President Mokgweetsi Masisi explains why he believes the country is Africa’s shining star.
For six years Professor Wale Adebanwi, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations and Director of the African Studies Centre in Oxford, taught a class called ‘Politics of natural resources in Africa’. Every year that he taught the class he and the students would talk about war, conflict, and the resources of different countries. And every year a student would ask, ‘Why is Botswana different?’
So, invited to host a conversation with HE Mokgweetsi Masisi, President of Botswana, at Saïd Business School in October 2018, Professor Adebanwi could not resist putting that same question to the President himself.
The answer, according to President Masisi, lies in the country’s democratic system of governance and the principle, established when it gained independence, that ‘the primary shareholders, our people, were at the point of the epicentre of the formation and functionality of the structure of governance’.
This principle also underlies the country’s management of natural resources, considering the people ‘as the owners, the beneficiaries, and the driving force behind exploitation and ultimate use of such resources,’ he said. ‘We deliberately made a choice that every deposit and others found on our land will be regarded as a collective good, a national good and not an individual ethnic or religious good.’
The most famous and valuable natural resource in Botswana is, of course, the diamond. And the story of how Botswana managed and exploits its diamonds is in many ways extraordinary.
Diamonds were discovered in Botswana not long after it became independent, when it was still, in President Masisi’s words, ‘among the 25 least developed countries in the world; or, put more bluntly, one of the 25 most poorest places in the world, commonly characterised as a basket case’.
The South African diamond company De Beers asked for a licence to mine these diamonds, and the government at the time thrashed out a deal which created the joint venture company Debswana: ‘between a global icon and this measly, poor, malnourished country knowing nothing about diamonds. And that company would actually carry on the mining and they would pay taxes and royalties to the government and the government would lease the … mining concession. ‘
Part of the deal that created Debswana was the obligation that it would train the citizens of Botswana in mining and processing diamonds. And, said Masisi, ‘the capacity and the knowledge base, the technical competence grew, and so did the sophistication of selling [diamonds] and marketing them’. Today Botswana receives 80% of the value of the diamonds produced through Debswana, with De Beers receiving 20%. ‘A commitment to being faithful, frugal, patient, willing to learn and holding hands with a private entity has made us what we are,’ Masisi concluded.
‘Our people remain the most valuable resource, the most valuable sustainable resource. For all these years of independence we have endeavoured to put them at the centre of management of all our resources,’ he said. ‘Returns from the extraction of mineral deposits and those derived from the tourism sector have been invested in the provisions of social services to and for them, and I dare say every single person who calls themselves a citizen of Botswana in this room has benefited from mineral resources and so have their families.’
This is not to say that Masisi is unaware of the dangers basing an economy on the exploitation of a single natural resource.