By Tendai Msengezi
In this era of multi-party politics and economic reforms, one question is often asked: is democracy along western lines an essential tool for African development given its many ethnic groupings?

Perhaps one can find the answer by looking at Botswana’s model of government and its results to date. This erstwhile desert country stands out as an example of democracy and economic prosperity in Sub Saharan Africa – a factor that has confounded critics who wrote off the country after it gained independence from Britain in 1965.

Situated in southern Africa, with a population of 1.3 million, Botswana has for the past 25 years
Practised a non-racial multi-party democracy which guarantees various forms of freedom of speech, the press, association and other freedoms usually associated with democracy.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are held every five years with citizens 21 years and above entitled to a vote. Opposition parties play an active role, although none of them has managed to defeat the ruling Botswana Democratic Party which has been in power since the country attained independence. The country also has the distinction of being amongst the few in the world that has never had political prisoners.

At a recent conference organized by the Association of West European Parliamentarians Against Apartheid (A WEPAA) in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, the Vice-President and Minister of Finance & Development Planning, Festus Mogae, described what he called the 11open secret” of democratic success.

He attributed the system’s success to “the sense of public consultation and collective decision-making which is part and parcel of the country’s culture and history.”

The country’s democracy firmly has its roots in African tradition. Leaders are required to consult with the people at a traditional parliament or “Kgotla” as it is known in Tswana. It is leadership by consensus and people expressed their views courteously, but frankly, thereby helping their leaders to come to decisions that represent the will of the people.

Before independence, Botswana was one of the poorest colonies on the continent with the majority of the people dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Beef production was one of the main foreign currency earners, a factor which led one visitor to comment that there must be a cow in the back yard of every Batswana household.

So poor was the country that the current President, Sir Ketumile Masire, commented recently: “Our apparent foolhardiness to opt for independence at that time eluded the comprehension of many observers.”

Despite the expansion and diversification of the economy since independence, the beef industry still remains a source of wealth as well as a status symbol for the average citizen of the country. Most of the people stay in the rural areas where cattle are, amongst other things, necessary for milk and draught power.

Dust clouds can be seen all over the countryside as shabbily dressed boys, carrying large sticks and whips herd their cattle to the nearest watering holes. The current drought which has ravaged the whole of southern Africa has, however, taken its toll on this industry.

In the past, many of the country’s young men (around 30 per cent) opted to go and work in South African mines, leaving the women folk in charge of the homes.

“This is reflected by the number of women working in those jobs that are traditionally done by men in
most countries,” says one woman who earns her living working as a petrol attendant.

Botswana faces the 1990s knowing that it has experienced a dramatic transformation which has seen it develop into one of the most successful economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. This prosperity is reflected by the proud manner in which the inhabitants speak about their country. Shops are packed with all the basic commodities and luxury goods ranging from household materials to vehicles, which are in abundance.

The government’s emphasis on education is reflected by the fact that almost 90 per cent of children of primary school age are enrolled, while 30 per cent of those of secondary school age attend school.

Major strides have been made in the field of health with most of the rural population living within 15 km a health facility. The number of trained nurses has also gone up over the years with one nurse per 550 people in 1990 – a far cry from 17 000 per nurse when the country attained independence.

Greater importance is placed in providing clean water for its citizens. Rural village water supplies have been vastly improved from the often unhygienic wells and boreholes to modem systems providing potable water to 80 per cent of rural villages.

When President Masire describes the economic success of his country, he usually attributes it to “a combination of sheer luck and careful planning.” The planning is evident in itself. While the sheer luck comes in the form of the discovery of diamonds which have had a major impact on the economy.

Despite its economic success, Botswana has often been criticised for the disparities between the rich and the poor, especially on housing.

On arrival in Francistown, one is struck by this contrast. It is quite common to see beautifully constructed houses in one locality, only to be confronted by shacks such as those in Summerset suburb. Most of these shacks have no basic social enmities, including street lights, and residents sometimes use the nearest bush as a toilet.

However, the government realises that something has to be done to improve the housing situation. In many parts of the country, construction signs have been set up by the Botswana Housing Co-operation (BHC) and builders arc busy putting up low cost houses and some of them are now complete. However, people complain that housing and transport are so expensive that they are beyond the means of a large section of the population.

Despite its problems the government can claim to have made considerable progress on both the political and economic front.

Their success must act as an example that a democratic system of government can combine African with western methods, and can go hand-in-hand with development. (SARDC)

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