Botswana’s recent history is explained in the awareness of national identity, the rejection of the colonisers’ racial discrimination and the struggle for independence. But the struggle for independence is strengthened by appropriate economic and educational policies.
Three main factors help to understand Botswana’s recent history: the independence, the economy and the social policy.
The optimism of independence
The independence struggle of the Batswanas has its founding father in Seretse Khama. In 1944, Seretse Khama, who was heir to King Khama Il of the Tswana ethnic group, which is the majority in the country, went to Oxford to study law where he married Ruth Williams, an English clerk. The wedding scandalized the English and Afrikaners, who were already imposing racial separation (apartheid), and got the English government to prohibit Seretse from returning to his land, but he resisted pressure and with the massive support of his people, maintained his leadership and returned in 1956. Nine years later, in the first general election, the party he founded, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), won 80% of the vote and Seretse was elected Botswana’s first President.
The new government decided to join the countries fighting against apartheid in South Africa and to join the South African Development Community (SADC), whose aim was to break the economic dependence of the nine black southern African countries on South Africa.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 97% of Batswanas lived in the countryside and each family owned at least a couple of cows and the richest had oxen to plow the land. Afrikaners dominated agriculture and controlled 60% of meat exports. In 1966, the year of independence, the urban population reached 15% and almost 40% of the rural inhabitants had no livestock. Botswana was one of the poorest countries in Africa, with a GDP of $70. But in 1971, Botswana was lucky enough to discover the diamond mines of Orapa (in the East). This unexpected wealth produced huge foreign exchange reserves and made its currency the strongest in Africa. Between 1978 and 1988, Botswana became the world’s third largest producer of diamonds, after Australia and the DR of Congo, and the world’s second largest exporter of diamonds, after Russia. The country’s economy grew at a record rate of 12% per year. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2016 this country had a per capita income of 16,947 dollars, one of the highest in Africa and a GDP of 14,443 million dollars. However, three fifths of the population live on subsistence crops or “non-institutional” activities, with unemployment at 20%. Although Botswana’s history highlights good governance and economic growth supported by prudent macroeconomic management and fiscal balance, the country’s high levels of poverty are evident, even though President Seretse pursued a conciliatory policy with people of European origin who managed 80% of the economy and promoted livestock in a country with a vast semi-desert region, making Botswana one of Southern Africa’s main exporters of livestock and meat.
His successor, Vice President Ketumile Masire (1980-1998) came under strong pressure from revolutionary socialist groups to limit the concentration of fertile land in European hands and increase the area allocated to cooperatives. The peasants accused the big landowners of raising too much cattle on poor land which, in the short term, would become useless for farming. In addition, a movement emerged in favour of the nationalisation of the diamond, copper and nickel mines exploited by South African companies.
To make matters worse, Masire had to face the economic problem arising from the decline in international demand for diamonds. In 1991, the country suffered the biggest strikes since independence; public workers demanded a 154 per cent wage increase and 18,000 civil servants were laid off; in 1992, unemployment reached 25 per cent. To reduce unemployment, the government encouraged the installation of non-mining industries, but a severe drought forced the authorities to drastically reduce public spending and reduce more than a third of the labour force employed directly or indirectly by the state. After a strike in August 2004, about a thousand workers of the diamond company Debswana Diamond Company were laid off. Debswana is the largest diamond mining company operating in Botswana, 50% state-owned, providing approximately 40% of its revenues.
In May 2006, a highly contagious outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) was detected in the southeastern part of the country, the area of highest beef production. Due to the closure of exports and slaughterhouses, losses exceeded several million dollars and threatened the survival of the meat industry.
Festus Mogae (1999-2008), successor to President Masire, opted for economic liberalization and development, making Botswana one of the most stable countries on the continent.
In 2009, the BDP won the elections again and its leader, lan Khama (son of Seretse), was elected President of Botswana; in April 2018 he resigned and was replaced by Mokgweetsi Masisi, the current President. lan Khama faced opposition parties and a difficult socio-economic reality, with growing unemployment, lack of technical training of young people, absence of entrepreneurial initiatives, need to improve educational and health care (it is public, but difficult to access because of the huge distances).
In 1996, mineral exports represented 47% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. In 2007, when significant quantities of uranium were discovered, several international mining corporations established regional headquarters in Botswana, given the increased production of diamonds, gold, uranium, copper and even oil. In 2009, the government announced that it would try to change its economic dependence on diamonds, in the face of serious concerns that diamonds will run out in the next 20 years. To this end, he developed a tourism policy based on the country’s rich flora and fauna, making tourism the second source of income.
One of the policies of successive Botswana governments has been to promote social welfare. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the government implemented social policies against poverty and increased access to education and health care, so that between 1986 and 2003, the percentage of Batswanas living in poverty fell from 59% to 30.6%, according to World Bank data.
The high investment in education, 10% of GDP, has managed to conquer levels of almost total and free education, 90% according to UNICEF, while in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa it barely reaches 60%. There have been notable improvements in the health sector with a significant decrease in child mortality. But Botswana’s drama is AIDS, it is the country with the highest percentage of AIDS sufferers in the world, a prevalence of 21.4% among 15-49 year olds, according to the World Health Organization. The positive thing is that, according to this organization, more than 95% of those affected can access antiretroviral therapy for cases with advanced infection.
However, the Botswanan government was not so successful when in 1995, having discovered important diamond mines in the Kalahari desert, land of the Bushmen for 30,000 years, it decided to launch a campaign of harassment to expel the Bushmen living in the Central Kalahari Reserve and move them to ‘resettlement camps.
The government, depriving them of water and food, managed to relocate the last contingent of 2,200 Bushmen. According to Botswana law, mining activities and minerals extraction are not subject to the claims of indigenous communities, even if they are residents of those areas. But the Bushmen sued the government and in May 2006 the Botswana High Court ruled in favour of the Bushman people, ruling that exile and subsequent relocation had been “unconstitutional and illegal” and setting the authorities and their attempt to extract diamonds from these lands backwards. By then, more than 10% of the plaintiffs had died in the relocation camps.
Magazine Africana of the Sector of Spain n° 197 of June 2019