Given our country’s relative success over the past five decades in combining adherence to democracy and the rule of law with economic growth accompanied by notable advances in human development, I have often been asked what accounts for our country’s relative success. What has set us apart from others?
One could here speak of good governance in the context of leadership, policies and institutions, the African image, the history of political parties or the history of our economic development. But I suppose that is reserved for our discussion time.
But on further reflection I thought I might rather try to dig a bit deeper by focusing on some of the longstanding, shared qualities that have defined who we are as a nation.
Certainly one of our strengths as a nation has been our ability of the last five decades to uphold our unity in diversity through our practices of consultation and consensus building buttressed by tolerance and mutual respect.
Other social values that have propelled our progress would include our prudence and, at least in the past, collective commitment to self-reliance.
As a nation we can take collective pride in the fact that we have made remarkable progress since independence, though many challenges admittedly remain.
Let me here cite but a few statistics, while acknowledging the fact that although numbers do not generally lie, they can be misleading. As the old adage goes if ones head is stuck in an icebox, while one’s feet are on a fire, one’s medium body temperature may be normal but the body itself will be less than comfortable.
Botswana’s numbers then and now do, however, tell a story.
Back in 1966 our total budget was just under US$3 million (R 10 million). In the current financial year it is about US$ 5 billion (P 56 billion).
In 1966 we were listed among the 10 least developed countries in the world with annual per capita income of less than R80! We are now listed among the world upper middle income countries with a per capita income of just over USD 18,000 (PPP)
Our exports have grown from about US$ 2 million to over US$ 6.5 billion, domestic employment has risen to about a half million, up from less than 14,000 at independence.
Of course the development of a country is about much more than monetary figures. Any nation’s development must ultimately be measured in the livelihood of its people.
Since 1966 education and health have consistently been our two largest recipients of public expenditure, together accounting for nearly half of our total public expenditure.
Today over 95% of our population lives within 15 kilometres of a public health facility. Despite the setback caused by HIV/AID our life expectancy have risen along with most of our other health and well being measures, where we have largely achieved our millennium development goals.
In terms of education we have been transformed from a largely illiterate to hugely literate nation.
Whereas no more than a few dozen Batswana had been exposed to any form of post-secondary education by 1966, over 30,000 students are currently enrolled in tertiary education programmes, mostly with Government sponsorship.
Although many challenges still lie ahead, our accomplishments as a nation are by any measure commendable.
In more recent years, there have also been a multitude of international surveys that recognise our country not only as a leader on this continent, but indeed in the wider global community. This is especially true in such areas of economic freedom, good governance, and the rule of law.
Contrary to what some may wish to believe, these accolades have come from independent institutions and organisations - that is to say observers that have no special stake in making us feel good about ourselves.
This brings me back to the role of values, for I believe that the democracy and good governance we enjoy today has to a great extent been grounded in our own social norms, rather than foreign ideology.
In this context, while the 81 years of British overrule that ended in 1966 was an important, indeed transformative, episode in our history, it was clearly not the beginning of our story.
Archaeologists have shown that for at least two millennia the territory of Botswana, along with the rest of Southern Africa, has been a place of continuous settlement and interaction among people of various cultures and economic livelihoods.
Such findings confirm the fact that our contemporary communities are the heirs of an ancient indigenous cultural cluster, which has given rise to its own enduring values.
Over the centuries, what we now know as Botswana has been, as it remains, the home of people of different languages and ethnic traditions living, more often than not, in harmony with each other and the land they share.
Lest my words appear overly romantic let me acknowledge that, as with virtually any part of the world, the social-orders that have evolved in Botswana were not without inequality, exploitation and, on occasion, even violent conflict.
But, the best evidence is that such conflict among local communities was of a relatively modest scale. The mid-19th century was characterised in Botswana, as elsewhere in the region as a period of turbulence. Yet even during this epoch the general pattern was for various local communities to join together in the face of external threats, e.g. the Amandebele and Boers.
It is not my purpose today to dig myself too deep into the contentious field of history. As the 16th century African scholar Ibn Khaldun observed: “History is a discipline that has a great number of approaches.”
I rather make the point that the ideal, and challenges, of realising unity in diversity is not new to us. It has been an aspect of our pre- as well as post-colonial sovereignty.
Modern Botswana’s 50th anniversary is thus an opportunity for us to once more take stock of our diverse identity by asking ourselves who we are and wish to be as a collective.
We have certainly come a long way since 1966. But, this is relevant to the extent that it may guide us towards further progress.
Ladies and gentlemen, any state’s path of development is marked by continuity and change. The collective wisdom of any political or social order therefore lies in its ability to strike an appropriate, that is to say prudent, balance between that which can and should be changed and that which is preserved.
A Ugandan commentator, Kintu Nyago once praised our first President, Seretse Khama, as “a person with a remarkable sense of political morality and a vision for his people” who, nonetheless, “believed in evolutionary rather than revolutionary methods.”
For my own part, I believe Khama’s vision was born of and remains a reflection of our broader national character. In this dynamic era of globalisation, driven as it is by rapid technological transformation, no society or social aspect can be isolated from change. An evolutionary state must therefore have the capacity to respond to the shifting needs and legitimate expectations of its own citizens.
At the same time it should be appreciated that the underlying values that hold together any community are often quite resilient.
Around the world globalisation has not led to anything like a homogenisation of outlook. For the foreseeable future we shall continue to live in a multi-cultural world. As elsewhere, Botswana will continue to progress within a framework of its own evolving values and perspectives.
In 1970 Seretse Khama observed in an address at the Dag Hammarskjold Centre in Sweden:
Although we have chosen to develop our own ideology, our nationalism and our non-alignment will not be permitted to degenerate in to narrow chauvinism and isolation. Rather we seek to identify ourselves with what is positive and humane in all national ideologies. We recognise certain fundamental values and hold them to be universal”
What Seretse back in 1970 was described as the four pillars of our national ideal of Kagisano remained as the guiding principles of our Vision 2016: Democracy, Development, Self-Reliance and Unity.
We could undoubtedly spend many hours discussing each of the principles. For my remaining remarks, I shall instead try focus on the challenge of unity.
It has been often said that a lack of internal social coherence has been a common weakness of many of Africa’s post-colonial states. This is generally attributed to the challenges of managing ethnic and/or regional competition over the nation’s largess resulting, in popular parlance, in the so-called curse of “tribalism”.
It has also been alleged that Botswana’s peculiar progress has been paralleled by a relatively high degree of internal cohesion. To the extent that this latter assumption holds true, and I believe to the greater extent it does, why is this then the case?
One explanation that can be dismissed is that our lack of severe inter-communal conflict is a reflection of social homogeneity. As I have observed, Botswana has for many centuries been the common home of various ethno-linguistic groups.
Another misconception, albeit one with an element of truth, is that our success can be simply ascribed to our mineral wealth. While our progress over the past five decades has, heretofore, indeed been largely financed by the exploitation of minerals, more especially diamonds, this alone certainly did not get us to where we are today.
Indeed, the prevailing literature on natural resource development in recent years has tended to emphasis the notion that their exploitation can be as much an economic and social curse or boon.
Just as the various ethnic identities found in modern Botswana have a long history of living and interacting with one another, so too have they shared certain common values, including a basic belief in government of and by the people.
This has been and remains true at the local traditional leadership level, as well as with our more modern state structures.
We thus may view ourselves not only as a mature democracy in light of our uninterrupted record of multi-party politics. We can also believe that we are an indigenous democracy in the context of a deeply embedded political culture that values consultation and mutual respect. In the pre-colonial era these values were applied to intra-communal as well as local governance.
No matter how venerable, political and social value systems cannot exist in isolation of material conditions.
Given the extent of Botswana’s poverty 50 years ago, when we were rated as one of the five least developed countries in the world, what besides our democratic nature has ensured that our natural wealth became a boon rather than a burden?
In addition to a commitment to democracy and moderation, I believe that the answer in large part lies in our decision at independence to reaffirm the principle that the natural resources of Botswana are our common heritage. For this reason their ownership is legally vested with the state irrespective of who owns the land upon which they are found.
As was the case with our traditional authorities in the past, the modern state is further understood to be acting as the steward not only for the citizenry of today but also tomorrow.
This basic principle is equally true in the context of the minerals under our ground, our wildlife, and our communal and state lands.
It was our underlying unity, combined with the grace of God, which shielded us throughout the turbulent years of our region’s liberation struggles. Let us also take pride in the fact that when our neighbours resisted violent and racist minorities, our nation remained at the frontline of their struggle. Their struggle was indeed, our struggle.
Even as brutal attacks were unleashed against our people and those we supported, we were unshakeable in the conviction- Puso ke Puso ka batho. The peace and freedom many of our neighbours enjoy today is, in part, the product of our solidarity and sacrifice.
Today, as in the past, our common future is being shaped by our capacity to adapt to global economic and political forces, while preserving the force of our own identity.
Over the years this has tested our forebears, as well as our own, ability to strike an appropriate balance between that which can and should be changed and that which ought to be preserved. This is true in both the realms of cultural and natural heritage.
The sustained economic progress we have registered over the past 50 years, prudence in the use of our nation’s resources, and our determination to remain a peaceful, united and proud nation, are all amongst the many reasons why we deserve to celebrate.
Like all jurisdictions our achievements have come to us hand in hand with challenges. It is ultimately our determination to identify and overcome our emerging challenges and existing shortcomings that will attest to our continued greatness as a nation. As we embark on the next phase of our journey we should set ourselves even higher milestones.
Let us further recognise that the challenges we face moving forward will continue to require combined efforts and collective sacrifice. We should be mindful of the fact that, regardless of the development strides we have made, we are still very much a developing society, located within a still marginalized continent.
If we are to attain the levels of development that we aspire to, we also need to resuscitate our national principle of self-reliance.
Like many elders, I am concerned that we seem to be losing our grip on the time tested spirit of self-reliance.
Whilst I am aware that many of our fellow citizens were born when our fortunes had enormously improved, I need to remind the nation that it was only through the spirit of self-help and hard work, which our poverty stricken country survived the worst phases of its existence.
The role of Government should, therefore, be to empower its citizens, to succeed in today’s increasingly competitive world, not to protect them from it.
We have come a long way to this day. Let us consolidate and build upon the enormous strides we have made as a nation.
As we travel towards our centenary, let us do so with determination remain steadfast in the values that have served us well while being always prepared to adapt them to future challenges. In the words of our beloved folk singer Ratsie Sethako, “A re chencheng”, but with caution. Ke a leboga bagaetsho!
*The above is an abridged text of a lecture the late president delivered at BIUST in Palapye last July. He passed away last Thursday night