/ 20 January 2017

​Looking back on 50 years of Botswana’s history

Jeff Ramsay is Botswana's deputy permanent secretaty for media
Jeff Ramsay is Botswana's deputy permanent secretaty for media

Besides being responsible for overseeing public service media institutions and the chief communications co-ordinator for the government of Botswana, Ramsay is a noted authority on the history of the country. He has also written about African politics and media policy and was active as a Botswana-based columnist, commentator and occasional news reporter before joining the public service.

Mail and Guardian Africa went to see him at his office in Gaborone for his views as Botswana celebrates 50 years of independence.

What does Botswana have to celebrate, and what makes it unique on the continent?

The story of Botswana is indeed unique. We were among the 10 least developed countries pre-independence and we have now graduated to the status of an upper middle-income country. We had one of the fastest growth rates in the world.

Some people want to talk about the economies of the Asian tigers and there are lessons to be learnt from their experience, but the truth is none of those countries started off from our level. Singapore and Malaysia have made fantastic progress, but when we started we had virtually nothing in terms of material infrastructure and human resources in the context of education. We had less than 70 people at independence with any kind of secondary education qualifications, we had no roads connecting our major settlements, and we only had a handful of mission schools. Many of them, although called secondary schools, did not have O-levels.

Our health facilities were minimal and to compound this we were in the middle of one of the worst droughts that we have ever had. At independence half of our population was receiving food aid. We are talking about an income of $70 per annum, which even adjusted for inflation, was nothing.

At that time people survived by going to work in the South African mines. Sir Ketumile Masire (Botswana’s second president) said that it appeared that we were very brave or very foolish. On top of that we were regarded as a de facto Bantustan.

However, one thing we did have at that time was a very cohesive society. We did have these norms that we talk about today and people were not dependent on the state, because there was no state to depend on, so we had self-reliance within communities. Botswana for the most part has always been a harsh environment for most of its population, because rainfall is not very regular.

But self-help and self-reliance was real then, because people knew how to work together using the norms of therisanyo (consultation), botho (respect) and kagisano (harmony) and an indigenous democracy. So even if we had a western style democracy, the norms were indigenous. We had a tradition of free speech, tolerance and inter-communal co-operation.

But the second step that we took that I think was absolutely crucial, was going for common ownership of the natural resources. We were one of the few countries that did that. Probably we did that because at that time some resources were in the central district from which the president came, but this initiative to ensure that the resources were for the whole country meant that the other districts could follow this line.

If we had not gone that way and different tribes owned the resources there would have been competition for resources, which has led to conflicts in other countries around the world, if not failed states. Perhaps we had already seen what had happened in the Congo, where the country was torn to pieces in fights over resources.

The first big development was the Shashe river project, which included setting up Selebi-Phikwe (a nickel mining industrial city), the Shashe dam (which provides water for Selebi-Phikwe) and other infrastructure.

We therefore established a tradition, which we hope we will maintain, of prudent use of limited resources. And of course this was continued with the development of the diamond mines.

A lot people credit your success to diamonds, but you also face the challenge of economic diversification, given that diamonds will not last forever.

By having common control of natural resources such as diamonds and copper, these resources were then used to develop the whole country, and not just the district in which they were found.

But I think Botswana played the diamond game very successfully through the creation of Debswana in the 1970s where we had a 50/50 share, and in 1980s co-operating with De Beers to maintain the cartel; that co-operation included the Soviet Union and indirectly, the apartheid regime. There were attempts to break the diamond market cartel but we saw the value of maintaining the cartel and we were not passive about this.

Now moving forward, we have continued to move up the ladder. Some might say we should have done this quicker, but bringing aggregation here, cutting and polishing here, and trying to beneficiate — that is really taking it to the next stage.

But these changes have come about in the past 10 years because of changes in technology. Diamond cutting by hand is difficult, but when you start using computers and lasers then certain issues should no longer be there in terms of putting up factories here.

What do you think are the attractions that could lure investors to Botswana?

I think whether we are talking about diamonds or any other investment, we have to realise that the world is changing rapidly. Traditionally we have had a problem because we are landlocked. During the Mogae administration (Festus Mogae was president of Botswana from 1998-2008) it was often said, “you have a good work force, but you are 1 000km from the sea in any direction”. And that is a huge burden.

However we are entering something that we call the 4th industrial revolution, which is really the era of digital manufacturing. The diamond industry will be dependent on its digitisation and staying ahead of the technological curbs and competing, because having diamonds here does not mean anything, as you can have fierce competitors anywhere in the world. For example the biggest transport company in the world is Uber. What do they own? Nothing!

So in that kind of a world having the resource won’t do it, so we have to compete smart. If we are going to go into leather factories, then in my view these should be smart factories. The world is going digital. The Chinese with their 1.3 billion people have perhaps more of an employment problem than any other country, and maybe India, but yet they know that if they want to continue to compete, continue to be part of the global economy, [the best strategy] is to stay ahead by embracing the [latest] technology.

What legacies have the former leaders left behind?

I often think of Sir Seretse Khama (term of office 1966-1980) and Sir Ketumile Masire (I980-1998) together; they were partners in the administration even before independence and the creation of the BDP party. It was always very much a partnership. It was a good partnership because Seretse had that charisma as well as his royalty, and had the good sense to bring the people along with him. Sir Ketumile always had the technical knowhow. But I think what they shared was a lot of common sense, and what they both had in common was that neither pretended to “know it all”. They were the type of leaders who are great because they bring good people around them.