Botswana: Democracy And a Buoyant Economy

Ten years after its bold start, an economic bloc of Front-line States fighting apartheid is shifting its strategy. Spurred by political reforms in South Africa, neighboring states now are preparing to include the regional giant in efforts to promote growth and political stability.

BOTSWANA, a rare example of capitalism and democracy in Africa, has played a key role in the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC). Quett Masire, President of Botswana, is the current chairman of the group. His predecessor, Sir Seretse Khama, was the first chairman of the conference, which established its headquarters in 1980 in Gaborone, Botswana's capital. Botswana was one of the continent's poorest nations at independence in 1966. It now has Africa's fastest growing economy, and stands out on a continent suffering from scarcity, mismanagement, and debt. As one of Africa's three multiparty democracies, its politics are characterized by open debate, efficient government, and a free-market philosophy.

Economic success followed the discovery of diamond deposits in 1967, one year after independence. And in 1989, for the fourth successive year, Botswana was the world's leading diamond producer by value.

Prudent management and use of the diamond wealth has been important to the country's stability. While wealth is still unequally distributed, international observers have recognized effective government efforts to care for all citizens during the 1981-87 drought.

Botswana faces little of the intertribal conflict that has divided many other African nations. Officially, the country has eight tribes. But the strength of allegiances between them has made the nation virtually one tribe. Richard Mannathoko, chief executive of British Petroleum-Botswana, says that Botswana's tribes developed a system for resolving intertribal conflict that was tailor-made for transition to Western-style parliamentary democracy.

After a record output last year, it is believed that revenue from the diamond mines has begun to plateau. But unemployment has not been reduced, and new labor-intensive industries are needed.

Finance Minister Fergus Mogae says that investments by Heinz and Colgate are examples of US interest. Botswana wants investment to create broad economic growth, reducing dependence on diamonds, which in 1988, accounted for 73 percent of Botswana's exports. The country's foreign exchange reserves stand at a remarkable $2.4 billion.

But President Masire says, ``I am little disappointed that they [US investors] didn't move in a little more aggressively.'' Botswana's assets include an open exchange system, cheap labor, and preferential trade access to Europe and the US through the Lom'e Convention and the Generalized System of Preferences.

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