This article by Garreth Bloor was originally published on African Liberty.
During a recent visit to Washington D.C., I briefed several foundations, members of Congress and think tanks: South Africa and Zimbabwe’s challenges have recently come to the fore, in light of eroding property rights and election issues respectively.
Amidst the challenges to the open society, lessons to improve Africa can come from within the continent. For South Africa and Zimbabwe, Botswana a neighbour that beat the odds, showing solutions are often far closer to home than assumed.
What accounts for the relative success of this landlocked fellow African state, which relegated to likely failure in the view of some colonial officials, arose from one of the three poorest nations in the world at independence, to peer age with upper middle-income countries today? Scott Beaulier at Mercatus is perhaps the better known in assessing the issue, disproving several developments models not only in theory, but in the actuality of Botswana’s growth.
Resources versus institutions
Some “in the know” argue, in conversation, that, unremarkably, Botswana’s success arises from its diamonds. Fellow African nations are endowed with far more mineral wealth, yet therein lie far higher rates of poverty and underdevelopment. The nature of the development of institutions, including limited government – both unintended in the benign neglect of British colonialism – and intended by the leadership of post-independent Botswana, holds part of the answer for its relative success. So, too, does the level of openness to the world of ideas and investment and the strength of indigenous institutions, as shall be argued, drawing on the work of local African scholars.
A personal visit to Botswana for a meeting of the World Economic Forum a few years revealed vibrant commercial institutions, high degrees of professionalism virtually everywhere, public safety, alongside both familiar and new big brands on the streets of the capital, Gaborone.
It is not an uncommon observation. The type of inner city flourishing we seem to only dream of in a great many of our municipalities down in neighbouring South Africa.
A study in contrasts
Contrasting Botswana and Zambia, both landlocked and resource-rich countries that were granted independence in the same period, a former Cato Fellow and leader of South Africa’s opposition, Tony Leon, demonstrated the importance of institutions, including free markets, as a case in point.
Leon wrote: “At independence in 1964, Zambia was Africa’s second richest country, whereas Botswana was referred to by a departing British colonial official as a ‘useless piece of territory’. However, Botswana adopted market-friendly economic policies anchored in and bolstered by a democratic environment that propelled it into a group of upper-middle income countries.”
Zambia has languished at income levels close to 1960. However, when adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity, Botswana’s per capita income was $6,788.04 in 2016. It was $167 in 1960. Zambia’s was $984.44 at independence and only rose to $1,178.39 when measured in 2016. The disaster that fell on neighboring Zimbabwe is perhaps an even more glaring and popular contrast in policy decisions and governance.
Average gross national income per capita in Botswana was higher than South Africa at its economic peak in 2008. Three decades of solid growth within a strong institutional context gave rise to the question of how Botswana achieved sound institutions as opposed to simply crediting them for the country’s relative success. After all, at independence it was one of two in 48 sub Saharan African countries that could be considered democratic.
How did sound institutions emerge?
Whereas the centralised state inherited from colonial powers was a temptation too strong to give up for leaders in post-colonial independent countries, it was precisely Britain’s lack of top-down impositions that generated the space for culture and community in Botswana. The country adopted and adapted institutions from the grass-roots upwards. Robert Subrick together with Beaulier point out the nation was committed to an ideology of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and small government, also referred to as “experiment(ing) with some of the important classical liberal institutions of free choice and tolerance”.
Pre-colonial lekgotlas (gatherings), the equivalent of town hall meetings were notably democratic. Whereas the House of Lords evolved in the British tradition of liberty, so the concept evolved in Botswana to a House of Chiefs, providing a counter balance to a lower house of Parliament. In each case, indigenous institutions encountering ideas from outside adapted to the terms of Tswana society by the country’s leaders.
Botswana defies the cultural and racial determinism of those who believe Africa’s problems are ethnic or tribal in nature. On the other side of the coin, it defies the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that characterized engagement with the continent by some with an excessive reliance on aid. The more we delve into the country’s evolution, the clearer it becomes why there are virtually no foundations with a huge market to “help solve” the problems of Botswana, when compared to nearly all developing countries on the mainland of Africa. The country is one of the few in the region that pays for its own social safety net among Sub-Saharan African countries.
Whereas some may be tempted to conclude the specific Tswana culture may hold the key to the country’s success, the problem is that the same culture and people exist elsewhere (much like the cases of East vs West Germany and North vs South Korea).
The Question of Culture and Institutions
The Tswana people who constitute a majority in Botswana also reside in South Africa’s North West province to the south, constituting a majority in that province as one of the largest ethnic groups in South Africa – four million Tswana speakers, in contrast to the entire 2.25-million-person population of Botswana. While decades of apartheid denied the majority the economic freedoms enjoyed in Botswana since their independence in the 1960s, the continued compromise on property rights and the rule of law in South Africa have denied millions the rapid upward mobility experienced to the north.
There is no perfect society, and no one has claimed anything close to it in Botswana. Many warn that its earlier years were more successful in pursuing institutions that lead to growth, particularly limits on government in the first 10 years of independence. Problems, such as poverty, remain a matter or critically importance, but, comparatively, the rates are at a much lower level than elsewhere in Africa and today some worry the brakes are being place on progress.
Nevertheless, the country holds important lessons from and for much of its post-independence history. Improvements sustained beyond commodities and by authentic culture and enduring institutions of liberty remains the essence of success (The Venezuelan tragedy began with years of commodity-driven growth, while lacking sound institutions). Secondly, ideas matter and how they are developed do too. This is why think tanks and entrepreneurs are championing freedom.
Whereas poverty was conceived of on Marxist terms during the proxy battles of Western versus Soviet influence at independence, several local African thinkers resisted the ideas of Marxism and its offshoots of Afro-socialism. It is not surprising that a country like Botswana took on outside ideas and luckily chose the right one of liberal democracy.
Deep thought by Africans themselves has been vital to this trajectory, without the anti-business prejudice that formed the starting point for too many leaders.
“Blacks had fought and died to get back property and property rights stolen from them”, argues Nolutshungu, who maintained that the original fight against colonialism in the early 1900s was firmly rooted in a respect for free enterprise and property rights within the oldest liberation movement in Africa – the African National Congress (ANC), that is today leading the government of South Africa.
Temba Nolutshungu, Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation in South Africa, recently reminded South Africans that he and fellow apartheid-opponent Leon Louw played a significant part in a last-minute review of the country’s Constitution in 1996; they persuaded the Constitutional committee to insert a property rights clause into the Constitution.
The ANC later formed a tactical alliance with the Soviet Union from the 1950s onward as pointed out in previous essays. Though Nolusthungu had argued pro-liberty ideals can be found in the 1955 Freedom Charter – a document for a post-apartheid South Africa for which classical liberals had been valiantly arguing. The one I have heard, compared to the Declaration of Independence in its significance, which nevertheless is frequently invoked by those demanding Marxist policies such as the nationalization of industry and property. Nolusthungu argued there are no grounds for such an interpretation. It is a matter of debate, but the clear fact is a side of the argument stands a part of the broader defense of liberty mounted against Afro-socialism and racial nationalism.
George Ayittey, who addressed a pack audience at an Association of Private Enterprise Education conference in 2011, argued: ”The reason why Botswana has done very well is because it’s the only black African country which went back to its roots and built upon its own indigenous institutions”.
James Shikwati underscores the nature of trade in Africa pre-colonial period in contrast to assumptions it did not exist. He has frequently appealed to the history in the debate on aid-centric development approaches.
To borrow a phrase, did Botswana’s intact indigenous tribal councils on independence became ‘little platoons’ – a defense against the state characterized by limited government, as opposed to extensions of it, where buying the loyalty of leaders in the Marxist African states that knew no limit – using centralised colonial states to plunder resources. While the state enriched so many African leaders, who continued the plunder by their colonial predecessors, Botswanan President Festus Mogae would be seen going about in public doing his own shopping.
None paint a picture of an undisturbed nirvana prior to African encountering the rest of the world (engagement was already underway long before the making of the continent’s current borders). They do show the development of institutions is compatible with rigorous benchmarks for governance and liberty. It has often been a rallying cry for liberty itself in Africa by its leaders seeking freedom from colonial yolk – as opposed to some continuation of it, usually denoted by the academic prefixes that constitute constructs of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism within the Marxist worldview.
Scholarship and Leadership do Matter
Where debate often assumes development and democracy, to varying degrees, can be exported, it is interesting that it is always in the areas least prioritized that some of the greatest successes have occurred.
Singapore, despite military colonial rule and the dim view its executioners had of its future, is today second Hong Kong in the top two spots of the world’s most economically free countries.
Ideas among leaders and the general public are perhaps the most undervalued component in so much of the work on development and commentary on it after the fact. The right ideas at decisive points have altered the course of nations and sound leadership from humble statesmen matters, even if we rightly ascribe less hope in government’s ability to do more than create an enabling environment for human flourishing. Good institutions emerge for a reason.
As African’s proponents of liberty gather for the annual Africa Liberty Forum (ALF) next week in Lagos, Nigeria, reflection on these ideas and their development in Africa are a worthy source of scholarship to support freedom champions; never hesitate to take the best from the universal compendium of ideas. It can only serve to deepen the valiant efforts for liberty in the countries these freedom champions love dearly. Otherwise, initiatives, such as, African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is on shaky ground, if not widely backed by popular opinion (let alone the other requirements for growth that need backing).
As an activist said of his South American home recently during a speech to classical liberals in the US: “I never wanted a new country to live in, I want a new Brazil.”
It is the love of country and continent that inspires these think tank entrepreneurs and freedom champions to carry on the mission. I believe reflections on threads of a liberal tradition within Africa over the past century can point to and inspire fellow Africans in the direction of liberty that is sought and underpinned by sound reason, reflection and confidence.
Garreth Bloor is Vice President for Transatlantic Affairs to the IRR, South Africa’s oldest classical liberal think tank. He is also a member of the Atlas Network
This article was first published on African Liberty.