Botswana: The only real democracy in Africa

For reference, I ran a joint venture between the South African Breweries and the Government of Botswana from 1978 to 1982, which consisted of a brewery and soft drink plant, a distribution business, a group of hotels and a sorghum (traditional) beer business. We never had anything but support and goodwill from the Government.

Botswana is a landlocked country about the size of France, situated between South Africa to the south and east, Zimbabwe to the east Namibia to the west and Zambia to the north. The country is mostly a waterless savannah with a population of about 2.3 million people. It is host to the unique Okavango delta, in the north of the country. The country is one of the largest diamond producers in the world, with two massive diamond mines - Orapa and Jwaneng.

To understand the county’s progress towards democracy we need to go back to the nineteenth century, when Khama 3rd was the hereditary chief of the largest tribe in country, the Bamangwato, or Ngwato, of what was to be known as Bechuanaland,.

The Ngwato were and still are a relatively small tribe who had to live by their wits; they tended to avoid violence.

Khama 3rd, became very nervous about the establishment of the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal in the mid eighteen hundreds and the discovery of diamonds in what is now Kimberley in 1866, with the resultant influx of white settlers to the south and east of his domains. He approached the British Cape Government for protection. The British Protectorate of Bechuanaland was established in 1885 and this was extended to the Chobe river in 1890.

The British South Africa Company controlled by Cecil Rhodes extended the already existing railway from Vryburg in South Africa, through Bechuanaland to Bulawayo in what became Rhodesia. This was of huge benefit to Khama 3rd and to the Ngwato, absolutely ensuring the protection of his domains from the potentially predatory Afrikaners in the Transvaal republic to the east. The railway is still the most reliable form of rail transport from South Africa to what is now Zimbabwe, including the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg).

Seretse Khama, born in 1921, the grandson of Khama 3rd, has had the most important influence of anyone on the development of the country. The Ngwato ensured that Seretse had a good education, since he was the likely successor to the hereditary chieftainship of the tribe. He attended school in South Africa and then went to Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape in the days before it was ruined by the Apartheid regime. He then went on to Oxford and studied to become a barrister at the middle temple in London. He fell out with both the leadership of the Ngwato and the British Government when he married an English girl, Ruth Williams in 1947. They were exiled to Jamaica. They were allowed to return to what was still Bechuanaland in the mid-fifties. Seretse turned to politics and eventually became the first Prime Minister and then the first President of the Republic of Botswana on achieving independence in 1966.

The keys to the establishment and the maintenance of democracy in the country were and still are:

  • Sir Seretse’s establishment of a ‘No Corruption’ regime. He employed a Kenya born Afrikaner- Phil Steenkamp-as his head of the civil service. One of his responsibilities was the elimination of corrupt practices.

  • The insistence that a President will only be allowed to serve two terms-eight years.

  • The economic development of the country which was materially helped by the discovery of diamonds and the establishment of the Botswana Meat Commission which has a licence to export beef to the European Union. Not to mention a copper mine in Selibe-Pikwe and the continued development of a viable tourist industry, and now some more major investments in the coal mining industry.

  • The country also had a philosophy of maintaining high employment. I was told that the government would prefer to have two people employed at 50 Pula a month than one at a 100 pula a month for example.


In terms of the UN corruption index Botswana had the best record of any country in Africa at 35 of the 176 countries measured

For reference, Kenya comes in at 145 and Zimbabwe at 154

New Zealand is the least corrupt country in the world. Australia comes in at 13, Britain at 10 and the USA at 18.

My own personal experience of the ‘no-corruption’ regime in Botswana was when we had a senior government minister constantly ‘requesting’ free cases of beer. We quietly suggested that we should ‘phone Phil’ to see if what he was asking was legitimate in terms of government regulations. Without answering he literally ran out of the office and we never saw hide nor hair of him again. A minor issue but it illustrates the point.

Limited Presidential terms and regular elections.

By and large over the years the elected President has only been allowed to serve two four-year terms, although Sir Seretse did serve fourteen years as Prime Minister and President until his death in 1980.

There are regular parliamentary elections every four years.


The discovery of diamonds in 1970 changed the whole economic outlook for the country. In many parts of Africa such a discovery has resulted in massive corruption with large parts of the revenues being siphoned off by the people in power. This has not happened in Botswana. The secretary for finance with whom I had some dealings said to me once: ‘It is my job to grow government revenues, not to make the already wealthy Motswana, wealthier still.’ And they have done just that. My understanding is that the Government of Botswana has renegotiated more favourable arrangements with De Beers regarding the sharing of diamond revenues, and they now also own a substantial share of the De Beers company.

Botswana Meat Commission

The Government owns a large meat processing plant in the south af the country. It has a licence to export beef to the European Union. The important issue here is that over the years the population, who are mainly cattle people, have got used to regularly sending their cattle to the plant. This has had the effect of improving the quality of the herd; people are also paid within six weeks, so that much need cash is distributed widely into the rural areas.


The Okavango delta is one of the wonders of the world. It is a very sensitive eco-system. It is the preserve of a fantastic array of wild animals in their natural habitat. Again the Botswana Government has continued sensible policies in this area by limiting the number of people allowed into the Okavango delta. This does make it expensive, but they have not made the mistake of over-exploiting a scarce resource.

Other economic developments

Botswana has enjoyed GDP growth of about 9% per annum for the past fifty years.

Maintenance of high employment.

The Government philosophy of maximising high employment has been illustrated above.

On an annual basis we used to spend two or three days sitting with the minister of employment to reinforce this philosophy. We had an elaborate job grading system and we compared every one of our local job categories (we had about one thousand employees) with government job categories- the other motivation was the government didn’t want us to ‘steal’ their employees by paying higher wages and salaries. The government, rightly, showed no interest in what we paid expatriate staff. So we had the unusual situation of us trying to raise job categories to a higher level with the minister trying to lower them. This was always done with humour and goodwill. I did have to concede at one point that my ‘assistant general manager’ could not be paid more than the president of the country.

The policy was effective. We had a policy of not installing automation equipment in the brewery if it meant redundancies.

Other Issues

The ownership and use of land is a constant and real issue in many countries in Africa. In Botswana most of the land is owned by the local tribe and controlled by the local chief. Most of the country is a waterless savannah, there is almost no surface water, except in the Okavango. There is an abundance of underground water though. During the time of the British protectorate individuals were allowed to bore for water, with the permission of the local chief and provided the borehole was at least five miles from the nearest existing borehole. The person who drilled the borehole was then granted sole rights to the water from his/her own borehole, so was able to raise cattle there. Under this situation, the ownership of the land was never put in question, but people who had invested in the borehole’s rights were protected. This policy has been continued.

Compared to Kenya and Zimbabwe, there was no significant settler heritage. Just another complication they did not have to deal with.

In general I have nothing but admiration for the way that Botswana has managed its affairs, especially given the poor examples provided by its bigger and wealthier neighbours.

What they have done has certainly paid off: GDP per capita is about $US7000 per annum and on a PPP basis is about $US 17000 per annum. This compares very well with neighbouring countries and totally eclipses the results from Kenya and Zimbabwe for example.

Guy Hallowes