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Once one of the poorest countries in the world, Botswana has experienced growth and development post-independence at a pace second to none. Today, Botswana stands as the least corrupt nation in mainland Africa, boasts the highest economic freedom score in the region, and maintains a GDP per capita on par with other emerging economies, such as Brazil and Turkey. Botswana’s economic, social, and political development represents one of modern Africa’s greatest success stories: a story that provides valuable insights on how strong leadership, with a keen emphasis on pragmatism over ideology, can guide nations out of poverty.

The Protectorate

Botswana’s pragmatism can be traced as far back as the colonial era, which involved uncharacteristically significant cooperation with colonialists. In the mid-19th century, when Tswana chiefdoms found themselves stuck in the “crossfire” between British, German and Boer militants, they made pleas to the British Crown for protection. Following their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, the British finally agreed and established the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1885. The Protectorate benefitted both the British and the local Tswana (in the short run), providing the former a strategic link between Central and Southern Africa, and the latter protection from Boer threats under the General Act of The Berlin Conference.

Since British interests in Bechuanaland were primarily strategic, not economic, the extent of colonialism was less severe than that of neighboring colonies. The British exercised indirect rule, with administration still consisting of indigenous institutions and leadership of traditional chiefs. The comparatively less grievous (but nonetheless characteristically exploitative) colonial experience may be one reason that Botswana was one of the few African colonies to achieve independence without the emergence of a significant nationalist movement.

One key instance, however, where Britain overstepped “indirect rule” was the expulsion of Sir Seretse Khama, the heir to the chiefdom of Bangwato from Bechuanaland. Khama’s marriage to Ruth Williams was frowned upon by the Cape Colony, where apartheid was enforced and interracial marriage was illegal. The Cape Colony exerted enough pressure on Britain that the House of Commons overturned tribal courts, or kgotlas, and forced Khama into exile in 1951. Nevertheless, he would later be knighted in Britain by Queen Elizabeth II for his political contributions and role in Botswana’s formation.

Khama was only allowed to return to his homeland upon renouncing his chieftainship. Thus, he returned to Bechuanaland in 1956 as a private citizen, founding the Democratic Party of Botswana and gaining domestic legitimacy through democratic support as opposed to ancestral tribal lineage. Khama’s demotion from heir to private citizen would significantly empower Botswana's political development as a stable democracy. By becoming Bechuanaland's prime minister and later the independent Botswana’s first president, he inadvertently transformed the political legacy of the nation from tribal to democratic. Since Khama’s claim to power was now through democracy as opposed to ancestry, his rise would help establish and legitimize republican democracy in Botswana. As a fortunate consequence of his progressive marriage, Botswana became a leader of democracy in Africa, second only to Mauritius in the EIU Democracy Index.

Early Independence

On September 30, 1966, Bechuanaland gained independence, establishing the Republic of Botswana. When Khama was elected to office, the nation had almost no prospects for growth and development. Botswana had a total of 12 kilometers of paved road and only 22 citizens who had attended university. Almost all of its citizens were illiterate (there were, in total, 100 high school graduates) and the nation ranked amongst the poorest in the world by GDP per capita. The newly independent government was reliant on British aid for nearly half of its budget.

Much of colonial Africa turned to nationalism in this period of early statecraft. Some states were able to make considerable progress, though often at the expense of human rights, democracy, or the rule of law. Khama’s approach, on the other hand, avoided radical ideology. He believed that Botswana’s citizens should enjoy increases in standard of living without losing basic civil and political liberties.

Botswana’s economy was dominated by livestock production. Livestock products accounted for more than 90 percent of exports and cattle outnumbered humans about three-to-one. As the nation's primary economic activity, livestock production was not particularly profitable or effective. Drought conditions and insufficient water supply posed real challenges to the sector; at multiple points in the 1960s, Botswana was reliant on famine relief aid to feed its citizens.

To begin expanding the economy beyond its reliance on livestock and towards Botswana’s diverse mineral resources, Khama borrowed heavily from abroad. This brought the tools to Botswana for small scale mining operations, producing some gold, kyanite, copper, and more sizable amounts of asbestos and manganese. While Botswana's early leaders adopted some neoliberal policies, they recognized the dangers of depending on the IMF and World Bank too heavily and thus ensured to keep them at arm’s length.

As Botswana's development began, it once again found itself in an unusually practical arrangement to solve a post colonial issue: the lack of skilled administrators to run the government. Since there were barely a few hundred formally educated local citizens, Khama had former British administrators from the colonial period to continue serving in government until enough qualified locals rose to the responsibility. This sense of pragmatism further extended to Khama’s foreign affairs, as he chose to adopt a policy of non-alignment, distinguishing Botswana from its surrounding regimes without antagonizing them.


Since other countries in the region had vast deposits of diamond reserves, Sir Seretse Khama had good reason to begin the search for diamonds in Botswana. However, many other oil, mineral and diamond rich nations had begun to politically collapse and backslide towards corruption and authoritarianism. This resource curse was exemplified by Nigeria and the Central African Republic, which suffered despite (if not due to) oil and diamond reserves respectively, serving as a cautionary tale for Botswana. Khama organized a unique approach to diamonds in Botswana by striking a deal with the Tswana clan leaders.

Since diamonds could potentially be discovered in some regions but not others, the clan leaders agreed beforehand to a resource-sharing agreement that disregarded domestic territorial claims. This would prevent any ‘geographically lucky’ clans from hoarding the nation’s wealth and ensure that all regions of Botswana reaped the benefits of future diamond mining. Khama struck this deal despite having been slipped the knowledge that his clan’s territory was diamond rich; he put his clan’s interest aside in the name of his nation.

In 1967, a team of De Beers geologists led by Manfred Marx collected soil samples with promising indicators for diamonds near the Kalahari Desert. This led to the development of the Orapa mine for 21 million rand in 1971–the largest open pit diamond mine in the world. To maximize this opportunity, Botswana established Debswana, a joint venture with De Beers. Debswana is the equal partnership between the Government of Botswana and De Beers, which each own half the company. Moreover, ownership of Botswana's Diamond Trading Company was split equally between the government and De Beers. This partnership has been conducive to business, giving both the private and public sector shared responsibility over operations. Under this agreement, De Beers estimates that for every dollar they earn in Botswana, 80 cents goes to the government.

The Orapa mine catapulted Botswana’s economy forward: for the thirty years between 1965 and 1995, Botswana had the fastest rate of economic growth in the world. Debswana’s success enriched the government, which in turn could maintain a stable, low tax rate, further leading to investment from multinational corporations, thus accelerating economic growth.

The profits from diamond production were reinvested by the government in healthcare, education, and infrastructure, which significantly boosted human development. Public hospitals and universities raised social standards in the nation, and infrastructure projects boosted economic accessibility, transforming Botswana into a middle income country. Today, diamond production is responsible for one-third of Botswana's GDP, half of its public spending, and 80 percent of its export revenue.

The Diversification Question

During this period of extreme growth, Botswana co-established the Southern African Development Community to reduce the region's reliance on the economic strength of South Africa and Rhodesia, two militarily aggressive states with little regard for human rights. Botswana abandoned the South African rand and established their own currency, the pula. The Central Bank regulated the pula effectively, meeting the needs of local businesses and making it one of the strongest and best performing currencies on the continent. Botswana displayed the necessary pragmatism to adopt successful policies from other countries, such as “Singapore-inspired work improvement teams” to increase economic productivity. Despite this growth and success, however, Botswana struggled to achieve both political and economic diversity.

Botswana's early successes have not translated to an equal distribution of power and diversity in the political landscape. Following Sir Seretse Khama's death in 1980, he was succeeded by his Vice President, Sir Quett Ketumile Joni Masire. Masire was widely successful, winning reelection for 18 straight years. Despite being a multi-party democracy on paper, since independence, the only party to hold administration in Botswana is the Botswana Democratic Party. The party has been led by two generations of Khama, first between 1966 to 1980 by Sir Seretse Khama and later between 2008 to 2018 by his son, Ian Khama.

No other party has won the general election, a fact that may inadvertently undermine democracy in Botswana in the future. In 2018, Mokgweetsi Masisi from the BDP was elected on a populist platform, marking over 50 years of power for the BDP. It seems unclear whether the BDP's dominance leaves any room for a healthy political landscape; to what extent can democracy in modern Botswana be considered multi-party? Another significant challenge lies in the power De Beers holds over Botswana’s sovereignty. De Beers’ influence over politics could be a major threat to democracy in Botswana. With questions of political diversity and neo-colonialism, new obstacles loom over Botswana’s political class.

Economic diversity is an even greater challenge for Botswana. Despite attempts to move towards a knowledge-based tertiary sector economy, Botswana’s economy remains dominated by diamonds and livestock production. The underdevelopment of other sectors has led to both high wealth inequality and rising unemployment. In June, Botswana struck a revised deal with De Beers to gain more ownership of diamonds mined in Botswana and to introduce downstream operations, such as diamond cutting and polishing, to the economy.

Experts argue this new deal marks the beginning of the end of De Beers’ monopoly over diamond production in Botswana. Moreover, if production continues at its high pace, Botswana may begin to run out of its diamond reserves in the coming decade. If Botswana does manage to overcome stagnation, inequality, and unemployment long term, it would only be by significantly restructuring and diversifying its economy.

With new challenges on the horizon, it is unclear whether Botswana's economic and political legacy will stand tall or begin to collapse. The nation owes much of its prosperity today to the shrewd and pragmatic governance of its early leaders. Will the strong leadership that brought the nation this far live on? Or will Botswana’s economic and political challenges prove too great–and crack Africa’s brightest gem? Source HIR 

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