Africa is notoriously synonymous with leaders who are selfish, cruel, heartless, greedy and who abuse power to secure their own ends at the expense of the populace. This is not the case with Botswana's former president Ketumile Masire, who is now late. He is one of the few leaders on the continent to leave an enduring legacy.
During his tenure, there are many things he achieved, and there are many he also failed to achieve. What is of importance to note about his rule is his prudent, intelligent approach to ruling the country, and also his foresight for the betterment of Botswana's people. Masire's approach was very authentic, independent and genuine such that in 1998 former US President Bill Clinton, called him “an inspiration to all who cherish freedom.” Botswana's economy owes its success to the strides made by Masire, who has been hailed for his fiscal discipline and prudent macroeconomic policies.
There are cases where some international recommendations on African countries' economies have led to some varying amounts of failure. For example in the 1990s there was introduced the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) in Zimbabwe under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund, and this led to massive job cuts which rendered people unemployed and was part of the genesis of Zimbabwe's predicament. With Quett Ketumile Masire, it was a different case. He is known not to have agreed with every policy that the world institutions recommended. He often disagreed with them, while putting a very concrete emphasis on the country's need to invest heavily in education and health.
A prominent and eminent hallmark of his rule was his fiscal discipline. Hard work and careful planning were of a fundamental importance to Masire in how he ran the affairs of his country. With both his parents dead by the time he was 21 years of age, it fell to Quett Masire, the eldest son, to look after his siblings. He admitted to being a tough disciplinarian as manager of the family farm. As Botswana’s Minister of Finance and, later, as President, he made fiscal prudence a central tenet of policy making.
When diamond deposits were discovered shortly after Botwana’s independence in 1966, Masire insisted the government save a significant portion of its diamond revenues. He later wrote:
As farmers we have always known the importance of saving for a rainy day, or in our case for a dry day.
Development economists have applauded this practice, which allowed Botswana to escape the “resource curse” that has left many governments at the whim of volatile mineral prices. But even the fiscally conservative Masire thought development institutions often took a too-narrow view of the determinants of growth. In the late 1960s, before Botswana was able to draw on mineral revenues to finance public spending, the new government sought foreign aid.
Masire at an interview in 2015 he narrated about how the World Bank was unwilling to invest in health and education but were willing to invest in roads, bridges, power plants and factories. For him, this had no "rate of return." Investments in social services did not yield this "rate of return." By the mid-1970s, World Bank President Robert McNamara and bilateral aid agencies showed greater enthusiasm for health and education. By the 1970s the government was collecting diamond revenues and, less reliant on donors, it steadily expanded access to health and education. The literacy rate rose from 34% in 1981 to 86.5% in 2014.
Masire's ability to depart from the prescriptions of the recommendations of the world monetary institutions was part of defining mark of his rule. He wanted to see the people of Botswana extricated from the harsh grips of sordid poverty. Seeing his people suffer deeply affected him, and for him the solution was to educate the country and to ensure it remained healthy. It was a huge investment in human capital which has had far-reaching positive effects.
President Masire’s tenure was not without failure. He came to openly regret his administration’s delayed response to HIV/AIDS. By the mid-2000s, Botswana had one of the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates. Botswana remains a nation with tremendous income inequality, and the San people of the Kalahari Desert have long complained of mistreatment by the government.
Despite this, his legacy is a positive one, and it has helped Botswana imporve tremendously in an era where other African countries have remained stagnant, and others have actually regressed.