Hemmed in by neighbours, cut off from the distant sea, Botswana straddles the great African plateau on the edge of the Kalahari thirstland: a striking example of what successful government in Africa can achieve.
For many, the name Botswana conjures up a quintessentially African mosaic: exotic Okavango safari lodges, Chobe National Park, rock art at Tsodilo, big-game hunting, the Kalahari and, of course, the Bushmen. Each of these elements has its worth, but there is more to the country.
Botswana is a modern, democratic state, one of the wealthiest in Africa, bent on fostering its parliamentary system, liberating its economy, developing its already sophisticated infrastructure and vigorously fighting the twin malaises of corruption and nepotism which have been so devastating elsewhere in Africa. In terms of the benefits it gives its citizens with respect to health care, education and adult literacy, it stands far ahead of its peers. It is, indeed, one of Africa's stars.
The sprawling home of the great family of Setswana-speaking people, proto-Botswana once had no fixed borders, its boundaries mere fluid and ill-determined fringes fixed by the relative strength of regional tribal powers and the hostile environments of the Karoo to the south and the Kalahari to the west. The Congress of Berlin and the maelstrom of white politics in 19th century Southern Africa changed all that.
Trapped between the territorial aspirations of German South West Africa and the incipient apartheid ambitions of the Transvaal and Free State Boer Republics, Britain found it necessary (in protecting the expansionist desires of her own colonial entrepreneurs) to act. As a result, the Empire paused long enough in its Imperial progress to include, in 1885, the new entity of Bechuanaland Protectorate within its ranks.
As was so often the case with colonial boundaries, the country was the product of political expediency, not tribal necessity. As a result, today there are twice as many native Setswana speakers outside the country as there are within it, and included in the state are more than twenty different language groups. Despite this potential for division, there is no disunity: native Setswana speakers account for about 50% of the population and nearly all of the remainder speak that language. This common tongue has played a significant role in the peaceful development of the country.
While it did indeed receive protection, the new state acquired little else and after 81 years, on the eve of Independence in 1966, Botswana had little to show the world. The population stood at 543,000 (or about one person per square kilometre); there were only ten secondary schools (not all of them government-run), which shared 976 pupils between them, and no university.
There were only eight kilometres of tarmac road (seven of which, in Lobatse, had been laid specially for the Royal visit of 1947 and led from the railway station to the airport; the remaining kilometre stretched alongside the railway line outside the station in Francistown). The country ranked among the ten poorest and the least densely populated nations in the world.
How that has changed. The secret, of course, is diamond wealth. The prospects at Independence must have seemed dim: a small population, few skilled workers, no mineral resources, no infrastructure to speak of and precious little with which to build a nation. The only industry of any significance was the traditional practice of raising cattle.
The Batswana are pastoralists and their culture is fashioned around the possession of large herds. The 1930s saw the introduction of drilling rigs, facilitating the spread of boreholes far into the Kalahari, drawing ranching in their wake.
Cattle seemed the only prospect for growth and development in the 1960s, which explains why the EEC (as it then was), seeking to provide meaningful assistance to Botswana after Independence, guaranteed to purchase 19,000 tonnes of de-boned beef a year at a price which was then some 50% above prevailing world levels. The move gave an immense fillip to the cattle industry but, as always, it was the rich that got richer and the poor of the country benefited little.
Professional hunters from Kenya had been visiting Botswana since the early '60s and had successfully established an embryonic hunting industry, exploiting the country's rich game resources. At the same time a handful of pioneers began to build safari lodges in the heart of the Okavango Delta. But, for both groups, it was hard work. The lack of good roads, communications and air services took their toll and the tourist industry was very slow to grow.
A new capital was constructed virtually from scratch and the (now) city of Gaborone began its uncertain progress to civic stature. What was once a small colonial administration post suddenly sprouted a parliament and government offices, shopping malls and smart hotels.
A sea change, in economic terms, followed the discovery and development of the country's mineral resources. Copper and nickel were mined at Selebi-Phikwe from 1970, but it was the discovery of diamonds in 1969 and the early 1970s that really impelled Botswana along a path of growth and expansion that few countries have experienced.
The search for gems had been decades long and frustrating. There was tantalizing evidence here and there: three raw diamonds from a distant riverbed, traces of telltale chromites and garnets, but no untold wealth. Then, based on a memory of academic speculation, tectonic shifts and profound changes in local surfaces, a brave geologist, against all advice, dramatically shifted the search 100km west - and the door to Botswana's prosperous future was opened at last.
Now, as one of the world's biggest producers, Botswana's diamond income is still the backbone of the economy and is based principally on the mines at Jwaneng, Orapa and Letlhakane - the latter being one of the richest gem-quality mines in the world. (It is possible for the public, by arrangement, to visit these mines - a fascinating experience.) Botswana sells its production exclusively to the De Beers Central Selling Organisation and takes special care to ensure that its stock is absolutely untainted with the blood of Africa's frightful wars.
As wealth accumulated, so greater investment in infrastructure followed. Botswana now boasts well over 3500km of first-class metalled roads, electrical power reaches into all the larger villages and very few centres now lack a primary school, a clinic and clean water for every household. Petrol shortages don't happen and crime only occasionally rises above petty levels. Cell-phone mania hit the country some years ago and 'The Internet' is on everyone's lips.
The principal cities are still small but growing fast: their streets are tidy and neat, the traffic lights work and modern shops are well stocked with a wide range of consumer items. Only occasionally (usually when a far-advanced dry season has scorched surrounding grazing) are cattle and goats found wandering the streets, helping themselves to hedges, public lawns and flowers from private gardens.
It is a critical goal of the country's financial planning to do everything possible to reduce its dependence on diamonds. Steps taken include efforts to establish Botswana as a regional financial centre (the country has no foreign exchange controls and possesses a burgeoning Stock Exchange). The greatest emphasis has been placed on developing tourism - an industry seen as a viable alternative to beef production.
Aside from the obvious points of development in the Okavango and Chobe regions, Botswana has much to offer that is quite untouched. The great wilderness of the Kalahari itself is almost completely unexploited: tens of thousands of square kilometres of sandy wilderness, in some places flat and in others a sea of ancient sand dunes, all of it mantled with grass and an extensive cover of trees. This is the traditional home of many of the country's 50,000-odd Bushmen and where large herds of antelope and giraffe are still to be found.
Little known also is the great ancient lake of Makgadikgadi, an immense and featureless pan with a hard, clay surface, flat as a billiard table, that stretches as far as the eye can see. Dotted with occasional rocky outcrops or large stranded sand dunes, it is one of the world's least known and most extraordinary destinations.
It is amazing to think that these pans owe their existence to the natural damming of the early upper Zambezi and Okavango rivers, which once flowed across this land to find their original outlets to the sea. Now, either captured by younger rivers or trapped by extensions of the Great Rift Valley, these rivers find a different end and the old lake bed lies dry and desolate, a forgotten place of wandering whirlwinds and listless breezes.
Of course, everything is not rosy and the future holds some difficult challenges. While it should have no adverse effect upon tourism, the HIV/Aids epidemic is a serious threat to continued prosperity. By latest estimates more than one in three (35.7%) of the adult population between 15 and 45 years of age is now HIV-positive. The cream of a growing middle class is falling victim to the scourge and it is thought that much, if not all, of planned development money will have to be spent on drugs and on assisting the sick.
The growing gap between rich and poor is, as elsewhere in the world, a worrying development and regional instability mitigates against exploiting the country's full potential.
But Botswana has faced difficulties in the past and overcome them. The government is conservative but effective and it has the resources to do the job. The country has come a long way in the last 37 years and, as a citizen myself, I have no doubt that it will retain its star role. From a visitor's point of view, it will continue to offer an exciting blend of the old, the new and the exotic.
Contributor: Mike Main.
Photo: Ian Micheler Copyright © 2002 Travel Africa. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.