Botswana: President Ketumile Masire (1980-1998)

Updated July 2009

The presidency of Ketumile Masire substantially continued the political, economic and social policies of his deceased predecessor Seretse Khama: These were strict fiscal policies, the development of a strong free market economy and periodic government initiatives to develop targeted sectors of the economy; the policy consequences were much the same, high economic growth, burgeoning government cash reserves, high rural poverty and high levels of inequality. Despite a brief economic the slump due to a fall in beef and diamond prices and a prolonged drought between 1982 and 1988 the economy grew at a real annual average of 11.3% between 1980 and 1989 (Parsons 1999; Danevad 1995, 390, 393; IMF 2008). The very high growth rates in this decade were driven by an influx of South African mining investment and the opening of three new diamond mines in the early 1980s that increased mining's contribution to GDP to about a third, ensured a favourable trade balance and boosted state revenue (Danevad 1995, 386). Though population growth was high, at an annual average of 3.5 between 1981 and 1990, this was far outstripped by the growth in national income, so that per capita income rose by an annual average of 7.1% over the same period (IMF 2008). Inflation, though fluctuating, averaged 10.1% between 1980 and 1989 (IMF 2008).

The high dependence of the economy on minerals, especially diamonds and beef, gave cause for concern, as did the need to generate work for the rising population, so the government embarked on programmes to stimulate especially manufacturing but also agriculture (Danevad 1995, 390). The Financial Assistance Programme was launched in 1982 and the Industrial Development Policy in 1984, which provided government grants and loans to entrepreneurs in the manufacturing sector (Danevad 1995, 391; Acemoglu et al 2001, 19). However, constraints such as lack of entrepreneurial and worker skills, technological inadequacies and market rigidities hampered the programme so that its initiatives managed to generate only half the jobs forecast while spending on them exceeded their budget by 143% (Danevad 1995, 391, 392). Thus while job creation by the manufacturing sector accelerated in the 1980s it was primarily due to private sector activities (Danevad 1995, 391). Nevertheless, manufacturing was able to grow sufficiently rapidly to keep pace with the other fast growing sectors of the economy and maintain its 5% share of GDP (Acemoglu et al 2001, 19).

High levels of inequality and rural poverty remained a grave concern. Data for 1993/4 suggested a Gini coefficient of 0.56 for the country as a whole (Acemoglu et al 2001, 3). Between 1974/5 the earning of the top 20% of the population rose from 58% to 61% between 1974/5 and 1985/6 while that of the bottom 40% fell from 12% to 11% (Good 1993, 204). Poverty in the rural areas became widespread and many people were surviving on government food relief (Good 1992, 79). Despite rapid urbanisation 83.3% of the population was still rural in the early 1980s (as opposed to 90.1% in 1971) and 68% of rural households had at least one person absent engaged in wage labour (Parson 1984, 10; Central Statistics Office 2001). The government attempted to address the problem through the Arable Land Development Programme, which supplied small farmers with financial grants, but this was disrupted by the drought that began in 1982 and a complementary Accelerated Rainfed Arable Programme was introduced in 1985 to expand the programme to medium sized farmers (Danevad 1995, 392).

The government continued to invest in infrastructure, education and healthcare. The number of primary students enrolled increased by 86%, secondary students by 472% and university students by 493% between 1980 and 1995 (Leith 2000, 6). The government abolished primary school fees in 1980 and secondary school fees by the end of the decade (Solway 2002, 716). By 2004 74% of the population was literate (Taylor 2004, 152). The primary healthcare system that had yielded such excellent results in the 1970s was expanded so that all urban residents and 86% of rural residents were within 15 km of a health centre by 2000 and the improvement in health was reflected in a drop in infant mortality from 68/1000 live births in 1981 to 45/1000 in 1991 (Leith 2000, 6; Murray & Parson 1990, 184). Between 1981 and 1994 the proportion of population with access to potable water was increased from 56% to 83% (Taylor 2004, 153). By 2004 a basic national road network was complete with 18 000 km of paved or graded roads linking to every settlement with more than 100 people, over 90% of the population (Taylor 2004, 152).

In 1985, recognising that its previous programmes for development had not achieved their objectives but had led rather to a swelling bureaucracy, the government embarked on a policy aimed at reducing the role of the government in the economy and strengthen the private sector through deregulation and privatisation (Murray & Parson 1990, 176). Curtailing government expenditure proved difficult, in 1983 it was 35% of GDP and in 1988 36%, given the fact that the government was spending less than it was earning and that it continued to build surpluses year after year (Good 1992, 94). The surpluses proved to be useful shock absorbers during times of economic difficulty, such as in the early 1980s and mid 1990s when diamond prices were low and revenue fell dramatically, enabling the government to continue its spending programmes and inject cash into the economy and so ward off recession; in 1985 government cash reserves exceeded the expenditure for the year (Leith 2000, 5; Danevad 1995, 387). Moreover, since it was importing less than it was exporting during boom times, the country was able to accumulate a substantial reserve of hard foreign currency to tide it over the periods of balance of payments deficits (Leith 2000, 5).

The country remained heavily dependent on South Africa as a channel for exports and imports during the next decade and South Africa did not hesitate to use this power to attempt to bring Botswana to heel (Dikotla $#38; Verhoef 2002, 14, 16). Anti-apartheid statements made by Botswana at the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity led to South Africa withdrawing refrigeration rail carriages, disrupting beef exports, and to the withholding of oil deliveries, leading to fuel shortages at the end of 1980, thus successfully cowering Botswana into silence (Dikotla $#38; Verhoef 2002, 16). South Africa invested heavily in the development of soda ash extraction in Botswana and attempted to use this as leverage to obtain recognition of the Apartheid "homelands" as independent states, but this the government rejected (Dikotla $#38; Verhoef 2002, 16). In the early 1980s revenue from the South African controlled Southern African Customs Union remained a significant, though declining, source of revenue for the Botswana's government; it was 36.9% of revenue in 1981/2 and 30.5% in 1983/4 (Dikotla $#38; Verhoef 2002, 22). In the 1980s South Africa made every effort to destabilise the surrounding independent states, they were all subject to military incursions from time to time and Botswana was not spared (Parsons 1999). In 1985 and 1986 South African forces raided African National Congress houses in Botswana, killing civilians in the process, and only with the independence of Namibia and the beginning of South Africa's transition to democracy in 1990 did the threat of military intervention subside (Parsons 1999).

The first National Assembly election during the presidency of Masire took place in September 1984 and was marked by a high voter turnout of 78% (see The September 1984 General Election for details). The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won its fifth mandate in a row and remained unbeaten, but its share of the vote declined from 75% to 68% and its share of seats from 91% to 82% (compare 1979 National Assembly election results and 1984 National Assembly election results). The Botswana National Front (BNF) made a large gain in support, increasing its share of the vote to 20.5% from 12.5%, but it won only 15% of the seats in the National Assembly, for the large number of small parties divided the opposition vote, costing them four seats (Danevad 1995, 399). In the wake of the election the BDP decided to modify the Constitution to provide for an Office of the Supervisor of Elections and a referendum was held in 1987 to win the endorsement of the electorate, which was forthcoming in the form of a 78% yes vote; however the referendum was boycotted by the BNF since the Office would not be an independent electoral commission (see 1987 referendum).

In the October 1989 National Assembly election the voter turnout declined once more, but remained a respectable 68% (1989 National Assembly Election results). Once more the BDP won the election, though with a lower (65%) share of the vote, but its share of seats increased to 91%. The BNF experienced a split prior to the election, and though its share of the vote increased to 27%, three way contests with the BDP and the breakaway Botswana Freedom party (BFP) saw its share of seats declined to 9% (see The October 1989 General Election). Indeed, the split in the opposition vote led to them forgoing five of the 34 seats (Danevad 1995, 399).

The BDP took cognisance of the fall in its support and of the rise of the BNF and began to adjust its policies accordingly and accelerated public spending (Danevad 1995, 393). This however led to a rise in the inflation rate from 8.4% in 1988 to a peak of 16.5% in 1992 and was only brought under control by tighter fiscal discipline in 1994/5 leading to it declining steadily to 6.5% in 1998 (Leith, JC 2000, 5; IMF 2008). To compound the government's difficulties economic growth rates began to fall after 1989 from a high of 11.8% in that year to a low of 2.1%% in 1993 before slowly recovering to 10.8% in 1998, averaging annually 5.9% for 1990 to 1998 as compared with 11.3% between 1980 to 1989 (IMF 2008). The fall in growth rates was largely due to the end of mining expansion, but this was partially offset by expansion in manufacturing of food products and motor vehicles (Parsons 1999). Population growth rates peaked in the 1980s and declined steadily from 3.7% in 1989 to 1.6% in 1998, averaging an annual 2.4% between 1990 to 1998 compared with 3.5% between 1980 to 1989 (IMF 2008). The fall in income growth rates was more rapid than the fall in population growth rates so that the growth rate of per capita income fell from an annual average of 7.1% in 1980-1989 to 3.4% in 1990-1998 (IMF 2008). Along with declining growth and rising population levels came a rise in unemployment and especially youth unemployment as the number of school leavers outstripped the number of jobs being created; total unemployment rose from 13.9% in 1991 to a high of 25.1% in 1998 (Leith 2000, 21; Marobela, M 2008). Poverty and inequality was persistent despite government efforts, with half the population below the poverty line in 1997 and the Gini ratio improved only marginally from 0.56 in 1985/6 to 0.54 in 1993/4 (Marobela, M 2008; Acemoglu et al 2001, 3).

The government took a tough stance on trade unionism and strikes; a massive strike by mine workers in 1984 was crushed by force and in November 1991 striking public workers were forced back to work with threats of job losses and of benefits accrued (Murray & Parson 1990, 170; Good 1993, 228). Labour law restricted trade union membership by excluding the youth and low level managers from joining unions, while workers who lost their jobs lost their union membership also at the point when they needed the support of their union the most (Good 1992, 85, 86).

Despite the large amounts of revenue generated by the resource economy Botswana did not develop the corruption malaise that afflicted other resource rich economies. In 1990 the award of tenders for educational materials was grossly mismanaged leading to overcharging and large losses to the state (Good 1993, 226, 227). In the same period a presidential commission into illegal land transactions uncovered evidence of abuse of office for personal gain by government members and the Vice President and Minister of Agriculture were forced to resign in March 1992 (Good 1993, 228). In December 1992 the Minister of Local Government, Lands, and Housing was found political responsible for tender irregularities and the Permanent Secretary of the department was held administratively responsible for mismanagement and dishonesty (Good 1993, 228). The isolated character of this rash of incidents in the early 1990s, the speed with which were uncovered by the government, and that senior members of government and state were held accountable, provided a vivid contrast to other developing countries (Danevad 1995, 382; Acemoglu et al 2001, 20).

In 1993 the BNF began demanding electoral reforms, such as the lowering of the voting age to 18 from 21 and the right of expatriates to vote, and threatened to boycott the 1994 House of Assembly election, but did not do so in the end (Good 1996, 64). Of long term significance was the rapid urbanisation of the population that took place in the 1980s, with the proportion of urban residents rising from 17.7% in 1981 to 45.7% in 1991, with the result that the redelimitation of constituencies led to a shift in the balance of power from the rural power base of the ruling BDP towards the towns where the opposition was strongest (Central Statistics Office 2001; The October 1994 General Election). The 1994 National Assembly election that took place on 15 October saw the BDPs share of the vote decline by 10% to 54%, but because of the fractured nature of the opposition it was able to win two-thirds of the seats (see Election results). The BNF's share of the vote increased by 10% to 37% and it won the other third of the seats. The participation of seven other parties, none of whom won even 5% of the vote, ensured that the BDP won four seats that would otherwise have gone to the BNF (Danevad 1995, 399).

The reappointment to cabinet of the two members who had been forced to resign in 1992 as a result of corruption scandals led to protests by tertiary students on the 8 November 1994 in Gaborone, but no response was forthcoming from government (Good 1996, 67, 68). A protest march by school students in Mochudi on 25 January 1995, over government inaction in response to a ritual murder, wwas blocked by police and the students burned the homes of those they suspected were involved and set up street blockades, leading to clashes with riot police (Good 1996, 74). The government clamped down, closing schools and on 10 February, but when police broke up a demonstration by unemployed people on the 16 February, with teargas that affected children at a kindergarten, public outrage led to the stoning of police and near riot (Good 1996, 74). On 17 February protest marches by students from tertiary and secondary educational institutions in Gaborone were broken up by riot police leading to riots throughout the capital and in Mochudi followed by the arrest 45 students and adults, injury to many civilians, a few policemen and the death of a 22 year old man; the university was closed indefinitely (Good 1996, 69-71).

The electoral gains by the BNF and the unprecedented social unrest, led by the youth, led to debate within the ruling party and gave impetus to the BNF's calls for electoral reform (see Constitutional and electoral reform). The government proposed that the voting age be lowered and that an independent electoral commission be established and these measures that were accepted by a multiparty conference in May 1996, to which were added the restriction of presidencies to two terms of office, the abolition of nominated municipal councillors and provision for expatriate voting. These constitutional changes were endorsed by the electorate in the 1997 referendum (see 1997 Referendum).

The virulence and speed of the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic took Botswana, like many other Southern African countries by surprise; by 1997 an estimated 23% of people aged 15-49 were HIV positive (Leith 2000, 6, n 7; AVERT 2009). The first case of AIDS was diagnosed in 1985 and in 1987 the government the government established the National AIDS Control Programme and adopted a short term emergency plan focusing primarily on eliminating HIV transmission through blood transfusions (AVERT 2009; Government of Botswana 2007, 14). In 1989 a medium term plan was adopted aimed at reducing sexual transmission through mass education on the disease (AVERT 2009; Government of Botswana 2007, 14). Only in 1997, in the closing days of the presidency of Masire, did the government begin to draw in all stakeholders in a concerted coordinated effort to reduce transmission and to assess and reduce the devastating impact of the disease on society as a whole; substantially the fight against HIV/AIDS was left to his successor (AVERT 2009).

Masire retired from the presidency in April 1998 and, in terms of the Constitution, Deputy President Festus Mogae was confirmed as his successor by the House of Assembly (Parsons 1999).


ACEMOGLU, D, JOHNSON, S & ROBINSON, JA 2001 An African Success Story: Botswana, Centre for Economic Policy Research Discussion Paper No. 3219, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

AVERT 2009 "HIV & AIDS in Botswana", [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

CENTRAL STATISTICS OFFICE 2001 "Table 1.6: Distribution of Population in Urban Settlements: 1971- 2001 Censuses", [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

DANEVAD, A 1995 "Responsiveness in Botswana Politics: Do Elections Matter?", Journal of Modern African Studies, 33(3), September, 381-402, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

DIKOTLA, M & VERHOEF, G 2002 "The Development of Trade in SADCC : the first decade of trade in the new regional formation, 1980 - 1989", Paper presented to the International Economic History Congress, Buenos Aires, 23 July 2002, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

GOOD, K 1992 "Interpreting the Exceptionality of Botswana", Journal of Modern African Studies, 30(1), March, 69-95, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

GOVERNMENT OF BOTSWANA 2007 "2008 Progress Report of the National Response to the UNGASS Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS" [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

IMF 2008 World Economic Outlook Database, April 2008, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LEITH, JC 2000 "Why Botswana Prospered", Paper Presentation at Canadian Economics Association Thirty-fourth Annual Meetings, University of British Columbia, June 2000.

MAROBELA, M 2008 "The Political Economy of Botswana's Public Sector Management Reforms: Imperialism; Diamond Dependence and Vulnerability", Globalisation, 7(1), [www]" [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

MURRAY, A & PARSONS, N 1990 "The Modern Economic History of Botswana" IN Konczacki, ZA, Parpart, JL, Shaw, TM (eds) Studies in the Economic History of Southern Africa, Vol 1; The Front Line states, Frank Cass Publishers.

PARSON, J 1984 "The Peasantariat and Politics: Migration, Wage Labor, and Agriculture in Botswana", Africa Today, 31(4), 5-25, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

PARSONS, N 1999 "A Brief History of Botswana", [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

SOLWAY, JS 2002 "Navigating the 'Neutral' State: 'Minority' Rights in Botswana", Journal of Southern African Studies, 28(4), December, 711-729, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

TAYLOR, I 2004 "The HIV/AIDS Pandemic in Botswana: Implications for the 'African Miracle'" IN Whiteside, A & Polu, NK 2004 The Political Economy of AIDS in Africa, Aldershot.