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The Botswana that Clinton didnít see in his 1998 visit is the force that threatens to derail the country as its new President fervently scrambles to pacify American economic interests. In fact, a neo-liberal economy, led by diamond mining and cattle ranching, and a narrow understanding of democracy threatens to exacerbate the burgeoning set of problems. The author of this article seriously questions the governmentís capacity to lead its country into a new era given its long developed linkages between the state and international capital. (dkc)

vol 13 no 3

Botswana: What Clinton didn't see
Larry A Swatuk

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 3, May 1998
Page 11
"Southern Africa"



Larry Swatuk is a lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Botswana.

"In coming to Africa my motive in part was to help the American people see the new Africa with new eyes, and to focus our own efforts on new policies suited to the new reality."
US President Clinton, Address to the Great Hall of Parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 26 March 1998

"We have seen the promise of a new Africa," Bill Clinton told about 5,000 guests at the state house in Gaborone in March 1998. "Its roots are here deep in your soil for you have been an inspiration to all who cherish freedom." Addressing President Masire directly, Clinton continued, "You sparked the engine of an economic miracle ... I am deeply honoured to be among those to be here as you leave your distinguished tenure."

In the wake of Masire's decision to voluntarily step down after 18 years as President, constant reference was made throughout Clinton's tour to "Botswana's commitment to democracy and Masire's voluntary and peaceful handover of power to [Festus] Mogae." Sure enough, the US is happy to support liberal democracy in the region, but for America, the "promise of a new Africa" lies pretty clearly in globalized trade, the focus of its policy in Southern Africa. Botswana with its neo-liberal economy will fit in quite nicely.

Unlike President Mandela, Masire heartily embraced US legislation ostensibly designed to promote trade and investment in Africa. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is presently with the US Senate, having passed the House of Representatives in Congress. According to Greg Mills, Director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, AGOA sets in motion the formation of a US-Africa Economic Forum, pursuit of a free-trade zone by 2020 with qualifying African states, expansion of the General System of Preferences, support for debt relief and loan guarantees to assist African investment. Mandela's worry is that in order to qualify for free access to the US market, African countries will be forced to pursue free market reforms and also meet certain democratic conditions - actions that may compromise African decision-making autonomy and subject small, "emerging markets" to international forces with whom local producers are unable to compete. Moreover, in the absence of debt relief, economic and political liberalisation are likely to bring havoc rather than stability.

In the words of Mahmood Mamdani, "before getting swept up in the euphoria surrounding Bill Clinton's visit, it would be wise to keep in mind the bottom line defining it: the United States president is visiting Africa in pursuit of American interests." And it is in America's interest that a particular variant of liberalism proceed apace. Botswana, as a disciple of this liberalism, is being rewarded with global attention - the Clinton visit as "free" advertising. But what remains is Botswana's reality, most of which Clinton didn't see. And for good reason, since recent developments in Botswana's political economy call into question the value of economic liberalism as practiced in the heart of Southern Africa. Here's some of what Clinton should have seen.

Changing of the guard

Behind the peaceful transfer of power there is real turbulence. The BDP is riven with factionalism, the party split into two groups, one behind the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mompati Merafhe, the other behind BDP Secretary General, Daniel Kwelagobe. This factionalism stems in part from a parliamentary motion supporting a public register of all assets and business interests held by the "President, Vice-President, Ministers ... and Members of Parliament." Merafhe, as part of a "younger" breed of politicians who did not benefit as the older generation did from the building of the Botswana state and modern economy, led the faction supporting the motion. Kwelagobe, as part of the "old guard" led the faction opposed to the motion.

This factional in-fighting extends to projected BDP strategy for contesting elections slated for 1999. The BDP faces for the first time the very real prospect of losing power. The BNF, which took 13 seats (up from 3) in the 1994 elections, in many ways represents not so much a sound alternative to the BDP, but a focus for myriad and growing grievances by young unemployed and under-employed people living in and around cities. Many observers feel that Masire got out while the going was still good.

Jobless growth

Botswana's economic growth, particularly in the last decade, has been largely jobless, fuelled by expansion in the highly mechanised mining sector. Meanwhile, the beef industry has cut back and construction has only grown through government spending. Government has actively pursued vehicle-assembly and EPZ-type industry, with a new Hyundai plant in Gaborone touted as the wave of the future. The truth is, however, that the Botswana government's vision for the future, outlined in the Presidential Task Group publication, Vision 2016, is "more of the same": diamonds and beef with a sop to small business and the hope that tourism will pick up the slack. Unfortunately, this vision is short-sighted and does not begin to address Botswana's emerging problems.

The outcome is that growing unemployment, particularly among educated school-leavers, is a serious problem in Botswana, official estimates being roughly 30 per cent. However, much of so-called "employment" in Botswana is labelled "agriculture," a catch-all category that helps to mask true unemployment figures. Over the last thirty years, Botswana's economy has shifted from overwhelmingly agricultural to mixed. Industry and services now account for more than half of formal employment in the country. This shift signals a deepening of the capitalist economy, with linkages in various sectors, particularly the beef and diamond industries. As a result, labour is increasingly concentrated in urban or peri-urban settings. Notwithstanding regulations making it difficult or impossible to strike or even assemble in demonstration, workers are increasingly emboldened to state their grievances against government and other employers.

Violence, thought to be anathema to the Batswana "culture," has flared. Riots in Mochudi during February 1996 quickly spread to Gaborone. State response was anything but enlightened: beatings, arbitrary detentions, tear-gassings, closing the University campus, and one death, heightening peoples' frustration with a government increasingly seen as authoritarian and irredeemable.

Resource-use conflicts

Complementing these urban problems are heightening conflicts in the countryside. While Gaborone remains the fastest urbanising city in Africa, growing 10% annually, the country's wealth continues to be generated far from this urban centre. Tourism now generates significantly more revenue than the cattle industry, though ranching continues as an important component of GDP, and a defining element of Batswana culture. At the same time, minerals remain the main "engine of growth," with diamond mining contributing more than 90% of Botswana's foreign exchange earnings.

Recently, these three activities - tourism, cattle and mining - have led to conflicts over resource use particularly in the Delta and the Central Kalahari. How they are being "resolved" says much about the continuing narrow-mindedness of Botswana's leadership in supporting cattle owners and big capital.

In 1996, the government slaughtered 300,000 cattle to halt the rapid spread of cattle lung disease in Ngamiland. The disease was blamed on "an anonymous Herero herdsman," alleged to have crossed illegally into Botswana from Namibia in 1995. Blaming a foreigner was a convenient tool, enabling the almost immediate construction of a 140 km-long fence from the eastern part of the Okavango Delta north to the Namibian border. The fence was started in 1991 but stopped in response to local opposition and countless wildlife deaths.

On both sides of the border, such fencing is opposed by all those not benefiting from cattle ranching. Yet, despite a 1992 government study attesting to the devastating effects of fencing on the region's wildlife, fences like the Caprivi and the 175 km Setata continue to go up.

In the Central Kalahari, fences also affect the San, many of whom are supposedly still dependant on wildlife. Yet much of the Central Kalahari is being rezoned to support expanded ranching and mineral exploration. In response to a question on this development, President Mogae, then VP, is said to have remarked, "How can you have a stone-age creature continue to exist in the age of computers?"

San are also being relocated from within the Central Kalahari game reserve to make way for new tourism operations and for prospecting by De Beers and Anglo. About 3,000 San are being moved to a bleak settlement called New Xade some 45 km beyond the reserve's western border.

These developments illustrate the continuing intersection of interests between large cattle ranchers, mining capital and the state in Botswana. More significantly, they suggest that this paragon of "democracy" often shows tendencies toward a short-sighted authoritarianism more reminiscent of apartheid engineering than openness, accountability and respect for human rights.

Manufacturing unity

Perhaps in response to domestic difficulties, the Government has resorted to manufacturing unity by turning Namibia into a threat to "national security." Parading an environmental concern, Botswana is militarizing on a large scale.

One focus is Namibia's plans to construct a 250 km pipeline to bring water from the Okavango to Windhoek, the increasingly water-stressed capital, possibly threatening Botswana's own supply in the process. Interestingly, Botswana's government this time finds itself the "good guy" for a change, and is actually working closely with several local and international NGOs to confront the Namibian government. Yet, whatever the merits of the case, the way the issue is being framed in Botswana serves to divert public attention from pressing issues closer to home.

Meanwhile, Botswana and Namibia dispute the ownership of three small islands in the Chobe River. Recently, members of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) have occupied one smaller island, the Situngu. According to recent reports, the BDF's occupation fits in with plans to establish camps every 10 km from Situngu to the border.

Yet there is very little likelihood of a shooting war developing. Indeed, Botswana and Namibia have met yearly since Namibia's independence in a Joint Commission on Defence and Security. Judging from the communique issued from that meeting, the two sides are more interested in jointly combatting drug trafficking, poaching, vehicle theft, illegal migration and other forms of cross-border crime than they are in confronting each other.

The worrying item is that the increased military presence in the north west of the country dovetails with Botswana's determined military build-up, an activity that has raised much concern in the SADC region.

Defence expenditure increased from 4% of GDP to roughly 7% in 1997. According to recently released figures in the 1998 budget speech, spending is due to increase further still. Despite conflicting reports, it seems that in the last two years Botswana has placed orders for fighter jets, military battle tanks, trucks, portable weaponry, light tanks, primary and secondary radar systems at Gaborone and Maun airports, and several patrol boats. All told, the purchases cost several hundred million dollars and will require millions more in upkeep and training for qualified pilots.

Namibia would seem not to want to join in. Its Foreign Minister, Theo-Ben Gurirab, says simply, "We've gone through war and destruction. The last thing we should be spending money on is military equipment." But Botswana's then-commander of the BDF, Maj-Gen. Ian Khama, now Vice-President and Minister of Presidential Affairs, has taken a totally different tack: Botswana, he says, acquired "no army, no infrastructure, nothing" at independence. "Now, 18 years on ... we are developing to provide a force that will not see our security compromised." Regional observers wonder where the threat to Botswana's security will emerge. However, Batswana openly acknowledge fears that the regional peace will one day turn sour, including fear of a deluge of illegal immigration from the north - Zimbabwe, Zambia and particularly Congo-Kinshasa.

It's possible that the military build-up coincides with Botswana policy-makers' desire to play a strong role in SADC and wider-African regional peacekeeping, which may account for Botswana's goal to increase the armed forces from 7,000 troops to approximately 10,000 before 2000. Legitimate questions remain, however. Is the acquisition of military force the only way to ensure peace in the region? Should a state with approximately 40% of its population living in absolute poverty be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons?

1999 and beyond?

Unemployment, jobless economic growth, political in-fighting, conflicts over natural resources within and between states, and increasing militarisation in a region too familiar with the human and material costs of war: these are some of the realities that Bill Clinton should have seen. At the same time, it's questionable whether he would have seen that many of these problems are exacerbated by the state's commitment to economic liberalisation and a narrow understanding of democracy.

In many ways, Botswana is at a crossroads: to continue with business as usual will only increase existing problems. Yet, given the linkages long developed between the state and international capital, one wonders if its leaders have the capacity to make the necessary creative policy decisions. It doesn't seem likely. Perhaps the only thing that will shake Botswana out of its diamond-induced stupor will be a BNF victory in 1999.

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