A System of Government As Old as the Desert Sands

  • Share
  • Read Later
It helps to have diamonds in your backyard. But that's not the only bounty that Botswana can boast. Once a Cinderella of the colonial era, the central African country on the edge of the Kalahari Desert is the very model of a modern black democracy.

Since its independence from Britain in 1966, Botswana has grown into one of Africa's success stories. It has a small population 1.6 million and most of them belong to one tribe, speaking the same language and related through clans. The discovery of diamonds by South Africa's De Beers and development of the industry by a De Beers-government partnership, called Debswana, has made Botswana the world's largest producer of diamonds by value. Behind these shrewd political and business moves, however, lies a system of traditional democracy as old as the desert sands. It is known as the kgotla.

The kgotla can be anything from a conversation across a cattle fence to a full-scale debate in the parliament in the capital, Gaborone. Essentially it means aggression is better expressed with argument than the spear. It also embraces the right to be heard. A humble shepherd boy can talk to a headman. At Debswana's mines, the lowliest worker can confront the boss. "If in doubt," says Terry Stewart, general manager of Debswana's Orapa mine, "we call a kgotla and everybody gets their say."

The kgotla was put to a historic test in a romantic drama that preceded independence when, in 1948, the heir to the chieftaincy of the Bamangwato, Botswana's paramount clan, Seretse Khama, married a white woman, Ruth Williams, in London. Under the camel thorn trees of Khama's tribal capital, Serowe, the kgotla gave the thumbs-down to the union, and for a time the British colonial power banned Khama from his own country "in the interests of tribal unity." He would not give up his wife, however, and eventually the kgotla agreed to welcome the couple back. Khama, knighted by the British Crown a week before independence, became first President of Botswana and Ruth was hailed as Mma Rona (Our Mother).

Botswana's first parliament became the supreme kgotla of the nation. Every five years there have been free, fair and peaceful polls for the 40 elected seats, 33 of which are presently held by Khama's original party, the Botswana Democratic Party.

One of Africa's most respected "winds of change" black nationalist leaders, President Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980, with his independence day description of his country as "a rare gem in the African political collection" turning out to be remarkably prophetic. The first gemstones were recovered in the desert scrub 500 km northwest of Gaborone only a year after independence. Botswana can now produce 26 million carats a year, with reserves for at least 30 years.

Last year Botswana had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with a real growth rate of 9% and the possibility this year of 10% with the doubling of the Orapa mine's production through an expansion project begun last month. Born into poverty, with little more than cattle farming and a few big-game hunting concessions to its credit, the country now has around $6.5 billion in foreign reserves enough to bankroll most of its neighbors. It has no domestic and very little international debt, and a gdp of $4.6 million.

Botswana also has an impressive record for credibility. It is one of the least corrupt countries in sub-Saharan Africa and rates above Japan and Italy in international assessments of corruption.

The downside to the diamond-rich picture, however, is the dependence Botswana has on this source: 70% of foreign exchange earnings, 65% of government revenue, 33% of gdp. With some 95,000 people already unemployed, 25,000 school leavers looking for jobs every year and an hiv infection rate of almost 20% of the entire population, Botswana would be in critical straits if its lifeline were to be affected, as it could be by international campaigns against "conflict" diamonds from Africa. "There is no way our diamonds are contaminated by those from Africa's war zones," says Debswana's managing director, Louis Nchindo. "In any case, arms, not diamonds, are the real instruments of war in Africa."

So, while the diamond dividends roll in, with money in the bank and little or no debt, the government's policy is job creation and attracting private-sector investment in fields such as tourism, wildlife and manufacturing. But nothing is being rubber-stamped, says Daniel Kwelagobe, Minister of Commerce and Industry. "All will be open for public inspection and criticism." Diamonds may be the heart of Botswana but its soul is still the kgotla.