Last year, I visited Botswana – as a Western tourist, and did all the things Western tourists do, notably visit the beautiful Okavango delta. But this was an occasion for me as well to read up on the country a little and what I found I thought might be worth sharing. Because, as you will see, all in all Botswana tells a positive story, one that is very welcome at this time when most that is reported about Africa has to do with the problems in the Central African Republic and in so many other African countries.
At the time of independence, Botswana’s GDP made it one of the poorest countries in Africa. Nowadays, the per capita GDP, measured using purchasing parity, ranks sixth in Africa, behind oil states such a Equitorial Guinea, Gabon and Libya and tourist destinations such as the Seychelles and Mauritius.
Perhaps more tellingly, Botswana scores .63 on the Human Development Index, higher for example than South Africa and high also compared to 0.475 for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. It boasts the honour of being Africa’s least corrupt country. It is also one of the most democratic countries in Africa, with a history of free and fair multi-party elections going as far back as 1966.
The picture is not equally rosy on all fronts. In 1990, life expectancy at birth was 64.2 years. Then came HIV/AIDS – which led to decreasing life expectancy rates, bottoming out at 50.6 years in 2005, to increase again to a still low 53 years in 2012. Perhaps related to this is gender inequality: on the Gender Inequality Index, Botswana comes in 102nd place out of a total of 148 countries. If you are interested in what this statistic means in real terms, I can recommend “Far and Beyon’ “, the moving novel written by Botswana’s first female high court judge, Unity Dow.
Then, perhaps better known in the North due to the good work of Survival International, there is the plight of the Bushmen. They happen to belong to a minority ethnic group in the country, but perhaps more importantly, their ancestral lands happen to also be on top of some of the world’s richest diamond deposits. But here, as well, there is a positive side to this mostly negative story: the Bushmen have taken the government of Botswana to court in Botswana – and have won (even though that does not mean the government has acted upon the court’s verdict).
So, Botswana is not paradise – but relatively speaking, it is a success story, one of the very few in Africa as a whole.
This begs the question why this is so. Sure – the country has natural resources: diamonds, but also nickel, and there is tourism. But a country like Equitorial Guinea has much more natural resources. Its per capita GDP is more than twice that of Botswana – and yet it is a much more miserable place to live, with a Human Development Index of .55 against Botswana’s .63.
Clearly, being rich in resources does not in itself lead to a better life for the citizens of the country. What then could be the deciding factor, explaining the country’s relative success?
I think most people who know a little bit about Africa know the answer – because it really is fairly obvious. Botswana is, simply, one of the few African countries that makes some sense from an ethnic point of view. The Tswana people make up nearly 80% of the country’s population. This means that there is far less need to organise along clan and ethnic lines than there is in most African countries. Less need for nepotism, more room for people to be judged on their qualities, rather than on their loyalties. Easier communication – everybody speaks the same language but also shares the same cultural values and beliefs.
Look at the experience of Europe: two world wars and a host of smaller conflicts were fought in the ‘old continent’ over the past century, mainly to arrive at a system of ethnically-based nation states. It’s a solution that has worked for Europe (at a cost) – but is still a taboo in Africa. If it would have been up to the Africans, the current set of countries would never have emerged this way. It’s still the colonial heritage of disrespect for Africa’s cultures that is holding back the continent.
Look at Botswana!
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.