Monday, July 22, 2024

We cannot continue on this path towards isolation!

When I went to primary school in my village, I had a limited outlook of my country and beyond. I still remember how almost the whole class thought Kgwakgwe Hill was the highest peak in the country, if not the whole world. This was back in the 80s and Kanye was the beginning and end of my universe. The limited comprehension of the world was not only the preserve of us the younger souls. I know for a fact that the village had a good number of elders that enjoyed limited understanding of their surroundings. Yes, my uncle would demonstrate that fact, unsolicited, in a family event. My cousin, who had just returned from studies oversees was in the process of getting married. It was made clear to the other family that the boy was well travelled, having been to the Americas and Europe. And the uncle, not wanting to be left behind, intervened with a suggestion that he, too, was a seasoned traveller who has been to Garanaka, Garamonnedi, Gatwane, Gasita, among other places.

Understandably, our world as villagers was just a small place with few inhabitants who relied very little on others.
Despite the compromised village thinking, we learnt also a very important lesson early on at primary school level. We came to know that our country was landlocked. Botswana, according to our teacher, had no access to the sea. Our country was effectively enclosed. And in the early 80s, our teacher was quick to remind us, all our neighbours were at war or engaged in one form or another of resistance meant to usher independence to their countries. It was a hostile environment that was not of our own design. Nature proved a bit harsh on us.

Luckily, we had a visionary leadership that would adapt cleverly to challenges from its wider environment. Effectively, our political leadership opted for better policy choices that explained the success that had become synonymous with this country. They chose engagement with their neighbours in seeking solution to the region’s problems. Our leaders were also able to go beyond the region and became important international actors. Importantly, they understood that we were a small state ÔÇô meaning that our influence would be limited. Despite this reality, they knew that our success was tied with meaningful engagement with others beyond our borders.

The fall of Berlin Wall in the late 80s signalled a monumental shift towards global interdependence. Isolation was no longer an option, if a country was to make it in the new world order. Soon, people of different origins would flock here seeking opportunities. We did not stop anyone. This is the Botswana that our leaders crafted: a place where everyone was welcome. The public service refused, for instance, the Africanisation drive that was the in-thing elsewhere in the continent. Instead, we recruited more from outside where locals did not possess the required skills and competencies. The immigration policies were also supportive of government objectives. Visa, for work or otherwise, were done within reasonable time. Not only were we receptive of investors, visitors or tourists, we relied a lot on the world. We were buying almost everything from outside including critical factors such as electricity. Given this fact, our political leaders emphasised engagement rather than conflict with outsiders.

I am afraid, we have lately taken a decisively different turn. Instead of appreciating that we are a member of the global village, albeit without a chief ÔÇô the new crop of political leadership has opted for confrontation ÔÇô with far reaching consequences that include isolation. The village thinking, if recent developments are anything to go by, is making a return. It would seem the new policy direction is that we do not need nobody coming from outside. The recent spat between our government and China is illustrative. Newspaper reports earlier this month suggested that our foreign minister, Mma Venson-Moitoi, was despatched to the Far East to register our government’ concern over Chinese contractors who were reaping this country to the core. The companies are accused, among others, of not delivering mega projects on time and within budget. They fell short of accusing Chinese companies of engaging in corrupt activities.

The response was shift from the Chinese. The local ambassador addressed our journalists last week and made serious allegations against our government. One embassy official noted that, “Chinese businessmen and citizens do not feel secure here. It starts with VISA and permits issues. It is very difficult for them to get a VISA here, and then even after they have been working here for more than 10 or 15 years, and even after having purchased property, they can be asked to leave the country anytime. In the past two years some people have been ordered to leave this country so suddenly, for example a senior manager of a company was ordered to leave in three days.” When we thought the war of words between the two countries had settled the Chinese office here in Gaborone will also talk in general how our country is proving a difficult destination for over 100 million Chinese tourists travelling the world every year. I doubt if this development is only targeted to our Asia brothers. Talk to any local and ask him about numbers of Zimbabweans in his area, the likely answer is that very few remains.

Our political leaders should come to terms with the fact that Botswana is a landlocked country that relies heavily on its neighbours and beyond for many things. So, too, they should come to terms with reality that we are a small state that can exert influence only up to a given point. They, therefore, need to go back to the drawing board or seek advice from their predecessors on how best to engage with the world. In this era of global integration, isolationist or confrontational policy choices are unlikely to be of benefit to our semi-arid place. Taking on China will not take us anywhere!

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