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Botswana: Independence at Midnight

28 Sep 2016
By Margaret O’Callaghan
Botswana_flag. Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond (flickr) Creative Commons

Amidst the kaleidoscope of African country experiences Botswana’s tale stands out. Fifty years ago this week, at midnight on 30 September 1966, Bechuanaland, a British protectorate since 1885, benefited from the ‘wind of change’ and became the 38th newly independent country on the continent as Botswana.

At the time Botswana was rated the least developed country in Africa and amongst the ten poorest in the world. It had very poor social indicators and was suffering from the impact of the worst drought in living memory. As second President Quett Masire said, as reported by Susan Williams: “Few independence ceremonies may have taken place under dustier, bleaker economic circumstances”. But mother nature blessed that 1966 ceremony and as the new flag unfurled the most precious thing to the Batswana people—rain—suddenly started, capping off the great excitement of the day and perhaps foretelling of promises to come. Pula!

And there was indeed an extraordinary turn around over the next half century in financial terms. Botswana came to be recognised for having a high growth rate, a strong fiscal policy, the fourth highest GNI in Africa and a per capita GDP of US$7,300 (A$9,500), up from $83 in 1966 and higher than that of South Africa. It has negligible foreign debt and has maintained budget surpluses and extensive foreign exchange reserves.

This was an extraordinary change for a country largely covered in desert, regularly subject to severe droughts and inhabited by a small, widely dispersed population of uneducated (in Western terms) peoples largely living a subsistence existence devoted to cattle raising, small-scale agriculture and/or hunting, with a slow pace of life punctuated by good manners and deeply traditional attitudes.

This success has often been referred to as the ‘Miracle of Africa’ and thought to be a much vaunted case of African exceptionalism. How did the country manage to transform its national economic indicators and build a modern, well planned capital, establish a bureaucracy and comprehensive social services almost from scratch, with the structures of a modern democracy put into place and without the blatant corruption seen in other countries?

The source of Botswana’s financial situation is well-documented. The identification of high grade diamonds fortuitously only eight months after independence enabled it to become a major world producer. Those earnings have been at the heart of the nation’s ability to largely fund its own development, in recent years providing 80 per cent of export earnings and one-third of government revenue.

The tone for managing the income was reportedly set immediately after independence, with the avoidance (largely) of prestige projects and a focus on establishing basic infrastructure, social services and conservative financial management—all of which greatly impressed the donor countries.

This does indeed look like a good news story, unusually for Africa; but have these positive developments been reflected more broadly in Batswana society and were they substantive and sustainable? If the answers are yes then we are well justified in cheering as the 50 candles are blown out.

Unfortunately there is a dark shadow underlying Botswana’s well-publicised financial successes. Most significantly, there is an acute dependency on diamond based income; yet, as the current President himself is quoted as saying “diamonds are not forever”. However, the country’s attempts to diversify beyond these gems and the two other major income generators, tourism and beef exports, have not yet evolved into substantive alternatives.

Most of the difficulties experienced derive from the nature of the country for the reality is that Botswana largely consists of desert, with high temperatures and regular droughts, very little arable land and a geography which does not enable hydro power. Being landlocked and adjacent to a very competitive giant like South Africa also constitute economic challenges. Demographically, the small population size of two million has implications for a viable economic base, and last but not least, the country still suffers from the very serious socio-economic impact of having one of the highest HIV rates in the world (around 20 per cent).

Ironically, while Botswana’s wealth may be in its natural resources (minerals, wildlife) and cattle, capitalising on them through further expansion will inevitably be at the cost of an increasingly fragile environment and also, possibly the well-being of its indigenous peoples. In addition, mining does not generate large numbers of jobs but does create high demands for power and water, neither of which are easy to provide in such an environment or easily available from neighbouring countries. Diesel and gas are hardly environmentally friendly or cheap options. Facts like this place the country’s future between a rock and a very hard place unless some innovative, non-environment-harming options can be identified, such as financial services and/or information technology focused developments.

There is also a litany of man-made issues that are now reliably documented but not widely recognised internationally. They include a political system which essentially functions as a one-party state, with a disempowered opposition and ‘cosmetic’ elections. The powers held by the president are extensive and could be regarded similar to those of despotic chiefs of times gone by, whose title is inherited and whose decisions are indisputable—hardly a modern democratic style, and more indicative of a dictatorship.

There are concerns too about the independence of the judicial system and about the lack of punishment of well-known abusers of authority. There is little transparency about government actions, such as the agreement with diamond giant De Beers; while civil society, academics and the media are being seriously constrained in speaking out and challenging the status quo, with the government being said to be averse to criticism.

Minorities are largely powerless and the San, in particular, are alleged to be subject to significant ongoing human rights abuses, largely because of mining (wildlife is better protected) and there are other human rights issues.

In addition and very seriously, other important national indicators are negative, including those for levels of inequality, unemployment, poverty and food deficit vulnerability. Strangely, given the lack of threats and wars and the level of outstanding social needs, a significant proportion of the national budget is spent on the military and national intelligence, the justification for which is obscure.

Stringing all of these issues together so briefly does not do justice to their individual seriousness but viewed together, or even separately, these factors raise doubts about the validity of Botswana’s much vaunted post-colonial image. They are hardly the signs of a ‘miracle’ country, nor of ‘exceptionalism’, and are in fact not atypical of other African countries which struggle between traditional and modern pressures in difficult physical environments, and with self-serving leaderships and elites. In Botswana’s case the issues are not so blatant or bloody and they are largely camouflaged by the initial success of mining, the largely effective fiscal management and the superficial veneer of modernity (when in fact traditional factors play an important role) interspersed with an array of well-protected wildlife and a flourishing high-end tourist industry.

At midnight 50 years on, independence would indeed be worth celebrating if we were sure that the challenges raised above were being addressed. If they were to be, it would enable all Batswana in this harshly beautiful and environmentally fragile country to benefit from being part of a modern society in which democratic and human rights principles were universally practiced and they were able to continue enjoying the positive aspects of their rich traditional culture. Pula!

Margaret O’Callaghan is a student of African history, an observer of modern African developments and member of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific. Margaret is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU’s Crawford School where she is researching the impact of mining in Zambia where she formerly worked for the UN.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.