Botswana has come to be known as the “African Exception.” Its record of economic growth and political democracy stands in stark contrast to virtually all other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). I will argue that Botswana’s success is closely related to how its founders built the new nation on those parts of traditional culture which were compatible with or essential to democratic development.


In the 1950s the Bechuanaland Protectorate was an economic and political backwater. In 1885 Britain had unilaterally declared its “protection” for Bechuanaland in order to forestall any expansion by the Germans in Southwest Africa and Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic. Then in 1895, three chiefs (Khama III, Bathoen I, and Sebele I) traveled to Britain to ask Queen Victoria’s government for further assistance, on a mission arranged through the London Missionary Society (LMS). This was an early example of what became a long-standing practice. Botswana used some foreigners, the LMS, to help the country deal with other foreigners: the Boers, Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company, and the British government. For decades, many people expected Bechuanaland to be absorbed into South Africa — an eventuality provided for in the Union Agreements that ended the Anglo-Boer War. Botswana’s chiefs, aided by allies in Britain, waged a long and successful campaign against incorporation . Eventually the policies of South Africa’s National Party government, culminating in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth, ensured that the British would not hand over Bechuanaland to South Africa, though South Africa continued to press for it.

In the early 1960s, as constitutional development emerged in the protectorate, the general situation was grim. By 1965, the thinly populated, landlocked country was surrounded by white minority regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia, and Southwest Africa. A multiyear drought eventually destroyed more than one-third of the national cattle herd (the country’s only asset), and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease prevented farmers from moving cattle to market before they starved. Grants-in-aid from the British covered half of the operating budget and the entire development budget.

There were only a handful of university graduates, and the first government secondary school was not established until the eve of independence . There were five kilometers of paved road in a country the size of France. Perhaps ten times as many Botswanan citizens held wage jobs in South Africa as were in modern cash employment in Botswana itself. Its per capita income was about 10 percent of the world average, placing it among the world’s poorest countries.

To add insult to injury, the capital was in Mafeking, in the Cape Province of South Africa. As a prohibited immigrant in South Africa, Botswana’s most important political figure, Seretse Khama, could not even travel to the capital of his own country. As Sir Seretse and his successor, Quett (later Sir Ketumile) Masire, Botswana’s first and second presidents, often said, “When we asked for independence, people thought we were either very brave or very foolish.”

The Record

World Bank data show that from 1965 to 1999, Botswana achieved the world’s highest rate of growth of per capita income: over 7 percent per annum. By comparison, GDP in SSA was growing 2.6 percent annually, so average real income fell over thirty-five years. Botswana’s GDP grew 10.6 percent and exports 10.5 percent annually . Manufacturing exports, starting from essentially a zero base in 1965, grew over 16 percent per year from 1975 to 1999 . Growth in modern sector jobs was about 7.5 percent per year at least since around 1980, two to three times the rate of population and labor force growth; employment of Batswana in South Africa declined to a small fraction of the labor force. External debt is negligible, and for several years foreign exchange reserves have exceeded two years’ imports . In 1965 Botswana’s income per capita was about 60 percent of SSA and about 10 percent of the world average. By 1999, Botswana’s income per head was six times that of the rest of SSA, and 60 percent of the world average.

Diamonds accounted for much of the growth of Botswana’s GDP. De Beers announced a discovery at Orapa in 1967. By 1982 Botswana had two major mines at Orapa and Jwaneng, and by 1990 it was the world’s largest producer of diamonds. But any observer of development knows that the presence of mineral wealth does not guarantee broader economic success. Indeed, the political and economic difficulties of managing mineral wealth often lead mineral-rich countries — Nigeria and Venezuela are contemporary examples — into severe economic, political, and social trouble. Botswana’s nonmining economy has grown more than 10 percent annually — a growth rate that would also have led the world . Further, while Botswana is De Beers’ largest supplier of rough diamonds, Debswana, Botswana’s diamond mining partnership with De Beers, transfers more than 75 percent of its profits to the Botswana government and now owns about 15 percent of De Beers .

Cattle ownership continues to be a major source of rural wealth and rural aspirations, but agricultural development has been a serious disappointment, despite massive government investments in agriculture and rural development. By the late 1990s, annual expenditures by the Ministry of Agriculture amounted to over 60 percent of value added in agriculture. Other factors also cause concern: economic disparities, unemployment among school-leavers, the very high rate of HIV/AIDS infection, and high defense costs.

Botswana held its first multiparty elections in 1965, eighteen months before independence, under a constitution unanimously agreed upon by a multiparty conference and later endorsed unanimously by the Legislative Council, which had been established in 1961. Since independence, Botswana has held elections every five years, from 1969 to 2004. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won 81 percent of the vote in 1965, and its majority shrank over the succeeding thirty-four years. Twice (1969 and 1984) a sitting vice president lost his seat in the elections. Opposition parties are particularly strong in the urban areas. There have been two constitutional successions in the Presidency: from Seretse Khama to Quett Masire in 1980, following Khama’s death, and from Masire to Festus Mogae in 1998, following Masire’s decision to retire.

Transparency International has ranked Botswana as having the lowest perceived corruption in Africa. Botswana also was ranked second best (behind Chile) among all developing countries, and less corrupt than a number of OECD countries, including Japan, Spain, Belgium, Greece, and Italy. Since the 1980s, several independent weekly newspapers have provided lively (sometimes sensational) coverage of political news, with sixty to eighty thousand copies sold each week, mainly in cities and larger villages.

Botswana has played an important role regionally. It was a respected member of the Front Line States during the struggles for liberation in Southern Africa. In 1980 it was a key advocate and architect of the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference (now Development Community, or SADC) . Botswana was selected to chair SADC for fifteen consecutive years, reflecting its standing with both peers in the region and with donors. Botswana has sent troops on UN peacekeeping missions, and its leaders have taken an active, if quiet, role in dealing with difficult domestic problems in several other countries.

On the negative side of the political ledger, both BDP and opposition politicians, as well as many other observers, have expressed concerns about inequities in distributing the fruits of economic development and the political consequences. Controversy continues around government development policies for the Basarwa (or San, or Bushmen) peoples. A famous court case on gender discrimination, brought by a woman named Unity Dow, garnered Botswana a good deal of adverse attention. The courts ultimately found, as she had charged, that the Citizenship Act (which granted citizenship to the children of male, but not female, citizens if the spouse was a noncitizen) was unconstitutional. Unity Dow herself is now a judge.

With the huge exception of HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that has exploded since the mid-1990s, Botswana’s progress has been impressive both socially and economically. Government revenues were heavily reinvested in health care, and in primary, secondary, and tertiary education; education rates for females are generally higher than for males. Water supply projects, first in major villages and then in smaller ones, gave virtually everyone access to potable water . Botswana now has one of the best systems of paved roads on the continent (over 5,000 km, compared to 5 km at independence) . Monthly grants were introduced for all citizens over the age of sixty-five, and they have made a major impact in reducing poverty among the aged. A large network of NGOs operates in all fields, from education and health to women’s issues, social services, services for the disabled, and youth services.

Roots of Success: Traditional Society and Deft Choices

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as impulses for political independence were stirring in Bechuanaland, most people in the protectorate were still living in a traditional society. Their lives were regulated by the seasons, since agriculture — crop farming or animal husbandry — was the dominant economic activity. However, a substantial portion of adult males (one-third of those aged twenty to forty) as well as many women, worked in South African mines, farms, and factories.

The British ruled Bechuanaland through classic indirect rule: the ordinary person was governed by his or her chief, or by a subchief or a headman in the area. The colonial district commissioner worked with the chief. Europeans (perhaps 1 percent of the population) and the very small Asian and mixed-race communities had more direct contact with the colonial authorities . The chief presided at kgotla, the traditional gathering place in the village which served as a judicial chamber, administrative body, or advisor to the chief, as the occasion demanded. The kgotla was and continues to be a central institution in Tswana culture and governance. The chief adjudicated disputes and dispensed justice, allocated land — for arable farming, grazing, home sites, and commercial ventures — and distributed stray cattle at his discretion. He made decisions on educational policy and public works projects, told people when it was time to plow or harvest, and was, in general, responsible for managing the lives of his subjects.

A Setswana saying conveys an important attribute of traditional culture: “Kgosi ke Kgosi ka batho”: a chief is a chief by the will of the people. Chiefs generally consulted people before making a decision on matters of any importance . While they did not necessarily abide by the consensus of opinion in the kgotla, the tradition of consultation and seeking consensus is deeply important in Tswana society . A chief would seldom venture an opinion in the kgotla until all who wished to opine had done so.

The churches were a presence through most of the country, and chiefs were the first converts to Christianity. Initiation rites continued, but now circumcision and ritual sacrifices were barred . Prayers for rain replaced (or were performed alongside) rainmakers. Liquor was banned. The churches were a major source of the education and health care available to Batswana, and they were seen to be bringing useful skills to the country and its people. The first speaker of the National Assembly was the Reverend Dr. Alfred Merriweather, the missionary doctor who headed the Scottish Livingston Hospital in Molepolole. His successor as speaker was the Reverend Albert Lock, also of the United Congregational Church, successor to the LMS.

Many of the chiefs were progressive in their attitudes toward modernization, often encouraged by missionaries. The Bakgatla National School, opened in 1923 in Mochudi, was a self-help project pushed by the Bakgatla Regent, Isang Pilane, who respected modern ideas and wanted his people to learn the skills the whites possessed . Chief Linchwe I sent Bakgatla to South Africa so they could bring back education to develop his people. Tshekdi Khama fought for more rights for Africans within the protectorate, established a secondary school, and promoted modern agriculture . So while many factors in traditional society, including the power of witch doctors and sorcery, inhibited change or progressive ideas, powerful countervailing forces came from some of the chiefs .

There was relatively little formal education beyond primary school; modern farming methods for crops and livestock had not penetrated very deeply into traditional life. Farming in drought-prone Bechuanaland was highly risky, but those risks were simply part of what life had to offer. Traditional society also produced skepticism about new ideas and jealousy of those who moved ahead by their own efforts, inhibiting change and discouraging progressive activities. In the 1950s Quett Masire became the first master farmer and the largest African producer of grain in the protectorate. His high yields and large harvests were widely attributed to witchcraft rather than the elaborate system of dryland farming he had developed through reading, observation, and experimentation. Aspirations for men included working in the mines long enough to accumulate savings for some cattle, a wife, a home and family; some had the ambition to be a clerk in the colonial government .

Among ethnic groups in Southern Africa, the Tswana have one of the weakest military traditions, and more bellicose tribes pushed them to the periphery of the arable land. A Setswana proverb holds that “the big battle should be fought with words,” and their skill at diplomacy has deep historical and cultural roots. Their survival in a relatively harsh and risky physical environment and climate depended on a good deal of cooperation, especially in times of extreme drought . And a strong tradition held that those who had resources should assist those who lacked them.

Respect for others, integrity, modesty, lack of personal pride, and honesty were important virtues. Eschewing showiness helped avoid “prestige” projects and unnecessary expenditures after independence . For many years only the president flew first class to international meetings, or had the use of an official car with a driver . Until the late 1970s or 1980s, ministers and permanent secretaries drove pickup trucks in the capital. In the 1970s, when the minister of agriculture discovered a delegation from the Botswana Meat Commission staying in a five-star hotel in Europe, he made them move immediately to a cheaper one.

Colonial Authorities and Constitutional Change

The British colonial authorities provided honest administration but very little development of physical or human resources. A colleague in Botswana once observed, with some anger, “The British left us with nothing!” He then paused, thoughtfully, and added, “On the other hand, the British left us with nothing.” There was no large settler community claiming political power, no bureaucracy of privileged civil servants, no large houses of colonial rulers, no inheritance of inferiority that plagued many other former colonies. Nor did Botswana endure the rapacious rule of the Belgian Congo or other exploited colonies in Africa. A blank slate was in many ways a blessing.

Successive resident commissioners and those who reported to them had occasionally had stormy relationships with some chiefs, notably Tshekedi Khama, a nephew of Khama III, who was particularly independent and self-confident. These disputes generally arose when commissioners tried to exercise greater control over areas that were the chiefs’ prerogative. The colonial authorities established a Native (later African) Advisory Council in 1919 and a European Advisory Council in 1920 (though very few whites then lived in the territory) . A Joint Advisory Council (JAC), established in 1951, had eight members from each of the other advisory councils and four government members. In 1956 the government asked the JAC to begin debating and commenting on proposed legislation for the protectorate, though laws were still promulgated by the colonial government in London.

A major conflict erupted in 1948, and its eventual resolution heavily influenced Botswana’s political history. Seretse Khama, grandson of Khama the Great, was heir to the chieftainship of the Bangwato at his birth in 1921 . Khama and his successors ruled several other tribes as paramount chiefs, and presided over a larger population than any of the other seven paramount chiefs acknowledged by the British. While Seretse was in his minority, the tribe was ruled by his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, as regent. Tshekedi was a powerful force in the protectorate .

In 1948, while in London studying law, Seretse fell in love with and married an English woman, Ruth Williams. South African elections had just been won by the racist National Party, which made strong representations to the British about this mixed marriage . An enormous controversy, reported in the world press, surrounded Seretse’s marriage. Tshekedi was outraged, since Seretse had married without his permission, outside the tribe, and to a white woman . At a confrontation in the kgotla in Serowe, Seretse argued the case for his marriage, and the overwhelming majority sided with him. Tshekedi and Seretse became estranged, and the British banned Seretse from the protectorate . By 1956, Seretse and Tshekedi reached an accommodation: both would renounce claims to the chieftainship, and Seretse and his family were permitted to return. Later reforms provided for elected tribal councils to advise chiefs, and by 1959 such arrangements had been finalized throughout the territory . First Tshekedi and then Seretse served as secretary to the Ngwato Tribal Council.

One exceptionally positive aspect of colonial rule in its final decade was the role of Peter Fawcus, who arrived in 1954 and became Resident Commissioner in 1959. He and his legal advisor, Alan Tilbury, worked closely with Khama and Masire on virtually every aspect of the legal and constitutional changes in Bechuanaland from 1961 to 1965 . Fawcus and a few other dedicated officers identified with the democratic, nonracial aspirations of the BDP leadership and were powerful allies of the African leadership. Fawcus’s well-documented history of encounters with the whites, the chiefs and, sotto voce, the British government, show his deft hand in moving the process along. Fawcus also fought for more financial resources for Bechuanaland, increasing annual expenditures in the protectorate by twentyfold between 1954 and 1965 .

Working with (some would say directed by) Peter Fawcus, the JAC developed a new constitutional arrangement that went into effect in 1961, following approval in London . It established an African Council (elected from the local ward level up through each tribal kgotla), a European Council, and a Legislative Council (LEGCO) of ten Africans (eight selected by the African Council, and two appointed), ten Europeans (also eight elected and two appointed), one Asian, and ten government officials, with the resident commissioner presiding. This was the first body in the territory with the power to pass legislation. LEGCO established its own rules of procedure, based on those at Westminster . Debate was lively, and the record of voting on contentious issues showed no systematic pattern of division along lines of race or tribe, or among royals, commoners, or government officials .

Traditional patterns of consultation were extended to national legislative and administrative institutions. For example, LEGCO published any proposed legislation in the government Gazette two weeks before it was debated. Between 1961 and 1964, LEGCO dealt with a wide range of legislation aimed at providing the territory with the basic laws an independent nation would need.

Racial discrimination was a contentious issue in the protectorate . A LEGCO Committee on Race Relations held hearings and took evidence throughout the country. The exercise showed the white members how much racism existed and how deeply the African majority felt about it. Some people, including members of the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP), pressed for legislation that would make racial discrimination a crime subject to punishment . LEGCO passed a bill that established machinery for determining whether discrimination had occurred and provided for penalties . However, the law was never implemented, and it lapsed on schedule at the end of 1967.

In addition to LEGCO, an Executive Council had been established with four members of LEGCO (two black, two white) effectively acting as political ministers. Civil servants gained practice in dealing with politicians, rather than simply with more senior colonial authorities, and four politicians gained experience as political heads of administrative departments. Simultaneously, the African Council undertook several major committee studies and reports and began to reform institutions of local government . They soon substituted democratic processes for the autocratic rule of local chiefs.

In 1963 Peter Fawcus invited the three political parties, the chiefs, and the whites to select three representatives each (the Asian community selected one) to a Constitutional Conference . The conference produced a draft constitution for self-rule; given Britain’s budgetary support, they left foreign affairs and finance to colonial authorities . The conference, and then LEGCO, unanimously adopted the draft, which was then accepted by the authorities in London .

The Role of the Botswana Democratic Party and its Leadership

In November 1961, Seretse Khama, clearly the leading figure in the protectorate, convened the African members of LEGCO and proposed that they form a new political party to compete with the BPP, also founded that year. A committee was appointed to draft a party constitution, and the party was formally launched in 1962 . Seretse Khama was elected president with Quett Masire as secretary general. Masire served as chief organizer until 1980, when he succeeded Khama as president of Botswana.

Most of the party’s founding members were active in LEGCO, and they came from all parts of the country. The BDP was explicitly a national, nontribal and nonracial party . Over the succeeding months, the BDP leadership traveled throughout the country talking with teachers, farmers, civil servants, and locally prominent individuals. They recruited members, solicited ideas, and discussed popular aspirations for an independent Botswana. A party newspaper, Therisanyo

(“Consultation”), was edited by Masire. Once the national constitution had been approved, the leadership took the message to every village in the country. By the time elections were held in March 1965, the BDP had organized in every constituency; it won 81 percent of the vote and twenty-eight of thirty-one constituencies.

Most BDP leaders had attended secondary school and were therefore among the relatively well-educated Batswana. Virtually all had studied in South Africa and experienced the racism there . Only Seretse Khama had traveled outside Africa for a university education. The party’s fortieth anniversary brochure profiles sixteen people who provided “Shoulders of Giants.” Twelve were teachers or heads of schools at one time or another; over half had attended Tiger Kloof, the LMS school in South Africa. They were committed to education for themselves and for the electorate, and they brought both intellectual curiosity and academic rigor to their lives in politics . They set high standards and held younger people to them .

Both Khama and Masire traveled abroad to learn how electoral politics and policy making were done in other countries. They sent other politicians and civil servants to other countries to learn as well. They encouraged people to bring back their observations about both successes and failures. Masire noted in a speech to the first parliament in 1966, “our progress has been so rapid because we have benefited from the experience and the mistakes of others.” [My emphasis]

The BDP had studied other constitutions before drafting their own proposals for the constitutional conference. They brought in specialists from other countries to run seminars for cabinet members and for the entire parliament, to ensure that politicians and civil servants understood the basis for the decisions they would be asked to make. The practices established in the 1960s were maintained for many years, even as the government became more complex and the bureaucracy grew.

When they were campaigning for the first election in 1965, leaders of the BDP found that ordinary Batswana were realists . Having scratched for a living on the land, they knew one couldn’t demand more in payment than the harvest yielded. Frugality and saving were not just virtues; they were necessities of life .

The BDP leaders searched for a “golden mean” on the role of chiefs and of customary laws and practices. They wanted to remove the arbitrary power of the chief over an individual, but with a minimum of disruption in traditional customs. Between 1961 and 1966 the chieftainship was completely redefined . The elected district councils governed all citizens within the district boundaries regardless of race or tribe. Land boards assumed the power to allocate land, and since their members came from the area, local custom and history would be respected . The constitution provided for a House of Chiefs to advise the National Assembly on customary affairs. No one could be a member of both the House of Chiefs and Parliament, so a chief who wished to enter elective politics would have to resign the chieftainship — as Seretse Khama had done in 1956 .

Chiefs retained their roles as adjudicators of disputes and dispensers of justice according to customary law. Thus, for the average citizen, the legal system would not change after independence. An appeals court ensured congruence among customary, statute and common law, and also provided uniformity in the application of the law and a forum for appeal. Customary courts were established in urban areas and the new mining towns, so that both urban and rural Batswanans could bring cases for adjudication without a lawyer . Today, 75 to 80 percent of all civil and minor criminal cases are still settled in customary courts .

The reform of chieftainship was doubtless eased by the fact that Seretse Khama was of royal heritage. He and the other BDP leaders believed that the chieftainship was a divisive force, since tribesmen were taught to feel a loyalty to their chief above country . Khama, Masire, and the other leaders were anxious to avoid the divisions on tribal and ethnic lines that had plagued other African countries . They asked that the 1964 census not record racial or tribal affiliation, in order to forestall any attempt to rate tribes or races by electoral size. The BDP leadership preached unity and non-racialism (not multi-racialism, which they associated with South Africa’s approach) as key elements of the party’s election manifesto . Characteristically, Khama and Masire felt the objectives were to achieve real democracy at both local and national level and to move allegiances from the tribe to the nation. It was not necessary to denigrate the chiefs in order to accomplish those goals .

The strong Tswana tradition of consultation was embraced by the BDP leaders . It influenced how they recruited party members, how they approached the electorate, and how they formulated policy and made decisions . The kgotla tradition of people speaking their minds candidly was easily transferable to a system of democratic elections with a bill of rights that protects freedom of speech and encourages widespread consultation. Consultation could also help educate people about the choices they faced and the consequences of their choices, and the leadership frequently cited their belief that “the essence of democracy is an informed electorate.”

In the run-up to the 1965 preindependence elections, much of their electioneering was devoted to explaining, in meeting after meeting, the nature of the new constitution, the nature of political parties, and the way an independent government would work . Candid feedback to the leadership was seen as important in formulating policies that would respond to people’s needs. The first priorities the districts listed were access to good water, primary education, health care, better roads and communication, and better access to markets for livestock and crops. The BDP government listened, responded in its budgetary allocations, and was richly rewarded by its electoral support in most rural areas.

Seretse Khama’s role as BDP leader was critical. He carried the large Bangwato vote because of his royal heritage, and was popular in other parts of the country for the same reason . Further, he was a charismatic man, eloquent and witty in both Setswana and English, and at ease with people of any station in life, race, or background. While Seretse’s leadership gave the BDP a substantial advantage, Masire’s organizational efforts made the BDP election victory broad and enduring. The BDP became much more than the reflected charisma of one person .

Living next to South Africa also was important. At independence, most political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, had lived, worked, gone to school, or traveled in South Africa. They had seen the results of a political, economic, and social system based on race. All were determined to avoid any such thing in Botswana, though different political parties approached the matter in different ways. Motsamai Mpho, one of the founders of the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP), was an African National Congress (ANC) man, while another of its founders, Philip Matante (later the first leader of the opposition after independence) was a Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) protégé. The PAC was antiwhite and confrontational in its approach, while the ANC was ideologically inclined to socialism but was nonracial in its membership . As Mpho and Matante split in 1963, they led two different parties to the constitutional conference, where neither contributed much.

The BDP was proud that it did not proclaim any “isms,” that its approach was based only on whether something would work in Botswana . In his opening speech to the first Parliament, Khama noted: “The foreign policy of my government will be dictated by reason and commonsense.… Our first duty will be toward the people of this country rather than to any world political ideologies.” Masire added, “We do not care whether we are called capitalist or socialist … what interests us is to see Botswana developed.”

The “Four National Principles” were adopted in the 1960s: Democracy, Development, Unity, and Self-Reliance. The leaders noted that these principles represented the opposite of what the country experienced before independence: there was no democracy at either local or national level; there had been no development; people thought of themselves as tribesmen first, not as Batswana; and they relied on the British for both financial support and international security. Those conditions would change at independence. Moreover, they knew that any progress on these key issues was potentially reversible: the principles would have to be constantly reiterated and used as a guide to policy choices.

The Policy-Making Process

The principles of both consulting with and educating the electorate lie at the heart of the policy-making process in Botswana. During the republic’s formation, the leadership recognized that selecting a policy involved a choice and a process for making a decision, that one should know something of the costs and benefits of the alternatives, and that all choices involved calculated risks. From 1961 to 1964, working with LEGCO and the Executive Council, they developed a practice of involving civil service technical experts in direct discussion with cabinet ministers and other politicians. Politicians should understand the technical aspects of constraints on their choices, and experts should know directly of political leaders’ concerns.

In 1975, for example, Botswana decided to establish its own currency, the pula (“rain”), and to stop using the South African rand. The pula was issued in August 1976, after a year of widespread publicity about the new currency and its effects on everyday lives. Planning for the pula meant new legislation (establishing a central bank, regulating commercial banks in Botswana, etc.), but an independent currency would also require decisions for the first time on monetary and interest rate policies, exchange controls, levels of foreign exchange reserves, and the currency’s par value. Therefore, a macroeconomic planning unit was established in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) as was a working group between the Bank of Botswana and MFDP.

Before “Pula Day,” seminars were held for the Economic Committee of the Cabinet — the cabinet plus senior civil servants — and for all-party parliamentary caucuses covering the balance of payments, why foreign exchange reserves rise and fall, the effects of changes in the exchange rate between the pula and other currencies, and so forth. By the mid-1980s, it was normal to discuss exchange rate policy in parliament and even among the public .

Anticipation of future developments has been an important part of Botswana’s approach . In planning for drought, animal diseases, and possible disruptions of energy supplies or possible South African sanctions, the government mobilized foreign or local experts to analyze the issues . It then planned, educated, and executed accordingly .

For many years Botswana enjoyed the highest flow of foreign aid per capita of any country in Africa. In contrast to many countries where donors or donor consortia effectively dictated terms or priorities to the host government, Botswana actively managed its relationships with donor agencies to make their priorities fit those of the government. The long tradition of relying on some foreigners to help deal with other more troublesome ones was used productively in Botswana. Technical assistance personnel were often seamlessly adopted as part of the civil service, and consultants were used in negotiations with mining companies, banks, and even donor agencies. The self-confidence long shown by many traditional leaders like Khama III and Tshekedi carried over to the independent government. The leaders did not mind acknowledging that they lacked some skill or knowledge; nor were they unwilling to make a decision when needed.

The Challenge of HIV/AIDS

Since the mid-1990s and before, the country’s biggest challenge has been the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Available data show Botswana as having one of the world’s highest infection rates. Botswana shares with the rest of Southern Africa a history of migrant labor that made the spread of HIV/AIDS especially likely. With a system of open communication, free press, widespread consultation, careful planning, good budgeting, and a well-developed health care system, how could this tragedy have taken place? There is, of course, no easy answer to this question, but based on personal observation and conversations in Botswana over many years, I offer some hypotheses.

Botswana acted early to address the spread of the disease. By the mid-1980s, well ahead of most countries, there were posters in ministries, factories, and mines promoting condom use, for example . However, several factors inhibited education, accelerated the spread, and slowed an assault on the problem. A cultural reluctance to discuss sex explicitly, especially in public, hampered effective education. The great shame associated with the disease has also inhibited preventive and educational campaigns. Further, traditional attitudes made sexual relationships outside marriage acceptable . Traditional Tswana attitudes toward gender relationships put older men in a position to exploit younger women. The effect can be seen in the gender-specific infection rates, though the differentials are not much different from the rest of SSA.

Aspects of policy formation also may have had an impact. Over time, as government and its bureaucracy grew, some of the constructive practices of earlier years atrophied. The culture of open analysis has to some extent deteriorated. It is less common for junior officers, however talented, to meet with either senior civil servants or ministers. As a result, those with decision-making responsibility are not exposed to the full range of options. Ideas, observations, and proposals, good or bad, do not bubble up in the process, and those farther down in the organization are often not attuned to the concerns of the decision makers. This would have a deleterious effect on all policy and planning, and it may be particularly important in understanding the HIV/AIDS crisis.

The policy response may also reflect the unique nature of the health professions. Clearly, any effective approach to containing the epidemic must involve a multidisciplinary effort in both public and private sectors involving people in health, education, NGOs, churches, labor unions and businesses, traditional leaders, and local and national elected officials in every part of the country as well as international expertise and resources. But for many years, Botswana’s Ministry of Health maintained an effective monopoly, based on professional expertise, on policies and procedures to deal with the epidemic. This was directly contrary to the extraordinary involvement of many different people in interministerial approaches, residential commissions, and task forces used in everything from mining negotiations to contingency planning for drought or for sanctions by South Africa . The failure to address HIV/AIDS in a timely and effective way may represent the obverse of the many successes of the policy process in dealing with other complex issues in Botswana.

Changing a Culture and Sustaining the Change

The leadership in Botswana accomplished a massive transformation of the system of governance and developed an effective process for making economic policy in a very short period. These changes laid the basis for a record of economic and political success unmatched in Africa or most of the developing world . It did so by fully understanding the culture and traditions and making only those changes necessary to achieve larger objectives: creating a unified, self-reliant, democratic country in which people could develop economically. The leadership borrowed good lessons from elsewhere and tried to understand failings in other countries so they could avoid similar problems . None of Botswana’s three presidents, Khama, Masire, or Mogae, has followed the path of many other heads of state in monopolizing expertise in order to maintain power, or using their powers to eliminate rivals by consigning them to insignificant tasks or worse. There were risks to leading in an open and accountable way, but Khama and his successors took those risks knowingly. The tradition of openness and consultation was used in developing virtually every major policy initiative. And, they did not pick fights that were not essential to their long-term objectives.

BDP leaders would occasionally remark that while they hoped not to lose any elections, they wanted to establish a tradition of treating opposition parties and leaders fairly and even-handedly, just in case they found themselves in the opposition someday. They knew their society expected rulers to behave in a seemly fashion and to serve the interests of their people. Since they were subject to regular referendums on their success by the electorate, they listened to what people were demanding. But even when it cost them votes, they were not afraid to say that they would not do some things, like providing large subsidies for urban services such as water and power.

While sensitivity to the existing culture is critical for making changes in it, it is also important to attend to how the culture is evolving over time. Despite the massive reforms of the mid-1960s, interest in the chieftainship and the potential for interethnic rivalries continues to be high . A proposed expansion of the House of Chiefs will reemphasize the country’s ethnic fragmentation.

In a more sinister vein, witch doctors continue to be a force in society . The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the despair it has occasioned seem to have reinforced the appeal to “traditional medicine” in some extremely pernicious ways (e.g., the advice that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV/AIDS) . Some ritual murders still occur. The downsides of traditional culture and of ethnic conflicts have endured side by side with other features more conducive to democracy and economic development . Nonracialism and nontribalism must be fought for every day.

Final Observations

Botswana’s successes in political and economic development reflect the extension of some important aspects of traditional culture together with modifications pushed by the leadership that emerged in the years before independence.

The practice of having the chief consult and listen in kgotla before making decisions was a critically important element of traditional culture that carried over into modern democratic institutions . The cut and thrust of political debate in Parliament or in political campaigns was nothing new to those who had debated serious matters in kgotla , such as whether Seretse Khama should bring his white bride home to Serowe. Culture can be expressed as a collection of habits of both mind and practice; these habits were critical to the evolving culture of a new democracy.

Traditional society was composed of modest and frugal people, who knew the meaning of uncertainty and risk from farming . Even chiefs were not given to pomp or conspicuous consumption. The BDP appealed to these sentiments, and they took seriously the wisdom of rural people in framing legislation and government programs and setting the government’s own priorities. Traditional frugality paid benefits in shaping the government’s approach to fiscal policy after independence. Modesty and a concern for those less fortunate made it easier to develop an incomes policy that attempted to keep wage and salary differentials within reason . The history of natural disasters made planning ahead for drought and other contingencies, including development of reserves of grain, oil, and foreign exchange, seem a logical course of action .

Chiefs may have been quite autocratic in traditional society, but they were also held to the law, both by their own people and by the colonial authorities . This tradition, as well as a general respect for the law in rural areas, and the honesty of the colonial government gave Botswana a tradition of honesty and avoidance of corruption that served it well. The tradition of extensive consultation throughout government also helped ensure that no one person or small group within government could appropriate resources illegally or pervert a major project.

The leadership that took Botswana into independence knew South Africa and the problems of a society organized on the basis of race, and this affected their view of racial and tribal issues. A unified country was their objective, and they molded legislation, the constitution, and their practices within the BDP to achieve that result .

Three sets of problems now face Botswana. First, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, even if fully contained immediately, will present the country with major economic, social, and perhaps political problems in the coming decades . Already fifty thousand children are orphans in a population of 1.6 million. Given the high infection rates, the number will grow substantially. Second, Botswana is unlikely to see major increases in diamond or other mineral output in the next decade . There is nothing on the horizon to replace this principal engine of economic growth. It has never been easy to diversify the economy. A much slower rate of economic growth may be in the offing .

Third, expectations have become very unrealistic following nearly forty years (two generations) of exceptionally rapid economic growth . Per capita incomes have increased by a factor of ten to fifteen times; the great majority of citizens have participated either directly through new jobs or indirectly in improved water, health, housing, and education . Older people have recently begun to refer to the younger generation as “diamond children”; their expectations for material well-being are vastly beyond the dreams of their parents or grandparents.

Against this background, the fact that democratic politics in Botswana are lively and active represents perhaps the best hope for the future . A group of experienced newcomers has successfully entered the political arena. Forty years is not a long time to establish new traditions and to complete a change in culture from one based on a rural subsistence economy to one that is urban and modern. But Botswana’s consistent ability to sustain some important elements of traditional culture — particularly the tradition of consultation and respect for the law — makes one optimistic about its future as well.


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