Principle or Pragmatism? : Botswana, Tied to S. Africa, Is Pulled in Two Directions

Times Staff Writer

Solomon Motsami was standing on his doorstep at dawn, in a middle-class neighborhood of white concrete homes and dirt roads, in an African country where nothing much ever seemed to happen, when the helicopters landed.

The three aircraft alighted amid scrub bushes less than 100 yards away, and Motsami, an elderly man who does not see so well, thought they might have run out of gas.

But then he heard the shots, the first of thousands of rounds fired into the one-story, horseshoe-shaped apartment building where Motsami lived.


The South Africans had come to Botswana.

The bullets plowed through three-inch-thick concrete walls; at close range, they reduced furniture to rubble.

Motsami found safety in the corner of his room. But the soldiers found Motsami’s 30-year-old neighbor under his bed. Two dozen inch-deep craters in the concrete marked the spot where the man died.

Botswana hardly needed a sharper reminder than that May 19 attack in this small town that its very existence--and preservation of one of the few multi-party democracies in Africa--is threatened daily by the country that lies only a 15-minute drive from here.

Now, with the United States and countries all over the world talking about harsh sanctions against South Africa’s white-led minority government, and that government talking about retaliatory sanctions, Botswana walks a fine line between high principle and economic reality.

This is a landlocked country almost the size of Texas sitting on South Africa’s northern border. It has 1 million people, three times that many head of cattle, and hundreds of thousands of acres of near-desert. It also is one of the world’s largest diamond producers.

Botswana is heavily dependent on South Africa and on the route to the port of Durban for imports and exports. Eighty percent of its imports, from soap to tea, linen to furniture, come through South Africa. All of Botswana’s beef is exported through South Africa.


Loud Protest

The day after the May attack, for example, Gaositwe Chiepe, Botswana’s minister of external affairs, flew to New York to lodge a loud protest with the United Nations--after changing planes in Johannesburg.

Despite that dependence, Botswana remains independent in important ways. Natale Bellocchi, the U.S. ambassador here, called Botswana “an island of stability in a sea of turmoil.”

South Africa does not meddle in Botswana’s internal political affairs. The official Botswana position is to oppose apartheid but refuse to join its fellow front-line states in calling for economic sanctions.

Image Is Their Defense

With an army of only 3,800 troops, “their best line of defense is their image. The international community responds because they’re a good guy,” says a diplomat here.

South Africa said that the May attack here, and simultaneous strikes in Zambia and Zimbabwe, were aimed at strongholds of the African National Congress, the armed group fighting apartheid in South Africa.

But no evidence of an ANC connection was discovered here in the bombed building, where 15 families had been living. In fact, the owner-resident, Edward Maloiso, chief land-utilization officer for the Ministry of Agriculture and a graduate of Western Illinois University, said, “I never even knew exactly what the initials (ANC) stood for before this happened.”


Restrictions on Media

South Africa has put military and economic pressure on its neighbors to root out ANC operations in their country. A South African attack in Botswana in June, 1985, killed 12 people.

Since then, Botswana has instituted a National Security Act as a way to show South Africa that it is trying to keep itself free of ANC operations. For the first time in its history, Botswana now has roadblocks and restrictions on what the news media can report. In a society known for its respect for freedom and civil rights, the restrictions on movement are unsettling.

Despite the bombings, Botswana wants to keep its relationship with South Africa on an even keel. One reason is that the people of Botswana see South Africa as the superpower of the region.

‘Expensive Gesture’ “They flex their muscle all the time,” said Louis G. Nchindo, resident director of Anglo American Corp., the diamond operation here run by South Africa’s giant DeBeers Consolidated Mines Ltd. “But what is most frightening is that we could get the present South African government even more right-wing.

“We appreciate more than most people how bad apartheid is. We go there (South Africa) all the time, we shop there, we walk the streets there,” said Nchindo, an Oxford-educated Batswana.

“People in Britain and the United States talk about sanctions as ‘gestures.’ Well, it’d be a helluvvan expensive gesture for us.”


In addition to its trade links with South Africa, Botswana has many other ties to its neighbor. About 20,000 of its residents work in South Africa gold mines, crossing the border each day and bringing money back into Botswana.

Vital Interest

Botswana is also part of a customs arrangement under which South Africa collects duties for Botswana. Most flights from Gaborone, the capital, go to Johannesburg. Botswana residents do not need a visa to go to South Africa.

Botswana, therefore, has a vital interest in how South Africa’s government reacts to the growing international pressure.

President Quett Masire says his country’s future depends “on a whole range of factors--whether the world will abandon us, whether South Africa will use sanctions against us, even whether the government in South Africa is still sitting.”

Import Laundering

There have been recent signs that South African businessmen may try to circumvent world sanctions by using Botswana’s good name. Dozens of businessmen have been making quiet inquiries about setting up branch offices in Gaborone. Some hope to import their goods from South Africa, put Botswana labels on them and then ship them to Europe and the United States.

No one knows how many South African goods are already being laundered that way through Botswana, but economic analysts here say some wines and juice produced in South Africa have turned up in Europe and elsewhere with “Made in Botswana” labels.


Botswana has been trying to reduce its dependence on South Africa. One of those efforts is the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, or SADCC. The SADCC countries hope to increase trade among themselves and decrease their dependence on South Africa.

Still Independent

Botswana, ruled by the British until 1966, is one of the few colonies in Africa to achieve independence without the emergence of a significant nationalist movement. Gaborone, the largest city with 60,000 residents, was a village with only a couple of buildings just 30 years ago. Now it resembles a small middle-American town, with a dry, mild climate similar to that of Southern California.

A few years ago, Botswana followed a harder line toward South Africa. But when President Masire and his vice president made the rounds of town meetings, they found many outspoken critics of that policy. Thousands of residents living within a rifle shot of South Africa were unhappy with Botswana’s combative talk.

‘Just a Mistake’

Brian Egner, an economic consultant here, explains the attitude this way: “We don’t like them, but we don’t see any sense in infuriating them.”

This town of fewer than 1,000 people, a few miles from Gaborone, became a center of attention in May. The man who died in the apartment complex, Jabulawi Masalila, was a veterinarian and taught primary school classes at night as a volunteer. He also played on apartment owner Maloiso’s soccer team.

“It’s obvious South Africa just made a mistake” in thinking the apartments were part of an ANC operation, said Maloiso, who is just beginning to rebuild his apartment complex. “But this was sure a painful price to pay for another country’s confusion.”