Masire, Quett 1925–
Quett Masire 1925–
President of Botswana
Lying between Zimbabwe and Namibia to the east and west, Angola and Zambia to the north, and South Africa in the south, Botswana is the picture of unspoiled Africa. Its enchanting countryside features stalactite-laden caves, exotic animals and birds, and scenic contrasts of the Kalahari Desert and Okavango Swamp areas that have long been the stuff of dramatic adventure novels.
But one look at the nation’s capital, Gaborone, instantly dispels any impression that Botswana is a romantic backwater. Boasting all the electronics-driven accessories of the late twentieth century, the city is the nerve center of a modern state concerned with financial independence and technological advancement. Gaborone also houses a government unshakably committed to harmony between black and white citizens—an amicable way of life symbolized by the African zebra, with its black and white stripes.
Botswana’s leader, Dr. Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, is a deft statesman who skillfully blends the principles of Western capitalism with an understanding of tribal tradition. Formerly the country’s vice-president, he was unanimously voted into Botswana’s top office in 1980, soon after the death of the first commander in chief, the revered Sir Seretse Khama. Widely regarded as a forthright, level-headed man, Masire has given wholehearted support to the newly independent African states beyond his borders; yet he dexterously maintains a mutually profitable economic relationship with South Africa, steering a neutral course through the explosive splinters of his closest neighbor’s disintegrating apartheid policy.
Masire was born on July 23,1925, into a minor headman’s family in the southern Kanye district of a British colony called the Bechuanaland Protectorate. The president rarely discusses his youth; public knowledge covers only the fact that he was educated far away from home at Tiger Kloof College in what was later ruled to be South Africa, and that he completed his teacher training courses in 1949.
Masire returned to Kanye in 1950 to find that the British colonial service had deposed and exiled Seretse Khama, the hereditary chief of the dominant Bamangwato Tribe, for daring to marry a white Englishwoman. Khama’s absence brought a waning of tribal influence that distressed the young schoolmaster. Perturbed by the possibility that
At a Glance…
Born Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, July 23, 1925, in Kanye, British Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana); married Gladys Molefi Olebile, 1958; children: three sons, three daughters. Education: Attended Tiger Kloof College, South Africa; completed teacher training courses, 1949.
Founder and principal, Seepapitso Secondary School, Kanye, British Bechuanaland Protectorate, 1950-56; farmer, Kanye, 1956-58; African Echo, journalist, 1958-60, became director, 1960; elected member of Bechuanaland Protectorate Legislative Council (LEGCO) for Kanye South, 1960; cofounder of Botswana Democratic party (BDP), January 29, 1962, became BDP’s secretary-general; editor of Therisanyo (Democratic party newspaper); appointed deputy prime minister, 1965, became vice-president and minister of finance and development planning, both upon Botswana’s independence, 1966-80; president, Republic of Botswana, 1980—. Also president of Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC).
Member: Botswana Society (president), International Committee Against Apartheid, Racialism and Colonialism in Southern Africa, Okavango Wildlife Society, Botswana Boy Scouts Association.
Addresses: Office— Office of the President, Private Bag 001, Gaborone, Botswana.
the youth of his own Bangwaketse tribe would grow up with neither traditional values nor a Western education, Masire started the Seepapitso Secondary School in his hometown and stayed to head it for the following five years.
In 1956, the year that Seretse Khama returned to his people, Masire became a farmer. Around the same time, Masire discovered that his country’s true power had fallen into the hands of a few wealthy landowners, who were grabbing the grazing areas of subsistence farmers by drilling boreholes beyond their own lands to capture the precious underground water. Thus frozen out, poorer farmers were forced to abandon independent efforts to support their families. Instead, they had to hire themselves out as laborers or leave their homes altogether for the South African mines.
Having become politically active in the 1950s, Masire fought for the rights of farmers as a Bangwaketse Tribal Council member. Determined to compare the status of subsistence farmers all over Southern Africa, he became a correspondent on the African Echo, the most widely read newspaper in the British Protectorate regions of Swaziland, his own Bechuanaland, and Basutoland. Masire’s new career as a reporter gave him a wider perspective on the region’s economic and political affairs; the knowledge stood him in good stead after he became a member of the newspaper’s board of directors in 1960.
Journalistic and political activities brought him into close working contact with Seretse Khama, who by 1960 had firmly reestablished his power in Botswana. Sharing Khama’s view that the country’s future should transcend tribal loyalties without erasing them, Masire became a member of the newly formed Bechuanaland Protectorate Legislative Council (LEGCO) and also helped Khama to found the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Elected to the post of secretary-general—a position, he would hold for the following 14 years—Masire’s list of responsibilities included both party organization in the southern region and the editorship of Therisanyo, the Democratic party newspaper.
The competent and mutually respectful working relationship between Seretse Khama and Quett Masire helped to bring the Botswana Democratic party to victory in its 1965 debut. Mindful of the militant, headstrong independence movements budding throughout the country, the two men made sure that their party had something to offer everybody. Colonial government liked its moderation. Traditional tribal leaders were impressed with the way it favored alliance with them. At the same time, the party wooed voters in favor of a new order by supporting independence and absolute nonracialism. With consummate tact, Khama chose not to dwell on his six-year, racially motivated banishment, and instead expressed his country’s gratitude for British strategic help during the democratization process. Britain bestowed on him the gift of a knighthood as reward for this wise moderation.
The former Bechuanaland Protectorate became the independent Republic of Botswana in 1966. As president, Khama lost no time in clarifying his regime’s priorities. At the top of the list was an emphasis on interracial harmony, of which Khama’s marriage was a shining example. He also took a strictly neutral stance toward the turmoil that was beginning to surface in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Underlining this neutrality was the offer of shelter in Botswana to political refugees from both governments, provided that they did not instigate militant activities against their countries of origin.
With the cultural direction of the country set, attention turned to financial matters. Elected the country’s vice-president and minister of finance and development planning in 1966, Masire had a considerable challenge on his hands. Of Botswana’s 830,000 inhabitants, about 60 percent were still subsistence farmers, completely dependent on plentiful rains to ensure adequate crops. Workers in the well-established beef exporting industry were also at the mercy of the weather and had suffered greatly just one year before, when the persistent drought of 1965 had wiped out 400,000 of the country’s 1.3 million-strong cattle herd.
With the cooperation of the United Nations Food and Agriculture World Food Program, Masire devised a food-for-work scheme, whereby people in drought stricken areas could choose community projects on which to work in exchange for food. Nevertheless, the per capita income dwindled to only $75 per annum. In its year of independence, Botswana was known as one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Managing the famine was not Masire’s first experience with fiscal matters. In 1956 he participated in the formation of Botswana’s first real economic outline, which consisted of a list of development schemes to be funded by grants from Britain’s Colonial and Welfare Fund. Throughout the early 1960s he honed his fiscal skills, working alongside Britain’s resident commissioner to draw a financial blueprint that would smooth the way to Botswana’s independence. The resulting “1963-68 Development Plan,” Botswana’s first to be based on centralized strategy, concentrated on three vital areas; urban development, construction of a working government, and the growth of private sector business.
All of these objectives sprang to life in 1967, when the second largest diamond pipe the world had ever seen was discovered at Orapa, in central Botswana. The find brought the country into closer contact with South Africa, for the Botswana government borrowed money for a mining township and operations from De Beers, a subsidiary of the fabled mining empire called Anglo-American Corporation. Masire hoped that these mining operations might create enough jobs to make it unnecessary for the Batswana to work in the South African mines. But in the end only 2,000 extra jobs resulted, plus 400 in mining administration and sorting.
In 1970 Vice-President Masire announced a five-year economic plan of his own design. It focused on rural development, stating as its goal the slashing of reliance on the imported foodstuffs that were vital lifelines for drought stricken areas. The formal document delineated strategy for the installation of basic services for irrigation as well as for produce storage facilities, so that crops could be held and sold at the best prices available rather than being rushed to market over fear of spoilage. Also featured was a roadbuilding plan for freight transport. Masire received both loans and grants from the United States, Denmark, Sweden, and Canada for water development, new agricultural techniques, and famine relief.
As the 1970s wore on, the finance minister steered an increasingly sophisticated urban economy, based mostly on mining. Orapa became operational in 1971, producing more than 2 million diamond carats per annum until 1977, when another diamond mine at Letlhakane added its own bounty. Additional mining activities centered around copper-nickel operations at Selebi-Pikwe and coal mining at Morupule, after the biggest coalfield in Southern Africa was discovered at the latter.
By the mid-1970s, Masire refined his economic plans with a “trickle-down” scheme, in which income from exports like beef and diamonds went into education and training, manufacturing and agriculture, and improved service in rural areas. At the same time, he introduced the country’s own currency. Called the “pula,” it reflects the Batswana reverence for water—the name means “let it rain.” Masire also enticed foreign entrepreneurs with the prospect of attractive investment, giving them open access to markets in Swaziland, South Africa, and Lesotho.
In 1980 Sir Seretse Khama died of stomach cancer. Taking stock of his considerable achievements, the world press noted that Khama’s legacy included a corruption-free government and one of the sturdiest economies in Africa. Mining activities and their attendant mineral exports had risen to $184 million from just $3.3 million in 1970, and per capita income had passed the $325 per-annum mark by 1975. The country’s status as one of Africa’s poorest nations was a long-gone memory.
Unanimously elected to the presidency in late 1980 by Botswana’s National Assembly, Masire handed executive financial duties over to others. Yet he continued to set financial goals by means of five-year plans, constantly updating them to meet the diverse needs of the Batswana people. Among the 1.2 million-strong population exist a melange of cultural heritages. At one extreme are the !kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, while the opposite end consists of sophisticated city dwellers who run the country’s burgeoning mining and tourist industries. In between lie eight differing tribal groups, plus white agriculturalists, teachers, and business executives.
Bent on economic self-reliance for each of Botswana’s families, Masire has wisely overseen a system of programs based on his people’s present ways of life. One project is an agricultural course designed to teach farmers about water conservation techniques, record-keeping, and crop selection; another ensures that the nomadic Bushmen can earn financial independence by producing handcrafted hunting bags, bows, and arrows for export through the Botswanacraft Marketing Company that is based in Ghanzi, a desert town close to their home region.
Inevitably these well-meaning efforts have their downside. Sixty percent of the population is still enmeshed in poverty. The already huge number of single-parent households continues to rise, prompted in large part by the exodus of Batswana men for attractive jobs in South Africa’s mines; the high adult illiteracy rate persists; and schools and social services are still desperately needed, especially in rural areas.
Bountiful exports could easily finance such projects. But basic social programs are not the president’s only economic priority. Another issue jostling for attention is the transportation system, which is tied inextricably to both Zimbabwe and South Africa. Botswana’s main railroad line starts its northward journey in South Africa but really belongs to Zimbabwe Railways. Professional training and an ongoing construction program for transportation in Botswana are vital but expensive stepping stones to firming up the country’s industrial base.
Politically, Masire’s policies are not too different from Khama’s, although he is considered less conservative. Squarely sympathizing with nations wanting to escalate sanctions against South African apartheid (a policy of economic and political discrimination against blacks practiced by the white minority government), he nevertheless refuses to participate in any such confrontational activities for fear he might harm the Botswana economy, which still has strong trade ties with Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. In fact, he shows the same policy of inactive sympathy that he previously applied to SWAPO, the organization that eventually achieved the independence of Namibia.
By 1981, most urgent, day-to-day administration in Botswana was running smoothly. However, the country then entered a period of drought which was destined to linger—on and off—for the next seven years. Driest of all were 1983 and 1984, when the developing program of cattle improvement was severely affected.
Characteristically, Masire used the crisis as an opportunity to plan for the future by refining the country’s famine relief program. He chose to institute a labor-based relief scheme in which village and district councils instituted projects such as road building, dam excavation, and land clearing. Then, local residents were employed in these projects for a few months for wages large enough to replace what the famine had withered away. So efficiently was this program managed that not one Batswana died of famine during these difficult years—an achievement that pleased Masire far more than the United Nations award of $100,000 he shared with Burkina Faso for famine management.
Another 1981 challenge involved foreign relations. Masire stepped into a three-year term of office as president of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), a new organization consisting of ten Southern African states. Botswana, Zambia, Angola, Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland were founding members of the group, and Namibia and Zimbabwe joined as soon as they had achieved independence. While the organization’s expressed mission was to reduce economic dependence on South Africa, the SADCC sensibly ruled out military opposition, since South Africa’s superiority was obvious. Instead, each country assumed responsibility for a single project—from a list that included food processing technology, wild life conservation, fisheries, famine aid, and technology—that could lessen their general dependence on South Africa for labor and transport.
In 1984 SADCC achievements were assessed. Reports revealed that because South African companies were heavily involved in manufacturing, mining, and other industries based in all the SADCC countries, trade between them and South Africa amounted to $1.3 billion, while intra-SADCC trade was only $245 million for the year. Furthermore, the transport problem had actually worsened with the growth of each country’s external trade network; like Botswana, five other member states are landlocked, leaving port facilities available to the group only in Tanzania, Angola, and Mozambique. Therefore, though only half of Botswana’s regional overseas trade had passed through South Africa in 1981, by 1985 the figure had risen to 85 percent.
Now interested in charting his country’s future on the international scene, Masire was unperturbed by this localized problem. In 1982 he had seen the opening of a third Botswana diamond mine called Jwaneng, which by the end of 1984 had helped to raise the annual diamond total to almost 13 million carats. Much of this yield was sold in London through the De Beers-controlled Central Selling Organization. Still, despite the fact that De Beers owns 50% of the equity in De Beers Botswana (Debswana), the Botswana government had stockpiled a large enough supply to sell outright to De Beers in 1987 for P430 million, thus gaining for Botswana a five percent share in De Beers itself, two directorships on the De Beers international board, and highly coveted inside information on De Beers’ international decisions.
Botswana’s tedious relationship with South Africa has also necessitated tact and skill on the part of the Masire administration. Increasingly vulnerable since Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence, South Africa began to adopt an aggressive external stance towards its northern neighbors. Disturbed by increasingly loud anti-apartheid protests from the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Defense Force made several raids across the border in search of ANC supporters who had taken refuge in Botswana. In response to the raids, President Masire strongly reiterated his country’s stance on political refugees—that they were welcome in Botswana as long as they did not initiate terrorist activities against their country of origin—but he could not deny that there was an official ANC representative living in the country. The raids made him uneasy about this official’s safety, however, so he prudently asked him to leave.
Masire won a landslide victory in 1989, and since his reelection, the 1990s have brought international recognition to his able, corruption-free leadership. A newly minted civilian alliance with America is seen in the up-to-date Voice of America shortwave-transmitter outside Selebi-Phikwe (replacing one rendered inoperable by deteriorating conditions in Liberia), while a military friendship is evident in the new air base that houses Botswana’s fledgling air force as well as several American spotter aircraft used against poachers. Further bonds are linking Batswana soldiers and their American counterparts: Masire’s forces have recently learned American sniper techniques and have shared their traditional knowledge of desert tracking.
Other, less welcome developments are common to all rapidly industrializing countries. Unemployment is growing because the persistent drought is chasing farmers from the land; the fading of strict tribal behavior codes is producing a high rate of teenage pregnancy; and there are grumbles from the rising intellectual class about the number of foreign residents in vocational positions of authority. But Masire accepts the rough with the smooth, and his main concerns remain the financial self-reliance and peaceful democracy of his country. Above all, he prizes the harmonious mingling of his country’s black and white citizens.
Africa Today, London, Africa Books, Ltd., 1991.
Glickman, Harvey, editor, Toward Peace and Security in Southern Africa, Gordon & Beach, 1990.
Morton, Fred, and others, editors, Historical Dictionary of Botswana, Scarecrow Press, 1989.
Van Baren, L. editor, New African Yearbook: 1991-1992, Hunter Publishing, 1991.
Africa Diary, Sept. 23, 1980.
Africa Report, November-December 1980; July-August 1984; January-February 1987.
Africa Research Bulletin, July 15-August 15, 1980.
Africa Today (special issue titled “Botswana: Achievements and Challenges”), 1st Quarter, 1993.
Christian Science Monitor, August 17, 1989; April 2, 1991.
New York Times, Sept. 16, 1989; May 16, 1990; June 3, 1990; July 15, 1990.
Washington Post, April 15, 1991; April 30, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from various issues of the Botswana Daily News, 1980-81, and the “Republic of Botswana: National Development Plan, 1985-91.”
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