Another flawed neighbour

2009-05-05 00:00

Botswana is a large country (half the size of South Africa) but, because it is pretty arid, it has a very small population (fewer than two million people). The mining of diamonds has enabled it to attain a remarkably high growth rate (roughly nine percent) for the past few decades; it has moved up from being a poor to a middle-income economy. It is also, as Africa’s oldest continuous multiparty democracy, regarded as one of the continent’s most stable countries. It is apparently far less corrupt than other African countries, and gets good marks from international monitoring agencies. What is more, in obvious contrast to South Africa, it responded quickly and fairly effectively to the HIV/Aids crisis, rolling out antiretrovirals without any fuss. Added to all this, Alexander McCall Smith in his popular novels about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has promoted an image of Botswana as a gentle, relaxed and pleasant society.

In Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana Kenneth Good offers us a distinctly different view of the country. It is a carefully framed scholarly work, and it argues that Botswana is not profoundly democratic. In spite of its regular elections, it retains a number of the features of traditional predemocratic African societies. The president has unusual powers. He is not elected by the people or by the ruling party but is effectively appointed by his predecessor. He can override parliament, commands the armed forces and appoints members of the judiciary. A certain authoritarianism is thus built into his position, with the result that an attitude of deference is common in society. Good notes that in the nineties both South Africa and Namibia moved towards what he calls “presidentialism”, but it seems unlikely that anything like the revolt against Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane could take place in Botswana.

Good demonstrates, too, the degree to which the economy depends upon diamonds. Not only, in his view, has too little effort been made to diversify, but the power of the diamond industry has bred both secrecy and elitism. The elite seems to have been strengthened by the way the political system has worked: the Botswana Democratic Party has been in power since independence in 1966. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about this fact, but a fair degree of voter apathy suggests that the system has lacked dynamism. In the 2004 election, however, opposition parties captured 48% of the vote. Good suggests too that cronyism and corruption, between politicians, the judiciary and the private sector, are considerably more common than most people suppose.

But his chief criticisms of the Botswanan set-up are, first, that the country’s new wealth has not spread through society: while the people at the top have become rich, a large section of the population is still very poor. We know all about this in South Africa, of course, but Good suggests that the governing elite is not very concerned to change the status quo. It acted quickly on HIV, but it has been slow to act on other ailments and on malnutrition. His second main criticism is that traditional attitudes together with the never-ending quest for diamonds have meant that the San have been treated very unfairly.

Good, an Australian, came to Botswana in 1992 and was professor of politics at the University in Gaborone until 2005, when by presidential decree he was declared a prohibited immigrant. Thus he was given a vivid personal demonstration of presidential power. The story is told in an appendix. Are his stern criticisms perhaps vindictive then? I don’t think so.

The book is recent: it was published in 2008. But with the world economic crisis momentous events have taken place since then. The diamond industry has collapsed. What must this mean for Botswana?

• Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana, by Kenneth Good is published by James Currey and Jacana Media, 2008.

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