By turning a resource of nature, diamonds, into its significant sole lifeline; and by relying on diamonds, over and over, and several decades after they were first discovered, mined, valued and sold, Botswana has created a relationship with them, that has gained power over the country to this day.
In the late 1960s up to the mid-1970s, Pink Floyd (the UK psychedelic rock bank) was a lot like Botswana – it was bereft of artistic leadership, having lost its cofounder, Syd Barrett, to illness, while Botswana was poor in material terms as it lacked capital.
To make up for this, Pink Floyd released the song, ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ (listen here: youtu.be/cWGE9Gi0bB0) – an ode to Barrett. To make up for this, by a stroke of luck, Botswana turned to its natural resources. In the shadows of a newly-acquired Independence but with little to show for it, except it being a moral and political imperative whose time had come, the rule of three would apply: Botswana’s diamonds would be discovered and mined successively in three remote sites – on the edges of the Kalahari Desert. A cultural trait of modesty and caution by a nation of small time livestock farmers, really a hardscrabble attitude about resources, propelled a general consensus for frugality and prudence in applying the gains of diamonds and other finite resources. Would that continued to date!
The Pink Floyd song starts slowly, instrumental only, almost meandering, but patient nonetheless, like building a mine – drilling horizontally and vertically to make an opening consistently. The song picks up its tempo, deliberately, as if the miners were energised by the anticipation of how close they were to the subterranean ground wherein lay the minerals. Only after the eight-minute mark into the 13-minute long song are its lyrics sung, as I would imagine the miners singing joyously when those heaps of soil dug out of the underbelly of the Kalahari sands yielded diamonds. Most intriguingly, four things determine the value of each diamond: carat weight, colour, cut and clarity. On the other hand, a comparable precious metal – gold – and a storehouse of value, is priced by a simple system of supply and demand. If the price of gold increases because of pessimism about currencies, the price of a diamond increases because of the quality of its 4Cs.
A renowned local economist and a Treasury official has called Botswana’s first 40 years’ relationship with diamonds, a well-managed good luck. A non-professional would call it good judgement. In my view, they amount to the same thing. Between 2015 and 2021, the world’s second and third largest rough diamonds were discovered in this country, respectively by a small mining corporation and a global miner. It is no wonder that by general acknowledgement, the world’s best diamond address is here. In the beginning of Botswana’s decades long lucrative journey with diamonds, providence supplemented its national inclination to be frugal and prudent with public resources. Right now, the reverse is appropriate – frugality and prudence with public resources should supplement the invisible hand of providence. It must be a deliberative act, not an act of default!
Five decades into independence and five diamond mines to show for that, now on its 55th Independence Day, this may be the right time for Botswana to make a reckoning with that statistic. An improbable republic by all metrics has become an exemplar by common acknowledgement. Where smart politics suggested that for its own good, it should not be self-governing, yet, carried by the confidence and fortitude of its citizens, Botswana did become independent and successful. Thanks, largely to the diamonds that secured this nation, wherever its people are, and as far as the eye can see, public services and conveniences have been provided; and if you have lived through the 1970s and up to now, as some of us have done, you would have seen the country’s inexorable march to modernity through human development locked in step with physical development: in other words, a better life for its citizens. In fact, you do not need to be insufferably grandiose to admit that this country’s diamond relationship has been a resounding rebuke to the ‘resource curse.’
In a blending of artistry and craftsmanship, longing and recollection come through when the Pink Floyd song eventually begins with these lyrics:
“Remember when you were young
You shone like the sun...”
Inasmuch as the song exhorts its listener, we could use it as a frame of reference and similarly remember where we were before, and where we want to be. We must remember that we were once one of the poorest nations on earth. That has changed – not by chance – by an eclectic mix of judgement, providence and prudence. Botswana has faced catastrophes before, and it is important to remember that too. About 30 years ago, it faced one pandemic, HIV/AIDS; now it faces another, COVID-19. The harnessing of the gains of the nation’s diamonds came to the rescue then, as a first responder, and I reason that, in another way, it could do likewise this time. We must finally remember our social compact with another – to be a first world nation by 2036. If our diamonds can be an allegoric representation of how precious our lives are enough for these minerals to help us through the ages, surely we can supplement that by applying the gains of our statehood equitably and improving the lives of our citizens as we reckon with being a wealthy nation, yonder. On this Independence Day and cognisant of the above remembrances, let us therefore embrace each other’s presence and allow diamonds to bind us together while Botswana looks after its own!
*Radipati is a Mmegi contributor