Botswana turns 56: From one of the poorest countries to an upper middle-income economy

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Botswana president and leader of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), Mokgweetsi Masisi.
Botswana president and leader of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), Mokgweetsi Masisi.
PHOTO: Monirul Bhuiyan, AFP
  • Despite one-party rule since independence, Botswana is one of Africa's stable democracies.
  • Botswana is the only southern African country to achieve the 95-95-95 UNAIDS target.
  • President Mokgweetsi Masisi has vowed to diversify the country's economy from its bedrock diamonds.

Botswana celebrates 56 years of independence on Friday after attaining self-government in 1965, following 80 years as the British protectorate Bechuanaland.

What followed was the Republic of Botswana's independence on 30 September 1966, with Sir Seretse Khama serving as the first president until he died at the age of 59 on 13 July 1980.

Since then, Botswana has had five presidents, and the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has ruled continuously.

Despite one party dominating the political landscape since independence, Botswana has been a model democracy in southern Africa.

READ | Namibia and Botswana look to upgrade their cooperation with new commission

However, in recent times, there has been political bickering between incumbent President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor, Ian Khama, the son of the founding president.

In its 2022 profile of Botswana, non-profit organisation Freedom House said "while it is considered one of the most stable democracies in Africa, Botswana has been dominated by a single party since independence. Media freedom remains under threat. The indigenous San people, as well as migrants, refugees, and LGBT+ people, face discrimination."

Just three weeks before Independence Day on Friday, the country passed the Media Practitioners' Association (MPA) Bill, which now awaits Masisi's signature.

The law will seek to create a media body that will regulate and monitor journalists.

Media practitioners feel this is a form of repression that curtails freedom of expression.

Freedom House gave Botswana a 70% score in political rights, which was lower than South Africa, which scored 82.5%. Botswana also scored less than Namibia, which got a 77.5% rating.

Botswana's low scores were for government transparency, freedom of the press, and social freedoms.

Botswana Editors' Forum chairperson Spencer Mogapi told News24 there was no media freedom in the country:

We have had a difficult past, especially under former president Ian Khama. We had hoped things would be much better, but progress has been slow.

"We are seeing subtle attacks on the media by clearly state-sanctioned online disinformation agents. It's a growing phenomenon here," he said.

LGBTQI+ rights

In November 2021, Botswana's Court of Appeal found that consensual same-sex rights were enshrined in the Constitution.

The ruling was upheld in an appeal of a case where Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) joined Letsweletse Motshidiemang, who successfully applied for the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in 2019.

In January this year, Masisi invited LGBTQI leaders to his office to reassure them that he would respect the court's decision and protect their rights.

However, despite being backed by law, society is yet to satisfactorily open up to same-sex relationships.

LGBTQI activists also raised concerns that religion remained homophobic.

Health services

Botswana became the first country in southern Africa to achieve the UNAIDS 95-95-95 targets for people living with HIV.

The target stipulates that 95% of people living with HIV should know they are HIV positive, 95% of those people should be on treatment, and viral suppression for 95% of those on treatment.

In 2002, the country became the first in Africa to offer free HIV treatment to citizens. Since then, it has expanded treatment coverage and adopted other evidence-based practices.

"In the early days, our population was about to be wiped out by HIV, but last year we celebrated surpassing the 95-95-95 targets. That would not have been possible without sustained political leadership at the highest levels and the long-term partnerships we have," Botswana's Health and Wellness Minister Edwin Dikoloti recently said at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Botswana emerged as one of the region's leaders in finding a solution.

Through engagements with South African-born billionaire Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, the country sought to produce Sub-Saharan Africa's first ever Covid-19 vaccine - Pula Corbevax.

But that can only happen at the earliest in 2026, when the construction of infrastructure to allow the country to manufacture the Covid-19 vaccine and other vaccines and medicines for chronic illnesses is completed.

Upper-middle income country

Last week, at the UN General Assembly, Masisi told global leaders that he was working on an economic recovery plan that would provide for the inclusion of vulnerable groups.

Part of that plan, he said, was finding a way to diversify economic growth away from the country's bedrock, diamonds.

At independence in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest nations in the world, and diamonds almost single-handedly turned around the country's fortunes.

According to UN data, Botswana has a 24.72% unemployment rate - one of the lowest in the region. South Africa's unemployment rate is 33.56%.

Statistics Botswana says the country has a population of 2.346 million and will double in 58 years.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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