A Tale of Two Colonies

 /  June 19, 2018, 9:08 p.m.

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As World War II drew to a close, countries across Africa and Asia gained their independence from their colonial rulers, with majoritarian democracy replacing the rule of a tiny portion of white elites. As these newly independent nations began to get their footing on the world stage, some of these new states found ways to prosper, while others did little better under homegrown autocrats than they had under colonial masters. But this process of succeeding or failing to build a stable country is not as random as it might seem: often the fates of these former countries are rooted in the way their colonizers treated them decades earlier. Nowhere is this contrast clearer than between the southern African countries of Zimbabwe and Botswana.

These nations were both British colonies, unwillingly subjected to rule by a white minority government. When the two won independence, they faced similar challenges: creating a government from scratch, mediating hostilities between ethnic groups, building a national identity, and dealing with the often aggressive apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet despite so many similarities, their paths wildly diverged. Botswana, once among the poorest nations in the world, is now among the richest in Africa, and enjoys democracy and political stability. Zimbabwe is hardly richer than it was under colonial domination, and its broken political system has led to a virtual coup by the army.

One of the key differences between these two countries is the way that they were treated under colonialism. Botswana was able to maintain much of its autonomy and prevent the British from interfering much at all in its internal affairs. When it gained independence, most of the institutions needed for stable self-government already existed in the country. In Zimbabwe, on the other hand, widespread land theft by colonizers and harsh treatment of the native population led to a bloody civil war and deep ethnic and economic divisions that still cripple the country today.

However, this does not mean Zimbabwe has been permanently crippled by its tumultuous history. By demonstrating the importance of institutions, the parallel history of these two countries shows us that struggling nations across the world can succeed if they are able to adopt stable institutions, similar to the ones that allowed Botswana to prosper.

Bloody Conquest versus Benign Neglect


What is now Zimbabwe was once known as Matebeland, a kingdom founded by the Ndebele people, who had moved north to escape the reign of Shaka Zulu. In 1888, the King of Matebeland, Lobengula, signed the Rudd Concession, a deal with South African businessman Cecil Rhodes that would allow Rhodes' company to mine Matebeland's natural resources for the next twenty-five years. In exchange, Lobengula received arms and munitions, which he hoped would be enough to protect him from European colonial encroachment. While he was giving Lobengula weapons, however, Rhodes was also arming Lobengula's vassals, many of whom were Shona (an umbrella term for the people who lived in the area before the Ndebele arrived). When these vassals stopped paying taxes, Lobengula sent his army to enforce his rule. Rhodes used as a pretext to stage his own intervention, claiming that Lobengula’s men had entered an area under his protection. The Matebeleland War was short and bloody. Lobengula's army was tight-knit, well-disciplined, and armed with European rifles. Yet Rhodes’ British South African Police had a crucial advantage: the maxim gun, an early machine gun. The much larger and better trained Ndebele army was quickly gunned down. A short-lived resistance floundered after King Lobengula died, and although unrest would continue for the next several decades, Matebeland was no more. Cecil Rhodes held the land as a personal possession until his death in 1902, at which point the colony became known as Rhodesia.


Though geographically and climatically similar to Zimbabwe, Botswana is much less populated and much drier. Unlike diamond-filled Zimbabwe, Botswana has been a historically poor region. Thus, instead of trying to colonize Botswana, the British instead offered it voluntary incorporation into the empire as a protectorate.

The kings of the Tswana people, feeling threatened by the encroachment of German colonies to the west and Boer white settlers to the south, accepted the offer and became incorporated as the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Yet though Botswana did submit to incorporation, the British kept the existing political system almost entirely intact.

Colonial Domination versus Self-Rule


Unlike Botswana, Rhodesia was set up as a settler colony. Black Zimbabweans were forced off of the most valuable land in the country, which was then given out to white settlers. By the early 1920s, two thirds of the black population had been corralled into "reserves." In order to secure a labor force for their mines, the Rhodesian government levied a tax on rural black farmers, which made their traditional lifestyle too expensive to maintain and forced them to move to the city.

Life as a black Rhodesian was cruel. Most worked in backbreaking labor for low wages, with no chance of escaping poverty due to the discriminatory laws that denied them rights and kept them as second-class citizens. Further, black Rhodesians were regularly victims of violence (including sexual violence) by the white population. The police, instead of protecting the black population, were usually the worst perpetrators of such crimes.


Although some white settlers were allowed in border regions, the British largely allowed the Tswana to govern themselves. There was the occasional attempt by white businessmen to increase their colonial control, even including an attempt to incorporate the protectorate into Rhodesia in 1895. However, a delegation of Tswana kings in London were able to avert these crises. The Tswana, and their country, were largely left to themselves.

In 1925, four-year-old Seretse Khama rose to the throne of the Bamangwato people, the most prominent kingship among the Tswana. Of the eight tribes that make of the Tswana people, the Bamangwato are the largest, and their king is traditionally the most powerful person in Botswana. To prepare him for such an important role, Seretse Khama was given an education fitting a king.

With an uncle serving as regent, Khama went on to study in South Africa and then at Oxford in the 1940s. While in London, he fell in love with a white woman named Ruth Williams, whom he married in 1948. The South African regime, which had just recently instituted apartheid, was furious at the idea of an interracial marriage at such a high level of government, and it lobbied the British to block Khama's ascension to the throne. Despite an internal investigation that found Khama eminently qualified to rule, the British exiled him from his own country in 1951. The Bamangwato responded by refusing to choose a new king, and a standoff ensued. Seretse Khama’s regent, Tshekedi, continued on in the daily responsibilities of rule, but the Bamangwato refused to renounce Seretse’s claim to the throne.

Civil War versus Peaceful Independence


In most African colonies, decolonization was accepted as unavoidable. But the white minority in Rhodesia adamantly resisted such a transition. In 1965, the same year Botswana became independent, the white government of Rhodesia declared independence in order to avoid British mandates that would allow blacks to vote. The black population of Zimbabwe had been organizing to secure its right to vote for years before the 1965 declaration of independence. The Ndebele had organized under Joshua Nkomo's ZANU party, while the Shona splintered off into their own group, ZAPU, under Robert Mugabe. Both parties began as peaceful movements, but with crackdowns from the white government increasing, the opposition parties began to realize that it was only through violence that they would be able to achieve majority rule.

A civil war, thus, ensued that stretched for over a decade, leaving tens of thousands dead, mostly on the black nationalist side. The white government resorted to the use of chemical weapons and war crimes by the end of the war while ZAPU paramilitaries planted landmines indiscriminately and shot down commercial jets. The war drew to an end with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979, which established a timeline for a majority rule election by 1980. The 1980 election was plagued by accusations that black militias harassed and threatened voters. Although many moderate black politicians ran, the election ended up coming down to Mugabe and Nkomo, and, as the Shona outnumber the Ndebele, Mugabe eventually claimed victory.

Robert Mugabe proved a ruthless ruler. In the early years of his rule, he was paranoid that the rival ZAPU party might overthrow him, so he responded with a strategy called Gukurahundi, a series of massacres of Ndebele people designed to crush dissent and consolidate power. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed.


After six years, the British finally allowed Khama to return to Botswana. He was forced to abdicate his throne in favor of his uncle, but as a private citizen, was able to leverage his status as a symbol of Botswanan independence and formed his own political party. When Botswana became fully independent in 1965, Khama became its first president. The smoothness of Khama's transition from monarch to president helped keep the new republic stable in many ways. As president, Khama was able to exercise power through traditional tribal political networks, which resembled the way Botswana had historically been governed. Further, not only had civil war been avoided, but many of the institutions that the British had created were preserved. For example, Khama went against the advice of many advisors when he refused to dismiss the largely white civil servants that the British had appointed. Instead, these professional administrators worked until retirement, at which point educated native Botswanans were available to take over their jobs. By maintaining this spirit of professionalism, Botswana was able to retain very low levels of corruption within its civil service.

Stagnation and Success


Tensions between the white farmers that controlled the most productive land in Zimbabwe and the black government caused various economic issues. In compliance with the deal made with the outgoing white government, Mugabe relied on a "willing buyer, willing seller" model in which whites were compensated for voluntarily selling their land. However, few white farmers actually agreed to sell, and unrest over land reform grew. In 1990, after a huge electoral victory, Mugabe felt confident enough in his mandate that he passed a law that allowed land confiscation at will by the government (though still with compensation).

The 1990s and 2000s were a dark period for the country. The economy contracted due to the insecurity of the white farmers. Many such farmers fled the country, taking their agricultural expertise with them, and the general tension was enough to deter almost all foreign investment in the country. The government began to print money in order to control its debt problem, but this only led to hyperinflation, which pushed many desperate Zimbabweans to squat on white owned farmland. The 2000 elections, thus, went poorly for ZANU-PF. The opposition party, the MDC, rallied around its new leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and came within one percentage point of beating the ZANU-PF, in a heavily disputed election in which many of MDC members were either intimidated or killed. In reaction to this near defeat, Mugabe in 2000 began the most extensive land seizure program yet, seizing over three thousand farms and in 2005 initiated a "slum clearance" program in the capital designed to drive out the urban poor, who formed much of the MDC's voting base.

The government would continue to lose power in the 2008 and 2013 elections, each time using greater and greater election fraud to prevent Mugabe from losing the presidency. In 2013, the government held a referendum to change the constitution so that Mugabe could remain in power for another decade, which was approved by 95 percent of the electorate, a number that brought allegations of vote rigging. But what ultimately toppled Mugabe in late 2017 was not the countless protests against him or the many elections that he should have rightly lost, but rather a palace coup by a faction within his administration, who feared that his much reviled wife would take leadership of ZANU-PF when Mugabe died. He was replaced by Emerson Mnangagwa, another independence war leader who was infamous for his participation in the Gukurahundi killings. In the year or so since the coup, Mnangagwa has made efforts to improve Zimbabwe’s international image and make the country more attractive to investors. But the country’s problems run deep, and it's not clear that Mnangagwa, who served as Mugabe’s second in command for years, is the right person to solve them.


When Seretse Khama was elected president in 1966, Botswana was the third poorest country in the world, with little infrastructure or formal industry beyond traditional agriculture. Then, in 1967, extensive diamond reserves were discovered.

In many countries, this might have meant disaster. Economists and political scientists have long studied the idea of the "resource curse," where an abundance of a resource like oil or diamonds enrich a narrow elite who ignored the needs of the rest of the country. But in Botswana, the pattern was broken.

To extract the diamonds, Khama had to make a deal with the devil, selling the mining rights to the South African mining cartel DeBeers in exchange for half of all profits from the mine going into the Botswanan treasury. Khama then invested the diamond revenues in education, infrastructure, and health. To prevent the country from becoming dependent solely on the mining industry, he also invested in secondary industries like tourism.

For the following decades, Botswana's GDP grew by an average of five percent annually. It went from being the third poorest nation on Earth to being one of Africa's richest countries. GDP in 1966 was $70 per person; by 2007, it was $6,100, or $12,000 at purchasing power parity, nearly the same level as Argentina.

Botswana’s prosperity goes beyond its economic wealth. International indices rank it as the twenty-eighth strongest democracy in the world, which places it directly between Portugal and France. It ranks as the third highest country in Sub-Saharan Africa on the Human Development Index. It ranks lowest in Africa in terms of perceptions of corruption. It ranks second on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. They spend 8 percent of total GDP on education, greater than any other nation in Africa and placing them twelfth in the world.

Botswana was able to escape the clutches of poverty using its mineral wealth. Yet unlike many countries that became dependent on natural resources for their economy, Botswana was able to diversify to the point that mining employs only 2 percent of the workforce today. The proceeds from mining were used to reinvest throughout the economy and government infrastructure. Botswana weathered the AIDS crisis due to its well-funded health system, and it avoided a confrontation with an aggressive South Africa through careful negotiation. Despite a variety of challenges, Botswana emerged from decades of struggle as one of the best run nations in Africa.


Ultimately, the histories of Botswana and Zimbabwe tell us that much of post-colonial history is dictated by the institutions that the colonizing nation sets up.

In Zimbabwe, the confiscation of land created a permanent and intractable political and economic issue. With its economic livelihood on the line, the white minority of the country would never surrender their monopoly on power—both their control of fertile land and the exclusive right to vote— and they refused to compromise on even the most basic of issues. Once moderate politicians like Nkomo turned to violence, and other nonviolent politicians like Ndabaningi Sithole, ZANU's original leader, were discredited, Mugabe's hardline stance became more popular and allowed him to take control of Zimbabwean politics. The main issues that plague Zimbabwe today, racial tension and poor leadership, therefore, both reach back to the land seizures of the early colonial government.

In Botswana, meanwhile, the neglect of the British meant that traditional institutions of governance remained in place. When Seretse Khama became president, he was able to preserve both the traditional political order of the Tswana and the professional bureaucracy that the British had created. Khama enjoyed broad support while leading a capable government, which allowed him to successfully translate the profits of diamond mining into meaningful economic advancement for the country. Here, the decision of the British to not change very much or disrupt the traditional political institutions allowed Botswana to prosper.

So what should we learn from the divergence of these otherwise similar states? For one, we can see from this example that much of the political chaos and economic hardship that Africa has experienced can be laid at the feet of her colonial overlords, who usually planted the seeds of instability during their rule. But on a more hopeful note, we can see that the wealth or destitution of a country is not set in stone. Zimbabwe and countries like it should look to Botswana as a model for how to create a stable, liberal democracy and shed the burdens of colonialism.

The photo featured in this article is in the public domain. The original image can be found here.

Sam Owens

Sam Owens is a second-year Economics major. This past summer, he worked at the Immune Deficiency Foundation, a patient advocacy group for individuals with primary immune deficiencies. On campus, he is communications director for the College Republicans, volunteers for New Americans, and participates in the Writer's Workshop.


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