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Foreign policy charm offensive or misplaced priority

Ndaba Gaolathe
President of Botswana’s Alliance for Progressives (AP), Ndaba Gaolathe, was recently on South Africa’s Radio 702 on the Eusebius Mckaiser show, where he was interviewed by Oxford PhD student and author, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.

The subject of the interview from the onset was a conversation on exploring synergies between Botswana and South Africa, the values that the two countries share and how they can grow stronger together.

Although much of the interview was a conversation on Botswana politics and the AP manifesto, it is useful to dissect the honourable member’s view of the regional giant that is South Africa, the southern African region, the African continent and the rest of the world, and how that interpretation of the world plays out in their electoral agenda.

Very rarely do opposition parties engage in conversations on foreign policy. Only the Botswana Democratic Party’s manifesto has a dedicated section on foreign policy and international relations.

As the current rage on globalisation and open ‘artificial borders’ predicts, the world of Geopolitics is characterised by unprecedented changes in greater scale and pace.

Economic reforms and all other electoral agendas must create the competitiveness and flexibility our economy needs to thrive in a fast-changing geostrategic environment.  As I’ve often asked and challenged, political parties in this election must fulfil many other burdens, amongst them, define or redefine our national interests and how they will set out to pursue them.

How do we succeed in our region, trade more amongst our African counterparts and build resilient corporations that can compete in the world? How do we build, strengthen and diversify partnerships across the globe? 

From a quick look at the AP manifesto, there is not much explicit thought into how the party interprets the world and if, in anyway that feeds into their electoral agenda. Any mention of international affairs is implied under the cover of other issues. But the party does list some targets on their electoral agenda that constitute regional integration and global engagement.

The AP plans to ‘target P100 billion in both domestic and foreign investments… set out Gaborone as a MICE hub and establish Botswana as a southern African transport hub for the SADC market’.  All these will require vigorous engagement at executive level, lobbying and working with international key partners to drive the country’s agenda and unlock economic opportunities. Although Gaolathe’s engagement was not at State level, it gave a peek into how one of the contenders for Office of the President understands the current global order, global economics and global relationships.

Despite assumptions that voters are not interested in anything that does not concern their domestic wellbeing, it is important for political leaders to tell us what they think the country’s place in the world ought to be. Critics were concerned that the interview, in a foreign country, on a foreign radio station, was an irrelevant platform that did not add any value. I would posit differently.

Contenders for political office must exploit all avenues to stimulate debate in a productive and constructive manner, as long as it circles back to their target audience – the voter! The Diaspora vote and all others who may have had a chance to catch the interview must have certainly appreciated the access that the interview gave into the leader and his party’s ideas on transforming the country.

Ndaba’s juxtaposition of Botswana and South Africa as two countries that share a ‘collective destiny’ casts the

spotlight on the most important foreign ally Botswana has had for as long as the two countries have existed.

Botswana and South Africa share a history, though painful in some ways, it is an unforgettable one that we must be proud of.

Presently, South Africa is Botswana’s biggest trading partner, and Botswana’s economy is heavily dependent on South Africa, making the two countries’ interests intertwined.

It is in Botswana’s interest that South Africa succeeds, both economically and politically. Ndaba views South Africa-Botswana relations through this lens. He mentions South Africa’s space programme, cross-border collaborations in the areas of electricity generation and water and goes on to argue that friends in the region can be ‘co-investors’ in such programmes with prospects of success highly bankable.

Although these are convincing ideas on paper, the current dynamics of regional integration and cooperation cannot be ignored. From a state-to-state level of cooperation, the region still has a long way to go and perhaps more opportunities for cooperation would be best suited in the private sector space. That Ndaba views and embraces the geopolitical importance of southern Africa and the rest of the continent is commendable.

The vision that his party propels that of ‘a Botswana that is a paragon of prosperity on the African continent…with a diverse economy that creates jobs’ can constitute a description of what Botswana’s national interests would be under an ‘AP government’. It is strange and unfortunate that these ideas are not elaborated in the party’s manifesto. How does this ‘paragon of prosperity’ relate with other countries in the region besides South Africa. How will we stand with our friends when they are struggling to maintain peace, stability and economic prosperity? i.e. Zimbabwe…

There’s constant referral to ‘how Botswana is viewed by the world’ and the image that the country must craft. However, I find the party President’s position that they ‘reject the idea that Africa should be our benchmark’ on economic prosperity quite problematic.

While Africa has had a fair share of its problems, there’s still a lot more we can learn from African states that have grown and transformed from the perils of war and colonialism, to become major players in both their regions and the world, worthy of envy and emulation.

Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, according to the IMF. The region’s growth numbers are led by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and several others.  Surely there’s something we can learn from Ethiopia’s airline industry, Rwanda’s institutional and economic reforms.

There are countless lessons and opportunities in this electoral cycle for political leaders to take the mantle and provide leadership on all fronts. Honourable Gaolathe’s conversation on Radio 702, though not sufficiently exploited, was a great conversation starter on the role that political parties must play in the foreign policy, diplomacy and international affairs debate.

The rest of the presidential hopefuls must, perhaps, also look inward and outward at the same time and contribute profusely to how Botswana will play in the world post-2019.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea. He writes on the intersections of politics, international trade and foreign policy

Opinion & Analysis



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