Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

10:    Politics

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Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999

Botswana is a unitary state with a multi-party parliamentary system, an executive presidency, and executive machinery dominated by a cabinet of ministers chaired by the president. Since independence Botswana has exhibited strong elements of democracy - accountability of government to the electorate through regular free elections held every five years, relatively uncorrupt bureaucracy accountable to government, government and judicial respect for human rights and the rule of law, and the economic underpinning of increasing resources distributed through government.

Against these factors must be balanced the centralization of power away from popular participation in decision-making at local levels, increasingly unequal distribution of resources between rich and poor, internal security measures introduced in the 1980s (against subversion by South African agents), and the dependence of the economy on the world price fluctuations of a single commodity (diamonds) under foreign multinational control.

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Botswana follows a republican and presidential variant of ex-colonial British model consitutions, which came into operation at independence in 1966. Ultimate sovereignty is vested in parliament through the presidency. Parliament consists of a National Assembly of elected members (elected by universal adult suffrage in single-member constituencies), and a handful of ex-officio members nominated by the ruling political party. There is also a House of Chiefs, with an advisory role on matters of legislation pertaining to 'tribal' law and custom.

For human rights see Ditshwanelo Centre for Human Rights.

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President and Vice-President

The president is both head of state and head of government, presiding over the cabinet of ministers drawn from the National Assembly, and acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The constitution was amended in 1970 so that the president would no longer be an elected member of parliament standing for a constituency. Instead the president would be automatically elected as an ex-officio member and as president in parliamentary elections after prior nomination by the party with the majority of members elected.

The president is assisted by a vice-president. The office of the president oversees foreign affairs, the security forces, and the various branches of administration, while the ministry of finance and development planning generally supervises other line ministries. The relative power and autonomy of the bureaucracy, particularly of the ministry of finance and development planning, is counterbalanced by the authority of an effective cabinet style of government.

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Political parties

The ruling party, first elected in 1965 and re-elected at five-yearly intervals since then, is the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Its overwhelming majorities in elections have been based on rural support, stimulated by the benefits of development programmes usually introduced in the year immediately preceding an election. The BDP leadership is drawn from the richer strata of rural dwellers and older members of the middle class in towns.

Opposition parties have drawn their strength generally from urban areas. The Botswana People's Party (BPP) was the main but ineffective opposition in the 1960s when urban areas were small. Since then the Botswana National Front (BNF) has grown in strength, largely among the working class and younger middle class in the rapidly expanding urban areas but also including some support among conservatives in certain rural areas. By 1989 the BNF held both parliamentary seats and the majority of the city council of Gaborone, and similar representation in other urban areas. Meanwhile the ruling B.D.P. controlled the nine rural district councils, six of them almost totally. The 1994 elections, however, rolled back the BDP power base, with a number of seats won only by small margins.

The next elections are due this year, 1999. The BNF might have been expected to reach parity with the BDP, but it has been split in two since 1998. The majority of its sitting MP's have formed a Botswana Congress Party (BCP) at variance with the old BNF still led by its founder Kenneth Koma.

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Local government

Local councils, rural and urban, have been elected since 1969 simultaneously with national parliamentary elections. The power of local councils is limited by the right of central government to nominate ex officio voting members, and by central government appointment of supervisory district commissioners and planning staff. Local government retains responsibility for the maintenance of local services such as primary education. Its greatest power lies in land allocation.

The period since the 1970s has seen increasing privatization of traditional communal land into residential and agricultural plots, and livestock ranching areas, which are being fenced for security of individual leasehold tenure.

See Ministry of Local Government, Lands & Housing

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Foreign policy

The political and economic alignments of Botswana's foreign policy are indicated by the places to which it has sent resident ambassadors - originally New York and Washington, London and Lusaka in the 1960s; followed by Brussels, Harare and Stockholm in the 1980s, and by Windhoek, Moscow and Beijing in the early 1990s. An ambassador in Pretoria was appointed in 1994 -- Botswana having declined to exchange diplomats with South Africa since 1966.

The main hostile factors in Botswana's foreign relations after 1966 were Rhodesia until its independence as Zimbabwe in 1980, and South Africa until the beginning of its internal political settlement in 1990. In both cases the preceding five or six years saw military incursions and other attempts to destabilize Botswana by these hostile powers.

South Africa also attempted to obtain Botswana's recognition of a "shadow" republic called Bophuthatswana (meaning union of all the Tswana) - carved out of South African territory next to Botswana in 1976, and fully reincorporated into South Africa in 1994.

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Legal system

The legal system of Botswana is a mixture of Romano-Dutch and English common law principles. There are also local systems of 'tribal' law and custom in rural district, which govern everyday disputes and property relations but are subordinate to statutory law.

The civil legal code of Botswana dates back to 1890, when the Laws of the Cape Colony were adopted by the colonial state. The Cape code being Romano-Dutch as modified by English common law. The civil code has itself been modified by cases and precdents since 1890, as well as by legislation. Tswana customary law, as represented by the laws and precedents of the eight recognised "tribes", is also recognised in matters of property, inheritance and personal dispute arbitration in rural areas. See UB Law Department and Women and Law.

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Police and military

Cross-border insurgency resulted in the foundation in the later 1970s and rapid development in the later 1980s of the Botswana Defence Force, with mobile ground forces and an air wing. See the Canadian site Armed forces: Botswana for news stories on the BDF.

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Politics links

The Botswana government web-site is : click on its index page for an organisational chart and access links to Botswana government ministries. The key ministry is Ministry of State President, which has brief details but no further links to Office of the President, Public Service Management, Botswana Police, Information and Broadcasting, Government Printing and Publishing, State House, and the Botswana Defence Force (the last being completely blank as of April 1999).

The Botswana government's mission statement is called Vision 2016. The curious title was derived from the once admired "Vision 2020" of Malaysia, which until 1998 almost matched Botswana's record of economic growth. The (optically unbalanced) number "2016" will be the date of Botswana's 50th anniversary of independence.

The Botswana government web-site has pages on the country's system of Good Governance and its History of Democracy. There are also pages on the Parliament and Independent Electoral Commission, Foreign Affairs, Attorney General's Chambers and Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime.

See also the Botswana government "think-tank" called the Botswana Institute of Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA).

Amnesty International Annual Reports contain sections on each country's human rights record for the previous year. The US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on Botswana 1996 has not been located.

The Microstate Network-Botswana page is a bare list of a four business and politics links.

Canada's African Information Service Net (AIA) at files news-stories under Botswana, etc. at present for 1993-96 only.

Wilfred Dirksen's "Elections around the World", relating to Botswana, seems to have disappeared from the net, but theSADC (Southern African Development Community)site has reappeared.

There is a list of Botswana political resources at

For links to newspapers and radio/ tv see Page 15: Media.


(10a) John Holm & Patrick Molutsi (eds.), Democracy in Botswana: The Proceedings of a Symposium held in Gaborone, 1-5 August 1988 (Gaborone: Macmillan Botswana for Botswana Society, 1989) ISBN 99912 77 60 9

(10b) Jack Parson, Botswana: Liberal Democracy and the Labor Reserve in Southern Africa (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984) ISBN0-566-00714-2

(10c) Jack Parson (ed.), Succession to High Office in Botswana: Three Case Studies (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University, Monographs in International Studies, Africa Series No.54, 1990) ISBN 0 89680 157

(10d) Louis A. Picard (ed.), The Evolution of Modern Botswana (London: Rex Collings & Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985) ISBN 0-86036-211-6

(10e) Louis A. Picard, The Politics of Development in Botswana; a Model for Success? (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Riener, 1987)ISBN 0 931477 95 6

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

The Botswana History Pages by Neil Parsons may be freely reproduced, in print or electronically, on condition
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Last updated 19 August 1999