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Good governance and development: Botswana is forty on the 30th September 2006

Are there features of the last forty years that make Botswana is some sense special?

Botswana achieved independence on the 30th September 1966, under the leadership of Sir Seretse Khama. Khama, with the cooperation of the ‘new men’ of the Bechuanaland Protectorate founded the Botswana Democratic Party in October 1962. In the face of opposition from more radically groups, Khama seized a march on radical and traditionalists alike and swept the board in the self-government elections. The strength of his victory meant that the constitutional development from self-government to independence was rapid.

The outside world was skeptical. Apartheid South Africa attempted to treat the country like a Bantustan. UDI Rhodesia was also to cause problems for the credibility of the newly independent Botswana. Neither of these regimes exists today. Botswana achieved independence surrounded by minority regimes hostile to its existence. The country was poor. Seretse Khama once said that the ‘national dress was rags!’ and he, and his close colleague, and long-serving second President of Botswana, Ketumile Masire, were determined to use the prospects of mineral development to improve the lot of the people of Botswana. Botswana’s multi-party democracy is robust, even if dominated by the Botswana Democratic Party. The party that Khama founded is still in power today, some nine elections later, elections that now also carry the seal of approval of outside observers. Botswana claims, not without justification, to be the oldest democracy in the African continent whilst the old racist enemies have vanished. The ‘hand of friendship’ offered by Kenneth Kaunda helped in the early days but the country soon had a reputation of its own. Over time, Khama and then Masire became better known and the country’s record of economic development understood.

Botswana achieved rapid development not around copper-nickel deposits as was first hoped but through the discovery of diamonds and by means of a carefully worked out (and recently re-worked) agreement with De Beers. Planning was the basis for government developmental activity. Early it its life Botswana was called an ‘administrative state’, as the influence of development-led administrative action and support were seen as its principal means of resource mobilization. Latterly it has been defined as a ‘developmental state’, a type of state (first identified in East Asia) in which the market and the state apparatus operate together to enhance economic development.

Botswana’s ‘administrative state’ pre-dates the notion of the developmental state but in essence there are great similarities. What counted was the attempt by Khama and Masire to institutionalize the new state and to approach policy through an economically prudent and ends-oriented vision. There was no spending spree, in the style of Nigeria, of mineral wealth. There is no ‘kleptocracy’ as corruption has been kept within bounds. Botswana was and is still recongized as a good place to do honest business. The continuity of approach through a combination of development effort and socio-democratic principles goes from Khama through Masire to Mogae. Ian Khama, Seretse’s eldest son, and currently the Vice-president is expected to be the next President when Mogae stands down in a couple of years’ time.

The democracy is not without some blemishes. Some see that that ‘dominant party’ has never had to relinquish power (though it has had to renew itself from time to time). The treatment of the San people and their expulsion from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one area of political life that is under international scrutiny. The result of a High Court case concerning the San peoples’ rights is awaited towards the end of this year. The rule of law is highly respected in Botswana and it will be interesting to see the Court’s judgment. The constitution has been reviewed in order to eliminate ethnic bias and to put representation in the House of Chiefs (an advisory chamber) on a regional and district basis rather than on an ethnic basis. Questions are being asked about the death penalty and about the presidential power of declaring outsiders to be prohibited immigrants. Unemployment is still high and the distribution of income unequal. Blemishes are there but so are the democratic voices calling for change. Civil society is weak in Botswana but developing rapidly.

The past forty years have seen many dramatic changes in southern-Africa. Botswana has remained relatively calm (even when refugees were pouring over three of its borders) and relatively prosperous. It is tackling its biggest problem, that of HIV/AIDS with courage, dignity and with health resources and innovative projects. Defeating the virus is a national priority. The country is several times better of in economic terms that it was at independence. Enhancing development and raising living standards in rural areas is also a priority. The country is, according to the President, Festus Mogae, on target to meet its development objectives by 2016.


I wonder why Botswana followed a different case as compared to Lesotho and Swaziland which are kingdoms.

Before independence it was assumed that Lesotho as a unified polity would make a better candidate. Chiefs were significant in Bechaunaland (think of Tshekedi Khama) but Seretse renounced his kingly status, a condition of his returning to the country from exile, long before taking up political activity. There were other chiefs but their role became limited under the self-governing and then independence constitution. Seretse used his status to build up the President's role and to institutionalize the state. Whilst there has been change, the ideals established from the outset have informed the politcal process. In a sense Botswana rejected any idea of radicalism and put development before politics. Botswana is or can be considered a "developmental state", with the advantages and disadvantages of such.