Botswana Part I: Diamonds & Democracy

True democracy might be a rare thing but diamonds certainly aren’t.  They are one of the most commonly found gem grade minerals in the world.  Tanzanite on the other hand is a rare gem.  It is a beautiful stone that is only found in a small region near Arusha in Tanzania yet it fetches somewhere between US$700 and US$1,000 per carat compared to diamonds which can cost anything from US$3,000 and US$27,000 per carat even though they are in much larger supply.

This is because the largest diamond companies in the world strictly control supply and therefore price.  They have waged a subtle yet powerful marketing campaign lasting decades that has invaded the Western psyche to such a degree that even the poorest people feel that they should buy a diamond ring before they can ‘properly’ get engaged. The term ‘Diamonds are Forever’ was an advertising slogan created by De Beers and somehow became a symbol of marriage and commitment in western culture.   It is an ingenious way to do business; find a product, use clever marketing to convince people it is a thing to be desired (or even needed in the case of engagement rings) then stockpile it, only releasing a small amount every year in order to ensure people pay top dollar for it.

Marilyn Monroe’s character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes further promoted diamonds as a symbol of love and success.
Beautiful and rare Tanzanite costs far less than relatively common diamonds.

Photos sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

The expense of democracy is debatable but global analysis indicates that it is far rarer than diamonds.  Excluding microstates such as Vatican City, Monaco and Tuvalu, there are 167 nation states in the world and of these only 20 are considered to be full democracies with Norway holding the number 1 spot and USA coming in at number 20, just one above the ‘Flawed Democracies’ list that starts at number 21 with Italy and ends at number 79 with Montenegro.  The list then moves onto ‘Hybrid Democracies’ beginning with Guatemala and ending with ‘Authoritarian’ goverments aka dictatorships.  North Korea takes the dubious title of the worlds least democratic nation by ending the list at number 167.   Click here if you’d like to see how your country stacks up and to see how the rankings are decided.

Just a few spots down the list from USA, sandwiched between France and Estonia, is Botswana at number 28.  It is the highest ranked African country followed by South Africa which is a full 10 points behind at number 37 then Ghana at 53.  The remaining Sub-Saharan nations are scattered through the lower rankings between the  ‘Authoritarian’ and ‘Flawed Democracies’.


Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

This is all relevant to Botswana because not only is it the biggest diamond exporter in the world with diamonds accounting for around 40% of government revenues, but it is often held up as a shining example of democracy and good economics in Africa.  If you learn anything about the continent you will frequently hear Botswana being lauded as an example of how other Sub-Saharan countries could have been post colonial independence yet all failed to.  Whilst other nations were descending into corruption or civil war or poverty (often all three), Botswana’s economy was growing rapidly.  The IMF estimates the average annual economic growth rate was a whopping 10% between independence in 1966 and 1999, surely one of the world’s greatest success stories.

The government took a chunk of the diamond revenues to reinvest in education and healthcare.  All citizens can receive 10 years of free or heavily subsidized primary education and many have access to cheap or free tertiary education.  As a result adult literacy percentages went from 61% in 1991 to 83% in 2008. Whilst the unemployment rate of around 20% is high compared to western countries, it is comparable or significantly lower than most other developing nations.  Despite government investment in healthcare the life expectancy is not great largely because Botswana was hit incredibly hard by the AIDS pandemic which hurts economics and longevity in any affected nation.

The current HIV infection rate sits at about 24% in adults but swift action by the government in the early-2000s prevented an even greater crisis.  When it was clear the pandemic was taking hold Botswana introduced cheap or free access to HIV drugs for citizens along with a raft of prevention measures that included education and early intervention for expectant mothers and infants.  Around 75% of infected adults and 98% of infected children now have access to drugs.  As a result there has been a 50% decrease in new infections in children and life expectancy increased from a tragic 30-years old during the height of the epidemic to 54-years old in recent figures.  Still not a great statistic but a vast improvement and it is worth adding that many feel Botswana’s figures look worse than other nations purely because they invest in recording statistics and producing reports.  In other words they may actually be faring better than other nations that faced the same pandemic but are simply the only nation that accurately report the impacts.

HIV/AIDS sign inside a school in GwetaImage courtesy of Samantha Marx

Swift intervention and foresight prevented a horrendous HIV crisis from getting even worse, something Botswana is also looking at in terms of economy.  They have realised that diamond resources will all but dry up in the next 20 years so have already started looking for and investing in other industries to sustain their economy so that all their eggs aren’t in one basket.

All of this sounds like very sensible common sense government but it is extremely rare in Africa, perhaps even as rare as Tanzanite because for a long time it was also only found in one place.  Africa is slowly changing for the better with more countries such as Ghana and Rwanda following in the footsteps of Botswana, but on the whole countries crippled by poor governance are like diamonds in Africa; easily found and easily exploited.

I spent several days of my African trip in Botswana and was able to talk to many citizens.  What interested myself and my traveling companions was an overwhelming sense of pride in how well Botswana had performed in terms of healthcare, education and economy.  It is unusual to hear that kind of enthusiasm from everyday citizens unless you are visiting a country where they are fearful about saying anything bad about their government.  What was even more interesting was the admiration that people of other African nationalities had for Botswana.

The reasons for this seemingly unusual success story are normally explained by the sheer luck Botswana had when the European colonists divided up Africa into nations.  I’ve written in an earlier blog post about how that was done with little thought given to how these new borders divided tribal groups and often left two opposing ethnic groups sharing the same country.   The nation of Botswana has different beginnings combining luck and good judgement which enabled it to avoid the same fate as so many other colonial nations.

The British protectorate of Bechuanaland was established in 1885, not as a British colony but to help protect residents from incursions of Boer (South African) farmers who were looking for new territory.  The borders of this new protectorate shifted over the years but contained one dominant ethnic group called the Tswana.  Smaller ethnic groups also remained but everyone was largely able to stay within their own homelands with their traditional forms of leadership in place, at least for a while.

A map showing the Bechuanaland territory in 1885.

Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons

The territory was divided into two regions for administrative purposes and eventually the southern part was handed over to the South African colony and remains part of South Africa, whilst the northern part (today’s Botswana) remained as a British territory.  The British tried to offload it a few times over the years to either Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) or South Africa but the Tswana opposed this and managed to stay under British rule until they became independent in 1966.  With hindsight we can see this saved them from a couple of terrible fates; the first being apartheid law that the Namibian’s had to endure when they became a South African colony and the second being the Rhodesian wars followed by the dictatorial rule of Robert Mugabe that has all but destroyed Zimbabwe.

During this time a number of leaders with good judgement emerged that undoubtedly saved Botswana from these terrible fates.  The first was King (or Chief) Khama III, already the Tswana leader when the region became a protectorate.  He was partly responsible for keeping the region out of South African and Rhodesian hands.  When he died in 1923 his successor only lived a few years.  When he in turn died his only legitimate heir was an infant son so his uncle named Tshekedi Khama acted as Regent and did a good job of managing the relationship with the colonial British rulers.  He made significant improvements in education and agriculture whilst trying to stop British interference in the justice system.


Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons

In the meantime an epic love story was developing that threatened to split the tribe.  The infant son Seretse Khama had now grown into a young man and was being educated in London.  Whilst at law school he fell in love with a white British woman and wanted to marry her.  The whole thing was incredibly scandalous at the time with older people against the match and younger people generally for it.  Seretse eventually married her and brought her back home which caused a major uproar.  Eventually Seretse was exiled by the British which lead to rioting and bloodshed.

By the time things had calmed down and Seretse returned the colony was on the brink of independence.  Once that happened and the first election was held he was elected president of the newly named Botswana and stayed in power until 1980 during which time he proved to be a capable leader.  A constitution was drawn up (the first in Africa) that promised fair and free elections.  Whilst corruption wasn’t eradicated it was frowned upon and the country is known to be one of the least corrupt on the continent.    Careful economic measures were introduced and diamond mining was well-managed.  All of these things led to the startling economic growth Botswana has enjoyed since independence along with the investment in core areas like healthcare and education.

Seretse Khama married Ruth Williams.  It was a union that created a lot of controversy and strife yet they remained together until death.

Photo sourced from Okay Africa

The fact that the Tswana make up over 80% of the population no doubt helps with stability and enables Botswana to avoid conflict over power grabs by other tribes, something that has seriously hindered progress in other African nations.  This commonality also more easily enables a sense of nationhood so that people are more likely to feel like they are working toward the same goals.  But it isn’t all sunshine and daisies.

The indigenous San people make up around 3% of the population and many have been forced to move from their homelands to reservations whilst being prohibited from engaging in their traditional hunter gatherer practices.  The government claims this is to protect wildlife and the environment but many people believe it was because these homelands sat right in the middle in some of Botswana’s most important diamond mining areas.  Today it remains a thorny issue with even the US State Department calling it a ‘principal human rights concern’.  Just like other ethnic groups around the world that have been forced to relocate to reservations in places like North America and Australia substance abuse and poverty have become tragic ongoing problems as people struggle to face life with many of their traditions taken away.

San (otherwise known as Bushman) in Botswana protesting a government ban on them practicing their traditional hunting lifestyle.

Image sourced from Survival International

People protesting against the forced relocation of the San in Botswana.  The government claimed the relocations were to protect wildlife but many assert it was to clear land for diamond mining, thus this protest outside a London De Beers store in 2010.

Image sourced from Survival International

It is also important to note that whilst Botswana is an African success story when it comes to economics, education and healthcare it still ranks fairly low on a global scale.  Nonetheless the evidence of good governance is everywhere.  Today it is classed as a middle-income nation, roughly on a par with Mexico in terms of wages and living standards.  The government continues to try to proactively head off issues such as an over reliance on diamond mining, keeping agriculture disease free and addressing the problems created by drought and land exploitation.

On a personal note it was one of my favorite countries on this trip and over the next few blog posts I’ll move away from politics and history to share some of the wonderful experiences I had there.

Please note that the cover image on this post is of an open diamond mine in Botswana and was sourced from Wikipedia Commons.  I never visited any of the mines.

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