I was just reading about Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, and I’m wondering why on earth we don’t hear more about him.
He was a hereditary king of one of the major tribes of Botswana, who was elected president of Botswana upon independence in 1966 and remained president until he died in 1980.
“From “close to the poorest” country in the world at the time of independence in the 1960s, and with few natural resources, an arid climate and little infrastructure, Botswana has transformed itself into an upper-middle-income nation, with the fastest rate of GDP growth (7.7 per cent per annum) in the world between 1966-1996 and 10.74 per cent between 1965 and 1975.  It achieved this by avoiding to follow the path most travelled in Africa, that of anti-capitalist, statist policy development. Instead, keeping much of the British common law and British-style institutions, and led by a visionary founding President, Seretse Khama, Botswana embarked on a series of reforms that reduced the government presence in the economy and promoted economic freedom (respect for rule of law, protection of property rights, disapproval of corruption, etc). As a result, government spending fell from 23 per cent in the mid-1960s to 15 per cent of GDP in the early 1970s.”
The entire article can be found here.
Bostwana is now the second wealthiest nation on the continent of Africa (after Equatorial Guinea, a small oil rich nation), wealthier than all of North Africa and wealthier than South Africa. While it is true that Botswana’s wealth is due to diamonds, Khama reinvested much of the wealth into health, education, and infrastructure, unlike most African leaders who had mineral resources. He also instituted strong anti-corruption policies. Today Botswana is the highest ranked African nation on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, at 33rd one of the least corrupt nations in the entire developing world, ahead of Costa Rica, Hungary, Taiwan, Italy, etc. Please note that the United States is at close 22nd place.
Moreover, diamonds weren’t discovered in Botswana until 1972, thus the incredibly fast growth from 1965 to 1975 must be attributed to Khama’s good government, not to diamond wealth (I doubt the diamonds had a large impact on the economy the first year or two after they were discovered; it takes a while to get a diamond mine into production). At independence, Botswana was the third poorest nation in the world. And, in part, I suspect that the fact that he had good government in place BEFORE the discovery of diamonds helped protect Botswana from the resource curse.
He sounds like simply a fabulous leader, a real African hero. And I can’t help but notice how handsome and regal he looks :)
He was also exiled from political office before independence, due to his inter-racial marriage which the South Africans hated. Indeed, curiously his inter-racial marriage helped to keep Botswana independent of South Africa:
“After World War II, the British attempted to combine the Bechuanaland Protectorate with their South African colony, but Bechuanaland was able to thwart this annexation attempt. Two important events helped to keep the Bechuanaland Protectorate independent from the South African colony. First, a strong nationalistic current continued after World War II. In 1948, the National Party, a well-organized party that favored an independent Bechuanaland Protectorate, was formed.More important, Chief Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland was banned from the protectorate in 1948. He studied in England and was not allowed to return to Bechunaland because he had married a white Englishwoman. The British hoped the ban would ease tensions in South Africa. South Africa’s white leadership found the interracial marriage to be repulsive, and they insisted that Khama be prohibited from ruling Bechuanaland. Since most people in Bechuanaland supported Khama, this political issue divided South Africa and Bechuanaland. In 1956, Khama rescinded his claim to chieftainship and returned to Bechunaland.”
Also, as it turns out, Botswana successfully combined traditional tribal law with British Common Law (probably because Khama was both an African chief, and thus knew and supported traditional tribal law, as well as an Oxford-trained British lawyer). Basically the Cato article cited above makes the case that Khama’s leadership, which included also support for freedom of speech and for harmony between blacks and whites, as well as good legal institutions and a pro-market, pro-investment approach, is the essential reason why Botswana has been so successful.
Perhaps there is something less than perfect about him, but from everything I’m reading he sounds like a truly great African leader who ought to be more widely known and recognized. For my part, I am simply in love!