Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“Of Diamonds and dispossession”

Good, K. (2008). Diamonds, Dispossession & Democracy in Botswana. Oxford: James Currey; Johannesburg: Jacana. 182 pp; references, index. ISBN 978-1-84701-5 (pbk) ÔÇô ISBN 978-1-77009-646-2 (pbk). BWPULA151.00 (Exclusive Books, Riverwalk) Reviewed by M. Mino Polelo

This book adds a new dimension to Kenneth Good’s more than a decade long research and writing on Botswana. There are new insights on mineral dependency, social inequalities, political elitism, Presidentialism, corruption, and elite democracy ÔÇô what an American Marxist educationist, Michael W. Apple terms “thin” democracy as opposed to “thick” (popular) democracy. Good himself and many of Batswana emerge from the text as victims of this thin democracy.

The writer sets the scene by projecting the ubiquity of exceptionality discourse in Botswana’s development literature. In this trajectory, there is the untold story of elitism bottled society that has no recourse to civil agitation and organisation. He then takes us back to the origins of popular democracy in earlier centuries, to show how democratic values centre on the will of the people and popular participation. The writer then links this to recent examples popular democracies or people based democracies such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa of the 1980s, later curtailed by the “Aristocrats of Revolution” within the African National Congress (ANC).

Examples of this elitism abound. Who would have imagined Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sixwale switching positions from union and mass leaders to captains of capital on the black empowerment gravy train?

Having introduced his subject to the reader, in chapter one, Good then tackles diamond-based development. The strength of this chapter lies in the author’s brilliant teasing of the relationship between capital intensive diamond mining and the lack of will by the political elites to push the capitalisation of the economy through diversification.

To me this is the best chapter of the book as everything that follows hinges on it. Various schemes and institutions that were well placed to capitalise and diversify the economy, such as the Financial Assistance Policy (FAP), Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) and the National Development Bank (NDB), were exploited by self-serving elites and characterised by wasteful practices. The NDB and FAP stand out in this regard.

The “FAP essentially operated as a source of easy money for under-capitalised citizen-based companies, and footloose ‘cowboy capitalists’ from outside who took their loans and left soon after.” (p. 11). The strength of this argument would have been extended by a more robust analysis of the Selibe Phikwe Diversification Project, through which millions of Pula went down the drain.

The bloom for the flower of elitism was capital generated from the diamond sector as financial institutions constituted a lever of accumulation for the ruling elites and its sympathisers. Alongside this was the elites’ obsession with monetarism. The other sectors of the economy suffered total neglect. Towards the end of this chapter, Good deals with the plateauing of the diamond sector and its trademark of “secrecy”. The fluidity of diamond aggregation ventures is brilliantly projected, hanging in the balance as the Hyundai motor vehicle plant debacle. The most critical argument raised by Good is the capture of Botswana’s economy by Debswana Agreement, where the Botswana state is literally mortgaged to foreign capital. This dependency on diamond mining, coupled with dismal failure to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has generated poverty, inequalities and unbridled corruption.

The dangers of the country’s over-commitment to the diamond industry, especially in relation to being embroiled in asserting monopoly is well articulated. Good argues that aggregation throws Botswana into the diamond pit from which there is no escape to diversification. Providing examples of the emergence of similar operations in the region (Angola and Namibia), he makes a compelling case against the dangers of this aggregation.

The subject of chapter two is Presidentialism. Focus is on institutions of governance and statutes that are not only undemocratic but are also captured by the high office of Presidency. Parliament is weak and subordinated to the Office of the President. The judiciary equally does not escape centralisation of power in one office as evidenced by the circulation of individuals within the judiciary and the bureaucracy. Other institutions are weak and disrespected. Regarding statues that curtail individual freedoms and infringe on civil liberties, the writer pays special attention to the Immigration Act, the National Security Act, and the Directorate of Intelligence Act. This chapter ends with a comparative analysis of Presidentialism of Namibia and South Africa.

In the third chapter Good is more than incisive in pulling the threads of Botswana’s democratic model together. Comparing it with the Swedish model, which Vice President Merafhe recently vehemently cited on national TV as the BDP’s benchmark for long stay in office, Good chronicles corruption scandals and lack of political will to initiate institutional reform.

Instead, preoccupation is with elite personalities, narrow personal and group interests. Alongside this is the vilification of the opposition and marked intolerance to criticism. This argument is bolstered by a detailed examination of trends of deportations, whose victims are critics of the state, including Good himself. Media gagging and strangulation also reflect this intolerance. Here, financial leverage is often used as a tool for control. This chapter, nonetheless, ends hastily and does not synthesise the argument well to tie the loose ends of the core issues raised.

Chapter four and five deal with the social consequences of diamond dependency. It is a tale of poverty and extremities in a growth economy, a tale of corruption and scandals. The most powerful insights are the connections made between cattlemen and the dispossession of the Botswana underclass, the San. Here, Good pulls data from a range of sources to piece the jigsaw puzzle of dispossession and self-aggrandisement on the part of the elites. He also takes a critical look at The Remote Area Development Programme (RADP), relocations and harassment of indigenous minorities of the San ÔÇô the sacred cow of Government enclave.

Among the ruling party elites and their sympathisers, Kenneth Good is often projected as Botswana’s foe. Yet his crimes have never been made public save for the occasional outbursts of the leadership about “campaigning against our diamonds”. In all of my readings of his scholarship output, I have never seen a single line on “blood diamonds”. The last chapter of the book bears testimony to this. While noting that Botswana is captive to its Presidentialism, elites and diamond dependency, Good outlines avenues out of this socio-political and economic quagmire. The answer to him is political reform, limiting presidential powers and strengthening Parliament.

All, including within the BDP (albeit mutely), would acknowledge that in the present, the nation is tethering under the weight of Presidentialism, which has even displaced the basic principles of public administration and policy making. Policy is whimsical and non-evidence based. Governance is individualised, dissent circumscribed, and even office dress prescribed! You could easily label this book, “The Alternative view of the African Miracle.”

This is a book that we should read now and, hopefully, if we have survived the weight of Presidentialism and militarisation of the Botswana state, revisit years later. The signposts of the future of this state are there, no matter how hard we try not to see them.


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