Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of travelling to Botswana. We took off on KQ710, departing ten minutes earlier than scheduled on a spacious and well-appointed Embraer 190 that was about half filled with passengers.
I grabbed an empty seat on the emergency aisle door quite chuffed that there was no one next to me. My joy was short lived when a portly, six-foot tall gentleman came and plonked himself heavily by my side. He greeted me politely and I resumed my reading. As the plane was just about to take off he held his hands in front of him and slowly curled his fingers into a tightly held fist. If I didn’t know better it looked like he was holding an imaginary flight console. As the plane gathered speed on the runway he closed his eyes tightly and leaned back in his chair all the while clenching his fists and pulling back on the imaginary joystick. The fellow in the next aisle who was clearly of poor breeding openly gawked at the unfolding drama, wide eyed and shocked at what was clearly a (hulk of a) man fighting his fear of flying. I tried not to look at Hulk from the corner of my eye but couldn’t avoid hearing the suppressed howl that escaped his dry lips as the plane shuddered its way into the air. As the plane clambered towards its optimal cruising altitude he slumped into his chair and mercifully passed out.
As the plane started its descent into Gaborone, I looked out of the window to see a very dry sun-scorched earth filled with different hues of brown, red and beige while peppered with sporadic bursts of scrubs and bushes. The proximity to the Kalahari desert, which occupies at least 70% of the country, was apparent even from the air. We landed at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, an institution roughly the size of Kisumu’s international airport with no duty free shops and only one coffee shop serving the entire airport’s thirsty population.
Thabo my taxi driver happily pointed out the sights and sounds of Gaborone as we drive to my hotel. “People don’t sleep hungry in Botswana,” he tells me, “The government takes care of you. You know, the Botswana Pula is stronger than the South African rand, eh?” This last question is stated with the authority and pride of one who sees only South African goods in the supermarket shelves. “We import everything from South Africa, even milk! But our money is stronger than theirs!”
An interesting history contrives the foundation of the country of Botswana. Sandwiched between Angola and Zambia to the north, Zimbabwe to the East, Namibia to the West and South Africa in the south, the largely desert filled area of Bechuanaland remained largely ignored by the colonial powers during the sunset years of the 19th century. In 1895, three chiefs of the area known as Bechuanaland, sailed to Britain to ask the British to make their area a protectorate. Khama II, Sebele I and Bathoen I were concerned about the growing influence of the Portuguese, the Germans in the north and southwest and Cecil Rhodes’ annexation of Zimbabwe to the northeast. The Batswana proudly claim that it is this act of joint collaboration between the ruling chiefs that set the scene for the relative political stability, unified identity and distaste for infighting of the Batswana people to this very day.
By the time of Botswana’s independence in 1966, it was one of the poorest nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. There was only 12 kilometres of tarmac in a country the size of France, twenty two university graduates, two secondary schools with eighty secondary school graduates and no university.
Botswana’s fortunes turned in 1967 with the discovery of diamonds. One Mutswana said as he related their history to me, “Botswana would never have been granted independence if those diamonds were discovered before independence.” His eyes danced with mirth but his tone was deadly serious. Copper and nickel were also discovered which propelled the country from a cattle rearing economy to a modern one. A disciplined culture of saving and investment that was first put in place by the first president Sir Seretse Khama and embedded by his successor, Sir Ketumile Masire ensured that the country enjoyed the world’s highest rate of per capita income growth, a good 7.7% per annum between 1965 and the year 2000. While Botswana is Africa’s 13th largest economy, its low population of about 2 million puts it at the top of the African GDP per capita league table at $ 9,398 compared to Kenya’s $977.
60% of the government’s revenues are from diamond mining which also makes up 70% of the country’s exports. As they expect diamond revenues to fall by the year 2022, the government is now turning its focus to the country’s enormous coal deposits, estimated at 202 billion tonnes.
But a drive through the wide two lane carriageways that crisscross the city demonstrate Botswana’s weak underbelly: an almost unhealthy reliance on the South African economy. There are many shopping malls in the very South African style of one storey strip malls with the ubiquitous South African retail outlets of Woolworths, Mr. Price, Pick and Pay or Choppies supermarkets, Ocean Basket sea food restaurant etc. The supermarket shelves are lined with South African goods including milk, maize flour, vegetables and fruits which make their food prices (and invariably inflation indexes) inextricably linked to South African fortunes. A large amount of their electricity is also imported from South Africa’s Eskom.
I can’t help but reflect on the political dangers posed by such a heavy reliance on another country’s economy. Other than the fact that the Pula is pegged to the South African Rand, it is apparent to the uneducated eye that any economic upheaval endured by its relatively stable southerly neighbor can lead to social upheaval in Botswana. It is not difficult to see how an interfering neighbor can opt to make a play for the strong mineral resources of its relatively weaker neighbor by tightening the value chain that keeps the population well fed and homes and businesses well lit. For the first time in my adult life I know start to understand the Tanzanian reluctance for many things Kenyan. It can lead to an uglier can of worms being opened up in future: political domination.