Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana

Joanna Lewis on the riches that cast a shadow over an African nation's once-bright future

December 11, 2008

On 31 May 2005, a frail Kenneth Good was deported from Botswana, where he had worked for 15 years as a university lecturer in politics. Expelled from Rhodesia in 1973 for criticising its white minority rule, Good was popular with students, always encouraging very free and frank political debate. But at the age of 72 he provoked the ire of the Botswana Government and was hung out to dry by his university after one particularly well-attended seminar addressed the controversial issue of President Festus Mogae's power to choose his own successor. Details of the debate quickly spread over the internet.

Three emergency High Court hearings later, Good was declared a prohibited immigrant on the grounds of public interest. Good was given minutes to grab some clothes and say goodbye to his teenage daughter before being deported. This book is the amplification of the argument he put forward on that fateful day, complete with an appendix detailing his expulsion.

This is all a far cry from the romanticised Botswana of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, whose amply proportioned heroine would surely have knocked their heads together over a nice cup of bush tea. And it is also a big step away from the orthodox academic view of Botswana. Indeed, Good's 1992 article explaining the "exceptionality" of Botswana was the one we always reached for: a good news story from an otherwise "darkening" continent; where elites remembered their rural constituencies, ethnic tensions were absent, and the rail network was a trainspotter's Valhalla. But as Good's recent work proclaims, Botswana is ruled by a paranoid, authoritarian, bullying clique, with disastrous consequences for the majority.

Botswana became independent of British colonial rule in 1966. That reign had unfairly empowered chiefs through indirect rule. But it was the discovery of diamonds and the creation of a joint mining company between De Beers and the new government in 1969 that began the rot, according to Good. A secretive, non-transparent corporation lined the pockets of the elite, while agriculture was neglected. Diamonds, it seems, are a president's best friend.

Indeed, it is hard to find something Mogae is not now the head of, from the military to the ruling party to - hilariously - the anti-corruption commission. Meanwhile, half of the population exists on $2 a day, life expectancy has dropped to 34, and many of the Kalahari bush people have been driven off the land they have occupied for 40,000 years, give or take, because (surprise, surprise) there are diamonds in that there baked earth.

Although the book ends abruptly - one senses that for Good, like Botswana's diamonds and their victims, time is running out - it does what it says on the tin and is a must-read for anyone teaching African politics. The evidence is compelling. After all, it is hardly a unique scenario.

But paradoxically, the lesson of this book is that those who argue that Africa cannot "do" democracy, only modern feudalism, are wrong. It is Africa's elites who cannot do democracy. Its people, on the other hand, understand the concept very well. There is little enthusiasm in Botswana for automatic presidential succession; the press, the internet and more than a few good men and women keep participatory democracy alive (and a threat to Mogae's regime).

The alternative scenario is apocalyptic. Botswana already has the second-highest rate of HIV/Aids in Africa: in the absence of mandates and accountability, decades were lost in public health and education. In reality, sadly, McCall Smith's delightful lady detective would be long dead, likely infected by her errant first husband. For Botswana, it may be a blessing that diamonds in this case are not forever.

Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana

By Kenneth Good

James Currey 224pp, £45.00 and £12.95

ISBN 9781847013132 and 13125

Published 1 November 2008

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