IF there is any post-colonial African leader of his generation who built his country from ground zero and left it thriving; relatively democratic and prosperous by developing world standards, it is certainly Quett Ketumile Masire, the former Botswana president who died two weeks ago aged 91.
Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya
Masire was a contemporary and close friend of President Robert Mugabe. By Mugabe’s own admission, he was his best friend in the region.
Masire also liked Mugabe whom he described in his memoirs, Very Brave or Very Foolish? — Memoirs of an African Democrat, as someone who could be “very sweet” — a rare portrayal of the veteran leader now widely seen as a ruthless and failed dictator.
To put things into perspective, this is what Masire said in his book about Mugabe: “President Mugabe can be very sweet. Whenever we would meet he would enquire in detail about my children and would remember specific things about them; he would ask why they never came over to see their uncle, and so forth.
“At the same time, he can be a difficult customer. He is an orator and a good performer, and has been a master at the game; he has played his political hand skillfully.”
This seems to be an apt description of Mugabe, who also had a lot of kind words to say about Masire at his funeral last week. Many, including some of his critics and even enemies, would agree Mugabe is a shrewd politician and an orator, although his capacity has declined with age.
No doubt, Mugabe is a great politician; a Machiavellian operator to be specific, but a very bad leader — in fact a failed leader. Joshua Nkomo realised that right from 1980. His book, The Story of My Life, says it. Many other nationalist leaders like Edgar Tekere and Rugare Gumbo realised it and also warned that Zimbabweans were heading for disaster under his leadership. That has now come to pass.
Although Mugabe and Masire had a lot in common, including being of the same generation, same social background, particularly herding cattle in villages and campaigning to liberate their own countries and others in the region in different ways, they also were of different political moulds and had differences. Hence, they travelled different leadership paths and would leave different legacies.
Masire has left the legacy of a success story. Botswana is one of Africa’s best models, with all its flaws. It was partly built by founding leader Sereste Khama, but Masire played a major role, especially from 1980 to 1998 as president.
At independence in 1966, the country was an economic backwater. It only had 10km of tarred road, no sovereign currency and hence no monetary sovereignty, no schools, clinics and hospitals to talk about — in fact it was a sprawling village whose land is 70% desert. It was one of the poorest countries in the world.
However, Botswana has become one of the fastest growing economies, largely because of diamonds. It is now the world’s largest diamond producer by value. Besides mining, tourism and cattle ranching are thriving.
Botswana has had the highest average economic growth rates in the world, averaging about 9% per year from 1966 to 1999. Growth in private sector employment has averaged about 10% per annum over the first 30 years of self-rule.
It is now a middle-income country. Its GDP is now over US$14 billion, same size as Zimbabwe which was far advanced and ahead. Its standard of living is now similar to that of key emerging and developing economies, while the country’s infrastructure and human development index are now some of the best in sub-Saharan Africa. On the downside, Botswana has experienced boom-bust cycles, growth has now slowed down and has many problems.
However, Masire left a working project. By contrast, Mugabe will leave Zimbabwe in ruins. That’s why going forward, Zimbabwe needs a Masire; a progressive and chief executive-like leader, not political dinosaurs and incompetent opportunists.