Fifty years ago this month, Britain surrendered its Bechuanaland protectorate to self-rule — just as it had Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Basutoland (now Lesotho), Kenya, Uganda, Swaziland, Nigeria, Somalia, et cetera. Each of those countries ended up unfree (like Kenya), grossly unfree (like Swaziland), or a hell on Earth (like Somalia).
But not Bechuanaland. Bechuanaland held free and fair elections and became Botswana, a country with free elections, a free economy, and a free press. It is a triumph of democracy — and National Review readers, the United States, and the free world should join in celebrating its 50th birthday.
The best way to understand how remarkable Botswana is is to consider its neighbor Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, which became independent of Great Britain just a few months before Bechuanaland.
Rhodesia declared itself independent in 1965, under an apartheid-style system of white minority rule. In anticipation of independence, a sub rosa civil war had broken out between the white minority government, the Soviet-backed Zimbabwe African People’s Union, and the China-backed Zimbabwe African National Union. After independence, the civil war intensified considerably, and it lasted until 1978, when a compromise was reached, first to include black participation in government, and then later — under British and U.N. pressure — to allow the participation of the Communist guerrilla leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe.
International sanctions — which had been imposed in opposition to minority rule — were lifted for the newly renamed Zimbabwe’s first general election. For a moment in Zimbabwe’s difficult history, it seemed that things were looking up. Remember: South Africa wouldn’t abolish apartheid for another decade and a half.
But then — despite a large international “observer force” — Robert Mugabe began a massive campaign of voter intimidation. He won in a landslide.
Among opponents of Mugabe, of corruption, and of Communism, there was an outcry. Mugabe’s response was to murder thousands of Zimbabweans. His Fifth Brigade, which had been trained in North Korea and answered directly to him, was sent to Matabeleland — western Zimbabwe, where anti-Mugabe sentiments were strongest. Over the course of a five-year anti-dissident campaign, the Fifth Brigade murdered between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
Afterwards, a new constitution was written, Zimbabwe’s senate was abolished, and new parliamentary elections were held — in which Mugabe’s party won 117 of 120 seats.
Mugabe matched his brazen suppression of dissent with Marxist economic reforms. When Zimbabwe’s civil war ended, its future looked bright, and its GDP growth spiked from an annual average of 5 percent (through the civil war and international sanctions) to 10.6 percent in 1980 and 12.5 percent in 1981. Under Mugabe’s leadership, it crashed to an annual average of 2.7 percent.
Hoping to distract from the country’s new woes with memories of its old woes, in 1992, Mugabe instituted a mandatory land-reform program, wherein land was confiscated from white farmers and redistributed. Unfortunately, Mugabe didn’t bother to make sure the people he gave farms to were farmers. Thus Mugabe destroyed one of Zimbabwe’s last functional industries. For the first time since the civil war, the economy dropped into negative growth: – 9 percent for the year 1992. And with agriculture ground to a halt, people began to starve.
Of course, even if there had been food to buy, everyone’s money was becoming worthless. For the rest of the decade, Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate averaged 35 percent. In 2001, it jumped to 112 percent. In 2002, it jumped to 200 percent. In 2003, to 600 percent. By 2007, it was 66 thousand percent. By the end of 2008, the inflation rate was 80 billion percent.
At that point, one American dollar was worth 2,621,984,228,675,650,147,435,579,309,984,228 Zimbabwean dollars. (If you’re wondering how that number’s pronounced, it’s about two-point-six decillion.)
At the 80-billion-percent inflation point, and after another grotesquely fraudulent election, in 2008 Mugabe agreed to start sharing power with some of the remaining opposition. And things stabilized somewhat. Growth is still low, but Mugabe is 92 — so maybe there’s light visible at the end of the tunnel.
Of course, what difference does money make, when the police can pick you up, hold you, torture you, and kill you whenever they feel like it? In Zimbabwe, political rights are more or less nonexistent. And that’s if you’re a member of the majority. Things are — somehow — even worse if you’re not. Mugabe has said, “no white person will be allowed to own land” in his country. He has said some white farmers were so bad, “you would think they were Jews.” (There are only 120 Jews in Zimbabwe.) He says that gay people are “subanimal”; that they “behave worse than dogs and pigs.”
“If you see people parading themselves as Lesbians and Gays,” said Mugabe, “arrest them and hand them over to the police.”
But let’s leave Mugabe’s Marxist paradise behind and hop back across the border to Botswana. Despite having to make its own way after escaping colonialism, like so much of Africa and the world, Botswana has a higher GDP per capita than several countries in Europe. (Zimbabwe has a GDP per capita only slightly higher than Afghanistan’s.) Botswana’s GDP has grown steadily ever since independence — during which time its people have enjoyed both the presence of a free market and the absence of corruption. According to the Heritage Foundation, Botswana has a freer economy than Norway, Spain, and Belgium. (Zimbabwe’s economy is freer only than Venezuela’s, Cuba’s, and North Korea’s.)
And, more importantly, if any citizen of Botswana objects to any of that — if he’d like, say, a Botswanan Bernie Sanders in office — he could write an op-ed, hold a rally, or go vote. All without fear of arrest or reprisal.
Botswana is a free country in a tragically unfree world. It’s not perfect (if you’re reading this, Botswana — you could treat your Bushmen better); nonetheless, in its own way, it’s a light unto the nations: a testament to democracy’s power to overcome any challenge — even the adversity that accompanied the birth of most modern African nations. Perhaps even more acutely, it’s a testament to every Botswanan leader — every Botswanan George Washington — who could have seized power like Mugabe and destroyed his country, but chose instead to respect the rule of law and let his country thrive.
Happy birthday, Botswana. And many more.