By Ian Micheler
No urban settlements were large enough or even remotely sufficiently developed to warrant city status. The country played no role in either regional or continental politics, and, almost unbelievably, there was only a single 12-kilometre-long paved road in the country.
So much has changed since then. Just consider these facts: Over the last two decades the economy has achieved the world's highest average annual growth rate and today the GDP per capita is in excess of US$3 500, while the national coffers hold over US$6 billion in foreign reserves.
With a total population of just over 1.5 million people, Botswana has primary school enrolment approaching 350 000 pupils, and secondary school over 150 000.Botswana has its own university with various satellite campuses around the country teaching over 15 000 students. There are now in excess of 6 500 kilometres of paved road, and the capital Gaborone is a thriving metropolitan area and the continent's fastest-growing city.
Part of the reward for its incredible transformation is that Botswana has since become a respected and stable member of various multilateral organisations, both local and international.The changes are not all coincidence or luck, as some sceptics would have it. A number of factors have contributed to these achievements. The historical settlement of Botswana occurred largely because of people fleeing conflicts elsewhere, and so, generally speaking, the populace is a peace-loving one with no history of civil war or other serious internal conflict. Unlike much of Africa, Botswana was never fully colonised and so avoided a divisive struggle for independence.
They are a relatively homogeneous nation, as almost 60 percent of the people belong to one of the Tswana groups and nearly all speak Setswana, the national language. As a result there is a patriotic unity, with the vast majority viewing themselves first and foremost as Botswanan citizens, before considering the ethnic group to which they belong.Above all, Botswana has been blessed with great leaders, men who have guided the nation and its people with vision and commitment. While the discovery of diamonds shortly after independence was undoubtedly the major catalyst for the growth, prosperity has been brought about because of the wise manner in which the mining revenues have been handled.
There are many examples, both in Africa and worldwide, where countries blessed with a far greater supply of natural resources have not achieved even remotely what this country has.Following a proud tradition of strong leadership established in prior periods by customary chiefs, the more recent political leaders have for the most part shunned the inflammatory and flamboyant style seen in so many other newly-declared states.
Sir Seretse Khama, the first president and by all accounts a true statesman, set the example. His foresight, dedication and astuteness were followed by his successor, Dr Ketumile Masire, and are being built on by the incumbent president, Festus Mogae.But the picture is not all rosy, as with the successes have come new challenges for the future. Although the diamond-based economic boom has had far-reaching benefits, the general economy cannot thrive if it remains dependent on this single commodity alone.
Africa is littered with single-product economies gone bust. To avoid this, secondary and tertiary economic activities need to be promoted, and, because the local economy is comparatively small, these should ideally be export based.This very necessary diversification will also help meet what will probably be the country's most demanding responsibility - that of fulfilling the considerable expectations of the younger generations. Having been raised and educated on the proceeds of the diamond industry, they now want to participate in Botswana's good fortune.
As with the youth in much of Africa, a life based around tradition and in a rural setting has little appeal. For them a career and an improved standard of living with modern conveniences, preferably within an urban community, have become the ambition.Although some still don't believe it, the country's major asset is its almost unparalleled wildlife resources and the selection of near pristine environments it contains. The tourism industry, based mainly on eco-tourism, is currently providing a substantial boost to the northern regions of the country in particular.
While the diamond and other mineral reserves are in decline, sustainable eco-tourism could exist in perpetuity. The challenge is to ensure the long-term protection of Botswana's natural resources by promoting sustainable policies.The country has also not escaped the continent-wide HIV and AIDS pandemic. It is of major concern that most surveys indicate over 30 percent of the population is infected, giving the country one of the highest infection rates worldwide. Fortunately, the political will and the financial resources to tackle the problem are available. Botswana has introduced the Vision 2016 campaign, which is aiming to achieve an AIDS-free Botswana by this date.But, in spite of these demands, there is much hope for the future of the country. Ian Khama, who is the current vice president and son of Sir Seretse Khama, is expected to become the next president in the 2004 elections.
He is seen as a bold and inspiring man, who will be able to lead the nation into the next era. Welcome to Botswana or, as the locals say, 'Goroga sentle mo Botswana'. I just love this country, and I sincerely hope and trust you will.