Young Professionals Stifled in Botswana

Well-educated young professionals, many with graduate degrees acquired while studying overseas, want to play a bigger role in their country's development

THE party is at the Gaborone, Botswana, home of Mpho Seboni. BMWs and Mercedes are sprinkled among the Nissans in the circular driveway. The guests are on the patio by the pool, listening to music, dancing, or talking in small groups. A few expatriates, mostly British, are in attendance, but the majority of the guests are native Batswana, in their late 20s and early 30s, and by far the best-educated people in this prosperous African nation. Mr. Seboni went to McGill University in Canada and then to Oxfo rd University in Britain; his guests went to the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University in the United States and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, to name a few. In 1966, when these young people were starting primary school, Botswana gained independence, and raising the level of education became a national priority. Only a handful of schools existed, and less that 10 percent of the population had received even five years of education, according to government figures. Most of the nation's new leaders had only a basic education.

But the children of the first generation of leaders were sent to the best universities in the world. They would be given the training and expertise needed to run the country. When they returned to Botswana with their advanced degrees, however, they found the climb up the ladder of success slow going.

"You can go to the best schools in the world," says Liyanda Lekalake, who went to Queen's University in Canada and then became Botswana's first Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, "and you come back here and you can be treated like you're nothing." She works for the Bank of Botswana as an assistant research officer in the portfolio division.

Sheila Letshwiti received an MBA from the University of Edinburgh and then spent several frustrating years in government service. Last year, she left the Botswana Development Corporation to start her own business. "As young professionals we feel our intelligence is being undermined," she says. "We feel that we have not been given the right to participate."

Gobe Matenge represents the older generation both in background and education, and the difference between his career path and Ms. Lekalake's begins to explain the problem.

`I STARTED out as a messenger," he says, "and I must have done well as a messenger because it was realized that I had the potential to be a clerk. Then I became a clerk." It was the colonial era. The British ran the Protectorate called Bechuanaland, and few of the local people had any education. Mr. Matenge's formal training ended at primary school, but by the time he retired, he had risen to the position of permanent secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs. He says the reception given to the younger generation is only logical. "If a person who is holding an important position suddenly gets an assistant who is academically highly qualified, the incumbent in that position feels threatened," he says.

The number of Batswana receiving an education has increased dramatically since independence. Government records show that only 13 percent of the population was enrolled in school in 1971. Today, 83 percent of Botswana's children receive seven years of schooling. Approximately 25 percent of teenagers attend high school, and new schools are built every year.

A university education is still uncommon, however. While more than 2,200 students are studying at the nation's only university, they represent less than one-quarter of 1 percent of Botswana's population. To possess a university degree, let alone an advanced degree from a prestigious overseas university, is rare and leads to high expectations - expectations that the older generation finds difficult to satisfy.

Quill Hermans, who heads the Bank of Botswana, the nation's central bank, points out that there are some outstanding people already in positions of power. "These young people say they're demoralized, they haven't reached such and such a level," he says. "But what do you do? My director of operations is almost totally uneducated. He writes a memo and you wince at the grammar. But, he knows his job! We have 17 currencies in which we hold our foreign exchange reserves. You have to close off your balances a t the end of each day in that number of currencies. This guy doesn't have a university degree, but he knows how to do it."

The tension that exists between generations is exacerbated by the fact that the stakes have risen to dizzying heights. At independence, Botswana was one of the world's 20 poorest nations. But since the discovery of the world's richest diamond reserves shortly after independence, Botswana has had a booming economy.

For the past nine years the country has maintained a surplus balance of payments. This surplus has led to the creation of foreign reserves equivalent to more than $3 billion US.

Given the importance of the decisions facing the country, Matenge says he believes the young aren't ready for greater responsibility. "University has helped you a great deal to understand what is going on in life," he says. "But the practical work needs to be done by someone who has been there before."

BUT Ms. Letshwiti disagrees: "There is a limit as to how well somebody who started off as a clerk during the colonial era can understand the new setup with all its complexities. The younger generation is not belittling what the old guard has done. It's just that their experience is becoming less relevant. The world is becoming a small place, and it's people of my generation who've got the experience to understand Tokyo as well as New York."

Seboni is one member of the young generation who has moved rapidly up the career ladder. He is corporation secretary of the Water Utilities Corporation, one of this arid country's most important parastatals - quasi-government corporations.

Like Letshwiti, he questions whether the country's leaders can make innovative changes to meet the demands of a new era. "The government is running things just as they were 20 years ago. For example, there's a national event, like Independence Day. So you get out all the traditional dancers you can find, and they hop and jump on stage at the stadium, and that's it. That's Botswana culture for the year. No real attempt to take an introspective look at culture and cultural activity, and ways we can keep i t alive."

ANOTHER vestige of that earlier era that frustrates the younger generation is the assumption that outside experts - expatriates - are best equipped to solve the nation's problems. "It's part of the colonial legacy," Lekalake explains. "Not enough faith in your own people; that nobody here can do it." Sensitive to the charge that there are too many foreigners in positions of power, the government has decreased the number of expatriates it employs. But Lekalake sees a new phenomenon developing: The same e xpatriates are hired as outside consultants. "People are so hooked on consultants that they don't use their in-house thinking ability," she says. Adds Potlaki Maine, a computer systems analyst working for the Botswana Housing Corporation: "If the government wants a table moved three degrees, they hire a consultant."

For Lekalake's generation, it's not just a question of who gets the money, or the position, or the power. They want to get the kind of experience that will prepare them to become future leaders.

"When a local person makes a mistake there's a greater value to that mistake than if an expatriate makes it," argues Letshwiti. "Because the mistake I make I have to live with. That is the necessary learning process for a country as young as ours."

But as frustrated as they are, members of this younger generation are willing to wait their turn. With their educational qualifications, they could be working anywhere in the world. But they've chosen to return to Botswana. "There are a lot of Africans in America who have no intention of coming back because they believe this is a dying continent," says Lekalake. "I don't believe that. That's why we come back."

To Seboni, the opportunities abroad can't match what Botswana has to offer. "England, New York, whatever," he shakes his head. "This is where it's really happening. First, this is where I'm from, and I want to be a part of whatever changes take place. Second, this is more interesting. The place is small enough for people to make a difference."

As children, they watched their fathers craft a nation. Now they feel it's their turn to shape Botswana's future.

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