Since its independence in September 1966, Botswana has been an African crown jewel in terms of democracy, good governance, economic development and peaceful co-existence amongst its people – a rose amongst thorns in comparison to developments in many states in the Southern Africa region such as Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. Numerous democracy and good governance rating reports of institutions such as Transparency International, Freedom House and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation attest to the great strides made by Botswana over the last 45 years.
Notwithstanding its impressive record, there have been several concerns and emerging developments that cast a dark shadow over Botswana’s democracy and human rights record.
The retention of the death penalty, the treatment of the San people and the deportation of Professor Kenneth Good, an academic who was critical of the government and how the current president, Ian Khama, came into power, are examples of these concerns, with the latter even drawing a rebuke from the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights which found the government of Botswana in violation of its human rights obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
The failure to ratify the United Nations’ Internal Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the inadequate discharge of international and regional treaty reporting obligations and failure to establish a national human rights institution in line with resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly raise questions about the commitment of Botswana’s ruling political elites to the advancement of human rights.
The on-going labor strike by teachers and civil servants that began on April 18, 2001 over salary increases, the response by government of Botswana to the strike and the resultant consequences such as the violence and destruction of public and private property have shocked many people in Botswana, the Southern African region and in many parts of the world – Botswana has been known as a peaceful country and has indeed been rated as one of the most peaceful African country for a long time.
The violent nature of the strike – including the violence by many students whose rampage, destruction of school property and looting of shops led to the closure of primary and secondary schools – raises questions and doubts about the depth of democracy and democratic conduct in Botswana and whether these incidents do not represent the beginning of a regression that has characterized and bedeviled much of post-colonial Africa. This would indeed be a sad end of an impressive inning.
The response of the government to the strike also raise concerns about the possible impact of the almost 45 years that the ruling party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has been in power and whether arrogance has not slowly crept into the party, rendering its leadership power drunk and a sense of entitlement or arrogation of Botswana, its people and its resources. A member of Botswana’s parliament in response to the conduct of the government in relation to the strike has described the Botswana president as ‘arrogant’ and ‘with despotic tendencies’. In this regard, Geoff Mulgan, in his book, Good And Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayal of Government, warned that:
"Democracy, like all forms of governance, is prone to decay and alienation. Power corrupts, as do inequalities. Once-benign regimes inevitably harden and become detached from the values that inspire them. So the pursuit of good power is a constant struggle to renew and revitalize ideas and institutions."
While the global economic crisis has had an impact on Botswana’s economy and the inability of the government to grant salary increases to civil servants over the last three years and to inability and unwillingness to meet the demands of workers for an above inflation salary increase; the resultant strike action has exposed fault lines and weaknesses in the management of the economy- an economy that has also largely been based on the export of diamonds with limited diversity and industrialization – the curse of many African economies that mainly depend on export of raw materials and that have failed to overcome colonial imposed economic models. This shows that diamonds are not always forever!
The state of affairs in Botswana in relation to the strike and the response thereto by the government does not augur well for democracy and human rights in Botswana and in the Southern African region in general. The strike and related challenges should be resolved soon and the people of Botswana and their government will hopefully reflect and learn from this unfortunate situation and emerge out of it better informed and ready to advance democracy, good governance and human rights.
One of the lessons that Botswana and its people should hopefully learn and should have learnt long time ago is that democracy, human rights and economic and social development cannot be taken for granted and require continuous hard work and vigilance. The other lesson to be learnt is the need for greater participatory democracy in Botswana and greater scrutiny of the role of the ruling party that has been in power for many decades and beginning to show tendencies and practices that are not in the best interests of Botswana and its people.
The increasing gap between the rich and the poor and the need for greater diversity and industrialization of the economy are some of the concerns the people of Botswana will have to pay more attention to and demand better leadership and vision from their government in addressing them. The establishment of independent and effective constitutional bodies to strengthen democracy and the promotion and protection of human rights such as a national human rights institution, is another issue that warrants a serious consideration as well.
The South African region needs a viable and democratic Botswana for its economic, political and social development. It would indeed be a sad day if one of the leading lights in the region joins the long list of states that have turned the dreams of many African people of a better tomorrow into a nightmare.
The people of Botswana should therefore hold their government accountable and demand better leadership from it and failing which, they must replace it with a leadership that will best advance the interests of Botswana and its people. Abraham Lincoln in his first presidential inaugural speech in March 1861 said:
“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember, or overthrow it.”
Independent consultant on human rights, democracy and good governance and former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission
by Tseliso Thipanyane
Tseliso Thipanyane, independent consultant on human rights, democracy and good governance and former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission. Tseliso is Director-Editorial and Marketing at AfrobeatRadio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.