This month marks half a century of an independent Botswana. The intervening years have not been without turmoil, but the country has emerged as a model African state.
Botswana is in south-central Africa, bounded by Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Most of the country is near-desert, with the Kalahari occupying the western part of the country. The eastern part is hilly, with salt lakes in the north.
The history of the nation
Botswana achieved independence from Britain on September 30th, 1966. In the 50 years since, it has become one of Africa’s success stories, though that success has also involved a half century of contradictions and difficulties. Its history certainly did not begin with independence.
From AD 200 to 500, Bantu migrations from what is now Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Zambia swept southwards and, in Botswana, established the Toutswe state, built on cattle herding and control of the trade in gold, which found its outlets on the Indian Ocean coastline. There was a coin currency based on coastal shells. This made the area attractive to what became, from the 11th century, the Great Zimbabwean state, with its long line of stone cities that acted as way stations for the gold trade, as well as that in salt and hunting dogs.
Ancient Botswana was part of a complex, competitive and well-organised trading system, which dealt with the outside world. Great violence came in the 19th century with the conflicts between Ndebele and Shona peoples, which wracked Zimbabwe well into the 20th century, and with the white Boer settlers expanding from the Transvaal. With this expansion, it was inevitable that the white doctrine of racial superiority should begin to affect the region.
After an appeal by the Tswana kings for protection from the Boers, the British made ‘Bechuanaland’ a protectorate in 1885, although many Tswana people found themselves part of South Africa in the colonial map-drawing of the day. Under the British, the racism of the colonial era was still making itself felt, even as it became clear that independence should be granted. The first leader of the new state of Botswana, as Bechuanaland was renamed, would have to overcome many years of high-level obstruction.
Born in 1921, occupied the throne of the Bamangwato people. This is a hegemonic group within the majority Tswana group in today’s Botswana. He succeeded to the kingship at the age of four, with his uncle as regent. Like other leaders of what would become independent African states, such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, he attended Fort Hare University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was then a private institution with a multi-racial policy: a rare beacon in the region. After graduation he went on to Oxford University and the Inner Temple. In London he fell in love with Ruth Williams, she with him and they married in 1948. She was white. Controversy erupted.
Khama did not rely solely on mining and South Africa. He was instrumental in securing favourable trading terms with the European Economic Community for Botswanan beef. The economy was secure enough for him to introduce Botswana’s first national currency, the pula, in 1976. Khama invested little in the army. Nor did he allow liberation groups seeking majority rule in the white minority regimes of Angola, Rhodesia and South-West Africa (now Namibia) to operate from Botswanan territory.
The bad years
In the 1970s, Botswana was ranked as one of the world’s poorest countries with a GDP per capita below US$ 200 and no economy to speak of, other than a fledgling beef industry that survived only because of European subsidies.
The country has also not escaped the continent-wide HIV and AIDS pandemic. It is of major concern that most surveys indicate over 30 percent of the population is infected, giving the country one of the highest infection rates worldwide. Fortunately, the political will and the financial resources to tackle the problem are available. Botswana introduced a campaign, which is aiming to achieve an AIDS-free Botswana.
Modern day Botswana
With a total population of just over 1.5 million people, Botswana has primary school enrolment approaching 350 000 pupils, and secondary school over 150 000.
Botswana has its own university with various satellite campuses around the country teaching over 15 000 students. There are now in excess of 6 500 kilometres of paved road, and the capital Gaborone is a thriving metropolitan area and the continent’s fastest-growing city. Part of the reward for its incredible transformation is that Botswana has since become a respected and stable member of various multilateral organisations, both local and international.
In economic terms, Botswana is very much one of Africa’s success stories, reflecting both the country’s natural mineral wealth and a political and social stability which far outweighs that of its neighbours. In the 30-year period following independence in 1966, the economic growth rate averaged just over 9% a year, marking the economy out as the fastest growing in the world, according to the World Bank. By the turn of the century, the growth rate had stabilised at around 7% a year, and the country had foreign reserves of some US$6.3 billion. The annual rate of inflation is between 7% and 8%.
Author: Gesture Chidhanguro