The rise of Botswana’s rough diamonds

Lerato Mbele

When Botswana won independence 50 years ago, one journalist described the country as “an impoverished, arid and hungry land without hope of achieving economic stability”.Half a century on and Botswana has turned into one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. Its capital, Gaborone, is a thriving city of just under a quarter of a million people with skyscrapers sprouting up in every corner. Part of its sparkle comes from Botswana’s diamond mines, which account for a third of its GDP.
Another part is visible in the distance from those tall buildings – the vast desert landscape, home to one of Africa’s best preserved wildlife habitats that attracts a growing number of tourists. But there are other issues too that are not far beneath the surface. An Aids epidemic still claims thousands of lives, unemployment is on the rise and there are tensions over aspects of life that have come with modernisation.
Diamonds are not forever
Poppie Moriana is a quality controller at the world’s largest rough diamond sorting and valuing operation. It is a pressurised role but Moriana is proud of having worked in the industry for 24 years. “It fills me with great pleasure knowing that we are handling Botswana’s economy,” she says. It has also helped her provide for her family – she has three ambitious young children who dream of being neurosurgeons and lawyers – and help out other family members. “It has improved my life in many ways by working here [and] it’s all because of these diamonds.”
But despite the slogan, diamonds here are not forever. Botswana’s reserves are dwindling, with some predicting a significant drop in the economy once the mines are exhausted.
Peaceful coexistence
Fortunately, Botswana has another natural asset on tap, pristine wildlife. Safari tourism is booming and travel guide Lonely Planet put the country top of its list of places to visit in 2016. David Sekudube is a senior conservation ranger at Mokolodi Nature Reserve, a 3,700 hectares reserve just south of Gaborone where you find giraffe, crocodiles, wart hog, rhino and big cats. Originally a herd boy in his home village he moved here looking for work with his brother.
“I started when I was 19 years old in 1992,” he says. “I truly love animals. I really love conservation. It’s something that I’m teaching my own children so they understand how to co-exist with them.” For decades Botswana has struggled with an Aids epidemic. Today, one in five people live with the condition, the third highest prevalence rate in the world. Patricia Mokute has been an HIV counsellor for 10 years and helps local communities improve testing and treatment. She says there is still a lot of stigma attached to having the disease and adds: “People were being judged. The stigma and discrimination came with the disease making it difficult for us to accept it. Sex is a taboo for us to talk about in our communities.”
Changing attitudes
But things are changing. “The statistics say HIV is high in Botswana but to me it’s not about the numbers, these are people that I’ve seen,” she says. “The numbers are coming down. We’ve really done a marvellous job. “I feel so proud of myself because I am changing lives. I have touched so many lives in my years.” Another person changing lives is Caine Youngman, an advocacy officer of Botswana’s first and only gay rights group – Lesbians Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (Legabibo).
Homosexuality is a contentious issue in Africa. In most countries on the continent gay sex is illegal, while attitudes towards the LGBT community are generally hostile.After years of trying, the group finally achieved formal recognition after taking their fight to the high court – a victory which Youngman says was “a step in the right direction”. But he adds: “For us it’s still a long way to go because it’s not just the law. We’re trying to move the community and the law at the same time.”
For Youngman, Africa’s struggle with homosexuality comes down to two things. “We have issues of control. And then there’s patriarchy. We live in a testosterone-driven world because right now you see we have people who say they are OK with women being lesbians, but they are not OK with men being gay.”
But he believes things are changing. “I think things will get better. When I joined Legabibo in 2005, nobody wanted to engage with us in government offices. Now we have been invited to meetings, we sit in a Ministry of Health steering committee.
“Some people come out and they don’t experience hardships, they don’t get thrown out of homes. So that we did not have a few years ago, so I’m really hopeful about the future.”
Digging deep
The future is where Molefi Nkwete has set his sights. His Urban Soul fashion brand embodies Gaborone’s optimistic and vibrant city culture. Starting out selling imported T-shirts from a backpack, he now has five stores and a respectable turnover. His shops sell sunglasses, trainers and bags imported from the US, alongside home-grown lines. Popular with young customers are T-shirts with the Botswana national anthem on them. Nkwete says it is a creative way of raising patriotism amongst the youth. His success was built without government loans or aid and all the profit he made was poured back into the business. He says that many successful companies in Botswana are foreign-owned or financed but wants to see the focus on home-grown business so that they can grow. “You know I wanted to have a better lifestyle and I knew a job wouldn’t give me that so you know I just had to just do this, build it and not even look back,” he says. “You have to dig deep. You have to dig deep and believe in yourself.”