1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009)

Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance of the Public Sector in Botswana (Draft)

The predominant discourse on the role of ethnicity in state building in Africa most often posits multi-ethnicity as a problem or a hindrance that undermines institutional development and is a major source of state failure. This perception has often been informed by the assumption that in Africa ethnic tensions necessarily manifest themselves in violent confrontations that require the use of state coercion to maintain order. Botswana’s failure to exhibit these pathological symptoms has sometimes been explained as due to the predominance of one ethnic group over small and segmented minorities. But most often it has been seen as a time bomb waiting to explode. These positions will be critically reviewed in light of recent public debates and ethnic contestations on nationality and representation.

For even though official policy in Botswana has been to not publicly acknowledge ethnic differences and inequalities for fear of unleashing some primordial genie that the national leadership believed could scupper programs of developing a single national identity, ethnic under-currents have historically informed public policy and decision making. In fact ethnic under-currents have been an on-going subtext in Botswana’s state building and modernization program throughout the post-independence era. These undercurrents have occasionally flared up to the surface at certain points. By examining where and when these flare-ups have normally erupted and how the conflicts were mediated, this paper intends to demonstrate that these processes of contestation have served both to highlight citizens’ confidence in the national governance institutions as well as to strengthen institutional capacity to mediate the conflicting elite interests.

To that end, the paper begins by mapping the ethnic structure of Botswana and problematizing how it manifests itself in key public governance institutions and arenas in terms of representation. This will be followed by an examination of case studies of issues over which there has been open ethnic contestation, social mobilization and public debate.

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