The continent of Africa is defined by its poverty, corruption, and war. It has been for the past 100 years. Centuries of colonial rule, illiteracy, exploitation of its natural resources, and the failure of democracy in a large number of nations has led to this outcome. Nothing reeks more of this outcome than a nation surrounded by hostile neighbours, divided along tribal lines, almost solely supported by diamonds, and deprived of arable land. Yet, here we stand today, witnessing the precipitous rise of Botswana – a country fitting all the characteristics described above – from one of the poorest in the world to the richest in mainland Africa by GDP per capita.
As a consequence of the slave trade and the subsequent colonisation of Sub-Saharan Africa, the region is firmly the poorest in the world. Ruthless imperialists from Europe pillaged the continent, leaving the riches of the continent concentrated in the hands of a few – the very hands which then passed on these riches to autocrats who ruled many nations of the region with an iron fist after hasty decolonisation. In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nine of the ten poorest countries in the world. The common African is subject to a reinforcing loop of societal upheaval, deprivation of liberties, and economic stagnation ad nauseam. There has been an almost negligible real gain in GDP since the 1970s on the continent.
Lying on the Kalahari Desert, the landlocked Botswana has become the world’s fastest growing economy ever – with an astounding rise in output by a factor of 40. Despite being the 7th poorest nation on the planet 50 years ago, it stands today as an oasis of democracy and development – with the integrity of its institutions rivalling that of those in Europe.
Botswana became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1885, willingly. Rather paradoxically as one might see prima facie, the chiefs of the people known as Tswana lobbied to join the British Empire in order to avoid colonisation and being victim to the vicious Machiavellianism which defined the Boer territories nearby. Therefore, joining the British Empire was seen as the lesser of the two evils. Similarly, the British saw it as a safeguard against further German and Boer expansion, as well as an assurance of access to Central Africa. This remained until Cecil Rhodes – notorious for his extractative expansion in modern day Zimbabwe and Zambia – set his sights on Botswana. Through lobbying efforts in London on the part of Botswana’s chiefs, as well as an unpopular conflict with the Boer Republic of Transvaal spearheaded by Rhodes himself, Botswana was able to become an official colony of the British Empire.
With the relative autonomy granted under the Crown’s rule, it was able to evade the scourges of colonial exploitation. Further, the unique political structure – perhaps the closest embodiment to a direct democracy one will see in Africa despite elements of a typical monarchy seen in the region – allowed for a smooth transition to democracy, as these institutions survived British rule. In addition to these two elements, the elites of the country supported the further development of Botswana’s democratic framework, as they (along with the chiefs) sought to establish robust property rights and economic systems in tune with the modern economy. This was the polar opposite of the almost Marxist-like, proletariat takeover of property of Caucasians seen in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the region after their independence from the oligarchic (or the minority rule) of the whites.
Perhaps the most important ingredient in Botswana success was its first President – Seretse Khama – who unlike his contemporaries, worked for a democratic Botswana. He prevented a deterioration of its institutions, and in fact strengthened them through a gradual shift of power from the tribes to the state. This was further complemented by a pivot to only English and Setswana in education and government, allowing for a lesser emphasis on tribal identification thus the anthropomorphic proclivities which accompany it.
The last ingredient – Diamonds – may be its unravelling or its continued prosperity. Today, diamonds contribute to about 90% of its exports, 50% of government revenue, and 25% of GDP. The precipitous growth had been achieved through yields from this very operation, which much like that of all nations reliant on natural resources, has an expiry date. Whether it successfully diversifies ultimately determines the fate of its 2.4 million people, and we from India merely watch. Let us hope Botswana is not the next prey of the scythe of the resource curse.