Peaceful and Prosperous Botswana--the Eye of Southern Africa's Storm

Associated Press

Cursed by drought and surrounded by countries in turmoil, Botswana is the eye of southern Africa's storm--a peaceful, prosperous democracy built on one of the world's harshest landscapes.

Botswana's swift development since independence from Britain in 1966 has made it a rare African success story. But it now faces a host of new challenges brought on by its rapid growth.

With diamond revenues filling government coffers, Botswana's traditional rural calm has given way to a sustained rush toward the cities. The results are too many people chasing too few jobs, a government still adjusting to its new-found wealth and an increasing strain on scarce resources such as water.

"Botswana is 21 years old and it has reached adulthood as a nation," Vice President Peter Mmusi said in a recent interview. "Until now our challenge has been simply to develop. But now we have to manage that growth in a controlled and effective manner."

Poor Beginning

At independence, Botswana was one of the world's poorest countries, and no one predicted that it would ever suffer from excessive growth.

The new nation had just three miles of paved roads, no large industries, an annual per-capita income under $100 and a capital city, Gaborone, that was hurriedly being carved out of virgin bush.

Botswana is the size of Texas, but only 5% of its land is arable and more than 80% is the Kalahari Desert.

But the year after the British lowered their flag, diamonds were discovered beneath the Kalahari sands.

10% Annual Growth

Today, Botswana has one of the world's fastest-growing economies, expanding at more than 10% annually throughout the 1980s. Under a government strongly supportive of free enterprise, annual per-capita income is almost $1,000, the highest in the region after South Africa, its southern neighbor.

Pro-Western Botswana also can boast of an uninterrupted democracy and a largely free press, both rarities in Africa.

There have been elections every five years, and there are three independent newspapers in the thinly populated land where the 1.1 million people are outnumbered 2 to 1 by cattle.

Botswana's internal stability has been matched by its peaceful foreign relations, an exception in a region riddled with conflict.

Record of Peace

Its army has never fought a battle. It has killed a handful of poachers and civilians, but not a single foreign soldier despite being encircled by unsettled neighbors that include South Africa, South-West Africa and Zimbabwe. Only a thin strip of South-West Africa separates Botswana from war-torn Angola.

Botswana has provided shelter to refugees from these countries but says it does not allow its territory to be used as a sanctuary or base by guerrillas.

During the 1970s, soldiers from what then was white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) crossed Botswana's borders in search of black nationalist rebels. In 1985 and 1986 South Africa bombed suspected African National Congress guerrilla bases in Gaborone. Botswana condemned the actions but has never responded militarily.

"No country is more a front-line state than Botswana," Foreign Minister Gaositwe Chiepe has said of Botswana's general reluctance to antagonize South Africa. "South Africa could shoot at us without even crossing the border."

The border is just 12 miles from Gaborone.

Dependent on S. Africa

Botswana has criticized South Africa's apartheid policies of racial segregation. But it has excused itself from the debate over sanctions against South Africa because of its economic dependence on its powerful neighbor.

About 95% of Botswana's exports and 85% of its imports go through South Africa. Many of its key businesses, including the diamond industry, rely heavily on South African expertise.

The economy prospers despite a sluggish diamond market and a six-year drought that has ravaged the cattle industry, the country's second-largest income source.

The currency, the pula, which means rain in the Setswana language, is stable. Botswana has about $2 billion in foreign currency reserves, enough to pay for 2 1/2 years' imports.

Water the Key Dilemma

The lack of water is the country's most serious dilemma, and the drought has accelerated the sprint to the cities, unleashing changes that could eventually undercut Botswana's successes.

Among the most pressing problems:

- Unemployment: Diamond mining has created wealth but not many jobs. The government says that 46% of the working-age population is unemployed or underemployed. Western officials put the figure at about 75%.

- Food: Even with adequate rain, Botswana produces only 10% of its grain requirements. It relies heavily on Western food aid, including $7 million from the United States in 1986. The World Food Program says that 370,000 of Botswana's people (one-third of the population) are vulnerable to undernourishment.

- Water: More than 1 million cattle have died during the six years of drought. The government says that intermittent droughts are inevitable and water supplies will remain a long-term problem.

- Housing: Gaborone, now the largest city, has grown from 17,000 to 100,000 people in the last 15 years. Squatter shacks have begun to appear on the outskirts. For the middle class, housing also is difficult to find. Newspaper advertisements seeking housing far outnumber those offered for sale or rent.

Critics maintain that the government of President Quett Masire has aggravated the problems by dragging its feet when it comes to providing services.

"The government has been far too cautious in developing new projects," said Batshane Ndaba, editor of the independent Guardian newspaper. "But it's the nature of the Botswana people. They are remarkably careful and constantly wary of taking risks."

Wants to Avoid Pitfalls

Vice President Mmusi defends his government's measured approach, saying Botswana wants to avoid the mistakes of free-spending developing countries and needs a financial cushion to guard against a possible imposition of sanctions or economic turmoil in South Africa.

Mmusi, who also serves as minister of finance, is a member of the conservative Botswana Democratic Party, which has been in power since independence and holds 28 of the 34 parliamentary seats.

The opposition Botswana National Front has controlled 10 of the 13 seats on the Gaborone City Council since 1984 and is gaining momentum among the young and restless in urban areas.

Government critics say the country's commitment to democracy has yet to face a real challenge from an opposition party.

"This government has remained popular because the diamond mines have given it a lot of wealth," said Paul Rantao, mayor of Gaborone and a member of the opposition National Front. "But the people feel they should be seeing more of that money. The strength of Botswana's democracy will be tested as it deals with its new problems in the coming years."

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