Botswana cobbles together success. Shoemaker's triumph highlights nation's potential

ON the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a young man is jotting down figures into a blue, lined ledger. His one-room shoe factory is situated in a white, boxlike structure not far from a cluster of thatched mud huts. Four cobblers work quietly in the cluttered room, sewing leather onto prefabricated soles and attaching steel buckles. Nicholas Jacobs, the man at the ledger, founded Pilane Clogs in 1983. He took advantage of low-interest loans and training programs financed by the Botswana Development Bank, a government clearinghouse that, in 1986, is overseeing a national-development budget of $150 million. About half the funds are provided by foreign aid, including a $25 million package from the United States.

Last year Pilane Clogs turned a $1,000 profit from $15,000 in sales -- a small triumph for Mr. Jacobs, a man with a seventh-grade education who was jobless in 1980.

It is also a small triumph for a poor, landlocked nation whose 1.2 million inhabitants eke out a living in a semidesert environment where only 2 percent of the land can support permanent crops.

``If Africa has a success story, it is Botswana,'' says Laurie Mailloux, a program officer with the US Agency for International Development in Gaborone, Botswana's capital. ``It is almost a model system in terms of what the US has been encouraging in developing nations. It has a strong free-market economy, a democratic government, and a pragmatic plan for development.''

On a continent often associated with coups and crumbling economies, Botswana's progress has been remarkable. In 1966, when the former Bechuanaland gained independence from Britain, the country was among the 10 poorest in the world, with a yearly per capita income of less than $80. It had two miles of paved road, no industry, little agriculture, no urban centers.

Two decades later, Botswana boasts an economy that has grown an average of 11 percent since 1966. Per capita income reached $620 in 1984, helped largely by the exploitation of diamond reserves. Paved roads extend from the South African border to Zimbabwe. Gaborone is now an urban center of 80,000 people. Poverty remains a serious problem, but the government seems committed to improving education, housing, and health.

Politically, Botswana has built a firm base for one of the few multiparty systems in Africa. Though the ruling Botswana Democractic Party has dominated government since indepndence, a small, feisty opposition led by the Botswana National Front has grown and holds six of some 40 seats in Parliament.

Yet, even as Botswana celebrates its progress, the future seems uncertain.

President Quett Masire acknowledges the destabilizing influence of unrest in neighboring South Africa. Twice since early 1985, South Africa has launched raids against alleged facilities of its black-nationalist foe, the African National Congress, inside Botswana. ``We are virtually in a war situation,'' Mr. Masire says, adding that the region's ``future may depend'' on the South African situation being resolved peacefully.

The turmoil in South Africa also worries Botswana's economic planners. More than 88 percent of imports -- from cars to paper clips -- come from South Africa. Some 300,000 Botswanans work in South Africa, their earnings a major income source for families at home.

``As a country we are dependent on South Africa,'' says Peter Mmusi, Botswana's vice-president and finance minister. This dependency has placed the government in a difficult position as black Africa steps up demands to isolate Pretoria. ``Realistically, we are in no position to influence events in South Africa,'' says Masire, adding that Western economic sanctions against Pretoria would seriously affect Botswana's economy.

The Masire regime is taking steps to enhance its security. With foreign assistance, including US, the small military is being strengthened. Earlier this year, Parliament passed laws that give the government potentially sweeping powers to locate, detain, and prosecute persons it deems a threat to national security. Though the opposition backs Masire's efforts to beef up defense, it criticizes the laws on grounds they could be used to silence internal opposition.

Botswana faces other challenge in the near future, most of them economic. A five-year drought has played havoc with the important beef industry; locusts have hit agricultural programs.

Botswana still lacks any significant industry, despite incentives to foreign investors. Diamond mining, the main foreign-currency earner, nets more than $500 million a year. This places Botswana in a familiar third-world dilemma: dependency on a single commodity whose price is often beyond the nation's direct control.

Officials estimate that Botswana's economic growth will slow from the current 7 percent to 3 or 4 percent by the late '80s. Despite this, foreign observers see an inherent strength in Botswana's approach to such problems. ``First, they are admitting that things might get worse,'' one aid official says, adding, ``You sometimes don't get a very realistic outlook in Africa.'' Botswana has managed to create a pool of foreign-currency reserves of about $500 million.

``We are using [past] surpluses . . . to save for the future.'' Mr. Mmusi says. ``In this way, we can remain hopeful.''

Back at Pilane Clogs, Nicholas Jacobs grins when asked about the future. He just bought some property for his family and may try exporting shoes next year.

``Our country has many problems, but we're doing what we can,'' he says. ``Man, I have no real worries about the future. You see, as long as people wear shoes, they must have a cobbler.''

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