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Students at the University of Botswana in the capital, Gaborone. All photos: Marc Shoul / Panos Pictures

Botswana: losing its sparkle?

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  • Life expectancy
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‘A nation without a culture is a lost nation.’ This misquote has been attributed to

the first president of Botswana and perhaps stems from a yearning for a past era when ‘because it is our culture’ was the predictable response to questions as to why things were done in a particular way. What Seretse Khama actually said, in 1970, was ‘a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul’.

A map showing Botswana in relation to its neighbours
A map showing Botswana in
relation to its neighbours.

Botswana is a sub-Saharan, land-locked country about the size of France, with a population of just over two million people and about half as many cattle. After 80 years as a British Protectorate, Bechuanaland became the independent Republic of Botswana on 30 September 1966. At independence it was one of the 25 poorest countries in the world.

The discovery of diamonds in 1967 and other minerals helped transform it into a middle-income economy. Prudent management of its natural resources has contributed to its continuously scoring high in international indicators for economic freedom, ease of doing business, global competitiveness and corruption perception index.

Looking out over the main pit of the Jwaneng mine in the Kalahari – the richest diamond mine in the world.
Looking out over the main pit of the Jwaneng mine in the Kalahari – the richest diamond mine in the world. Photo: Marc Shoul/Panos Pictures

In recent decades, however, the country’s sparkle-pretty image has been rusting somewhat. In 1994, following the Christie Commission, which exposed gross maladministration in land and housing provision, the Directorate of Crime and Economic Crime was established.

It was a welcome development, seen as a means of curbing corruption. In 2007, the Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) came into being. However, over the years its activities have sown doubt and fear in the population, not least because of its military-heavy make-up and the lack of transparency and accountability regarding its financial expenditure.

The country’s reliance on diamond exports and the non-existence of a robust manufacturing base continue to give rise to calls for economic diversification. The tourism sector is growing amidst concerns about infringement of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Kalahari Desert, the San or ‘Basarwa’. Unemployment continues to rise, with only 1,000 jobs available in the formal sector for 10,000 graduates each year. It is now common for the words ‘Botswana’, ‘tax haven’, ‘money laundering’ and ‘corruption’ to be said in the same breath. The amassing of wealth by a few has widened the chasm between the haves and those who are barely surviving – Botswana is now among the world’s most unequal countries.

Botswana: Nthompe Rosinah Mothata selling her snacks in Gaborone’s bus station.
Nthompe Rosinah Mothata selling her snacks in Gaborone’s bus station. Photo: Marc Shoul/Panos Pictures

The HIV pandemic continues to be a challenge – Botswana was one of the hardest-hit countries in the world – although the country’s healthcare system has embraced the ‘Treat All’ policy and offers free anti-retroviral treatment for all its citizens.

Ever since independence, the country has been a stable, multiparty democracy and is extolled as a shining example of democracy on the African continent. It has held general elections every five years – albeit always won by the same party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). In 2014, it won 37 out of the 57 parliamentary seats, though it garnered the lowest popular vote in its history. With elections forthcoming in 2019, it remains to be seen if the opposition will be sufficiently well organized to mount a real challenge to the ruling party.

Botswana: The Three Dikgosi (Chiefs) Monument depicting the leaders of the Bangwato, Bakwena and Bangwaketse ethnic groups – a set of bronze figures cast by a North Korean company and located in Gaborone’s Central Business District.
The Three Dikgosi (Chiefs) Monument depicting the leaders of the Bangwato, Bakwena and Bangwaketse ethnic groups – a set of bronze figures cast by a North Korean company and located in Gaborone’s Central Business District. Photo: Marc Shoul / Panos Pictures

Therisanyo is a cornerstone of Botswana’s system of governance. This belief in consultation is deeply rooted in the country’s kgotla system. The kgotla, where all gather, is a space for every voice to be heard, where one can speak freely without fear of reprisal. And perhaps the days ahead will bring positive change – a blend of the old ways and the new leave to form a Botswana with real soul that future generations will be able to celebrate.

Fact file

Leader President Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi (since April 2018).
Economy GNI per capita $6,750 (Namibia $4,640, UK $42,370).
Monetary unit The Pula (which means ‘rain’) is divided into 100 thebe (which means ‘shield’).
Main exports Diamonds (85% of export earnings), copper, nickel, beef and soda ash, though tourism is now the second biggest foreign-exchange earner after diamonds. Because it is so dependent on diamonds the economy tends to mirror global trends – while the annual economic growth rate was high for decades, it has been much lower since the global financial crash of 2007-08.
People 2.3 million. Annual population growth rate 1.8%. People per square kilometre 4 (UK 271). The population is heavily skewed towards its four main urban centres, with around 250,000 in the capital, Gaborone.
Health Botswana’s HIV management programme has been lauded as one of the most progressive in the world, with free anti-retroviral treatment having been provided from the inception of the programme in 2002. Average life expectancy has risen from a low of 34 years in 2000 at the peak of AIDS deaths to 67 in 2016.
Environment There are periodic droughts. The Okavango Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist location.
Culture There are more than 20 different ethnic groups. Equitable representation for all these in the House of Chiefs (Ntlo ya Dikgosi), which advises on cultural matters, continues to be a source of conflict for some.
Religion The constitution protects freedom of religion. Christianity 70%, alongside traditional indigenous religions and minorities of the other major religions.
Language The national language is Setswana while English is the official language.
Human Development Index 0.698, 108th of 188 countries (Namibia 0.640, UK 0.909).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution According to the GINI index, Botswana is the fourth most unequal country in the world, behind only Haiti, Namibia and South Africa. As of 2015, 16.3% of Batswana were living below the poverty line, though the recent closure of major mines, will impact negatively on these results.
Literacy 87%. Education is not compulsory but since ‘free’ education was introduced for the first 10 years of school, the uptake has risen to 86%, though pass rates have dropped.
Life expectancy 67 years (Namibia 64, UK 81) – a remarkable rise from the AIDS-death nadir of 34 years in 2000.
Freedom Botswana’s judicial freedom has come into question recently but the courts have continued to display a willingness to intervene and protect civil rights.
Position of women In 2013, a landmark case brought by four sisters in 2013 transformed the right to inheritance. Full pay for 84 days for the maternity leave has been implemented. Representation by women in parliament is disproportionately low.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal, punishable by a maximum seven-year prison term, though arrests are rare. The government registrar twice refused to register LeGaBiBo (Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana) before the Appeals Court ruled in the group’s favour in 2016.
Previously reviewed September 2008
New Internationalist assessment Botswana’s multiparty democracy has been lauded as exemplary with free and mostly fair elections being held regularly every five years since 1965. No president has stayed longer than the two terms allowed by the constitution, including Ian Khama (son of independence leader Seretse), who stepped down at the end of March 2018 to be replaced by the Vice-President, Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi. As always, Botswana can take pride in the fact that this was a smooth transition and the new leader has brought with him a sense of invigoration and optimism.

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