Print Edition: Learning from Africa’s Success Stories

There had been rumours about diamonds in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland for years. They were linked to stories of a Lost City in the Kalahari and as recently as the 1960s, a serious expedition was launched to look for it. Hunters and explorers claimed to have traded rifles and ammunition for diamonds with the Kalahari Bushmen, but the discovery of the Lost City and the so-called Bushman diamond pits remained elusive. In 1967, the Bechuanaland Protectorate became the independent country of Botswana and, soon afterwards, diamonds were discovered in abundance. The Orapa mine opened in 1972 and the Batswana economy was transformed by this new wealth as other discoveries followed. The Jwaneng mine was opened in 1982 and remains the richest diamond mine in the world. The Lost City appears to have been a cluster of fortuitously arranged, roughly square, dolomite blocks that looked like they were placed on top of each other.

Image courtesy of the Botswana Parliament © 2013, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of the Botswana Parliament © 2013, some rights reserved

Success stories from Africa are rare, but Botswana, in many respects, is one of them. It is frequently grouped with Mauritius in this respect and, in the ‘Economic Freedom of the World’ report published jointly by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute in Canada, and more than 70 think tanks around the world, Botswana and Mauritius are shown to be the freest economies in Africa. They also have the highest per capita income in Africa. The similarities, however, end there.

Botswana, roughly the size of Texas, but with a population of only about 2 million, is one of the most sparsely inhabited countries on earth. It has a rich storehouse of natural resources (gold, copper, nickel, and 25% of the world’s diamonds) and is largely populated by the Tswana people who form a clear majority. Mauritius is 24 miles long and 10 miles wide, the 10th most densely populated country in the world, has no natural resources, and the population is a heterogeneous mixture of the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, French and Dutch Settlers, Chinese traders, and African slaves. Given their economic success, what lessons can be learned from Botswana and Mauritius that could be applied to the African continent in general?

The first lesson is that Mauritius has nothing to do with Africa. Although grouped with Africa in membership of international institutions because of its geographical location 2000 kilometres off the east coast of the continent, the country shares very little in common with Africa. It was uninhabited before the arrival of European settlers and does not have a demographic profile, history, or language that is remotely similar to any African country. Mauritian membership of the African Union is significant, but only in as much as they have a voice, and therefore the potential to represent economic freedom and good governance in an organisation that is not well known for supporting either. Given that they have little in common with other member states, their influence is likely to be minimal. Crucially, membership of the club appears to require a number of years of suffering under colonial rule and, therefore, an eternal claim to an escape clause with respect to adhering to basic principles of democracy and good governance. In terms of what Mauritius has in common with Africa, it would be equally valid to draw conclusions from another densely populated island state like Singapore. There are lessons to be learned from both, but not because Mauritius is closer to Africa.

Botswana on the other hand, shares a history common to many African countries. Situated between Rhodesia and South Africa, the Tswana Chiefs were forced to make regular representation to the British government (and to Queen Victoria herself on occasion) concerning the territorial ambitions of Afrikaners in the Transvaal and Cecil Rhodes’ settlers to the northeast. The British Government responded in the same way it did with Basutoland and Swaziland – it declared a protectorate which stopped territorial claims but did not obligate the British government to undertake any expenditure for administering what was considered a wasteland. After independence in 1967, Botswana’s first President, Sir Seretse Khama chose a carefully planned political strategy that would not provide an excuse for South African or Rhodesian aggression. Moderate, capitalist, democratic, and, with his British wife, a perfect counterpoint to South Africa’s racial policies (and to emerging pan-African extremism), Khama earned the respect of all parties in the region without indulging in Julius Nyerere or Kenneth Kaunda-style African socialism and autocratic, one-party rule.

Botswana was inclusive from the very start. A former colonial officer designed the colours and the flag of the new country, the national anthem was written by the leader of the opposition. It was unique and simple and not just another version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika hastily assembled in the local language. Newly independent Tanzania, Zambia, and later Zimbabwe, all used the same tune in what can only be described as a highly unoriginal attempt to occupy the national anthem high ground of newly independent Africa, rather than build a new national identity. Corruption in Botswana was vigorously opposed from the start and there are regular prosecutions when it does occur.

Sir Seretse Khama was economically cautious and his approach to Botswana developing its own currency and moving away from the South African Rand was revealing. Reports indicate that he was almost incredulous that a small country like Botswana could support a currency. Rather than leap at the chance of putting his face on a new and worthless note, the value of the Pula was initially pegged to the Rand. As investors developed more confidence in Botswana, and the country’s economy expanded, the Pula has developed into a mature currency that holds its own when events in South Africa lead to a drop in the value of the Rand relative to other currencies.

More recently Botswana has exhibited leadership regionally in the fight against HIV/AIDS. While Thabo Mbeki in South Africa was supporting the view of dissident scientists that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that antiretrovirals were toxic, Sir Ketumile Masire in Botswana was negotiating with the pharmaceutical giant Merck and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to fight the disease. As a consequence, antiretrovirals are free to everyone in Botswana and have played a major role in slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS. After a lengthy court battle, South Africans now have limited access to the drugs. This access to anti-retrovirals, while scant, is surely an improvement over the policies of the former health minister, who advocated treatment with lemon juice, garlic, and beetroot.

Mauritius has not always been prosperous. For many years after independence from Britain in 1968, sugar production constituted 96% of the country’s income. Literacy and life expectancy were low and population growth was high. The vagaries of nature and the international sugar market were the chief determinants of prosperity or poverty. Wise leadership and moderate political choices were made when the country became a republic in 1992. A vigorous democracy flourished under autonomous institutions like the electoral commission. The Mauritian government maintained the Privy Council of the United Kingdom as the ultimate Court of Appeal, and property rights and laws of contract are respected. Low company tax of 15% helped manufacturing businesses to take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) passed by the US Congress in 2000, which few African countries have taken advantage of.

There is a general tone of compassion and cooperation from the private sector in both countries. In clear recognition of the social problems and confident that government is determined to create conditions under which business can flourish, the private sector plays an important role in social responsibility. What is clear is that the government and the private sector work closely to make things work for the benefit of both the people and business. Mauritius in particular has worked hard to encourage an entrepreneurial attitude among its people and this helps demythologise business so that it is perceived as a path to prosperity rather than feeding off the wealth of the country.

Both countries have benefitted from wise leadership early in their climb towards a higher standard of living for their people. Ideology and political rhetoric, particularly the socialist, anti-colonial rhetoric that has so dominated post-independence African countries plays no part in the daily life of Batswana or Mauritians. Mauritius never shared the history that would have justified this rhetoric anyway, but Botswana did and they chose a middle path that earned the respect of everyone.

Botswana has recently differed with other African countries in the African Union regarding the role of the International Criminal Court in Kenya and the recent elections in Zimbabwe. Much has been made of Botswana’s isolation in this regard, and whispers of its close relationship with the United States seem to suggest that Botswana is a stooge of the West. Nothing could be further from the truth. Botswana has always taken a role that differs substantially from the stereotypical African nationalist and anti-Western politics of other African countries. It has managed to do so in a way that maintains the integrity of the country in the eyes of other African countries, whilst adhering to principles of law and order that are becoming a hallmark of Botswana’s role in Africa.

Mauritius chose to take a less confrontational stance to the issue of Zimbabwean elections that may indicate that maintaining relations within the African Union is more important to the government of Mauritius than trying to exert influence over where it probably has none. African countries are important trading partners of Mauritius and the country is actively seeking to expand those links. It has signed several tax treaties with African countries aimed at making equitable taxation a reality in order to encourage investment by Mauritian based companies in Africa.

It is possible that the stability of Botswana may not continue indefinitely.

Conveniently ignored by most analysts is the fact that Botswana has never had a change of government. Presidents have changed regularly, but the Botswana Democratic Party has ruled since independence and currently holds 45 of the 57 seats in parliament. Elections are generally free and fair and there is a strong tradition of consulting the people before any major decisions are made which goes back to pre-colonial times. However, worrying indications of intolerance, including a clampdown on the press and deportation of academics that describe Ian Khama’s Government as ‘authoritarian’ need to be addressed. In this respect Botswana may have something to learn from Mauritius, which tops most rankings of democratic freedom and appears to run a genuinely open and vigorous democracy, with coalitions between parties often necessary to form a government.

So what lessons can these two success stories give to Africa? In many respects the fact that they are in or close to Africa is not relevant. Economic freedom, strong democratic institutions, low taxation and wise, moderate leadership are recipes for economic success in any part of the world. What may be relevant is that fostering continued resentment towards the West and its institutions may not be the best idea for the African Union. Maintaining strong relationships with former colonial countries, which still hold considerable economic and institutional power, would be of far more benefit than continually erecting the colonial experience as an excuse for poor governance, human rights violations and autocratic rule. At the same time, embracing the emerging might of India and China makes sense for any country, but it does not require throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The African Union would be a far more credible an institution if it moderated its response to issues in the West and followed Botswana’s lead, while at the same time following the example of Mauritius by starting to genuinely liberalise their domestic markets and nurturing independent and credible democratic institutions.

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