Political developments in Botswana are attracting unprecedented attention, causing some pundits to fret about the stability of its longstanding democracy. While it is undoubtedly true that Botswana is experiencing more public political turbulence than anyone is accustomed to, moving real political debates out of exclusive meetings of the long ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and into the public sphere need not be a sign of terrible trouble. To date Botswana’s opposition parties have functioned largely as divided critics of government and beneficiaries of protest votes, but very rarely as sources of viable policy alternatives. A change in this state of affairs would be a sign of real democratic maturity.
Unfortunately, maturity is not the first word that comes to mind when surveying the latest headlines from the country, where coverage of the feud between current President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor and former boss, Ian Khama, sometimes reads like highlights of an overwrought soap opera. The latest dramatic turn saw Khama renouncing his membership in the party his revered father helped found, complaining that his legacy was being dismantled, and encouraging others to throw away their BDP membership cards. The storyline threatens to consume all of the political oxygen in the country.
But Botswana’s overall health and stability turn on whether or not the Masisi/Khama rupture is understood as a purely personal, depressingly petty power struggle, or whether political competitors succeed in outlining real philosophical and political differences for citizens to engage and consider. Botswana is a remarkable development success story, but is still characterized by vast income inequality and confronted by serious long-term challenges. The average Motswana cannot possibly be inspired to civic participation by the spectacle of elites complaining about their access to state aircraft. There are many genuine questions confronting the country—about nationalistic insularity or openness, about how to improve the education system, about the appropriate role of the intelligence service, about wildlife management, and about the choices necessary to achieve meaningful results in diversifying the economy. Far from weakening Botswana, a lively debate about those issues that engaged voters and clarified real choices would be an extraordinarily healthy thing.
As is painfully apparent in the United States and elsewhere, pettiness and personal rivalry make for compelling political media narratives. But they do little to advance the public good. Here’s hoping Botswana can find its way to a more substantive debate in the run up to the October elections.