Lt. Gen. Mompati Sebogodi Merafhe, Botswana’s minister of foreign affairs, says there is little Botswana can do to affect the crisis unfolding in Zimbabwe. “The best we can do is to try and use whatever little influence we can manage in order to persuade them to find solutions to their own problem,” he says. On China, Merafhe says there is a lot of “paranoia” about Chinese engagement in Africa. “The problem is that there are so many people in the West who still think that Africans are like a group of children, unfortunately,” he says, adding that Africans should be able to choose for themselves what level of involvement they allow China.
Let’s talk about the Southern African Development Community [SADC] a little bit. Do you think that organization is effectively dealing with the political issues in Zimbabwe?
Quite frankly, I think that SADC is responsible for economic integration and political development of economic issues. Therefore, it is important to stay focused on those issues. Much as political issues are equally important as without stability and all these other things and political values such as democracy, good governance, respect for the rule of law. You cannot, in other words, develop in an atmosphere of instability. But the focus must be on development and economic integration; because, that’s the way we should go. We don’t want to dissipate all our energies on political issues.
Does that mean you think that the efforts for SADC to mediate talks in Zimbabwe between ZANU-PF and the MDC, do you believe that’s distracting SADC from the economic integration issues?
No, not necessarily distracting, but really that should not be the main focus of our activity. We should try to assist our fellow Zimbabweans to get out of the situation in which they have sadly found themselves. But SADC is engaged. That’s why President Mbeki is being asked to mediate the various political stake holders between and among the various political stake holders in Zimbabwe. That is the demonstration of our desire, to make sure that there is peace and stability in that country. And that’s the mission that Mbeki is carrying out which he carrying out on behalf of SADC.
You mentioned wanting to help your Zimbabwean neighbors. How can the Botswana government best help Zimbabwe?
The best we can do is to try and use whatever little influence we can manage in order to persuade them to find solutions to their own problem. In the final analysis, the solution to the Zimbabwean crisis must come from the Zimbabweans themselves. We, as outsiders, can help them and facilitate and offer whatever we can offer; but, in the final analysis, I think that the solution must be homegrown. We will do the best we can to ensure that the political temperature is lowered, and that there is a culture of tolerance which is cultivated within that country.
What about the issue of Zimbabweans coming into Botswana? Are you concerned about a further influx of Zimbabweans into Botswana and how that might affect your country?
Yes. We are naturally concerned, more than concerned.
What are you going to do about it?
What can we do about it? Until the situation in Zimbabwe is improved, there is very little we can do, although we continue to repatriate these people back to their country. We are a small country, with a population of just under two million, and there are fourteen million Zimbabweans. If we allow them to come over and take up residence in Botswana without being encouraged to go back to their country, we will run the risk of being completely overwhelmed. So that is really the situation in which we find ourselves.
How do you weigh those two things: the possibility of being completely overwhelmed by Zimbabweans coming into this country, versus the desire to allow Zimbabweans to find a solution to the political problem in Zimbabwe?
When it comes to finding a lasting solution to the political situation in Zimbabwe, it is the Zimbabweans themselves that have to do something about that situation. We can help and facilitate as much as possible. But, in the final analysis, there has to be an attitude of give and take within the Zimbabwean political stakeholders in that country. There must be, somebody must cultivate a culture of political tolerance in that country so that people can accept that even when you’ve got political differences, you must accept that there should be an attitude of live and let live.
In the final analysis, the solution to the Zimbabwean crisis must come from the Zimbabweans themselves. We, as outsiders, can help them and facilitate and offer whatever we can offer; but, in the final analysis, I think that the solution must be homegrown.
We do employ a lot of quiet diplomacy which has been criticized; but, other nations have spoken widely and openly in condemnation of Zimbabwe. Some of the most powerful nations; the Americans, the British, and others, but it hasn’t brought any change. Why do people think a country like Botswana, if we continue to criticize Zimbabwe, change will come about in Zimbabwe, when it hasn’t come from the barrage of criticism of the Americans and other powerful nations in the world?
As a middle income country, Botswana is no longer able to access some of the international donor funds that you would be able to access if you weren’t quite so economically strong. Does that put you in a difficult position?
We are actually aggrieved. We are aggrieved in the sense that we are becoming the victim of our own success. We are a country that has done very, very well in terms of the management of our own resources. We are not the only country that is blessed with minerals like diamonds and what have you. The only difference is that we have been able to husband these resources in a manner that is in the best interest of the people and we have also used these towards the development of the country. As a result, we have now reached the status which you have just described to me which I am able to confirm.
People must appreciate—especially our cooperative partners—that the gains that we have made need to be sustained if not improved upon. This is very, very important. There is no way you can say “You guys have now reached this stage,” and turn your back to us, because once you do that we can easily lose all the gains we have made. For instance, we now have a tremendous challenge called HIV/AIDS, which is really threatening to dissipate our societies. We have declared war against this challenge; we are throwing everything at it and let me tell you why. Much as I am confident that we will eventually win, I believe that it’s a war that needs the support and cooperation of the international community and our cooperating partners.
What about the UN Millennium Development Goals?
We are doing reasonably well. I think we are. In a number of areas, we are almost there. I am very optimistic that we will be able to meet a good percentage of these goals when the time comes.
What are the challenging areas right now?
A challenging area, of course, is the HIV area, because it is now impacting negatively on the economic advances that we have achieved over time. Child mortality and all these other things have been negatively affected by this. Generally speaking, I think we are making good progress. I am an optimist and I believe that we will certainly make some progress in that regard.
What is your feeling towards the U.S. policy toward Africa for HIV/AIDS PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief)?
I know there are many people who are not fond of Bush as a president; but I can tell you I have yet to come across, during my waking life, a president who has been supportive of Africa like President Bush. AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act], and also the PEPFAR project. So much money has been passed on to the developing world through these programs. Even in the case of Botswana, we are talking about millions. I think he has been very proactive in trying to assist Africa. His record, I think, is unparalleled. Even, you know, I know that Clinton was the greatest fan of ours, but in terms of actual programs, I think President Bush has really done a wonderful job for us.
About AGOA, there is a provision that is considered to be controversial—the provision whereby Chinese firms can bring in fabric to Africa—the third party fabric clause. Is that making AGOA a less appealing piece of legislation for Botswana?
I don’t know. I would rather reserve my comment on that.
I know it is a little sensitive.
There is so much paranoia about Chinese engagement in terms of African politics and programs and partnerships. I don’t know why, and I can’t understand this. Africa is a continent which is on the rise. This is not just my optimism; it is a continent on the rise. It is natural that the Chinese would want to be at the table where these things are happening, like everybody else. There has been a huge and very powerful democratic wave which has swept through the continent of Africa, and taking out dictators and other people out of the way in the process. Africa, therefore, is becoming a continent that is beginning to have a positive future and everybody wants to be there when things are happening within the continent of Africa. The Chinese can’t just be sitting idly by in the face of this competition. I know we are not talking about the second Berlin, but certainly the Chinese also want to be there and I don’t know why there is sensitivity about the Chinese involvement in Africa.
There is some concern that because there was debt relief given to so many African countries, and then China has come to those same countries and offered them very low interest loans thereby putting those countries into debt once again. Some countries in the West are concerned that these Chinese loans are eroding some of the positive gains that were made by giving debt relief.
I don’t share that view, and I don’t think that many of us in Africa will share that view.
The Chinese are people who give us loans. If we can’t pay, they will have to sit down and see what they can do. The Japanese have done that. In my country they have written off so many loans that were given to Botswana and I don’t see any reason why the Chinese cannot be considered compassionate enough to be able to do the same thing. In any case, we are not just contracting these loans willy-nilly. We are responsible for our economies and we don’t want to, more of less, throttle ourselves.
But the problem is that there are so many people in the West who still think that Africans are like a group of children, unfortunately. I find this attitude very condescending: we are not capable of thinking for ourselves. People talk about us as if they are talking about, you know, animals and things like that. “Poor Africans, look what they are doing! They are likely to be cheated by the Chinese.” Hey! We have got some of the best, first-class, economies. My own president is one of the best economic gurus that this country has ever produced, and he is not the kind of guy who can put doom into doing things which are not in the economic interests of this country. And there are so many of us who now know and can add two plus two and come up with an answer. I don’t believe that we should be treated like we don’t know what is good or what is bad for us. This attitude I find extremely condescending. The Chinese have been our friends indeed, but it hasn’t changed our economic policies or anything because we know how to deal with them. We are not selling our hearts and souls for them; we are cooperating as equal partners.