Botswana: South Africa's vulnerable neighbor

By , Jim Austin, now a graduate student at Princeton University, worked as an economist for the government of Botswana, 1976-80.

Botswana is a case study of economist setting the framework within which politics can operate. While Botswana is ideologically opposed to apartheid, its economic dependency on South Africa allows only so much freedom to oppose Pretoria's policies. Early this year, South Africa served notice that the government of its black-ruled neighbor had better not go too far. On Jan. 15, Botswana's main paper reported "unprovoked" small-arms attacks by South African troops on isolated Botswana defense force outposts in the north.

While it is difficult to establish what did happen in the northern bush, the country's January petroleum allotment -- which comes from South African refineries via South African railways -- was inexplicably reduced. As a result, the government's central fuel depot ran out of supplies for several days in mid- January, and a number of garages in Gaborone, the capital city, had to reduce their sales.

Nearby, a government oil storage complex capable of holding a three-month reserve still stands empty, although the tanks were completed in early 1980: South Africa has yet to make the necessary reserves available. Most rural villages and nearly two-thirds of the nation's cattle herd, the predominant source of rural income in semi-arid Botswana, depend on diesel-powered borehole pumps for water. Thus a prolonged petroleum products embargo is a serious threat that South Africa can manipulate as it wants.

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What Pretoria fears is that neighboring black-run states increasingly may become launching points for guerrilla attacks into South Africa, such as the bombing last May of the coal-to-gasoline plant, Sasol.

South Africa also may be reacting against a tough Christmas message by Botswana's President, Quett Masire, which called for the day when "the oppressed people of Namibia and South Africa will have their full share of peace, freedom, and justice." In addition, Bostwana has actively joined the other "frontline states" in opposing South Africa's support for the internal political parties in Namibia. The South Africans are miffed also at the mounting call for sanctions since the breadown in the Geneva conference on Namibia earlier this year. The petroleum shortage, in particular, may be Pretoria's warning that Bostwana, not South Africa, will be hurt first by sanctions.

Botswana can simply not let its politics move too far from the reality of an overwhelming dependence of South Africa, though the pattern of this dependency has markedly shifted over the years. At independence in 1966, half of Botswana's recurrent budget and nearly all of the capital budget were met by foreign donors, principally Great Britain. The main exports, beef and animal products, were sold primarily to South Africa. Over two-thirds of Botswana's imports came from her southern neighbor.

But with the discovery of major diamond reserves, the opening of the Selebi-Phikwe copper-nickel mine in 1973, and arrangements for preferential beef sales t the European community, export patterns dramatically changed. In 1979, minerals going to overseas buyers accounted for more than two-thirds of export earnings; exports to South Africa, still maily beef and animal products, had fallen to less than one-tenth of total exports.

Yet in other respects Botswana has become more dependent on South Africa since 1966. Now roughly 85 percent of the country's imports arrive from South Africa. Petroleum supplies, most luxury goods, and basic food staples for the growing industrial sector all come from South Africa or through South African ports. Currently, the Botswana government itself is investing over $50 million in a new diamond mine in southeastern Botswana at Jwaneng. The ready availability of essential capital goods for its development depends on access to South africa. In addition, two major exports, beef and copper-nickel, require South African rail transport to reach their markets.

In order to reduce its vulnerability, Botswana has used the growing mineral returns to help underwrite major capital programs aimed at diversifying its economy and protecting the mineral sector. There are now direct satellite telecommunications links with Europe; a through road has been built connecting Zambia and Botswana; and the government is negotiating the construction contract for an international airport capable of handling long-range jets. On the economic side, Botswana in 1976 established a domestic currency, the pula, tied to a "basket" of Western currencies, thereby breaking free from the South African rand. Also, a five-year arable land development program aiming at self- suffiency in grain production by the mid-1980s has recently been initiated.

Yes these are only small steps toward total independence from South Africa. Botswana officials generally stress that South Africa is unlikely ever to use its economic and military might against Botswana given the existing relatively moderate government, as compared to the avowedly leftist administrations of Angola and Mozambique. But, if international pressure mounts against South Africa and regional tensions increase, Botswana may soon find itself in an untenable balance between South African economic dominance and black African political pressure to join the continent's final liberation struggle.

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