Can Botswana Continue to “Have it All”?

Last year, a documentary premiered in the southern African nation of Botswana, entitled “Have it All.”  In many way, this phrase could be the motto of the country.  Botswana is by most measures one of Africa’s success stories. The country has had uninterrupted democracy, with free and fair elections, since independence in 1966, the longest streak in all of Africa.  Botswana’s adjusted per capita GDP, nearly $18,000 according to the CIA, puts it near the top of African nations and on par with countries like Thailand, Montenegro and Costa Rica and ahead of countries like China.

The film “Have it All”, produced in conjunction with the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), documents the stories of five Botswanans living with HIV.  The virus has hit Botswana harder than nearly any other country in the world: 1 in 5 Botswanans have the virus, according to the film.  Yet the movie is not a sob story, nor should it be. Even with the high HIV rate, the country’s wealth and developed infrastructure have allowed it to implemented widespread treatment (the country’s “Treat All” program), as highlighted in the film (“You can have it all with treat all!”), allowing many HIV-positive Botswanans to live full and normal lives. Even with the challenge of HIV, Botswanans have adopted the idea that their political and economic success can carry on.

In that light, the direction of Botswana’s democracy and economy for the next few years, and perhaps much longer, will be decided this week.  The country conducted general elections on Wednesday, and awaits the results today.  The Botswana Democratic Party, which has ruled since independence and has generally guided the country through its decades of success, is nonetheless being challenged like never before.  The opposition comes from Botswanans who are concerned that the BDP has become complacent in some areas and overbearing in others, and that new leadership is needed to continue and further advance the country economically and politically.  The fact that this debate is being played out peacefully at the polls is yet another manifestation of the success that the country has experienced. Why has Botswana been so successful, and what does the country have in store for its future?

Three Views on Botswana’s Success

Ask political scientists or pundits how to explain the successes or failures of various countries, and you’ll get at least one of three basic answers.  Some, especially those who practice politics, will point to what are called voluntarist or agent-centric factors, that is, looking at specific important individuals – presidents, activists, etc. – as being the main factor in leading countries to good or bad outcomes.  This type of explanation is especially appealing for a country like Botswana given the role played by two of its most important leaders: King Khama III, and his grandson, Seretse Khama.

The modern country of Botswana is mostly made up of the Tswana people, an ethnic group made up of various clans that together constitute 85% of the current population.  During the time that European colonization swept across Africa, the chiefs of several of these clans were able to navigate the tricky and deadly situation with unusual skill.  Facing incursions on their territory by white Boer settlers and German colonialists, these chiefs, particularly King Khama III, negotiated an agreement with the British that turned the territory occupied by the Tswana into a British protectorate, Bechuanaland, while allowing most of its local institutions to remain relatively autonomous of white control. The British thought the territory was worthless except as a buffer against other white powers and thus not worth putting a lot of administrative resource into – Khama III was happy to let the British keep thinking that.

This deal kept the area out of the hands of people like Cecil Rhodes (no relation, as far as I know), who dominated nearby Rhodesia.  Part of Khama III’s ability to negotiate with the British came from his conversion to Christianity (Setswana was the first African language into which the Bible was translated), which brought him favor among government officials and missionary groups in England and inspired many of the modernizing but also moralizing reforms he implemented in the country: promoting (Christian) education, banning alcohol and outlawing polygamy.

A large part of Khama III’s legacy was embodied in his grandson, Seretse Khama, who inherited the chieftaincy as a child.  Seretse Khama studied in South Africa and the UK, marrying a white British woman while abroad. This controversial interracial marriage led to the couple being exiled from Bechuanaland for a number of years; he had to renounce his claim to the throne in order to return.  Upon his return, Seretse Khama founded the BDP and led the country to independence, becoming its first president.

When the country became independent in 1966, it was one of the absolute poorest in the world, and had only a handful of college (or even high school) graduates in the entire nation.  President Seretse Khama put in place many modernizing reforms, including an expanded education system, an effective civil service, and a well-functioning democracy.  After President Khama died in office in 1980, power peacefully transferred over the next four decades between his successors: Quett Masire, Festus Mogae, and then Ian Khama, Seretse’s son – all members of the BDP.  (This younger Khama, who retired last year, has since had a falling out with the BDP and is now supporting the opposition).

For many social scientists, like MIT Professor Daron Acemoglu and University of Chicago Professor James Robinson, it wasn’t so much the individual rulers that have been important for Botswana, but the institutions they put in place. (I took classes under Robinson in grad school, and he loves talking about both Botswana and institutions in general). Institutionalism, the second set of explanations for a nation’s success or failure, focuses on the structures put in place to govern a country: government agencies, political parties, laws and regulations, and so on. Institutions, in other words, are the rules of the game, and they influence or even determine individual behavior and thus important political, social and economic outcomes.

For Acemoglu and Robinson, Bechuanaland was fortunate enough to have developed good institutions – the system of chiefs and tribal assemblies that governed the clans of Bechuanaland encouraged pluralism, debate, consensus and merit-based leadership (as Acemoglu and Robinson have pointed out, for example, chieftaincy was not strictly inherited, but there was an element of competency baked into choosing who would get the role), qualities that carried over to independence and democracy.  Even the cultural unity that has contributed to peace within the country is, according to them, a result of institutions: the census stopped asking people about their ethnic identity, and the education system taught everyone Tswana and English, creating linguistic unity that carried over to a larger identification as “Tswana.”

It was not just the fact that Bechuanaland had good institutions that made it successful – many other African societies had these types of institutions before colonialism – but that the institutions survived with very little alteration. In most European colonies, white rulers altered existing institutions, or sometimes made them up altogether.  These colonial institutions therefore lacked legitimacy among their populations, and thus were not respected, meaning that they could be (and often were) overturned or put aside when some segment of the population didn’t like the outcome of an election or just wanted to seize power. By contrast, Botswana’s institutions were both useful and remained seen as legitimate by the population and the leaders of the country.

A third perspective looks at structural factors, broad things like geography, natural resources, culture, and other variables outside of the ability of people to change quickly.  For Botswana, the elephant in the room (other than actual elephants, which the country has a lot of) is the country’s massive deposit of diamonds, initially discovered a year after independence (the country’s leaders had discouraged prospecting before independence, worried that the discovery of minerals would renew European interests in the territory).  Now, diamonds have fueled civil wars in other African countries, such as Sierra Leone – so much so that the term “blood diamonds” became popular (you may remember a popular “white savior” movie about it starring Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio, or Kanye West, in his earlier “woke’ period, writing a song, and then a remix about it).

This did not happen in Botswana: the country has not experienced civil strife, and the profits of the diamond industry have been split 50-50 between the government (which uses the money for a variety of social services and development initiatives) and the international company De Beers. The diamond money has for decades allowed Botswanans to enjoy a higher standard of living than most other countries in Africa and many other countries in the world, period.  The diamond money helps with things like the fight against HIV; the diamond industry is, to a large extent, directly involved in this fight, since the virus threatens its workforce).

Despite their different emphases, these factors – individuals, institutions and structures – are related: Botswana’s geographical isolation and King Khama’s shrewd moves to avoid the worst aspects of colonial domination both contributed to the country maintaining its ethnically homogenous nature, compared to most other European colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, in which multiple distinct nations were lumped together into the same political unit, setting the stage for ethnic competition and strife after independence.  Additionally, natural resource wealth often leads to dictatorship and massive inequality – look at many of the major oil producing states of the world – and the fact that Botswana has avoided those fates can be chalked up to either good leadership, good institutions, or both. But the relationship also works in the other direction: having the economic cushion that comes from a steady supply of diamond money allows good leaders and good institutions to endure without having to deal with the crises that extreme poverty brings.

These factors are all at stake in the election, which could see a change in individual leaders, including the current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi. Masisi has only been in power for a year and a half, but will lose his position if his party loses power (under the Botswanan system, the majority party in parliament chooses the president).  Masisi was Ian Khama’s handpicked successor, and has tried to make a name of himself by tackling corruption. But he has also alienated Khama, who accuses the new president of autocratic tendencies and has now endorsed the opposition, leaving the party that his father Seretse Khama founded.

A defeat for the BDP would not only end Masisi’s term but also mark the end of the political dominance of the BDP, one of the institutions that has defined the country since independence. And the election might even change the role of diamonds in the economy.  The government has been renegotiating the deal with De Beers (the old agreement expires next year), but the negotiations have been going on in secret, a point that the opposition has criticized. A new ruling party may attempt to gain a significantly larger share of the diamond revenue and to distribute that money more broadly within the country, changes which could have a radical impact on the economy.  Long term, the debate has also focused on how best to diversify the economy away from this single commodity.  These debates have led to what will likely be the closest election in the country’s history, but the president has already declared that he will abide by the results, whatever they may be.  Even in the face of this unprecedented political challenge, the country stands poised to continue its status as a success story, continuing to have it all.

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