Botswana: Success breeds its own problems

Botswana's recent history is a story of success but there are three question marks over the country today.

Botswana’s recent history is a story of absurd success. At independence in 1966 it was one of the world’s twenty poorest countries; only 1,5 per cent of its population had completed primary school. Yet over the next 33 years it was the world’s fastest-growing economy, and in 2000 it overtook South Africa in GDP per capita. Growth in each of the last four years exceeded 8 per cent. Today there is an impressive infrastructure of tarred roads, modern houses, schools and clinics. Over half the population has completed primary education or more, and there are 12 000 university students. Botswana re-invests 41 per cent of its GDP each year, a figure unequalled anywhere else. It has a vigorous free press, low taxes and little crime. Corruption levels are better than those in Ireland. Investment has soared since Botswana abolished exchange controls in 1999. How has this been achieved? It helps that Botswana is a unitribal country with just two languages (Setswana and English), and that the Batswana people are natural liberal democrats who believe in consensus and debate rather than conflict. The Batswana attribute their success to wise leadership, epitomised by the late Sir Seretse Khama, their revered first president, and Sir Ketumile Masire, president from 1980 to 1998. Masire applied the typical prudence of Batswana pastoralists to modern economics, storing away the country’s mineral earnings to help it through lean years. The government can now draw on $6 billion of foreign reserves. There are three question marks over Botswana today. The first concerns leadership. There are rumours that Festus Mogae, who has been president since 1998, wants to step down in 2004. Vice president Ian Khama is the favourite to succeed Mogae, but a persistent high unemployment rate is keeping opposition hopes alive. Secondly, Botswana has the world’s worst HIV infection rate (39 per cent last year). But it also has Africa’s most enlightened anti-Aids policies; condoms and anti-retrovirals are distributed free of charge. The third question concerns what happens when the diamonds run out in about 2040. Vision 2016, a picture of where the government wants Botswana to be fifty years after independence, foresees a trebling of per capita incomes to around $9 000, to be achieved by increasing diversification into manufacturing and services and by massive investment in education. Can this be achieved in such a bad neighbourhood? Botswana is already deporting 2 000 illegal Zimbabweans every week and this problem is likely to worsen. On the other hand, the country does not suffer from a brain drain – its own people are happy to stay and many talented foreigners are flocking in.

Botswana's director of wild life, Joseph Mathlare, has a giant-sized problem. In 1980, due to poaching and hunting, the number of elephants in the country had fallen to 40,000. So Botswana not only banned poaching but moved in the army to stop it and has maintained strict environmental controls ever since. The result is the world's biggest elephant herd, 120,000 strong, more than 50 per cent larger than second-placed Tanzania's. Botswana has just managed to get Cites to agree that it can sell off its ivory stock pile but the real problem is a hunting quota of just 210 elephants a year and the fact that the herd is increasing by 6,000 a year. "People in the West get emotional about elephants. They are the largest land beasts and killing them is somehow symbolic. They say they are majestic - which they are, but it depends on your point of view," says Mr Mathlare. "They're eating all the vegetation and destroying trees, which is impacting on other species. They are also wandering into agricultural areas and doing a great deal of damage. They've killed at least twelve people in the last six years. The worst thing is that people can see no merit in conservation if the result just brings them trouble."

Tourism may be Botswana's second biggest foreign earner after diamonds but Mr Wazha Tema, the acting director of tourism, agrees. "People say, oh well you'll just have to cull them but you can't just move in and shoot a few old bulls as if they're buffalo. Elephants form close family groups and they are very emotionally bonded to one another. If they lose a family member they never forget - or forgive. The result is huge emotional upset, great anger against the human beings who did it and often very dangerous behaviour as a result. Tourists can't go into areas where elephants have been traumatised. It takes three generations for them to calm down. Culling is also a terribly anguishing business for anyone who does it". The logic is Sicilian: wipe out whole elephant families, babies included, so there's no traumatised youngster growing up to take revenge. Nobody wants to do this.

In its way the story mirrors Botswana's recent history, which is one of absurd success. At independence in 1966 it was one of the world's twenty poorest countries, almost the size of Texas but with just five kilometres of paved road, no electricity, phone or sewage/water distribution system. Only 1,5 per cent of the population had completed primary education and Britain was having to provide 40 per cent of its annual government expenditure. In the following 33 years Botswana was the world's fastest growing economy, averaging 7 per cent per annum (Singapore with 6,2 per cent comes second, South Korea with 6,1 per cent third). In 2000 it overtook South Africa in GDP per capita and it is rapidly moving further ahead - growth last year was 9 per cent, following 9,2 per cent and 8,1 per cent in the two years before that.

Today excellent tarred roads reach all parts of the country and there is an impressive infrastructure of modern housing, dams, schools and clinics while Gaborone, the capital, is a sea of construction cranes as one skyscraper follows another. Not only do all urban residents have access to health care but so do 83 per cent of rural dwellers. Over half the population have now completed primary education or more and while there were just 83 university students in 1966, today there are 12,000 and a second university is planned. On average Botswana saves and re-invests 41 per cent of its GDP every year, a figure unequalled anywhere else in the world. All this has been achieved despite the fact that Botswana is landlocked, has suffered droughts which have sometimes cut its previous mainstay, agricultural production, by a third and has had to tread a tortuous path while all its neighbours - Namibia, Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe - were involved in guerrilla wars lasting decades.

How was this achieved? The standard answer - that it's easy to grow fast when you have a small population (1,75 million) in a large country which possesses diamonds - doesn't really work: next door Namibia has all these things, plus uranium and a long coastline Botswana can only regard wistfully - yet its growth is slow and uneven. What does help is that Botswana is a unitribal country, speaking just Setswana and English. The Batswana have no doubt that the answer is political. Sir Ketumile Masire, president from 1980-98, argues that "We were blessed with wise leadership. The chiefs who sought protection under the British Crown in the 1880s and subsequent political leaders, epitomised by the late Sir Seretse Khama, our revered first president, were far-sighted, prudent men." Britain exiled Khama in 1948 for having married a white woman, Ruth Williams - viewed almost as a patron saint today: her funeral last year saw the biggest crowd scenes in Botswana's history. But Khama, miraculously, bore no grudge. There was no real movement of colonial resistance and both Khama and Masire were glowing in their praise of the last resident commissioner, Sir Peter Fawcus. Most unusually for an African city, Gaborone not only has roads named after Mandela and Nyerere but after Fawcus and Churchill.

This attitude is shared even by the young. "The British have always been our friends. They prevented us from being swallowed by South Africa," says Roy Temane, a third year IT student. "But Khama didn't just insist on multi-partyism and the Westminster system for that reason. Batswana have always worked by consensus and debate. You could say we're just naturally a liberal democracy. Personally I'm not interested in politics because here you don't need to be. People wouldn't accept a dictatorship here any more than people in England would." It certainly helps that the Batswana have no warrior tradition: with few people in a large area it was always easier to move rather than fight. With people spread out, control of chiefs was often weak. They had, therefore, to be responsive to the demands and desires of their subjects. The Botswana Democratic Party, co-founded by Khama and Masire, incorporates this liberal tradition and has won every election since independence, elections whose fairness the opposition does not contest. There is a vigorous free press which routinely slates the government as laughably incompetent.

This seems a little harsh. Botswana has been an island of peace and stability. It also has low taxes, very little crime and corruption, though hardly unknown, is far from rampant: signs declaring a "zero tolerance" attitude to corruption greet you as soon as you reach the Botswana border. Transparency International's corruption index rates Botswana just behind France but ahead of Ireland. "The important thing," says Dr Jay Salkin of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis, "is that if political high-ups steal money they go to jail. There is no culture of impunity here as in the rest of Africa. The judges are straight and nobody, but nobody, is above the law." Businessmen concur that the complete security both of property rights and the framework of law - often dubious quantities elsewhere in Africa - is a powerful reason to relocate here. Everywhere on Gaborone's clean, litter-free streets spanking new shopping malls and offices are shooting up, largely the fruit of South African investment attracted by Botswana's abolition of all exchange controls in 1999.

Stable high growth has seldom been achieved by other mineral rich countries. In Botswana there is no doubt that the continuity of enlightened government policy has been heavily responsible for the country's success. Perhaps most important was the way Masire - who first as minister of finance and then as president guided these matters continuously from 1965 to 1998 - and adapted the typical prudence of Batswana pastoralists to modern economics. In an arid environment everyone knows you have to store away a good crop to help you through the inevitable drought years. This is what Masire did with mineral earnings, setting up the Pula Fund and the Liquidity Portfolio which today contain $6 billion of foreign reserves which the government draws upon to maintain investment levels in a down period. Pula - which is the name of the national currency - means rain in Setswana and is also a greeting: "May you have rain."

There was, too, an endearingly down to earth quality about the leadership. Masire, as vice president and minister of finance until 1980, had frequently to represent Botswana abroad. Over and over again heads of state would arrive at airports to greet him but go home believing he had not arrived, fooled by the fact that he always travelled economy class to save money. This only came to a stop in 1988 when Masire's plane was shot down by a missile over Angola: since then there has been a presidential Gulfstream.

There are three great question marks over Botswana today. The first is leadership. Festus Mogae, an Oxford-trained economist and former World Bank vice-president, took over as president in 1998, installing Ian Khama, Seretse's son, as his vice president and Ponatshego Kedikilwe as finance minister. The latter went on a spending spree ahead of the 1999 election, thus creating the first budget deficit Botswana had seen since 1981. This created inflationary pressures and the first significant strikes in Botswana's history. Kedikilwe was quickly replaced by another professional economist, Baledzi Gaolathe, but Kedikilwe and Khama are now rivals for the succession. Mogae, by serving a second term could be President until 2009 but there are persistent reports that, in contrast to the usual African habit of clinging to power, he would like to step down early in 2004. (In another departure from African norms Mogae publicly declared that Zimbabwe's problems derive from rank bad governance - earning him Robert Mugabe's bitter enmity.)

Not long ago Ian Khama made the bad mistake of trying to punish the newspapers who had embarrassed him by pointing out that he should not be piloting Botswana Defence Force planes and helicopters round the country, for his days as BDF Commander are over and only BDF personnel are allowed to fly BDF aircraft. Khama managed to get the government to withdraw all its advertising from the offending newspapers - which promptly went to court and secured a judgement against Khama that this was an illegal attempt to curb press freedom. This incident has emboldened his opponents within the BDP who have begun to question the principle of automatic vice presidential succession to the presidency. But for now that is the rule and Khama, as the man in possession, is still the favourite to succeed Mogae. The opposition Botswana National Front is still tied to an old-fashioned Marxist rhetoric of an ANC variety and although the BDP only won 55 per cent of the vote in 1999 it is still difficult to see it losing. Nonetheless a stubbornly high unemployment rate oscillating between 14 per cent and 19 per cent (and a much higher rate among the young) feeds constant criticism of government and keeps opposition hopes alive. "Whoever is leader will be very tightly controlled by popular expectations born of two generations of stability, democracy and prosperity," says Jay Salkin. "People here expect to be on a comparable economic and political level with Europe within fifteen years."

Second, to Mogae's enormous grief, Botswana has the world's highest Aids rate, with HIV infection up from 36 per cent to 39 per cent of the adult population last year. Thus far the sheer social conservatism of Batswana sexual habits has defeated the government's frantic attempts to change behaviour. But Botswana has Africa's most enlightened anti-Aids policies in Africa, in stark contrast to those in South Africa, freely distributing condoms and anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. This has attracted large scale support from the Merck pharmaceutical group and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The use of ARVs has had a dramatic effect but even so Botswana's soaring life expectancy rates have been brought to an abrupt halt.

Finally, what happens when the diamonds run out in about 2040? A presidential commission has set out Vision 2016, a picture of where the government wants Botswana to be fifty years after independence. This foresees a continued average growth rate of 8 per cent, the trebling of per capita incomes to around $9,000 and the elimination of that 30 per cent of the population who still live in poverty today. This is to be achieved by increasing diversification into manufacturing and services. In particular, Botswana is investing massively in the education of its young and hopes to become a continental centre for the financial services industry. Already there is a burgeoning International Financial Services Centre, a growing number of foreign banks and a booming stock exchange - all supervised by the Bank of Botswana, an impressive organisation headed (like the University of Botswana) by a woman. (Indeed, the UB is headed by a white American, Dr Sharon Siverts - a piece of colour blindness quite exceptional in today's Africa.)

The real question thrown up by Vision 2016 is, can this be achieved in such a bad neighbourhood? Already around 2,000 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants a week are being rounded up and sent back north but long before per capita incomes reach $9,000 Botswana is likely to face a huge flood of such incursions, not just from Zimbabwe but from every neighbouring state, including South Africa - and its long, porous borders will make that a difficult problem to resolve. The other side of this, of course, is that Botswana suffers no brain drain: not only are young Batswana only too happy to stay where they are but an increasing flood of talented and well qualified foreigners are eager to make their homes there. Currently, Botswana is trying hard to strike a balance between these conflicting pressures. When Gaborone's building boom sent building prices soaring the government invited in Chinese construction firms. Building prices promptly fell but one result is a significant and permanent Chinese community which the government had not entirely bargained for.

Most foreigners will get to know Botswana through its tourist industry. "Instead of just going up north to Chobe and the Okavango swamps to see the lions and elephants we want to get more people visiting the desert areas in the south," says Wazha Tema. In the days before Botswana had good roads traders used to get around this area on camels, descendants of a herd introduced into Namibia by the Germans a hundred years ago. Botswana's department of wild life suspects the eighty camels left - the only camels found south of the Sahara - have now evolved into a separate sub-species and is encouraging them to breed. Which, Botswana being what it is, doubtless means there will soon be thousands of camels and conservation officers worrying about how to deal with their own success...