Botswana vs. South Africa: The Good, the Bad, and the Future

By Emily Ullmann

Midway through the second week of a Globalist trip, after spending several days in a secondary location, comparisons become inevitable. For the group of Globalistas in Johannesburg, the comparison is between Cape Town and Jo’burg and is one that represents much of the dialogue in South Africa today about the nation’s problems, both past and present, and the future it will create for itself. For the small but mighty crew in Gaborone, Botswana, comparisons are not just between Cape Town and Gaborone, but between South Africa and Botswana. Given that we’ve seen only one city in each country, my thoughts must be taken with a grain of salt (really, a handful of salt), but nonetheless, the differences and similarities between the two nations are striking.

Let’s start with some of the basics: South Africa is a nation of 48 million and Cape Town is a city of 3.4 million. Botswana is a nation of only 2 million, with around 200,000 living in Gaborone, the capital city. In other words, the population of Cape Town is nearly twice the size as that of the entire country of Botswana. Another major difference is that of the history: South Africa has a history marked by apartheid and serious inequities that often align with racial divides. Botswana never had a system of legal segregation and was never the object of intense desire and focus for imperial power players like Great Britain and the Netherlands. Surrounded by countries notable for histories of violent oppression and legacies of colonial domination, Botswana emerged in the 1960s as an independent country, relatively unscathed. While South Africa often receives criticism for its soaring crime rates (Johannesburg is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world) and continued racial struggles, Botswana has been praised for its periods of rapid economic growth and its ability to avoid corruption scandals that mar so many other African countries.

Our meetings in Gaborone suggested that despite this appearance, there are many issues in Botswana that might merit the same sort of criticisms that South Africa so often receives. Accusations of corruption and nepotism among government officials are common, as are serious fears of decline ands the threat of a economic collapse when diamond reserves–the driving force behind the success of the Botswanan economcy–run out in the next ten to fifteen years. Recent blackouts in Botswana also suggest that its total dependence on South Africa for electricity might be harmful to the country.

It seems clear that given these concerns, part of the reason we hear about South Africa’s problems so much more often is that its a larger, wealthier nation with a much larger population. Though obvious, this difference cannot be underestimated. South Africa is in the news in the United States all the time, meaning that both its successes and its failures are magnified for an international audience. Botswana, on the other hand, receives significantly less attention. As Thapelo Lippe, a Botswanan businessman and former CEO of Orange in Botswana explained, Botswana has mastered the art of public relations, ensuring that corruption and other national problems remain largely unnoticed by the outside world. But perhaps, as Lippe and his wife explained to us, the real difference between the two nations is the direction the countries in which the countries are heading.

Cape Town: A complex city of serious problems and serious potential
Cape Town: A complex city of serious problems and serious potential

The more I think about this, the more it seems to resonate with what the people we’ve met in South Africa have worked for. Most of the people in this beautiful country recognize that there are problems and that change must happen. The thing that seems to set South Africa apart is that the passion and the desire to make that change and a vision for the future a reality is there. Will South Africa overcome its social and economic inequities in the next fifteen years, twenty years, or even within my lifetime? Maybe not. But people are talking about and working to overcome big issues, which can make a difference.

In contrast, how can Botswana make real social and economic progress without such dialogue, on both a domestic and international level? A country with affluence and resources, even if they are limited, Botswana might face the downward spiral foreseen by those we spoke to, unless there is a concerted effort to strengthen the economy. Solar energy, coal, even financial services–these are potential areas of growth for the country, but also areas that remain on the periphery as long as diamond income remains steady. Unfortunately, these sectors might not move into focus until it is too late.

The potential for growth and improvement is clear for both South Africa and Botswana. The question is, which nation will make the most of it?