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  • Democrats and Bureaucrats
  • Stephen John Stedman (bio)
Democracy in Botswana: The Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Gaborone, 1-5 August 1988 edited by John Holm and Patrick Molutsi. Ohio University Press, 1989. 296 pp.

It used to be that any political scientist bold enough to generalize about all democracies could be stopped cold by the simple query, "What about Switzerland?" Of course, those foolish enough to build their theories around the case of Switzerland could be dismissed with the equally damaging, "Yes, but that's Switzerland."

For students of African politics, Botswana now plays a similar role. Most discussion of Africa these days bemoans the failure of democracy there and decries the continent-wide lack of effective governance. Yet these complaints bear little relevance to Botswana, which from 1965 to 1985 boasted the world's most rapid economic growth rate and enjoyed a multiparty, liberal democratic form of government. Batswana (the term for citizens of Botswana) regularly and fairly contest elections; the constitution protects and the government honors civil liberties; organized opposition groupings vigorously compete with the ruling party. That Botswana has been dominated by one party that has yet to lose a national election does not detract from the achievements of its political system. After all, as Richard Hofstatder once observed, the United States was a de facto one-party state for the bulk of its first three decades of existence.

The Democracy Project, a team of scholars at the University of [End Page 111] Botswana directed by Patrick Molutsi and John Holm (of Cleveland State University) was formed in 1987 to study the development and maintenance of democracy in Botswana. In 1988, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation sponsored a symposium at which the Project presented its initial findings to scholars from the United States, Europe, and Africa, as well as scholars, politicians, and policy makers from Botswana itself. The present volume includes all of the papers presented at the symposium, as well as the comments of the discussants. The papers and the frank exchanges between ruling-party and opposition members, and between critics of the regime and policy makers, bespeak a government whose willingness to tolerate opposition and criticism is unparalleled in Africa. But the volume also reveals cleavages that could undermine Botswana's impressive political performance.

Three important themes reappear throughout the book: 1) the extent of government responsiveness to the people of Botswana; 2) the relationship between traditional political fora and contemporary democracy; and 3) the extent to which a civil society has emerged in Botswana. The papers contend that bureaucrats dominate the policymaking process and consult with politicians and citizens only after major decisions are reached; that Botswana's traditional political culture is highly authoritarian and that its new democratic forms break radically with the past; and that for all of Botswana's democratic forms, a vibrant civil society does not yet flourish there. For the Democracy Project, this last point clearly stands out as the most troubling aspect of Botswana's political development.

The deepest cleavage in Botswana concerns the dictates of political development—defined as the ability to govern—and the demands for political democracy. In this regard Botswana is a particularly compelling case for students of democracy. Since the publication of Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies over two decades ago, the common wisdom has been that development and democracy have different prerequisites and in fact may be incompatible goods for poor countries. The argument in its boldest form holds that states in the Third World confront strong societies where autonomous organizations compete with, impede, penetrate, and often capture the state machinery for their own purposes. For development to occur, the state must be able to tame such autonomous social organizations. Political democracy, on the other hand, depends on an autonomous society that can limit the power of the state. The very checks that render government accountable, however, can also render it impotent. So we have been led to believe by Huntington and more recently by other scholars such as Joel Migdal.

The coincidence of good governance and liberal democracy in Botswana has prompted the development of two uneasily coexisting political cultures there—one of governance and one of democracy...


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pp. 111-114
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