IT’S April 13, 2006, a pivotal moment in America and Europe’s campaign to alienate Zimbabwe. At a televised press conference by President Festus Mogae and visiting German President Horst Kohler inside the Sir Seretse Khama Airport VIP lounge, temperatures are rising.
The two presidents, fresh out of a series of uncomfortable private meetings, are now squaring up publicly.
Kohler is frustrated that Mogae would not come round to America and EU’s decision to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Mogae has his own beef: for the past few days, the Botswana president has held his fire as Kohler publicly harped on the Zimbabwean issue. This time his patience had run out:
“My advice to the EU and America is that they should talk to Zimbabwe. I have said that to you in our private meetings and I will say it now,” Mogae said as Kohler and his entourage of red faces squirmed at the round of applause that greeted Mogae’s outburst.
Mogae’s relationship with the west has been full of such explosive moments.
British journalist, Lindsay Hilsum, who interviewed Mogae during his visit to China, recalls how she was struck by the president of Botswana’s love for China and his loathing for the west. Mogae told Hilsum, “I find that the Chinese treat us as equals. The west treats us as former subjects. Which is a reality. I prefer the attitude of the Chinese to the West’s, but there’s bugger all I can do about it!” Mogae said, chuckling away in his hotel suite.
Old resentments die hard. Mogae still harbours historical grudges against the west for the shoddy reception they once gave Botswana’ first president, Sir Seretse Khama. Mogae told the British journalist how Botswana’s first president, during an official visit to the UK, was greeted at Heathrow Airport by “some old man from the Colonial Office”, while even back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese would roll out the red carpet for any high-level visitor, however small a country they represented.
“They treated Sir Seretse just as they treated Richard Nixon!” he declared, possibly with a little exaggeration. Richard Nixon was the American president who was forced to resign after being shamed by the Watergate scandal.
Mogae knows first hand the pain of being treated shabbily by the west. A while ago, the British Prime Minister would not fit him in his schedule during a state visit to the UK, but made time to meet South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki.
The then Debswana Managing Director, Louis Nchindo, was so incensed with Mogae’s cold reception in Britain that he threatened to stop Botswana diamonds from being sent to cutting and polishing factories in the UK where they created thousands of jobs.
Was Mogae trying to break ranks with America and EU? Well this was not spelled out in so many words, but something was stirring. Mogae no longer offered himself as a rubber stamp of the US and the EU’s foreign policies.
He was positioning Botswana to cash in on China’s relentless economic growth and things were humming along: prices of copper and nickel, which had been depressed for sometime, were going up because of the growing influence of China in the world economy, and private business was marching to the beat of the same drummer. Barclays Bank of Botswana launched a campaign to plug some of Botswana’s budding entrepreneurs into the international economy by sending them off to China on a six-day trip to scour international partnerships.
Barclays’ Managing Director, Thuli Johnson, said the aim was to develop Botswana’s small medium businesses and ensure that they graduated into big business. “We are doing this because Botswana and China are the fastest growing economies. Over and above that, you can always get the most innovative and enterprising people from China. “The trip to China is an opportunity to find cross-border partnership from China,” Johnson said.
Mogae was rubbing his hands gleefully in anticipation of a surge in Beijing’s demand for Botswana diamonds on the back of China’s increasing personal incomes. He seemed just thrilled that China was talking about trade, investment and brotherhood rather than the pesky subjects western leaders like to bring up like human rights, good governance, corruption and all.
Mogae’s turnaround, however, made the EU and America jittery. Last year, a few days before the interview with Hilsum, Mogae was fielding questions from a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist, Malcolm Borthwick, who seemed uncomfortable with Botswana’s cozy relationship with China.
“Don’t you think China is just after your resources?” Borthwick quizzed. Mogae did not hold anything back.
“Everyone is after our resources. The United States of America is after our resources and Europe is after our resources. What’s wrong with China being after our resources?” he asked.
While western donor countries are closing their purses to Botswana because the country has graduated from the group of poor countries, China is flashing its Yen. China said it would offer four billion euros in loans and credit and double aid to Africa by 2009.
Mogae recently told the ITN News, a British television station, that Botswana was looking to the east because it was being excluded from certain development initiatives geared to assist African nations.
Speaking during a visit to China, Mogae said, “We are here to ensure that we are included in the list of the beneficiaries and China is willing to help.”
Hilsun recently observed, “Africa has a unique opportunity as China overtakes the west as the continent’s most important trade and investment partner.
“They cannot complain they’re not getting a fair deal because of western bullying and old imperialist ways. The Chinese are not imposing any ideology, its willing buyer, willing seller.
“So Africa can strike a better bargain, insist on technology transfer and job opportunities, taking the best advantage of this new opportunity.
“European ministers will tell you that Africa needs to improve its record on corruption and human rights in order to develop, not just because this is morally right. But China gives the lie to that wishful thinking.”
Dogged by the international outcry over the relocation of Basarwa from the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve, the deportation of Professor Kenneth Good and the treatment of refugees, Mogae seemed to be losing patience with the west’s tendency to lecture Africa on democracy, human rights, corruption and good governance.
During a recent visit to Brussels, he urged the EU to stop pushing a one-size-fits-all aid plan for African nations, which he said would do more harm than good in trying to combat poverty. He added that each country had a different approach to what democracy and good governance meant in dealing with corruption, human rights and freedoms.
“Do encourage and inspire us to practice good governance, but, for goodness sake, do not use your wealth and power and our poverty to try to make us in your image,” Mogae said.
So much for spreading democracy, China had something else to offer, and Botswana was beginning to think that’s a better way forward. The country’s leadership adopted a carefree attitude to human rights. A while ago when Botswana chaired the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the then Botswana Ambassador to China, Alfred Dube, lobbied the Botswana government to show appreciation for the help it is getting from China by turning a blind eye to China’s human rights record if the issue came up for debate.
At home, textile sweat shops operated by Chinese investors started mushrooming throughout the country. If there was any one incident that brought the problem into sharp focus was revelations that Zheng Ming, a Chinese company that operated a textile sweatshop in Ramotswa, was part of an international trade in modern day slavery. Industrial Court Judge, Elijah Legwaila, would later rule that “it appears that Chinese nationals pay large sums of money to recruitment agencies who send them abroad with all sorts of promises and that some Chinese nationals even leave China with promises of work in developed countries and that by the time such people land at any destination they have neither the money nor the bargaining power to protect their rights.
“These Chinese nationals are then housed and fed in compounds at the pleasure of the employer. Their passports, air tickets, work and residence permits are retained by the employer.”
Legwaila was passing judgment in a case in which Bin Quin Lin, a Chinese national working for Zheng Ming Knitwear, was held in forced labour without pay. Chinese investors are the biggest investors in the textile industry which exports garments to America under the lucrative AGOA agreement.
As President Mogae bids Batswana farewell last week, it was perhaps fitting that Botswana’s confidence in China and mistrust in the west played itself out in the open. While the government enclave rolled out red carpets for a team from China’s biggest business newspaper, the Observer, who had come to do a special business feature on Botswana, the Office of the President had just slammed the door on ZNBC reporters who also wanted to do a special business feature on Botswana. The Chinese Observer feature is expected to open the floodgates for the inflow of more Chinese Foreign Direct investment into Botswana.