Southern Africa’s Little Gem

This week I was fortunate enough to spend my time in Gaborone, Botswana scouting out potential non-profit partners for next year’s PEPAL programme. A great friend from my time in Chicago hails from here so it is not my first visit to the city, but coming directly from its neighbour to the north allowed me to view the place with fresh eyes.

We are still very definitely in Southern Africa – the friendly smiles; the ever courteous “Hello, how are you?”; the impenetrable driving directions “go straight, then just turn straight!” but from here the similarities quickly fade.

The minibuses that ferry people across the city are shiny and new, driving on smoothly tarred (if somewhat jammed) roads which they share with a fleet of BMW’s, Audi’s and Volvo’s that wouldn’t look out of place on any European or US highway. It is also nice to see ambulances and fire trucks on African streets – last week’s escapades have clearly left their mark on me.

What is particularly pleasing is that all this development exists without the cloud of violence and gross inequality that plagues its troubled neighbour to the south – South Africa. Botswana is clearly a nation at one with itself, run by educated and prosperous black Africans for themselves.

A girl called Botswana's best friend

A girl called Botswana's best friend

So what sets this place apart, making it the poster child for any number of development case studies? Well, little gems do indeed have a significant role to play. In 1968 some of the largest diamond deposits in the world were discovered here and their immense value has fuelled an entire generation of economic development. This cannot be the whole story however, many African countries have discovered great natural resources only to see them become more a curse than a blessing.

Why did Botswana manage its geological inheritance so wisely? Like any success, there are multiple claims of parenthood. The fact that the country had a relatively low-key colonial past without divisive minority white rule, the fact that it is peopled by the homogeneous tswana tribe, the fact that it is a small sparsely populated nation have all been given as reasons for the smooth and smart handling of their mineral windfall.

Ask my friend though and he will point you in another direction – good leadership. Botswana has been blessed with a series of leaders who established the institutions that have allowed this country to thrive without corruption or violence. They were smart enough to reach a deal with the diamond giants DeBeers to develop the mines in collaboration with the private sector. They were smarter still to renegotiate the deal when yet larger reserves were found, even taking a share in the company.

The result is a highly developed, well run economy filled with educated and capable inhabitants. The rule of law and reach of democracy is so deep that Radio DJ’s review the constitutional standing of their President in between playing dance music (I couldn’t make this stuff up). This place doesn’t continually top the continent rankings for transparency and democracy without good reason.

Of course that is not to say that Botswana does not face it’s share of problems. The economy is still heavily reliant on those little gems and the current downturn has hit jewellery sales so badly that the mines have closed (albeit temporarily) to reduce global supply in an attempt to raise prices. The country remains ravaged by HIV (though it no longer holds the dubious distinction of ‘most infected nation’ ) and being a middle income economy means it can rely on a lot less aid than many of it’s African neighbours to try to rectify the problem.

Despite these problems, Botswana to me is still a beacon of hope across the continent. A statement of just how developed, prosperous and peaceful any African nation can be if they are fortunate enough to enjoy a little luck and the right leadership. Perhaps the greatest shame of all is that only 0.17% of continent’s total population gets to live there.

One Response to “Southern Africa’s Little Gem”
  1. Mutale says:

    Botswana indeed stands out in Southern Africa and Africa as a whole and gives hope to the continent that if the right stuff work for you such as early resources deals with the colonial rulers, plus equal sharing of the same resources and a foundation of democracy, then perhaps manner might rain.

    I am not sure I have always thought Botswana has always gotten it right, but hey when you really look hard at Harare in Zimbabwe for instance, a town which is said to have been built with copper from Zambia in the time it was Salisbury I get the feeling if all that happened in present day Lusaka or better still any town around former Northern Rhodesia it could have been a different situation today. Not to say it would have been Botswana equivalent but I think we would have infrastructure that attracts a lot of other things. Infrastructure is not the only mark of development but it contributes to bringing development.

    Not long ago Zambian teachers were being poached seriously by the Botswana education system (Ministry), in addition to the many healthy workers who left for Botswana with an attraction of better pay, because that country couldn’t afford to train its own, or there were many Botswana’s who couldn’t qualify. Again not to sound as though I am justifying the poor condition that the states around Botswana are in, but I am acknowledging that maybe its time to learn from those we have taught.

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