We Can Transform Botswana, Mr President. Look To The Far East 


Lekgowe, Mogapi & Kgosi

Forget Ian Khama whose 10-year tenure at the helm yielded nothing but horse manure and a glut of corruption or Festus Mogae who seemed content to coast on lazy conservatism, history is clearly awash with lessons and case studies that can winch us to a better place that President Mokgweetsi Masisi speaks about.

Like diversification and citizen economic empowerment, the sombre and much-needed project of transforming Botswana into a high income country may turn into a Sisyphean task.

Much heralded for massive economic growth in the 1980s and ‘90s, it is, it seems, much harder for Botswana to shift into the next gear. Sad as that may be, it is borne by a decision paralysis that has gripped hold of our leaders and glued our feet to a sinking ship.

Listening to Masisi speak, at times one senses a strain of unchained fearlessness and a stubborn vision. It is not talk of the electric car or whether it is possible in Botswana, but the blanket of hope and tonic it gives to many young aspiring engineers. If we are to break free from the grip of economic stagnation, that is the kind of posture we need.  And to propel further, a guided tour of muse and inspiration is in no short supply. A peep into the Far East is what we need to take.

From South Korea to Singapore, the footprints that we can follow to economic prosperity are clear in the sand. The blueprints have been de-classified and are accessible to anyone eager to walk a similar path.

South Korea, under the leadership of Park Chung-hee who came to power in 1961, rose from circumstances very much like our own today by fostering export discipline and championing an export-led economy. That led to meteoric economic rise and rapid industrialisation of South Korea, nurturing world-class businesses, most of which have goodwill in Batswana’s hearts and easily rival the best in the world.

Samsung Electronics and Hyundai originate from South Korea, a country whose economic outlook somewhat matched that of present-day Botswana only six decades ago. It only the fortitude and fearless leadership of General Park to devise a five-year plan that had the sole intention of industrialising the country with a focus on steel manufacturing, agriculture, technology and petrochemicals.

The mental faculties needed to map out such a vision are accessible to most Batswana leaders and Batswana in general. Forget Ian Khama whose 10-year tenure at the helm yielded nothing but horse manure and a glut of corruption or, as one of us here maintains, Festus Mogae who seemed content to coast on lazy conservatism.

South Korea was able to build world-class infrastructure and industries were able to mushroom and mature because of deliberate and targeted economic reforms and policies. Masisi has an opportunity to transform Botswana’s shrinking economic base and propel the country to a high income status. Above all, clarity of vision is instrumental in that transformation strategy. Dr. Matsheka has, in his maiden budget speech, alluded to developing an export-led economy, an acknowledgement that there is a blueprint at the heart of Masisi’s agenda, the same one that was the cornerstone of South Korea’s transformation. But we need more clarity. In a budget speech, all this remains opalescent, puffy and cloudy, and one cannot immediately establish the parametres of this agenda.

For an export-led economy to even be a possibility, an enabling, friendly environment should be a priority. To hear Masisi mention it is rather comforting. Talking alone will not be enough; the follow-through of execution is what delivers the needed results.

Here again, inspiration is in abundance. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew oversaw, in less than a generation, the transformation of Singapore from a poor British colony to a high income developed country. When Lee Kuan Yew came to power, he inherited staggering unemployment, a common song here in Botswana for decades now, which he immediately sought to reverse by first setting up manufacturing industries and later through foreign investment. Transformative economic policies were developed and implemented by the Economic Development Board which identified and concentrated growth efforts on niche markets which they could dominate.

In Botswana, we import even the basics that do not require much capital and technical expertise to produce. This must come as an embarrassment to us as a nation. Apart from diminishing our self-esteem, it even threatens national security. President Masisi’s pronouncements coming into the presidency have been refreshing. However, it must be noted that a harsher, untamed reality awaits Masisi, and expecting things to be easy because they are a force for good is unrealistic in a universe that almost always tends towards chaos.

Vital to achieving any of his economic transformation goals, Masisi has to map out a clear path. And that path has to be informed by serious note-taking from history. History is clearly awash with lessons and case studies that can winch us away from the mud to a better place.

An export-led economy, creation and setting up of manufacturing industries, attracting foreign direct investment and equipping our citizens with skills required by the modern tech-driven commerce is how we get out of the rut of unemployment, income inequality and economic anxiety. All this has been done before with varying degrees of success. The boiler plate is there to carbon copy. All we need is courage, vision and honest intentions to better our country.