Gem Of Africa - Turns 41 With Plenty to Celebrate

Phathisani Moyo

Gaborone, Botswana - Oct 2007

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Long hailed as the miracle of Africa and with economic and political achievements that are the envy of the world, Botswana deservedly celebrates its 41st Independence Day from British colonial rule.

The country’s birthday is all the more special as it will also be the last celebrations for President Festus Mogae as head of state. He steps down in March next year for Ian Khama; the son of the country’s first leader Seretse Khama.

It is against a background of success that the country reserves 30th of September each year to mark their ascent to nationhood with colourful celebrations right across this peaceful and lovely country. A visitor to Botswana will encounter the beautifully animated traditions of Setswana dance and song, mud dwellings with thatched grass roofs and traditional meeting places or ‘dikgotla’.

The village landscape is characterized by many cattle kraals, for the majority of Batswana continue to rear cattle according to traditional methods. Setswana traditional religion centres on a connection with the ancestral gods, or badimo.

The semi-arid, subtropical country of Botswana is predominantly flat with desert and savannah terrain and it lies immediately north of South Africa. It is bordered on the north and east by Zimbabwe, north and west by Namibia and it is slightly connected to Zambia on the northern border.

Although Botswana is the name of the country the term Batswana is used to denote all of its citizens. This also refers to the country’s major ethnic group the Tswana who migrated into the area from South Africa during the Zulu wars of the early 1880’s. Botswana’s aboriginal inhabitants, known as the San or bushmen have made the Kalahari Desert their home for over 30,000 years. When the Tswana arrived it did not take long for them to supplant the San, and they are now the largest majority of the 1,600,000 people that live here.

Botswana’s struggle for freedom was far from the long and protracted bloody struggles that characterized the emancipation of most of its fellow African states. In the late 19th century the Batswana and the Boer settlers who came from Transvaal began to dispute ownership of territory and hostilities broke out between them. The Batswana sought help from a more powerful ally by turning to the British.

After appeals to the British Government for assistance Britain granted protectorate status to the Batswana as “Bechuanaland” in 1885, however Tswana chiefs continued to maintain local authority. An expansion of British central authority and the evolution of tribal government resulted in the 1920 establishment of two advisory councils representing Africans and Europeans.

Later in 1934 proclamations of tribal rule and power were regularized. Heavy lobbying by Batswana Chiefs led by Chief Khama III forced Britain to accept proposals for democratic self-government in Botswana in 1964. However, it was not until September 30, 1966 that the country became the Independent Republic of Botswana with Seretse Khama as the first President of the country.

Seretse Khama remained in office until 1980 when he paved way for his deputy Quett Ketumile Masire to take over; Masire remained in power for the next seventeen years. Incumbent President ‘Mogae’ is Botswana’s third leader after coming into power in 1998 and already he has announced his retirement date.

At independence the new African led government inherited a poor country with an economy heavily dependent on livestock against a backdrop of climatic conditions that were beset with long spells of drought. The fact that the country was perceived as having very little to offer in terms of wealth to Europe was a blessing in disguise for its freedom fighters, hence they met little resistance from the colonial authority.

Questions remain as to whether Britain would have so easily handed over the reigns to the black majority if they had known about the vast mineral wealth the country possesses and that has propelled its economy to compete with those of the developed world.

Since Botswana’s independence in 1966 as one of the poorest countries in the world the country has had an impressive economic growth rate averaging over 10% per year from 1976 and it is now a middle income country. The diamond rich nation, together with China are the two top countries in the world whose economies have grown the fastest during the past 20 years.

Botswana’s natural resources – diamonds, copper, nickel, salt, soda ash, potash, coal, iron ore and silver – generate much of its national revenue. It is the leading producer of gem quality diamonds in the world with profits accounting for one third of annual GDP. Diamonds at present account for 60% of the mineral output of Botswana but in line with its policy of diversification, the government is starting to explore avenues relating to the export of copper, nickel, salt, soda ash, coal, iron ore and silver.

Another natural resource that is driving Botswana’s economic success are its unspoilt plains and animal rich environment. To conserve the wilderness while still generating revenue the government is following a policy of upmarket tourism initiatives. Small numbers of high paying tourists are targeted rather than large numbers of low paying ones.

This policy allows for the conservation of natural resources and promotes the country as an exclusive destination for African travel. Tourism income at present is valued at around US$240 million per year. Not only does this provide a much needed influx of foreign currency but it also provides an excellent platform for job creation and community upliftment.

In a continent strangled by poverty and corruption Botswana owes much of its success to good governance, mostly due to political stability that is premised on strict adherence to democratic principles.

Transparency International only recently named Botswana as the least corrupt country in Africa while the tiny African Kingdom has this year also been voted the most politically stable country on the continent.

This past month the 2007 Economic Freedom of the World report and index was released in Vancouver. Botswana was ranked number one in the study’s Sub-Saharan Africa region table and also in first place for the African continent as a whole. Botswana has maintained its lead position in the African table for over a decade, during which time the country’s rating has risen from 6.4 to 7.2. The African state was also ranked number 38 in the world alongside Belgium and Portugal in this year’s overall global ranking of an expanded list of 141 nations. This places Botswana ahead of nine European Union member states [Spain (44), Czech Republic, France, Italy, Greece, Poland and Bulgaria (52), Romania (82) and Slovenia (91)].

The education sector has since developed and there is 100 percent access to free education from primary school to junior secondary of which half of the intake will progress to senior secondary school. The health sector is heavily subsidized and the country has the best HIV/AIDS treatment programmes in the world.

Anti-retroviral drugs are free for all citizens, admittedly the spread of HIV and AIDS in Botswana has been among the worse in the world but the ratio of adults with the disease has recently declined from 35 per cent to 25 per cent.

All of this was achieved without borrowing money from the World Bank or taking instructions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

With so much to celebrate the country has thrown a feast fit for a king. More so being the last independence celebrations President Festus Mogae will enjoy as head of state.

The University Stadium has been reserved as the arena for the main bash for Mogae and his especially invited guests of about 3,000 delegates on independence Day eve, while an array of entertainment from traditional dance groups, music, football, fireworks displays to marriage ceremonies will be taking place in the capital Gaborone the next day. Monday and Tuesday have been declared national holidays as the country enjoys a long party weekend in celebration of its freedom and economic success.