Zenene Sinombe, Botswana’s High Commissioner to South Africa, was in his element as he spoke about his country’s 50th independence celebrations.
Sinombe, speaking from his offices in Pretoria, said his country’s independence celebrations offered Botswana and its people an opportune time to reflect and take stock of what has been achieved since 1966, when Botswana gained its independence from Britain.
A career diplomat with over 13 years as a foreign service official, he recalled that at the time of its independence in 1966, Botswana was the world’s third-poorest country, with only 12km of tarred roads, an uneducated population and a civil service that was manned by expatriates.But with the discovery of diamonds in 1967, it turned its fortunes around, using the diamond revenues for the development of the whole country.
From the onset, the Botswana government under the leadership of its founding president Sir Seretse Khama adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic development, offering low taxes to mining companies and liberalising trade. The government used these revenues to invest in infrastructure, healthcare, and education. Sinombe says the diamonds for development approach was linked to a progressive mineral resources policy.
Today, Botswana is one of the most politically and economically stable democracies on the African continent. “We are celebrating these milestones,” said Sinombe in an interview with Mail & Guardian.
“But we are saying while it is a time for song and dance, for us it is also time to reflect. To reflect on what, you may ask? To reflect on what we have been able to achieve, including the challenges that still haunts our country; one of our key challenges remains the issue of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, which now stands at 20% of two million citizens; we also have the challenges of HIV and Aids, poverty and inequality. “
Sinombe says Botswana is one of preferred destinations for investment in the African continent because of its political and economic stability. The mining, manufacturing and tourism industries were some of the investment opportunities available to foreign investors.
“We have been voted for the past 20 years as [one of] the least corrupt countries in the world by the Corruption Index,” said Sinombe.
“Due to our macroeconomic stability and political stability, your investments in Botswana are protected. We have never had violent elections. As a foreign investor you have 100% repatriation of your dividends, and this is allowed. We have low tax regime, corporate tax is 25%; manufacturing entities are taxed only 15%; and VAT is 12%.
“Botswana is also moving into special economic zones (SEZs) as a further incentive for foreign companies to operate in the country. We have something called a 200% training levy. If your company train locals, they get tax reductions. We’ve also had positive credit ratings by Moody’s and Standard & Poor for the longest time. While we pride ourselves in these achievements, we are not resting on our laurels.”
The government, added Sinombe, has currently embarked on Vision 2036 to further improve people’s lives and create a sustainable future for the Batswana people, while ensuring the quality of living for its people and the maintenance of long-term peace and stability.
“Vision 2036 is based on the lessons we have learnt from Botswana’s 2016 Vision Plan. We had a vision that was running up to 2016,” said the high commissioner.
“In our vision 2036 we are putting people forward. Our citizens must lead the socioeconomic upliftment of the country. The citizens should now play an active role in taking our private sector to the next level and be competitive globally in innovation. We are also revising our education system from churning out white-collar jobs to creating artisans in order for people to be able to self-employed. Vision 2036 is ensuring we place our citizens at the heart of industrial growth.”
Sinombe said Botswana is proud of its history since independence in 1966, which has guided the country to where it is today.
Botswana’s foreign policy has historically put a premium on economic and political integration in Southern Africa, which has led to the formation of the SADC (Southern African Development Community) and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). After facing incessant attacks and hostility from apartheid South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania formed the Front Line States (FLS) in 1974.
Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama was instrumental in the formation of the FLS, which would later morph into the modern day SADC; this is one of the reasons that why Botswana today hosts the SADC headquarters.
Khama is credited for negotiating a beef export deal with the European Economic Community. He also played another significant role in negotiating the end of the Rhodesian civil war and creating independent Zimbabwe, described as “a deciding moment for the SADC”.
Following Khama’s death in 1980, Sir Ketumile Masire took over as president. Masire played a crucial role in facilitating and protecting Botswana’s steady financial growth and development. He was chairman of the SADC, vice-chair of the Organisation of Africa Unity and also chair of the Global Coalition for Africa.
Festus Mogae was president from 1998 until 2008. His economic management produced remarkable growth, stymied inflation, attracted investment and allowed him to pursue diversification away from diamonds, while simultaneously using tax revenues to fund investment in infrastructure, health and education.
Mogae lobbied the world to aid Botswana in its fight against HIV, and put in place one of Africa’s most progressive and comprehensive programmes for dealing with the disease.
Under Mogae’s leadership, Botswana enjoyed a long history of political stability. Today, the country earns high praise for the stable example it sets for its neighbours, and it is often referred to as the continent’s “showcase democracy”.
Mogale has now turned his attention to the fight against corruption, which he recently described as a threat to democracy in Africa. When he left office, the incumbent, Ian Khama, who served as vice-president of Botswana from 1998 to 2008, took over.
Under Khama, Botswana adopted an ethical diplomacy policy, speaking out against human rights abuses and dictatorships.
The highlight for Khama’s presidency was the relocation of the Diamond Trading Company from London to Botswana in 2012, as part of a deal struck around the renewal of the lease on the giant Jwaneng and Orapa mines.
Sinombe said Botswana and South Africa share fraternal bonds of friendship, underpinned by the values of democracy and development.
“We have been in the same customs union formed in 1910 and we belong to the same regional bloc called SADC. And we are in the same AU and Commonwealth and United Nations. We coexist to promote economic development in the region. Diplomacy is based on common positions,” he said.