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From Seretse to Masisi: How Botswana fought disasters

RYDER GABATHUSE
Former president Mogae PIC. KENNEDY RAMOKONE
As Botswana and the world grapple with the effects of the novel coronavirus also known as COVID-19, Mmegi Staff Writer RYDER GABATHUSE looks at how Botswana has been dealing with varying disasters that hit its shores since independence in 1966 during former president Sir Seretse Khama’s tenure to date under the stewardship of President Mokgweetsi Masisi

FRANCISTOWN: Although Botswana’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic might have started on the wrong footing with the helmsman President Masisi defying advice from his handlers; the level of the country’s combat against the deadly virus impresses analysts.

Coronavirus is a new virus. As such, all countries, including Botswana, are in a learning curve as to how to contain it.

Besides a few well-documented hiccups it is apparent, there is political will, which is a requisite fuel in a war against the virus of this magnitude, as evidenced by the resources made available for this purpose. The pandemic hit the country at a time when President Masisi and his administration were still pre-occupied with the rising unemployment numbers with the country’s young graduates loitering in the streets, jobless. Botswana’s unemployment rate is just slightly around 20.6% and it doesn’t seem abating at all.

The coronavirus pandemic provides a stern test to Masisi’s administrative prowess in the face of a pandemic whose results already have debilitating effects across the globe with the country’s diamond giant Debswana hinting a possibility of shutting down its operations and thus sending workers home.

In fact, many industries that cannot contain the pressure exerted by the pandemic have already expressed a desire to lay-off workers, as they cannot promise to raise any money to pay them without production. The Masisi administration has however, promised rescue packages or bail out to some industries affected by the global pandemic.

It remains to be seen how far the Masisi administration will bail out the industries as already all the players in the industry are crying foul about the effects of the pandemic.

University of Botswana senior lecturer in politics, Dr. Kebapetse Lotshwao is impressed, “that various Cabinet ministers, especially the Health and Wellness Minister, Dr. Lemogang Kwape and the health bureaucracy across the country have done a good job thus far. 

“He strongly advocates that more resources have to keep flowing to the health ministry and all departments and organisations involved in containing the spread of coronavirus.

“Lessons must also be learned from some of the things that transpired. For instance, leaders must observe the protocols that they come up with,” the UB senior lecturer paused and added: “Thus, President Masisi’s trip to attend Hage Geingob’s inauguration at a time when everyone was supposed to limit their movement, was ill-advised, and must have not happened. An inauguration is not an urgent event, and the President dismally failed to lead by example.”

Although the government of Botswana has done a good job thus far, Lotshwao was adamant that the main challenge has been the miserable state of many public health facilities in the country.

The unexpected outbreak of COVID-19 should also be a lesson that public facilities, such as hospitals have to be well funded, and ready for disease outbreaks.

“For this to happen,” Lotshwao observed and added: “There is need for political will, which is currently not there, as leaders use private and foreign health facilities. Another lesson is that the country must work hard to achieve self-sufficiency in many areas, including electricity, food production, and technology.” The UB academic was concerned that as things stand, “Botswana is dependent on South Africa, which also has its own challenges.”

He highlighted that after over 50 years of independence this should not be the case.

Before reports of three infected people, and the one who died, there was a general sentiment that Botswana would not be affected by the pandemic. However, with these cases, coronavirus is now a reality in Botswana. This will convince those who didn’t believe. Naturally, this will lead to change of behaviour and attitude.

Masisi’s predecessor, Ian Khama got into office in 2008 at a time when the world was hit by a global recession that had duly paralysed economies in the first world mainly, resulting in massive retrenchments.

But, with Botswana’s prudent monetary and fiscal policies the country emerged from the recession with lessons well learned, as the then administration didn’t just fold arms.

It was when Khama was the helmsman just after

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ascending to the highest office in the land that his administration borrowed large amounts in order to support some of the major government projects to ensure there was economic activity with major projects like Morupule B being pursued despite the biting recession.

The impact of the economic recession would later be felt in 2009 with the closure of the mines. Botswana under Khama adopted the centre cyclical policy, which saw the southern African nation spending the way out of the recession to support some of its major projects.

Botswana borrowed about US$ 1.5 billion from the African Development Bank and powered its major projects that helped the economy to quickly recover from the debilitating recession.

Before Khama took over, his predecessor, former president Festus Mogae ascended to the State presidency when Botswana and other countries were grappling with the devastating effects of the then HIV/AIDS pandemic which decimated thousands of people as there was no therapy at the time.

Mogae made the fight for HIV/AIDS his main pet project and went globetrotting in search of therapy for the disease.

The former president, Mogae started the fight from his day one in office and even today in his retirement he is still the champion of the HIV/AIDS fight. He ensured that people tested and those who were positive accessed the anti AIDS therapy which prolonged the lives of many.

Mogae’s trying moment came in 1999 when his administration was struck by a mammoth disaster that saw about 60,000 potential voters in the 1999 general election nearly disenfranchised. This was caused by a failure to publish a writ of the referendum and its accompanying Bill in the Government Gazette as required by the law. 

A correction was made after both Mogae and then Attorney General, Phandu Skelemani had literally sparred at a court of law with the then Attorney General refusing to take blame for the error, until the matter was ultimately settled out of court.

 Mogae had to declare a public state of emergency in order to right the wrong. In that was the first in the country’s history, it was largely perceived as major political blunder.

The founding president, the late Seretse Khama and his successor, Sir Ketumile Masire faced a number of challenges as well.

Owing to colonial neglect, the country was in a state of abject development at the time of independence.

“Poverty and illiteracy rates were very high. There were no roads and telecommunications networks. The economy depended heavily on the cattle industry. Droughts were also a recurring phenomenon, often decimating cattle populations, the very mainstay of the economy,” observed Lotshwao.

In addition, he said except for Zambia in the north, hostile white minority ruled countries that shared no interests with Botswana surrounded the country.

Thus, the two leaders (Seretse Khama and the late Masire) faced a mammoth task of transforming the country and improve the living standards of the people.

“To achieve this objective, they created a ‘developmental state’ in which the state played a leading role in national development by formulating and implementing development plans. The developmental state created by Khama and Masire was initially funded through development assistance and revenues,” Lotshwao analysed.

However, in the early 1980s, diamonds became the main source of revenue, allowing the state to invest even more on socio-economic and infrastructural developments.

“Although a lot was achieved in terms of improving the living standards of the majority, the main limitation was that the two leaders failed to ensure that the fruits of diamond funded economic growth are evenly distributed, evidenced today by extreme inequality that characterise Botswana,” the UB senior lecturer observed worriedly.

Indeed, in terms of inequality, Botswana is in the same league with Namibia and South Africa, former settler colonies in which the white minority appropriated all viable economic sectors and opportunities.

But, with the country destined to go into a state of emergency today, with the intended extreme social distancing into practice, the Masisi administration is expected to unleash a great fight against the disease that elsewhere continues to take many lives.



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