the closing of a circle that had begun 65 years ago. His dual racial heritage is also seen as a natural outcome of Botswana’s strong cultural traditions and the modern world.

At the outset of his presidency, there was considerable anticipation, especially among the young, that a new, more exciting era was about to begin in the country. For all its wealth, the unemployment rate in Botswana, at around 20 per cent, is still far too high and the poverty rate is also far higher than one would expect for a country that in all other respects is exemplary.

Botswana’s biggest problem is the small size of its population, which makes any form of industrialisation little more than a job-creating exercise. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that it is landlocked, the country has perhaps the most detailed diversification plan of any other country in Southern Africa. But it has human resource issues. HIV/AIDS has taken a terrible toll on the best and brightest, and alcoholism is a serious problem.

One of Khama’s first actions on becoming President was to impose surtaxes on alcohol, but this did not go down well at all. His insistence on discipline was regarded as heavy handed and provoked the split within his party.

Khama’s refusal to be browbeaten made him a target for the opposition, who accused him of failing to canvas wider views before acting. He also found himself caught between supporting the rights of people like the San to live in their traditional modes in the central Kalahari Desert and the need to provide all citizens with basic amenities, such as running water, education and health facilities.

Nevertheless, he has overseen some substantial changes within the social dimensions of the country, particularly in terms of rights of women – for example, a famous case has overturned the traditional law that only male relatives were entitled to inherit. Another court ruling overturned a decision by the government to remove the desert-dwelling San from their traditional homes in the heart of the country’s national park and has given them the right to return to their former homes if they wish to do so.

After an awkward first two years of his presidency, Ian Khama seems to have found the right balance between his brand of disciplined progress and the pace that the rest of the country is comfortable with. It seems almost certain that, come October, the BDP will romp in again and Khama will have another five years in which to further embellish the stature of one of Africa’s most enviable countries.

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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