Very Brave or Very Foolish? Memoirs of an African Democrat

In a modest, true-to-type Botswana way, this significant insider account of an African success story quietly made its way onto the market in late 2006. It is a fascinating tale, narrated by former president Ketumile Masire and edited by Professor Stephen R. Lewis, Jr.1 As the title informs, the memoirs are of – not by – Masire, based on approximately 65 hours of recorded conversations with Lewis. In addition to students of contemporary Botswana’s domestic and foreign policies, the narrative is highly recommended to those concerned with issues of leadership (passim, but in particular pp. 83-102), political and economic governance (pp. 146-245) and conflict resolution in Africa (pp. 301-316).

While post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa has generally suffered from poor governance, recurrent violence, increased poverty and deepening marginalisation, it is also true that there are stable African countries that for decades have been governed under democratic multiparty dispensations and have become leaders in socio-economic performance. The island republic of Mauritius is one such example. More significant is the case of Botswana, established in 1966 in a neighbourhood of hostile, minority-ruled White regimes. It rapidly progressed from poverty to riches in a region which, between 1961 and 1990-1994, was engulfed in the southern African ‘Thirty Years’ War’ of national liberation. Thus situated, the title of Masire’s memoirs refers to the widespread scepticism noted ahead of Botswana’s independence, regarding its future prospects and its leaders’ space and ability to steer the territory towards true nationhood and progress.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, Botswana registered the highest growth rates in the world. Boosted by the discovery of diamonds shortly after independence, the real annual average income growth per capita during these three decades amounted to no less than 8.2 percent. While diamonds as well as other mineral resources elsewhere in Africa have often been the source of looting, conflict and war, citizens of Botswana have enjoyed a stable climate of positive peace and surprisingly little graft. Over the years, Transparency International has regularly rated Botswana as having the lowest level of corruption on the African continent.

As minister of Finance and Development Planning (as well as vice president) from 1966, Ketumile Masire was the principal architect behind this exceptional development2 From the founding of the Bechuanaland Democratic Party in 1962, he was a close partner of Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president. Following Khama’s death in 1980, Masire took over the presidency until his own retirement from official duties in 1998. As ex-president, however, he has continued to be actively involved in African affairs. In addition to his participation in the Global Coalition for Africa, Masire chaired the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) international panel to investigate the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which in 2000 produced the so-called ‘Masire Report’, entitled Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide. Above all, from the opening in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in October 2001 until its conclusion in Sun City, South Africa in April 2003, Masire served as the chief facilitator of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue (ICD), laying the basis for a democratic solution to the protracted conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In addition to notes on his childhood, adolescence and retirement “before and after national politics”, Masire has divided his memoirs into three main parts, under the headings ‘Creating and Leading a Nation’, ‘Developing the Nation and Our People’ and ‘Dealing with Our Neighbours and Other States’. Rich in detail, but always to the point, the captivating narration – where dry facts and figures are interspersed with very personal comments, humorous anecdotes and, not least in the chapters devoted to international relations, frank character portraits of other political leaders – takes the reader on an educational journey through the stages of Botswana’s graduation from a poor, marginalized British protectorate to a modern multiparty democracy, classified by the World Bank as an upper middle-income country. The considerations behind the nation’s stable foundations of democracy, development, unity and self-reliance are thus explained by the chief architect himself. In this context, Masire notes that “[o]ur luck in Botswana has not only been in discovering diamonds, but also that we have discovered people” – a pregnant remark on governance on a continent where political leaders are more often attracted to material and lootable resources than to the development of human potential.

In hindsight there are, naturally, issues where Masire would have taken a different path. Botswana’s ravaging HIV/AIDS pandemic is one example. In words similar to those of his South African counterpart, former president Mandela, Masire notes that “our failure to deal with [the pandemic] in an effective way […] arose from judgmental errors”, adding that “it is perhaps my greatest regret” and that the pandemic “is now threatening to destroy so much of what we have accomplished, economically, socially and politically”. As Botswana’s economic growth tapers off and income disparities increase, HIV/AIDS is now taking a ghastly toll on this exceptional African success story,3 and proving a tremendous human security challenge that the country shares with its neighbours in southern Africa.


  1. Stephen R. Lewis, Jr. is President Emeritus and Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Minnesota, USA. He began a long association with Botswana in 1975, serving as economic consultant to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning – led by Masire – on a resident basis in 1977-78 and in 1980-82.
  2. For a critical assessment of what they characterise as Botswana’s “elitist democracy”, see Good, Kenneth and Taylor, Ian (2006) ‘Unpacking the ‘model’: Presidential succession in Botswana’ in Southall, Roger and Melber, Henning (eds) Legacies of Power, Uppsala, Sweden: The Nordic Africa Institute and Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press, pp. 51-72.
  3. Statistics understate the human impact of HIV/AIDS. In Europe, the greatest single demographic shock since the Black Death was experienced by France between 1913 and 1918, when the combined effects of the First World War and the 1918 influenza reduced life expectancy from 51 to 35 years – a fall of 16 years. This pales in comparison to Botswana where, according to the United Nations, life expectancy is projected to fall from 65 years in 1988 to 34 in 2008, a decrease of 31 years (UNDP (2005) Human Development Report 2005, New York: UNDP, pp. 26-27).
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