The flag of Botswana

A fence seals off Orapa town in the remote interior of Botswana from its desert surroundings. Off-limits to outsiders, the town was planned for the employees of the diamond company De Beers. It was here that, just a year after independence, prospectors discovered the site of the world’s largest diamond mine.

Before this discovery, this arid and landlocked country was one of Africa’s poorest. Botswana had limited prospects for growth as the economy relied on cattle-rearing and subsistence agriculture. Since independence in 1966, however, Botswana’s annual growth rates have been the highest in the world – bar none. It is estimated that were it not for the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, growth rates would be one or two per cent higher today. The country is typically labelled an African success story due to its political stability and its management of mineral revenues and fiscal resources. Botswana’s track record and geostrategic location made the capital Gaborone the chosen location for the headquarters of the regional organization, the Southern African Development Community.

Botswana’s political stability is often attributed to a pre-colonial culture of consensus-based decision-making. This is why ‘customary’ institutions are integrated in the constitution. The House of Chiefs advises the Government on cultural issues, and most cases are heard in customary courts where legal representation is prohibited. Efforts have been made in recent years to improve the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House of Chiefs.

In 2008 the UN Human Rights Committee censured the Government for practices that fall short of international human rights standards. It argued that customary courts fail to meet fair trial requirements and criticized institutionalized corporal punishment, the death penalty and the criminalization of same-sex relations.

Botswana’s political will to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic contrasted with South Africa’s under Mbeki in the early 2000s. President Mogae (1999-2008) broke the taboo in the region by developing a national HIV policy urging a concerted effort to tackle the virus by both the public and private sectors. Since 2000 the mining company Debswana requires that all business partners and subcontractors must have an HIV/AIDS prevention and non-discrimination policy. In the public sector almost all of those who can clinically benefit from anti-retroviral drugs are receiving treatment. More generally, the social welfare system provides services to vulnerable groups such as orphans and destitute people – and all aged 65 and above are entitled to a pension.

It was the termination of such welfare schemes for a particular section of the population in 2002 that brought attention to Botswana’s policy toward the Basarwa/San or ‘bushmen’. The authorities withdrew welfare support in an effort to speed up the relocation of these peoples from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Ironically perhaps, the Government argued that the hunter-gatherers could not benefit equally from development if they remained in the Reserve, because services were too costly. The Government also argued that wildlife conservation in the Reserve was now at risk because hunting traps and farming were on the increase.

In 2006 the High Court recognized the San’s right to return to the Reserve, but it also decided that the Government was under no obligation to provide services there. The Government has continued to restrict access to water boreholes and has stopped issuing hunting licences to the San while conceding these permits for tourism purposes.

Policy towards the San only changed in the 1980s. Critics argue that dispossession, not welfare, lies behind this change of policy. Relocation has coincided with increased diamond prospecting in the Reserve and with a groundbreaking case in 2003 that recognized South African indigenous peoples’ rights to land and minerals in their territory.

Sara Gonzalez

Map of Botswana