Hostile weather threatened independence

Union Jack hoisted in Botswana PIC. BOPA
Union Jack hoisted in Botswana PIC. BOPA

Fifty-five years ago, the independence of Botswana had been planned for midnight, September 30, 1966 at the new National Stadium in Gaborone.   

It was all systems go until unexpected forces of nature nearly caused a postponement of the day. As the hour drew closer and dignitaries were about to step outside and head to the stadium, the weather, which had been so friendly and conducive, became hostile, unkind and unbearable overnight.

It became cold and windy. The strong wind rattled doors and windows and dust was everywhere. Among the dignitaries was a representative of British Royal family, Her Royal Highness Princess Marina. And the colonial officer in charge, Hugh Norman Walker, says Professor Thomas Tlou, “muttered something about the need to consider postponing the ceremony” because he considered it unsafe to “expose the Princess to the rigours of the night.” The shocking statement invited a sharp reaction from a distressed president in waiting Sir Seretse Khama who said, “you cannot postpone independence!” Perhaps, demonstrating his legal background, Seretse added, “this is a legal instrument.” Seretse’s intervention prevailed. Close to midnight, the British union Jack was lowered, signalling the then unfolding disintegration of the once mighty British imperial empire and on the dot, at midnight, the new blue, black and white flag of Botswana was raised to mark attainment of full sovereign status. It is reported that there were anxious moments when the new flag refused to spread out and only did so after a few more tugs from the policeman in charge. Oral tradition claims that as the flag broke free, light showers of rain accompanied it. That day Botswana was born and she became a proud member of the community of free nations.

With the wisdom from hindsight, the unfavourable weather conditions of the night could have represented the country’s mixed fortunes - the storm simply an indication of the difficult terrain the country was about to navigate and the rain a good omen (traditionally considered a positive sign.) All the odds were against the country and the challenges appeared insurmountable. Former President Sir Ketumile Masire was later to state that detractors considered Botswana either very foolish or brave to have dared to chart the path of freedom and independence. It was not much of a surprise that many of the 70 African and Commonwealth countries did not honour the invitation to grace the maiden independence celebrations. Geographically, Botswana was sandwiched by rival minority white racist regimes, which were not amused by the prospect of a successful black majority rule experiment in their doorsteps. For survival, Botswana was expected to dance to the tune of apartheid principals in Pretoria and Salisbury. Small wonder many African countries gave Botswana a cold shoulder as the event was considered insignificant and of no consequence. But, Botswana under Seretse and his able Vice Pesident Masire, exceeded expectations and the British still regarded Botswana as one of their exemplary success stories. It was a rare combination of principle and pragmatism that saw Seretse weathering the storm and attracting international accolades during the first decade of self- determination. The president carved policies that ensured economic prosperity and political survival amidst incessant Rhodesian incursions and attempts by apartheid South Africa to undermine the young promising democratic state. For maintenance of racial harmony and multiparty democratic system, the country got international praise and came to be known as, “an island of peace in a sea of strife.”


The country was rated one of the poorest countries in the whole world and was expected to remain a beggar for many years to come. Botswana had been the Cinderella of the British Empire suffering benign neglect in many areas. There were no noteworthy developments. No investments were made into roads, infrastructure, telecommunications and schools. And not even the military to preserve Botswana’s territorial integrity. That Botswana gained her independence on a silver platter, without bloodshed, was not much of a surprise as the British had always regarded Bechuanaland Protectorate as a ‘wrong catch’, a costly and expensive barren land that served no useful purpose to the British crown. The British voluntary and peaceful exit was part of the grand plan of cost cutting and husbanding of meagre resources.

Tackling economic backwardness and poverty was a major preoccupation of the new government. Historian Professor Tlou wrote that the government famine relief programme targeted about 114,000 people in the first 10 years of self-determination. Since then the government had built a dependency syndrome, which is refusing to go away. Batswana were known for self-sufficiency but now have their eyes fixated on their rich government.

Agriculture for subsistence purposes used to do well but now most of the farmers have since abandoned their farming activities to flock to towns looking for jobs which are not available. The big challenge is uneven distribution of resources. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer.

Left to his own devices, Seretse had to set up a team to face head on the challenges at hand. The new administration in its wisdom did not expend energy and time in blaming the colonial legacy for underdevelopment but chose to manfully shoulder the task of laying the foundation for development. Matters requiring immediate attention included making Batswana feel the true meaning of independence and that the independence achieved was more than getting a new flag, national coat of arms, replacing God Save the Queen with Fatshe leno La rona, getting the president’s face into the new currency and replacing white bureaucrats with black faces. These changes were important but were cosmetic in nature and on their own could not have had a profound impact on the fortunes of the country. The country began life on a shoestring budget relying on the British aid in grant. So government had to be thrift and frugal as a matter of necessity. Right on day one, Seretse wanted government to guard against creating an urban-based bourgeoisie (rich) while the rest of the population languished in poverty in the rural areas. With the limited resources at its disposal, government had to do a lot of belt tightening and exercised strict fiscal discipline.

The idea was to do more with less. One of the measures taken at the risk of losing popularity was a policy of wage restraint avoiding paying lofty-high salaries to public servants. Seretse’s modesty helped to keep public expectations low and that is why his government was able to implement a policy of wage restraint with relative ease.

He impressed upon public servants and town dwellers that they should not expect to live a high standard of living at the expense of the rural based poor. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) manifesto read, “We don’t and will not make any extravagant promises, nor claim the ability to do the impossible.”

The second major priority was setting up a strong and vibrant public service. The new administration believed that government should be anchored on the public service and strong oversight institutions. Ironically, even though a politician, Seretse expressed a rare disdain for politicians. He wanted the country to develop a strong apolitical public service.

When addressing public servants he once said that government is the civil service and the civil service is government. His faith in the public service was evidenced by the retention of experienced white expatriates such as Philip Steenkaamp as permanent secretary to the president (PSP) and a couple of experts such as Quill Hermans in the Ministry of Finance.

His mistrust of politicians is clearly evident in his expression: “You cannot have a strong Legislature and at the same time have a very weak public service. It would be better to have a relatively weak or lukewarm or mild Legislature. If my opponents come to power we would depend on the civil service more than on the members. But if the right party comes to power we would depend on both.” This explains why Seretse gave public servants space to make judgements based on professional competence. Vice President Masire, who was placed in the treasury together with his team of experts, enjoyed a lot of room in the economic development of the country. Placing trust on experts paid dividends as Botswana under Seretse balanced its budget in 1972, sooner than expected.

A pragmatic and realistic foreign policy ensured preservation of Botswana’s territorial integrity. The original BDP policy was that Botswana could not afford an army because the army was not considered a priority. It was hoped that Botswana would rely on tact and diplomacy to restrain bully and aggressive neighbours. But subsequently, the BDP saw the wisdom of setting up an army in 1977. It was a small, modest army built on the relics of its precursor, the Police Mobile Unit. The army was hastily raised to deal with the worsening security situation in the North East. While the world expected Botswana to take instructions from Apartheid South Africa, Botswana refused to recognise illegitimate governments and boldly refused the establishment of diplomatic relations with them. However, Botswana unlike countries far away from South Africa, could not afford the luxury of severing economic ties with South Africa. It was common at the time to impose economic sanctions on racist regimes but Botswana could not go that suicidal route. Even when South Africa granted pseudo independence to neighbouring Bophuthatswana, Botswana refused to officially recognise it but allowed Bophuthatswana passport holders to enter Botswana. Seretse’s objective was to teach the world that democracy could thrive and that blacks were equally capable of governing themselves. This objective was met with relative ease and the doubting Thomases finally accepted Botswana as an important international player.

The status of DIkgosi haunted Seretse's government as much as it is haunting the current government. Right from the beginning, chiefs who were part of the 1963 constitutional talks in Lobatse felt ambushed and had reluctantly accepted the Constitution which they felt undermined the traditional powers. Not all chiefs were invited and it is not clear what criterion was used to have only Bathoen II, Kgosi Mokgosi III and Kgosi Linchwe II as representatives. Relegating dikgosi to a mere advisory capacity continues to breed frustrations among traditional leaders. Fed up with a less prestigious position of Chairperson of the House of Chiefs, Kgosi Bathoen resigned in 1969 and contested for a parliamentary seat in his hometown under the Botswana National Front (BNF) ticket and successfully dislodged Masire in 1969.

Sensing more danger Seretse offered Kgosi Linchwe a diplomatic post in the USA in 1968 to divert his attention from politics. The daunting task then as it is 55 years later, is how to knit the country together into a single united nation under one flag. Though nationalism has triumphed over tribalism, the position of chiefs remains a big issue requiring attention. Not so long ago Kgosi Kgafela called the Constitution a fraud and demanded a serious constitutional overhaul. His concern has some justification.

On the domestic political scene, Seretse once remarked that a wise man uses the ideas of others. President Khama used ideas of the opposition parties. The formation of the army was the idea of Phillip Matante of the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP). The BDP initially rejected the idea citing financial constraints but subsequently endorsed it when the security situation demanded so. It is not clear whether the BDP gave credit to Matante for the formation of an army. Kgalemang Motsete, of the BPP, composed the national anthem and this shows the extent to which Seretse tolerated the opposition. Seretse once admitted that the opposition was doing a good job in keeping the BDP on its toes. However, the BDP government in 1970s was not comfortable with the arrival on the political scene of a Moscow trained communist, Kenneth Koma. The BDP became distressed when Koma took charge of the BNF from Kgosi Bathoen in 1977. He was popular with young people and the BDP became fearful that he would seize power via a violent revolution.

Botswana of old was known for prudent management of resources. By some stroke of luck, Botswana in its formative stage, discovered diamonds and mining became the engine of economic growth. How the diamond bearing rock escaped the attention of the British for over eight decades remains a mystery. Proceeds from the sale of unprocessed raw materials were ploughed into the construction of infrastructure, a network of all weather roads, telecommunications and schools among other things. The university college of Botswana was however; hastily built through self-reliance under the slogan ‘one man one beast’ (motho le motho kgomo).

Exploitation of minerals was the first major economic undertaking, which was expected to spur the development of secondary industries. However, Botswana to date has failed to emulate the example of South Africa where wealth generated from mining was used as a basis for industrial revolution. Botswana, after 50 years of independence, can only take pride in achieving political independence but economic independence remains an elusive target.

Botswana cannot feed itself and provide top-notch medical care and take care of its sick people. Wealth from the minerals is being channelled from the country to settle huge food and medicine import bills. The money Botswana is sending to South Africa is responsible for a thriving agricultural and manufacturing sector in the neighbouring economic powerhouse.

Over 50 years down the line, Botswana is exporting unprocessed soda ash to the South African thus bolstering job creation efforts in that country. Effectively, Botswana is exporting jobs to its powerful neighbour while local job opportunities continue to shrink. Efforts made in the last five decades to build a robust private sector have not achieved any tangible and noteworthy results. The private sector is still at infancy stage and cannot stand on its feet without the generosity and patronage of the State. Government has been a major employer since independence. As government continues to expand and roll out services throughout the length and breadth of the country, its role as a major employer is not in doubt. However, over reliance on extractive minerals continues to expose the country to external market shocks. The economic recession of 2008 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have exposed the vulnerability of the mineral-led economy. Within a space of two years because the diamonds were not doing well, Botswana has depleted its external reserves placing the future at risk. Efforts by successive BDP governments to diversify the economy away from minerals and transition to a knowledge-anchored economy have proved futile. The BDP has been one of the luckiest parties in the world because despite its repeated failures to achieve the goal of expanding the country’s economic base, it continues to harvest enough votes to keep it in power in every election season.

At the moment there is no visible evidence that the BDP government is getting closer to achieving the economic diversification agenda. The economy is not able to create jobs for all who seek employment opportunities. And gone are the days when brandishing a university qualification was sufficient to guarantee one employment. Today, graduates are either roaming the streets or underemployed in areas for which they had received no training. Increased investments in education and industries are required. In education, deliberate efforts should be made to create some semblance of balance between academic pursuits and skills development. Botswana education system is hitherto biased towards academic achievement, which is considered more prestigious than vocation and technical education. Technical education could be a panacea to Botswana’s unemployment problem.

The biggest enemy threatening to reverse gains made in the civil service over the years is corruption. Access to political power now means access to economic power. Politicians of yesteryear were motivated by desire to serve and they subordinated their interests to national interests. Many of them died poor and some were buried in unmarked graves like ordinary souls. There is need to step up means to fight corruption regardless of its perpetrators. There is a tendency in government here and elsewhere in Africa to pursue those who have fallen out of favour with the government of the day. There is need to enhance the independence of oversight institutions if Botswana is to combat the cancer of corruption. Otherwise, the independence will only mean something to the few while the masses are sitting on the fringes of the economy surviving on crumbs falling from the tables of the rich.

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