One of the basic needs of a visitor to a strange culture is, after acquiring skills of entry such as greetings and self-introduction, to learn skills of stabilisation. One of the most basic skills of settling in properly is the ability to say 'NO'. I discovered that as Director of In-country for the Peace Corps some 30 years ago.
So, the rituals of declaration of independence, writing of constitutions and design of national symbols such as flags, coats of arms and national anthems and the holding of elections are the rituals that serve to introduce the average citizen to the culture of democracy. The citizen is persuaded, usually through the constitution, but just as often through the propaganda of the state media under the control of the first ruling party, that he or she possesses the right to life, freedom of expression, association, movement, the right to vote and to work.
In the new Botswana, rising from humble beginnings with a population of a little over 250,000 at independence, and a budget not exceeding R500,000 by much even after it was doubled by the British colonialists, it appeared that this promise was realisable, for the first 10 years, until 1976. Thereabouts the country stumbled upon diamonds at Orapa and Jwaneng, and quickly moved to balance its budget, establishing an army in 1977 though it still remained among the least developed countries in the world. The 'civil service', perhaps holding greater claim to that description then than its modern version, grew fatter. The 'African' top brass in the civil service sent their children to 'English medium schools' with the liberal Europeans, while the Afrikaners insisted on sending theirs to Rhodesia and South Africa where they also did military training to protect apartheid.
The ruling elite gained greater access to the National Development Bank, which lent money for building private houses and bottle-stores though its primary purpose would have been to lend for the promotion of agriculture. The political elite and the senior civil servants, always benefitting from fore-knowledge and their influence on Parliament, benefitted from the symbiotic relationship between the growing private sector and the banks on the one hand, and the parliamentarians, the ruling party and the courts on the other. The senior civil service extended its tentacles to the larger economy through the establishment of the Botswana Housing Corporation, the Botswana Development Corporation, the Botswana Power corporation, Botswana Water Utilities Corporation and other para-statals that benefitted from government financing, donor funding and other independent lending institutions. The permanent secretaries and their wives and cousins sat on the boards, knitting tightly the relationship between the new ruling elite at the national assembly, the chambers of commerce, the large farmers and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. It would have been an impossible task to distinguish any one of them from the other. The distinction between political democracy for the poor and economic advantage for the ruling class came into sharp relief.
The construction boom of the early 1980s did little to help the lower income groups and the poor to gain access to housing at the BHC, electricity at the BPC or connectivity at the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation. In 1974, the Director of Elections reported a low - if not the lowest - turnout at the general election at plus or minus 50 percent, nevertheless giving the ruling Botswana Democratic Party and emphatic 'YES' in accordance with the 'first-past-the-post' electoral system. Ten years later in 1984, the Botswana National Front, at the mercy of the very iniquitous electoral system, took five of its own to Parliament and the Botswana Peoples Party taking one seat. The urban electorate were beginning to show disapproval of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, then measured among the worst 10 or 20 countries in the world.
That did not change the perception in the international community (read Western industrialised countries) that something very wrong could be happening to Botswana's democracy. On the contrary, then as now, the country continued to attract the most favourable accolades from those countries despite the deteriorating condition in health, education, household incomes, access to justice, freedom of the press, transparency and openness in governance and prevalence of corruption. Botswana had long ago mastered, like the peacock, the art of fanning out its tail-end feathers, bedazzling the onlooker with a kaleidoscope of colours and blinding him/her to the reality that its meat, among other fouls, is tasteless, hard and the least edible.
Botswana had evolved a foreign policy that ingratiated itself to the leading capitalist countries by serving as their ideological and spying outpost in southern Africa. The Western countries were fearful that like in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola where they stood against the liberation movement and in favour of the white minority regimes, it might turn out in South Africa that China and the Soviet Union, who stood on the side of the liberation movement, might win the favour of the government of the African peoples. Needles to say, South Africa and the Cape horn were important for western military interests, not just in the region, but also on the continent. The South African economy also had the potential of providing Western capital with a gateway to the northern countries.
Botswana could only accede to the foreign policy interests of the Western countries, believing that they would eternally hold the key to integration into the international economy. Things remain so to-date, despite the obvious reality that the configuration of the international economy and the much vaunted 'collapse of the eastern bloc' point to the emergence of a viable, growing alternative market for Botswana exports.
At home, the ruling classes - with the Botswana Democratic Party at the head - persevered in mobilising the pliable and vulnerable sections of the opposition, the private sector, civil society and the fragmented intelligentsia in the direction of the cult of Ngwato royalty, Serowe, the hinterlands of Ga-MmaNgwato and the Central District.
In the panic to retrieve lost political territory between 1984 and 1994, considerations of gender, regional and ethnic balance fell behind consolidation of the army, intelligence organisations and the state media behind the ruling party. The strategy of the ruling elite paid off as all the former BDP stalwarts who had drifted to the BNF returned to the BDP together with the petty bourgeois sections of the BNF who were committed more to BNF leader Kenneth Koma than to a fundamental transformation of Botswana society. The BDP and BNF found that they were much more similar in character - reformist parties - than dissimilar.
The economic base of the country was not broad or deep enough to accommodate and nurture a genuine alternative that could compete with the BDP for political power. The private press deteriorated into a mere shadow of what it was between 1983 and 1990, and it continues to cascade into eternal irrelevance and professional ineptitude; a mirror image of the state media. In effect, the citizens are now bereft of a constituency in the political arena, or newspapers and radio stations that are capable of saying 'NO'. As alluded to earlier, the ability to say 'No' serves only as a stabilising factor in the political arena. Stabilisation, in effect, suggests that the actors in the political arena have been able to:
Generally speaking, all of the actors on the political landscape have demonstrated a healthy capacity to critique - even if sporadically - the status of affairs, but they have been dismally inept at fighting for a meaningful alternative. This means that there exists no viable political alternative that has a real prospect of engineering a change of government, or at the minimum, presenting a credible suggestion that such a change of government is plausible. The country is, for all intents and purposes, a one party state that has started to exhibit some of the worst qualities of a military dictatorship, perhaps more generously referred to as a police state. That is what happens when there is no one to say 'NO'. There are soldiers on every street corner and spies and spooks in the post offices, on the telephones, the Internet, newsrooms, trade unions and political parties. It is under these conditions that the captains of the ruling class are encouraged to use instruments of the state to silence the last of the remaining voices of dissent by dispensing with justice in the streets.
If there is any hope, it lies with the students who will lose the opportunity of an education because the government has found an excuse in the 'credit crunch' to deprive them of a free and compulsory education and scholarships for tertiary education. Their parents might follow.
There is a section of the working class which is aware that their retrenchments and dismissals from work came long before the 'credit crunch', some of them at times when the mines were doing very well for the management and the executives. There is a section of the community which questions continued expenditure on the army when its duties can be performed better by the police with the required oversight by Parliament.
The public will depend on the two or three independent journalists who will stand up for journalism and truthful pursuit of information dissemination. Perhaps, when these fragmented sections of the community come together at the polls, they will be able to make a difference to what is otherwise a democracy in decay.
That is, if the police state will accept the outcome of their vote in October!