Botswana: The Faux Diamond of Africa?

Introduction

The Southern African nation of Botswana remains a largely overlooked player in international affairs. With a land mass similar to that of Texas, but a population of just 2.7 million, this sparsely populated, arid, landlocked country is the fourth richest in Africa. It is also one of Africa’s most peaceful and most stable countries, boasting the lack of any civil conflict since its independence nearly 60 years ago. 

Throughout the years, various scholars have claimed that sheer luck in the discovery of diamonds has enabled the country to become ‘the beacon of Africa.’ However, the country continuously falls short in the human rights sector, relying instead on its benign appearance to appease careless observers. 

Nonetheless, as stated by scholars Cook and Sarkin, “Botswana [remains] a remarkable exception to the overall condition of the [African] continent.” 

While luck through the discovery of diamonds at an opportune time (just one year after independence) is certainly a factor, the seeds for good governance were sown long before Bechuanaland became the Botswana we know today. 

Pre-Independence – Bechuanaland 

With incursions from Shona tribes, Ndebele tribes, and the Boers increasing in the late 1800s, three chiefs, Khama III, Sebele I, and Bathoen I appealed to the British government for protection. As a result, the country became the British protectorate of Bechuanaland in 1885. 

At this time, Bechuanaland appeared to the British as an undesirable venture, with its drought-prone climate, sparse population, and being bordered on all sides creating high transport costs, the Empire did not attempt to implement an extractive regime upon the country.

This meant tribal authority structures remained intact, and would remain intact until independence. 

Another key aspect of Botswana’s governance today is the importance Tswana chieftains placed on property rights and the rule of law. 

These practices pre-dated contact with Europeans, with chieftains allowing for murderers, sorcerers, and conspirators to be put to death. Because of this, the death penalty became ingrained in the nation’s constitution at independence. 

An additional factor was the domination of local politics by Tswana chiefs, with Scholar Kenneth Good stating that at independence, “[a] transfer took place collaboratively between an indigenous elite and a colonial elite, with little or no engagement by the people.”

The domination of governance by the Tswana, who now make up 79 percent of the population continues, with the true indigenous people of Botswana–the San or San Bushmen–continuously oppressed by the government. Additionally, an approximate 38 other ethnic groups are largely left out of governance matters, with English and Setswana the language of the press, education and legal matters. 

Post Independence – Botswana

Gaining independence in 1966, the nation’s first President, Seretse Khama, under the Botswana Democratic Party, came to power peacefully; something which was uncommon during the decolonisation period in Africa. This is largely owed to Botswana’s ‘lack’ in the eyes of the British and the domination of the Tswana ethnically, leaving little room for ethnic or resource conflict to arise. 

The discovery of diamonds in 1967 by British-South African diamond corporation De Beers was another stroke of luck for the country, who at independence, had a per capita GDP of $70 and just over 7 miles of paved roads in the capital, Gaborone. 

As outlined by Micheal Lewin, conflict over resources was a common occurrence on the continent at the time, but Botswana managed to avoid this ‘resource curse’ through “government reach[ing] agreement on [the] ownership of mineral resources with the tribal authorities. Although the largest diamond deposits were discovered in [President] Khama’s own district of Bamangwato, he chose the country over his tribal land, thus helping limit the possibility of conflict.”

In 1969, the government of Botswana and De Beers formed the Debswana mining company, each with a 50 percent stake. Under Debswana, mining operations are conducted at four mines across the country. 

Through this partnership, millions of dollars have been allocated towards increasing education, building infrastructure, and combating AIDS in the country. Despite this, Botswana is still ranked by UNICEF as one of the top four countries in the world affected by the disease. 

Debswana also invests heavily in conservation, dedicating six acres of land for every one acre used for mining. The company has also funded efforts to build up the country’s rhino population. 

Stringent fiscal policies, in place since the discovery of diamonds in the country, have cushioned Botswana’s economy during periods of lowered international diamond demand. As of 2023, diamonds comprise 81.7 percent of the country’s total exports, followed by copper, machinery and electrical equipment, which comprise 7.9 and 3 percent respectively. 

However, in the quest for diamonds, the government has, and continues to marginalize the country’s indigenous San people.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve Case

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve Case refers to the longest and most expensive court case in Botswana’s history. 

The Details 

The indigenous San bushmen of Botswana have for hundreds, most likely thousands of years, called the Central Kalahari Game Reserve their homeland. Despite this, beginning in 1997, the government began removing the San from the Reserve with the motive of ‘bringing them closer to development’, with critics claiming the government wanted to begin diamond exploration operations in the Reserve.

In 2002, in an attempt to remove the last of the San, the government closed the borehole from which the San got their water– forcing them to relocate. 

The San then took the government to court, with a ruling handed down in 2006 siding with the San, stating the government of Botswana had “removed the San forcibly or wrongly and without consent.” 

In defiance of the ruling, the government has continuously barred the Bushmen from leaving and entering the Reserve freely. Furthermore, in 2022, the nation’s Court of Appeal denied a San family the right to bury their deceased relative on their ancestral lands in the Reserve. 

A United Nation’s report released in December of the same year claimed that the High Court’s decision to remove “[the San] children from the park at the age of 18 would aim for there to be no more inhabitants after the death of the elders.” 

Consequently, the government’s policy of ‘non-racialism’ brought on at independence, serves to mask the clear marginalization of minority groups in favor of the majority Tswana government and their economic objectives. Thus, we begin to see the shortcomings of a country reliant on an exhaustive resource as its main revenue stream. 

The Impact of Unchecked Presidential Power on Democracy

The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has won every election since the country became independent. While free and fair elections are held every five years according to international observers, voter participation is low. 

Based on available 2019 census and 2019 voter data, it appears that only an approximate 48.7 percent of voting-age citizens exercised their right to vote in the country’s 2019 election. 

Political apathy can largely be attributed to the long-reign of the BDP. Although opposition parties do hold seats in parliament, the BDP maintains the majority. 

Furthermore, the President enjoys vast power, as ingrained in the country’s constitution. 

The President is the Head of State, Head of Government, and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Additionally, the President appoints the Vice President, all Cabinet members, the Chief Justice, and the President of the Court of Appeal. The President also enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution while serving and citizens are subject to a monetary fine if they are caught insulting the President in public. 

Australian Academic Kenneth Good, who taught for 15 years at the University of Botswana as a lecturer of political science, characterized Botswana as a “liberal authoritarian state.” 

As a result of this criticism, in 2005, Good was given two days to leave the country, with the government citing ‘national security’ as the reason for his expulsion. 

Uncoincidentally, in 2023, public recommendations to implement constitutional reform to limit the powers of the President were rejected by the Cabinet. 

Opposition Parliamentarians have also been targeted by the state in recent years, with the US State Department reporting in March of 2022 that, “The Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services arrested an opposition member of Parliament and his brother for 48 hours without any warrant or charges. The two were denied legal representation during their incarceration.”

Botswana and the Death Penalty

Capital punishment for specific crimes such as murder, treason, instigating a foreigner to invade the country, and aggravated piracy is provided for in the nation’s constitution. However, since independence, the death penalty has only been applied in cases of murder without extenuating circumstances. Between 1966 and 2016, 50 executions took place, one for each year of independence. 

In Botswana, common thought is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against criminals, with the government emphasizing the lawlessness experienced by neighbor South Africa to justify its use. 

However, as various scholars have outlined throughout the years, a connection between a lowered crime rate and the death penalty cannot be made, as life imprisonment serves the same purpose of removing the offender from society. 

The issue with the use of the death penalty in Botswana however, is not to do with the act itself, but the procedures followed by the state immediately before and after the execution. 

A report issued by the United Nation’s Committee Against Torture in July 2022 highlighted several concerns, stating, “That death sentences had been carried out without providing advance notice to the individuals on death row or their families. It was also gravely concerned that hangings were used in executions and that the bodies of those executed were not handed over to their relatives for burial.”

Botswana’s hardline approach to criminals extends even outside its own borders, with a South African man, Motlatsi Mafojane, taken by Botswana police officers from his home in Soweto, Johannesburg back to Botswana to face charges of armed robbery. 

The family’s lawyer claimed the man had never been to Botswana to commit the crime he was charged with. Additionally, the South African Human Rights Commission at the time said that the Botswana government did not have the authority to take the man out of the country. 

The man died in a Botswana prison a year later, with the government claiming he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. The family’s lawyer alleged he had been tortured to death, with torture not defined as a specific offense in the country. 

Rich But Unequal

Despite its vast diamond wealth, unemployment in Botswana is high, sitting at 25.9 percent. The country also has the 9th highest gini coefficient in the world at 0.56, according to 2020 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) data. 

The gini coefficient measures income disparities through a percentage between 0 and 1, with a score of 0 percent indicating total income equality and a score of 1 percent indicating total income inequality. For reference, the United States has a gini coefficient of 0.42 percent, while Switzerland sits at a coefficient of 0.33 percent. 

According to a 2021 UNDP report, language also remains a barrier in the country, stating, “Concern has been expressed by commentators and academics on the role of ethnicity in inequality and discrimination in Botswana. Data show differences in unemployment levels, employment in the public sector (a sector with a high consumption share), and education levels. The most penalized groups appear to be those that speak Sesarwa (residing mostly in the Ghanzi and Central districts) and the Seyeyi (residing mostly in the Ngamiland). The areas in which these groups reside are the poorest and most rural of the country, hence the high level of unemployment among them. Concerningly, two-thirds of households that speak Sesarwa have a household head that reported never attended school. This may confirm exclusion based on language due to the languages in which education is offered in Botswana.” 

While the country has taken some steps to address its high inequality, more are needed. 

Conclusion

Despite some weaknesses in equality, cronyism, and single-party rule, Botswana largely remains a southern-African success story for its avoidance of civil warfare and peaceful transition to independence. Its description as a “liberal authoritarian state” rings true when one delves deeper into the inner workings of its government; however, it remains a prosperous nation with relatively low crime. 

Nonetheless, the marginalization of minority communities such as the San, Seyeyi, and speakers of Sesarwa, the arbitrary arrests of opposition Parliamentarians, and the President’s unchecked powers remain a cause for concern. 

Despite this, Botswana remains a rather benign actor in international relations, which has enabled it to quietly prosper and avoid conflict. However, the nation does need to diversify its exports, with diamonds an exhaustive resource. However, many other nations reliant on minerals and oil face the same issue. 

While Botswana has become known as ‘the beacon of Africa’ one must remember that a very specific set of circumstances, such as the retention of its tribal authority, luck in the discovery of diamonds at an opportune time, and lack of ethnic strife–a phenomenon not afforded to many other African nations–enabled it to be so. 

 

Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger is a Political Science Graduate from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Currently working as an Editor for The ModernInsurgent and writing for Atlas News, her interests include conflict politics, history, yoga and meditation.

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