CLIO mr brice - page 10

Upon its independence from a British Protectorate in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest countries
in the world. Today it stands out as 'Africa's Jewel '; for two decades one of the world's fastest growing economies
that has currently established itself as a truly democratic middle-income country, comparable to Eastern European
GDPs, and living standards equivalent to those of Turkey and Mexico. In recent terms its success has been huge
but also unprecedented, especially when compared to many other similar sub-Saharan African nations who gained
their independence at around the same time. Countries such as Sierra Leone, DR Congo, Zimbabwe and many
others have been crippled by poverty brought by corrupt government officials and extractive institutions.
So how did Botswana buck the trend of its sub-Saharan counterparts? The cause of its prosperity can be
understood by looking at its tumultuous history of ideological and political conflict, from before Europe's arrival
to after independence. The story of Botswana is one where actions of political shrewdness built upon traditional
democratic foundations and subsequently managed to weather the storm of colonisation. Sheer luck certainly
played its part – yet the key difference was that the Tswana (the tribal people from which Botswana derives its
name) capitalised on the contingent nature of their history where others were left rueing missed opportunities.
Kgosi ke kgosi ka morafe.
‘The king is king by the grace of the people.’
This Tswana proverb encapsulates the political foundations that its people were brought up on. In fact
the Tswana often claim to be one of the world's oldest democracies, due to their pre-colonial use of the kgotla, a
communal assembly used to constrain the power of the tribe's chief. All matter of topics were discussed in these
frequently-assembled meetings – from laws and decrees to squabbles between the chief and his relatives. However
the significance of the kgotla lay in the fact that each member of the community contributed knowing that their
views would be weighted equally with everyone else's, even that of the chief (who often had his wishes overruled).
Furthermore, the chiefs themselves were not totally hereditary, with the focus being more on ability to lead and
cater for the community's needs.
The kgotla was (and still is, playing a significant role the country’s contemporary politics) a pluralistic
system of government, which meant that legislation reflected the interests of the community they applied to.
Furthermore the frequency and democratic nature of the kgotla meant that the chiefs had accountability to their
people, meaning they couldn't easily force through legislation for their own selfish benefit. This prevented the
formation of a narrow controlling elite, the very antithesis of pluralism.
A visit to the 16th century pre-colonial Kingdom of the Kongo illustrates the problem of a narrow elite
with expansive powers. It certainly had the appearance of a thriving state with plenty of exposure to Portuguese
trade ships carrying the latest European technologies and its capital, Mbanza, even had a population greater
than that of London at the time. The fact that the vast majority of its people lived in abject poverty then may be
surprising, but can be explained through the absolute powers of the king and his entourage of elite officials.
Botswana's Story:
Poverty to Prosperity
By Robert Johnson
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