Botswana and South Africa – A Tale of Two Neighbouring Democracies

By Published On: 5th April 2023

During the first week of February 2023, I had the privilege of conducting a short research trip to Botswana with Prof Cheryl Hendricks. We spent a few days in Gaborone and then made our way Kasane, situated on the borders of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. This area, where the Chobe river flows into the Zambezi, is the world’s only quadripoint. We returned to South Africa, just prior to the much-awaited State of the Nation Address (SONA) on the 9th of February. In this short piece we share some of our insights on the decline of democracy in these two countries, once heralded as its torchbearers in Southern Africa.

Since independence in 1966, Botswana has been seen a bastion of democracy that routinely holds credible, free and fair elections with seamless change of its leaders. It is also one of the most economically stable countries in Africa, largely driven by diamond mining, tourism and agriculture. Its currency, the Pula, is often dubbed ‘the African pound.’ Signs of economic progress are easily visible by the infrastructure development and in how Gaborone’s Central Business District (CBD) has transformed into a modern city in the past few decades, with new roads, shopping malls and high-rise buildings. And in Kasane, the construction of the 923-metre long Kazungula bridge over the Zambezi river, officially opened on 10 May 2021 (replacing the ferry), is not only a milestone Zambia and Botswana, but for the whole Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). The bridge, with a one-stop-shop border post on the Zambian side, has the potential to completely revamp Southern Africa’s economy and forward the objectives of regional integration.

However, despite the remarkable economic achievements, the decline in the quality of democracy is clearly rearing its head in Botswana. There are signs of democratic recidivism in the news headlines as well as the verbal and non-verbal language of the citizens. One such sign is that of an overbearing leadership. The picture of current President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, appears wherever you go, public or private. He is also the new face of the national currency, the Pula, replacing that of his predecessor Ian Khama who has been in self-imposed exile in South Africa since November 2021. A warrant of arrest against him to answer charges of unlawful possession of firearms, receiving stolen property and procuring the registration of a firearm by false pretense, among other allegations, was issued.  The tension between the two leaders is palpable, with Khama (who is the son of the founding father of Botswana’s Democratic Party) claiming that there have been attempts at his life.  The former president quit the ruling Botswana Democratic Party to join a breakaway Botswana Patriotic Front in 2019. The infighting in the BDP has clearly led to an indelible rift in the politics of this country. Botswana may have had a change of leaders over the years, but the ruling party has been the same since independence – it is a dominant political party system. Therefore, how it treats opposition party leaders will be a telling tale for the future of democracy in this country.

There is a growing sense of fear and decline in civil space resulting in self-censorship among the citizens of Botswana. The latest Afrobarometer findings (Round 9 survey carried out in 2022) indicate that in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia – three countries that have been doyens of democracy in Southern Africa – important indicators have declined sharply over the past decade. In Botswana, satisfaction with democracy, perceptions of presidential honesty and approval of the country’s direction are at their lowest in 10 years. Despite its standing as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, three-quarters of Batswana believe that at least some officials in the president’s office are involved in corruption. Perceptions of the presidency’s honesty have dropped by 21 percentage points in the past decade, while more than two-thirds of the population believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

All countries encounter democratic challenges, especially maturing democracies. Upon our return to South Africa, the political environment was full of anxiety ahead of SONA.  President Cyril Ramaphosa’s challenge, as with all his predecessors, remains keeping the ‘Rainbow Nation’ dream alive amid a myriad of obstacles many of which can be traced to the structural and cultural designs of colonialism and apartheid. Others are mere failures of the present regime to turn the ‘miracle’ of the democratic transition into a tangible well-functioning governance architecture that delivers the promised nirvana.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with race playing a determining factor in a society where, according to the World Bank (March 2022), 10 percent of the population owns more than 80 percent of the wealth. Unacceptably high levels of corruption, crime, gender-based violence and the lack of service provision add up to the darkness now experienced daily from the many periods of power load-shedding that compound the triple evils of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The SONA, itself underwhelming, did not succeeded to alleviate the nation’s fears that the “emperor has no clothes.”

Yet, despite all its challenges, a sense of freedom to speak truth to power in South Africa remains and its citizens are still able to approach key institutions of the State without feeling prejudiced. In many countries one may have the freedom of speech, but the freedom after speech is not guaranteed. South Africa’s Bill of Rights in the Constitution is progressive, its judiciary still largely independent, its media still free and its civil society has enough space to organize and influence policy and practice.  The change in the quality of its democracy and human security which South Africans seek can be achieved if they organize themselves sufficiently and quit waiting for a reformed political class to emerge.

As both Botswana and South Africa prepare for elections in 2024, it is the degree of freedom that is likely to be the factor in the tale of the trajectory of two neighbours who have so much influence on the rest of Southern Africa.

Professor Cheryl Hendricks is the Executive Director, while Webster Zambara is a Senior Project Leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Cape Town.

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