Botswana: The Future that wasn’t

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On worse expectations that turned out great

Beitrag für Palaver 15/2011 – Kleine Schriften zum Südlichen Afrika: Gefunden im Dazwischen. Aufzeichnungen zum Begriff der Transition. Herausgegeben von J. Erb und Th. Euler. ISSN: 1433-8572

Today, it’s always the same story: If it comes to Botswana, scientists, journalists and development experts all together praise the country in Southern Africa. It is compared with Switzerland – not for its high mountains and chocolate, of course, but for its reliability and its political and economic stability. The to this day unshakeable state of Botswana is by far not presentable for Africa, and for that the landlocked country is considered with the reputation of the eternal class winner.

But Botswana’s story is more than the fairytale of a country in Southern Africa doing good and living happily ever after. Because in the beginning of Botswana there were worse expectations, and in the mid 1960’s hope for a bright future was – slight, if it existed at all. Luckily for the Batswana, the projections proved to be mostly far and beyond the reality – although the forecasts were developed on a sound base at the time they were written down.

Those were the days of independence approaching; and the government to be in the sphere of designated president, Seretse Khama, made plans for the next 36 months. Some years before, Seretse had shocked his own Bamangwato tribe, most of the whites in Southern Africa and the British empire by marrying a white women from the United Kingdom, Ruth Williams. Against all odds he overcame the giant obstacles bureaucrats had put up to hinder and destroy the marriage and the strong counter-arguments of his own people who finally accepted Seretse as their new kgosi and his wife as the new queen. Some elders of the Bamangwato couldn’t stand this vote and grumpily left the tribe. The old days were bound to go: The wave of independence rolled through Africa, and the Batswana were proud that one of their chiefs had flipped the bird to Pretoria and Cape Town where they had just invented apartheid.

In their heydays Seretse and his fellows, described significantly as “New Men” (DuToit (1995), S. 44), entered the political arena of the Bechuanaland Protectorate. They prepared a 113 paged document and called it “Transitional Plan for social and economic Development”. It focused the three year period from 1966 to 1969. It was printed in the newly founded capital which was these days called “Gaberones” and sold for one Rand, with the genuine currency of the country – the Pula – still to be installed in the mid 1970’s.

The paperwork was the ancestor and the prototype for the National Development Plans which Botswana’s government issues every four years, till this day. The fathers of the new Republic checked out the status quo of the new state to be and designed ways that could lead to a future.

The new state was faced with ruin, or as Seretse put it in his foreword of the Transitional Plan: “Botswana’s need for planning is great. Botswana is beyond doubt one of the poorest nations in Africa.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), Foreword) On the next pages, the authors unfold a bleak scenario of the following years, proving a realistic – and a gloomy – view on that what was to come.

Having the accelerated development in mind Botswana achieved in the recent four decades, it seems like a story from a dystopian plot for a not so friendly future.

Regarding creating revenue opportunities for both people and state Botswana clutched at every straw available, with a side glance to other African countries: “A small cotton ginnery based on the, as yet, limited local supplies of cotton should be feasible. Fish and fish meal, jute plants and timber operations based in Ngamiland and Chobe are a distinct possibility. Bottling plants for sorghum beer, soft drinks, mineral water and South African wines and spirits could also be established.” While some of these came true and in operation (mind the Kgalagadi Breweries), others seems to be pretty off-wall today.

There is, for instance, a list of manufactured goods – a suggestion which merchandise could be assembled in Botswana from imported materials, among them transistor radios, cigarettes and other tobacco products, cement blocks and inexpensive clothing. (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 23) The truth behind this is that industry was – and still is – a tough business in Botswana, since the population density and therefore customer density is one of the lowest in the world and big neighbor’s South Africa economy had and has overwhelming power. Still today Botswana struggles to create industrial jobs, and even a small number of new employment makes a buzz in the media: In 2001 South Africa’s biggest blanket producer Waterly Blankets came to Botswana and created 860 jobs. (Business Africa (2000b), S. 9) More than ten years ago Floreal from Mauritius invested about 3 million US Dollar in Botswana to have knitwear produced by a 400 women workforce. (Business Africa (2000a), S. 10) A major drawback was the close-down of Hyundai’s plant of the Motor Company of Botswana in the late 1990’s when 1400 people lost their jobs. (OECD (2003), S. 4; Business Africa (1998), S. 10)

When in the early 2000’s the Botswana government at least realized that there will be hardly any large scale employment opportunities the Transitional Plan of 1965 again proved having spoken wisdom by accepting lowering one’s sights: “In a country like Botswana, small industries can provide jobs, create income, raise the level of technical skills.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 23) Maybe this is, after all, an approach more suitable and promising for Botswana. Last, not least, the plan stresses the positive impact of small scale industries – by having a closer look to Europe: “In Germany, plants with less than 100 employees accounted in recent years for 27 % of the total industrial employment and 23 % of total industrial output, according to United Nations figures.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 23)

Both a misinterpretation and a wise foresight rolled into one can be found in the Transitional Plan in the context of minerals and mining: “Botswana’s mineral situation now and in the foreseeable future is not likely to lead to the creation of industries based on the processing of local minerals. The stimulus to industry will come rather from the demand for manufactured goods generated in the economy by the presence of extensive copper mining and other mineral operations.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 27) It is a misinterpretation because it obviously didn’t cross the mind of the authors that Botswana could soon be the number one diamond producer worldwide. And it is a wise foresight because the authors knew that capital intensive production in the mines would not create much direct employment.

But Botswana’s government knew how to milk this cash cow – and managed to (re-) negotiate with De Beers a deal on mining diamonds which “is reputed to be one of the best mineral exploitation contracts in the world”. (Jefferis, K. (1998), S. 304) And, who would have considered this possible, De Beers set up its main sorting facility in Gaborone in March 2008, and established the Diamond Trading Company Botswana (DTCB) to supply diamonds to 16 manufacturers there – that again created job opportunities. (Rapaport 2009) The Botswana capital has become a major player on the field of diamond trading hubs like London, Antwerp or Tel Aviv. Compared with other African states, Botswana managed to keep a lot of the diamond money in the country, invested it wisely, save it at the central bank and extend the diamond value-added chain by bringing evaluation, cutting, polishing and trading institutions like DTCB one after another into the country.

A look way back shows a bold contrast: “(…) At present no mine is operating in Botswana” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 2) stated the Transitional Plan. And it adds: “In the past, mineral development in this country has proved disappointing. Manganese, asbestos and gold mining operations have flourished and ceased.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 27) Vague and more or less doubtful the authors name potential minerals that might be promising to be mined: copper (already linked to the greater Francistown area), salt, soda ash (located in the Makgadikgadi Pans), fire clay, industrial ceramic, calcretes, iron and sandstone. There was even hope of finding crude oil: “(…) in addition a search for oil is being conducted in southern Botswana.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 2)

As the very last point in the short five paragraphs dealing with mineral resources it comes to the precious stones that turned out to be Botswana’s best friends: “Finally, Anglo American Corporation of South Africa (…) is undertaking diamond exploration work in eastern Botswana.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 3) In another chapter, the authors give a summary on this: “Botswana is a poor country not only in terms of per capita income but also in terms of natural resources. (…) Serious mineral and oil exploration has (sic!) only recently begun despite good indications that there are ore bodies of great economic importance remaining unexploited.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 6)

Maybe this vagueness is rooted in the mining business itself: It demands specialized knowledge and huge amounts of money – these days Botswana did not have neither mining expertise nor foreign currency. In other parts of the paperwork, the soul of Batswana shines trough the lines, which makes clear where their hearts were based. Whenever the Transitional Plan raises the issues of cattle, farming, growing crops or producing diary, more than the average number of pages are dedicated to these topics. For example, the sections about Agriculture and Veterinary Department consists of eight pages and estimates expenditures in 1966/67 of more than 200.000 Rand, whereas just one half of a page and 18.200 Rand were dedicated to the section on “Mineral Exploration”. This is a sharp contrast since just a few years later the big scale mining of diamonds and other minerals started, with Botswana being the largest producer of diamonds in the world today.

The difference gets more obvious by having a look at the details of the plan: In the few text lines on mining it is stated: “Many areas which have been or are to be covered by the regional mapping programme will be investigated by a regional and detailed geochemical prospecting programme.” (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 70) But when it comes to cattle and agriculture, there is no such commonplace: Issues like “Mechanised Fodder and Ploughing Unit”, “Bull Breeding Camps” and “Mobile Animal Husbandry Teams” are discussed. (Republic of Botswana (1966), S. 67f) But, to be fair, other topics were honored with a lot of pages and money, too: Public Works and Infrastructure (eight pages; 1.8 million Rand), schools and education (six pages; 570.000 Rand), Medical Department (four pages; 84.000 Rand).

Besides, it is remarkable how much faith the Batswana authors put in their future – even faced with the fact that they will be depended on external aid and grants from abroad for decades. Maybe it’s even an attitude that engaged sympathy for the young independent republic and its inhabitants. Hoping the best and expecting the worst, staying realistic but wishing that the best might arise – if hope can die, in Botswana it will pass away at a great age.


Business Africa (1998): What’s new on your sector?, in: Business Africa, S. 10, 1. Juni 1998.

Business Africa (2000a): What’s new in your industry?, in: Business Africa, S. 10, 16. April 2000.

Business Africa (2000b): Market pointers, in: Business Africa, S. 9, 1. November 2000.

DuToit, Pierre (1995): State building and democracy in Southern Africa: Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, United States Institute of Peace, Washington D. C.

OECD (Hrsg.) (2003): Country Study of Botswana, online unter:, aufgerufen am 25. Juni 2011.

Jefferis, K. (1998): Botswana and diamond-dependent development, , in: W. A. Edge: Botswana – Politics and Society, Van Schaik Publishers, Pretoria.

Rapaport (2009): Botswana Pushes to Create Diamond Trading Market . Mulls a changing relationship with De Beers , online unter:, aufgerufen am 30. November 2009.

Republic of Botswana (1966): Transitional Plan for Social and Economic Development, Government Printer, Gaborone.



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