Botswana: In the Shadow of Pretoria

Independent since 1966, this land, the size of France, is one of only five countries on the African continent with a multiparty, parliamentarian government. It is an island of calm and stability in a sea of racial antagonism and violence.


Beyond the arc lights of Johannesburg the roads meander to the north and west through sleepy, dusty frontier towns whose names—Zeerust, Swartruggens, Grasfontein, Terra Firma, Hotazel, Watersend—immortalize both the Voortrekkers who pushed inland to conquer this vast, thirsty veld and the nature of the territory. One by one, the roads exhaust themselves, grind to a halt in stony sand. Darkness sweeps over them and blots them out. One moment enormous shadows from the thornbush and telephone poles thrust across the low scrub, and then the intense beam of the sun vanishes, and the land is as black as the inside of a cave. Now and then headlights flicker over a swaying bulk that has detached itself from the bushes, and the dully curious eyes of a cow blink before turning away.

But there are startling, ominous cracks in this darkness. Darting, reddish flames silhouette a ridgetop where a veld fire is burning out of control. And suddenly there is a police roadblock. The wind is howling and hurling sand against the car, and grim-faced South African police wearing ponchos are shining flashlights into the trunks and back seats of the other cars pulled off the road. Are they searching for refugees—blacks from Soweto and Alexandria who are attempting to escape from their tragically divided and oppressive country? At Pioneer Gate, on the border, powerful floodlamps illuminate a double row of ten-foot-high fence cutting across the rocky veld. Here is the last barrier of apartheid, the outer rim of the Afrikaner laager, and one passes through the customs post quickly, relieved, and vaguely conscious, like Alice, of having slipped from a curious, disturbing dream into a somehow less threatening realm.

Beyond this fence lies the Republic of Botswana—a flat, harsh land the size of France, replete with acacia and thornbush and dominated by the vast Kalahari Desert. On this side the tenacious grip of apartheid has never taken hold. There are no signs proclaiming “For Europeans Only.” There is no Robben Island, no police torture, no figures scurrying with explosives in the night. There are no black “locations,” no passbooks, no forced labor camps. The night is cool, and the insects drone on uninterrupted.

While all along its borders racial antagonism and violence have mounted, Botswana, at the center of southern Africa, has remained an unpretentious island of calm and stability. It is no wonder that refugees from fighting in Angola, Rhodesia, Namibia, and South Africa have sought haven in this immense, sparsely inhabited land. When Soweto erupted in June 1976, more than 500 schoolchildren fled to Botswana. At two camps in the northeastern part of the country, several thousand black Rhodesian refugees await transport to schools or jobs elsewhere in Africa, or to Zambia to join one of the two liberation movements carrying on the guerrilla war inside their country.

Tribalism and democracy

In contrast to its neighbors, Botswana has, since its independence in 1966, pursued a democratic course of government. It is one of only five states on the African continent to have established a multiparty, parliamentarian system. Its president, Sir Seretse M. Khama, designated hereditary chief of the largest of the country’s eight principal tribes, the Bamangwato, has cultivated the statesmanship of an Oxford-educated solicitor to ease his people away from tribalism toward statehood. The vicissitudes resulting from his controversial marriage in 1948 to an Englishwoman, Ruth Williams, and his subsequent vindication have enhanced his attractiveness as a leader and his commitment to make Botswana a multiracial society.

Since gaining independence, Botswana has managed to avoid the political divisiveness which has plagued its neighbors. Because of his royal blood, Sir Seretse bestows upon his party, the Botswana Democratic party, a mantle of legitimacy that is scarcely challenged. Although he has asked his people to vote for him as a national and not a tribal leader, the president enjoys the deference and respect traditionally shown a hereditary chief. Opposition to his policies runs along tribal lines, but these groups are so small and splintered that they pose no real threat to continued BDP rule: at present the three more “progressive” opposition parties have only five representatives in the thirty-six member National Assembly.

They claim that Botswana has yet to achieve genuine political freedom, that it remains a “Khama democracy,” that the government serves primarily the interests of the wealthy cattle owners who dominate the cabinet. Certainly the roots of democracy lie shallow in Botswana. During the last election only 34 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls—the lowest percentage in the world—and this has caused a great deal of presidential concern that the country is not taking its new political responsibilities seriously enough. Still, apathy is unlikely to translate into outright discontent—as long as the economy is moving.

After President Khama, this stability could be badly shaken, as there is no “heir apparent” on the horizon. The vice president, Quett Masire, is a capable and experienced leader, but he is not of the royal family and thus cannot count on wide popular allegiance. The president’s eldest son, Ian, is currently a brigadier in the Botswana Defense Force and is extremely well liked, but thus far has shown no inclination for politics. Another speculation is that a more distant relative of Sir Seretse’s might eventually succeed him—thereby preserving the fusion of traditional and modern leadership that has held Botswana together over its first twelve years.

The gospel of development

Botswana’s unique stability, coupled with its increasingly important geopolitical situation vis-à-vis South Africa and Rhodesia, has prompted an outpouring of financial support from the Western world. The sunny, dry climate, the tranquillity, and the receptivity of its people, the Batswana, have also enticed hundreds of foreign volunteers—mostly from Western Europe and the United States—as well as highly skilled experts to contribute two or three years of their lives to accelerating the country’s development. “Development” is, in fact, the ubiquitous gospel of the day, as powerful in its own right as the Book of Genesis was a century ago when missionaries such as David Livingstone first trekked north from the Cape to save the souls of the “heathen” masses.

Unlike many emerging African nations, Botswana possesses the resources to augur a prosperous economic future, even if the British, Americans, and Scandinavians pack up and go home. Until recently cattle were the major Botswanan export. A nomadic, pastoral people, the Batswana have traditionally regarded cattle with near reverence. In Setswana there are more words for “beautiful cow” than for “beautiful woman.” Cattle outnumber people four to one (roughly 3 million to 700,000), and the nation’s wealthiest men, including many government leaders, are its biggest cattle owners.

Now there is hidden wealth in the Kalahari as well. Under the fine desert sand lie two of the three largest diamond concentrations in the world. When the second of these mines becomes fully operational in 1982, the two should yield something like $120 million a year in industrial diamonds for the next hundred years.

Barely tapped mineral wealth, largescale external aid, pragmatic and respected leadership, a steady rise in public services—schools, roads, clinics— trickling down to the villages (after long neglect by the British, who had assumed that Botswana, then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate, would eventually slip into a South African orbit)—all these factors bode well for Botswana’s future growth. While still numbered among the world’s poorest nations, a country where a scattered rural population continues to live by the uncertainty of summer rains, Botswana seems to have so much going for it that it can scarcely fail to prosper.

But there is a dark side to this picture, something rarely discussed publicly, as if surrounded by some powerful taboo. That something is South Africa. For, despite political independence, despite multiracial philosophy, despite high fences along the border, the influence and power of South Africa determine events in Botswana.

An ugly aspect of this bond became apparent during an incident last October. Four South African soldiers crossed the Limpopo River, which divides the two countries, and came upon a group of four Batswana. They demanded beer and marijuana, assaulted a seventy-year-old man who tried to resist them, and then raped a woman who was seven months pregnant. Arrested after returning to South Africa, the four soldiers were turned over to South African military authorities for trial. (A Botswanan request for extradition was rejected.) A court-martial found the four guilty and sentenced them to two years’ confinement in their barracks. During the trial the Botswana Daily News ran a picture of the soldiers standing under guard. Two had their heads bowed sheepishly and were smirking with hardly concealed mirth at the camera. The Botswana government made no official comment on the verdict. The case was quietly closed.

Lure of the mines

The reason can be traced to some simple facts of Botswana’s situation. Outside Molepolole, one of the tribal capitals, a long, canvas-covered truck is snorting its way west toward the outlying villages. It is marked M.L.O., for Mine Labor Organizations, and it is filled with several dozen black men in floppy leather hats, sitting side by side, jostled by the constant lurching and bouncing. These men have been recruited by a South African company and are on their way across the border to work in the gold, diamond, and platinum mines which form the mainstay of that country’s wealth. At any given time, between 30,000 and 40,000 Batswana are employed in the South African mines—nearly equal to the total number earning regular wages inside Botswana. They stay on contracts usually lasting nine months, leaving their wives and families to tend to the soil and provide for themselves as best they can. As a consequence of this mass migration, fully a third of all rural households are without an adult male.

Migrant labor provides jobs for Batswana who would otherwise have little or no prospect of employment. In the great, arid expanses west of the fertile strip along the railroad line (linking South Africa to Rhodesia) where virtually all local industry and the major towns are concentrated, there exist few alternatives to subsistence farming for those too poor (about half the population) to own cattle.

South African mine wages, while meager by Western standards, can amount to $120 a month—considerably more than most can earn in Botswana. With the cash they bring back from the mines, the Batswana buy manufactured goods—radios, pants, blankets—that are not produced in their own country. Ironically, their wives frequently use this income to purchase meal made from grain which has been grown in Botswana, shipped to South Africa for processing, and re-exported to Botswana for sale.

The attraction of the mines is not just money. For many young men, going off to the mines is a kind of initiation into manhood—a welcome chance to break free of parental and tribal constraints and taste the “glamour” of a life of independence on the fringes of Johannesburg. The Botswana government accepts migration to the mines as a natural and not undesirable state of affairs, and has done nothing to discourage it. Even a political critic such as Motsamai Mpho, who was active in the Pan African Congress and heads the Botswana Independence party, agrees that closing the border would mean “starving my own people.”

Recently, however, Botswana has had to defend itself against charges from more militant black states that by supplying such cheap labor it is helping apartheid. The issue is touchy and has led the government to shy away from international conferences on migrant labor. It has hired a British consultant to explore the possibilities of creating new jobs at home to gradually draw the workers back. But this is by no means a clearly desirable course of action. For ending the flow of miners south would also inevitably entail facing up to the full extent of Botswana’s dependence on its powerful southern neighbor—something the government neither wants nor is able to do.

Made in South Africa

A morning walk through the modern shopping mall in Gaborone, the capital, gives some idea of that dependence. Trucks with South African plates are being unloaded, and boxes of farm produce — tomatoes, apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, onions—lie in rows on the parking lot. Many of these fruits and vegetables are already bruised and half rotten after the journey from South Africa. Inside the shops, several of which are managed by South Africans, the shelves are well stocked with such goods as milk, cereals, cheese, rice, flour, soap powder, and sugar, marked in both Afrikaans and English. Over 90 percent of Botswana’s consumer goods, plus almost all its building materials and machinery, are of South African origin.

This staggering statistic all but frustrates any local efforts to develop competitive businesses. Gus Nilsson, a Swedish plant pathologist who now runs a profitable carnation export concern, would like to supply Gaborone (pop. 40,000) with all the fresh vegetables it could eat, but finds his way blocked by the South African connection. Local shops are committed to long-term contracts with South African produce suppliers, and thus it is difficult to attract a steady stream of customers. Another case in point is the local Prinz Bräu Brewery (“Botswana’s Own Lager”), which lost so much money owing to poor management and the uneven quality of its brew that it has had to invite a competitor from across the border to help run its operation.

Patrick van Rensburg is a former South African diplomat who resigned his post after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and came to settle in Serowe, the largest village in Botswana. There he founded a youth job-training program called “the brigades,” which has become a model for self-reliant rural development in Africa. He is profoundly disturbed by his adopted country’s continuing links with South Africa and terms this a “classic example of dependency.” He and other outspoken opponents of the present policies compare Botswana to a South African bantustan (a “homeland” created for blacks under apartheid), such as the newly “independent” Bophuthatswana.

Not only is Botswana dependent on South Africa for employment and consumer products, he says, but South Africans also make up the majority of small-scale investors in the country. They run general stores in the remote western region and buy up cattle from villagers in need of cash, then fatten and sell them for a sizable profit. Most of the fertile farming land—a strip along the Limpopo River known as the Tuli Block—is owned by white farmers from South Africa (who once talked seriously about seceding from Botswana and forming a union with their native country). In Ghanzi, near Namibia, descendants of Boer farmers recruited by Cecil Rhodes to counter the German presence to the west own a large number of freehold farms. Several of the comfortable tourist lodges in the wildlife areas (such as the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park) are operated from South African bases and cater primarily to South African visitors. The wealthiest person in Botswana (surpassing the cattle millionaire Khama) is an Afrikaner landowner named Derek Brink. But most significant of all is the role South Africa plays in Botswana’s burgeoning mineral enterprises.

Both diamond mines—at Orapa and Jwaneng—are operated by De Beers, the huge South African mining conglomerate, which last year reported a jump in profit from some $350 million to more than $650 million. For supplying the management, technical expertise, and mining equipment, it receives about half the revenue generated by the Botswana mines. The copper-nickel mine at Selebi-Pikwe is largely controlled by Harry Oppenheimer’s Anglo-American Corporation, as is the colliery at Morupule.

South African dominance extends to other areas of life in Botswana. On weekends the Gaborone Holiday Inn is heavily booked by South Africans from as far as Johannesburg (five hours by car). They come to indulge in casino gambling and prostitution, which are strictly proscribed by moralistic laws back home. In the dimly lit dining room, cabaret artists sprinkle their jokes with phrases in Afrikaans—to a mixed audience of Batswana, Afrikaners, and Europeans. (Afrikaans is spoken so commonly in southwestern Botswana that at a recent road-opening ceremony the speeches, in English, were translated into Afrikaans for the largely black audience.) Movies at the Capitol Cinema usually have to pass through the South African censor, and most newspapers sold at the mall are from Johannesburg.

Lingering colonialism

The combined impact of the nineteenth-century missionaries, who instilled in many Batswana an inferiority complex about their own culture, and the “smart” image depicted in glossy South African magazines and on South African radio has seriously undermined traditional music, dance, and way of life, especially in Gaborone. In this city—built by the British prior to independence to end the awkwardness of running the country from Mafeking, fourteen miles inside South Africaplatform shoes and Western fashions create what one former schoolteacher calls a “bastardization” of lekgoa (literally, “English”) culture.

While the policy of apartheid stops at the border, the debilitating attitudes promoted by it do not. Throughout southern Africa the black man has been told for generations that he is less than human. He has grown docile and deferential toward whites, and this continues even where racial equality is the law and practice of the land. In Gaborone the sons and daughters of black cabinet ministers mingle easily with whites on the Notwane Club tennis courts, but most blacks do not. The capital is, as a result, unhealthily polarized. Many Batswana work as garden boys and maids in the spacious homes provided by the government to attract foreign experts to Botswana.

Hampered by a shortage of local skilled manpower, Botswana has come to rely heavily on its foreign white community. Although relatively few (about 6000) in number, these “expatriates” fill roughly 60 percent of the 600 senior administrative and professional posts in the government. One can walk the corridors of the critical Ministry of Finance and Development Planning without seeing a single black face. Two of every three secondary school teachers are European, American, or Rhodesian. The present speaker of the National Assembly is a white clergyman, the Reverend Albert Lock. The presiding judge of the High Court in Lobatse is white. And the man in charge of the day-to-day running of the office of the president, the head of the civil service and secretary to the cabinet, is a tall, craggy Afrikaner named Phil Steenkamp, who was born in Kenya but has lived in Botswana and served in its government since the colonial period. At present the ruling Botswana Democratic party is seeking to reduce the number of whites employed by government through a policy of “localization,” but this will take years to accomplish.

Many “expats” are British subjects who have leapfrogged down the continent from Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia to Malawi to Botswana, seeking a more congenial political climate. They bring with them, in some cases, attitudes and life-styles of a bygone era. Some complain about the “lazy natives” and congregate at enclaves such as the bowling greens of the secluded Gaborone Club.

In a country where short-term, visiting “expatriates” earn much higher salaries than black civil servants, live in bigger houses, have their own swimming pools and tennis courts and at least one, if not two or three, servants (a situation made all but inevitable by the government’s construction of maids’ quarters adjacent to all its blocks of flats), one would expect a certain measure of resentment or hostility. In fact, partially because of the Khamas’ personal example of interracial harmony, overtly “racial” incidents have been rare. Whites who have lived in the country for some time do, however, detect signs of bitterness at the conspicuous prosperity foreigners enjoy. But with the war in Rhodesia spilling over into Botswana (fifteen Batswana soldiers were killed in an ambush in February), most antiwhite feeling has been focused on the “mad,” “terrorist,” “bloodthirsty” Smith regime in Rhodesia.

Anomalous position

Policy regarding race is also tempered by South African sensibilities. Whatever the private feelings of the Batswana about the injustices of apartheid (President Khama has assuredly not forgotten that it was South African pressure on the British which resulted in his being banned from Bechuanaland after his marriage), economic survival dictates an accommodating official posture. While many leaders around the world condemned the unexplained death of Steve Biko and the subsequent widespread bannings in South Africa, Botswana’s voice was studiously muted. And, in a time when the black states of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia have offered material aid and sanctuary to ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) and ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) guerrillas, Botswana has strictly forbidden such forces to operate within its territory— partly in order to stay out of a widening conflict, but also to avoid antagonizing South Africa. When the High Court recently sentenced a former South African soldier to fifteen years in prison in an unprecedented conviction stemming from his having attempted to pass through Botswana by train, in uniform, on his way to join the Selous Scouts in Rhodesia, there were loud grumblings in Pretoria about a “willingness to assist our enemies and to hinder us and our friends.” Whether this unhappiness could turn into direct pressure is speculative, but it is no secret that by sealing the border and bringing the railroad to a standstill, South Africa could virtually paralyze its neighbor.

Over the last twelve years, as it has emerged from a long colonial dormancy, Botswana has learned to exist with a whole range of contradictions regarding its identity and policies that reflect the underlying, unmentionable ambivalence of its reliance on South Africa. Cabinet ministers point out again and again that their country cannot simply cut itself adrift, that it must live with its geographical destiny. Whether such a dependence is, in the long run, a good or a bad thing has not been debated. The more southern Africa responds to cries for self-determination and independence, the more difficult it will be for Botswana to plead its “unique situation” as an excuse for not rallying behind its fellow black states.

With the new wealth from its mines, Botswana may find the argument of economic necessity carrying less weight. As the illegitimate regimes bordering it —South West Africa and Rhodesia —surrender power to the black majority, Botswana’s position will become more anomalous. In the next few years the lines between black and white in Africa will be drawn more clearly, and there may be less tolerance for those who traffic with “the enemy.” Botswana has adjusted itself to the twisted logic of white supremacy, but it may soon find that the premises it has thus far failed to question have been repudiated. When that day comes Botswana will have to discover what kind of a country it really is.