David and Goliath? Botswanan elites and negotiated settlements, 1895-1975

Källarsalen Session 3: Paths towards sustained development in the global south: Historical lessons organized by Erik Green and Ellen Hillbom


Jorich Johann Loubser, Tomás Medina Mora Perez


Post-colonial Botswana’s rapid diamond-led economic growth (Hillbom & Bolt, 2018) has seen it catch-up and pull ahead of its Southern African neighbours, whose productive capacity was significantly higher halfway through the twentieth century. Similarly, before gaining independence in 1966 it also occupied a unique political space as a British protectorate in a region characterised by settler colonialism. The literature has argued that Southern Africa’s historically higher levels of economic development relative to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa is tied to its unique form of colonialism. However, as an outlier in terms of colonial relations, Botswana’s economic history cannot be understood in the same manner. Thus, this paper studies the historical role of Botswanan political elites in determining the form of their integration into the British colonial system and subsequent post-colonial interactions with transnational mining capital.

To this end, the paper analyses two separate but interconnected historical junctures, and the politics that surrounds them. The first relates to the visit of three Batswana chiefs (Chiefs Khama, Bathoen and Sebele) to Britain in 1895 to lobby the state for protectorate status in response to an ever-encroaching British South Africa Company. Despite contemporary critics (eg. Morton & Ramsay, 2017) they, supported by missionaries and British teetotallers, won important concessions from the colonial state that were crucial to the form Bechuanaland’s colonial integration.

The second relates to negotiations between the De Beers diamond company and the new post-colonial Botswanan government in the 1970s. As I have argued previously (Loubser, 2021), scholars have overlooked the politics that underpin the very aggressive negotiations between the Botswanan and De Beers. The local economy’s sharing in Botswana’s booming diamond mines was not inevitable, but won through hard-fought negotiations. To analyse these two junctures the paper draws on archival sources based at the Kew National archives and British Library. The scope of analysis surrounds British colonial relations in the 1890s, De Beers’ prospects in the 1970s and Botswanan political elites’ constraints and actions in both periods.

A vast body of literature shows that the form and nature of colonial rule must be taken into account when studying African developmental outcomes (Acemoglu et al., 2001, 2002; Acemoglu & Robinson, 2010; Cooper, 2002; Rodney, 1982). Scholars have differentiated between ‘labour reserve’, ‘cash crop’ and colonies of ‘the concession-owning companies’ to explain geographic variation (Amin, 1972). Austin (2010) identified the divergent development legacies of ‘settler’ and ‘peasant’ economies. In Southern Africa’s ‘settler economies’, settler groups suppressed and exploited black Africans in support of white agriculture, mining and manufacturing. However, while much of the literature often categorises Botswana as similar to its neighbours (eg. Mkandawire, 2010) – ‘settler economies’ – it sits awkwardly within this classification. This paper seeks to identify the ways in which Botswanan political elites have conditioned their country’s historical transformations by challenging ideas which have seen it as an extension of well-developed analytical frameworks imported from other Southern African countries.

Reference List Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. A. (2001). The colonial origins of comparative development: An empirical investigation. American Economic Review, 91(5), 1369–1401. Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. A. (2002). Reversal of fortune: Geography and institutions in the making of the modern world income distribution. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(4), 1231–1294. Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. A. (2010). Why is Africa poor? Economic History of Developing Regions, 25(1), 21–50. Amin, S. (1972). Underdevelopment and Dependence in Black Africa-Origins and Contemporary Forms. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 10(4), 503–524. Austin, G. (2010). African economic development and colonial legacies (Working paper No. 1). Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement. Cooper, F. (2002). Africa since 1940: the past of the present (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press. Hillbom, E., & Bolt, J. (2018). Botswana–A Modern Economic History: An African Diamond in the Rough. Springer. Loubser, J. J. (2021). The Relationship Between Southern African States and Mining Transnational Corporations in the 21st Century: Constancies and Reconfigurations in Relation to Domestic and Global Processes [MSc]. University of Oxford. Mkandawire, T. (2010). On tax efforts and colonial heritage in Africa. The Journal of Development Studies, 46(10), 1647–1669. Morton, B., & Ramsay, J. (2017). The Invention and Perpetuation of Botswana’s National Mythology, 1885-1966. Department of History Seminar, University of Botswana, November, 7. Rodney, W. (1982). How Europe underdeveloped Africa (Rev. ed.). Howard University Press.


No PDF available.