In 1966, if you drove through Gaborone and blinked you would have missed it. It was little more than a barren railway stop, in the middle of nowhere, on the way from Cape Town to Cairo. Those living here would have said there was nothing more to it than termite mounds and elephants.
At the time, this land-locked country was considered to be the poorest in Africa, with a per capita of $70. It had nine secondary schools, 50 university graduates, a railway line built by Cecil John Rhodes, and five kilometers of tarred road that stretched between Lobatse Station and the High Court.
From this backwater beginning Botswana has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world and moved into the ranks of upper-middle income countries. Real GDP shows an average growth of 5% per annum over the past decade, at a time when the most advanced economies have been falling apart. In 2015, GDP stood at $14.39 billion. This remarkable growth, according to the World Bank, is because of diamonds hidden deep in Orapa, 521 kilometers north of Gaborone. The discovery was made in 1967, months after Botswana’s independence was declared on September 30, 1966, and the proceeds went to the state rather than colonial coffers.
But, if you look closely at the white walls and fresh cement of Gaborone, cracks appear. In the week FORBES AFRICA arrived in Gaborone, unemployed youth clashed with police outside Parliament; four of them spent the night in jail.
It is called #UnemploymentMovement and uses social media to fuel support, much like South Africa’s #FeesMustFall student protests a year ago. It comes at a time when citizens question the government’s P100 million ($9.76 million) budget for its golden jubilee.
It is a big problem. One third of Botswana’s two million people are youth. The World Bank says poverty in Botswana is 17.8%, among youth aged between 15 and 24 its 34.10%. This is despite government spending 9% of its $14.39 billion GDP on free education.
One of those that spent the night in jail is Jones Banda, a committee leader behind #UnemploymentMovement. Speaking to FORBES AFRICA while on a march on August 13, he says the movement started with just one student, Tlamelo Tsurupe, standing outside Parliament with a poster. Within a week dozens more, including Banda, joined him.
“The youth of Botswana have realized our government can no longer place jobs for the youth… Most of our emphasis now is on the graduates. Why? Because it is [graduates] that are very frustrated. They have been educated by the government to take control of the economy and now the government is not absorbing them. Mind you, the students have loans to pay,” says Banda.
At the time of going to print, the BDP had not released an official statement concerning police assault at the protest on August 8. A permit was granted for the march held on August 13.
Banda believes unemployed youth make up more than 17.8%. This is because unemployed graduates have to register with the government, meaning that thousands of other students who are not graduates are not considered.
Banda’s stint behind bars hardened his resolve.
“Being in jail is almost as if I was home, not that I have ever been in jail. But for the movement it was a good thing. We felt the brunt of system and so we know now who is on our side. It was what we expected,” says Banda.
While students called for better employment, there are others who have managed to eke out a living.
A 32-year-old electrical engineering graduate, Kagiso Monkgatusi, makes his living from flying a P45,000 ($4,400) drone, one of the few owned and licensed in the country.
Monkgatusi, a photographer by trade, got the idea for his business after seeing footage on the internet. It led to him starting his small business, Africa Killer Bee Media, named because of the sound the drone makes in flight. The drone was given to him as a grant by the government-run Local Enterprise Authority. Monkgatusi’s success is an indication of Botswana’s potential.
In Gaborone, there are small signs of burgeoning wealth; tarred roads glisten, as bright as the country’s diamonds, next to dusty sidewalks; malls, polished and pristine, are packed to the rafters with food, shoes and cell phone stores. The city center is a hive of activity as scaffolding rises on the skyline.
Botswana’s success is largely due to a stable government with strong fiscal management, reports the World Bank. President Ian Khama, whose photo hangs on the wall of every store you visit, has held office since 2008. He is the head of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) that has been in power since the first elections in 1965. Every president has been democratically elected and all stood down after their two-term limit.
At the very least, Botswana is trying hard to improve investment and growth in their small economy.
For the hungry investor, Special Economic Zones (SEZ) have been built in Lobatse, Gaborone, Palapye, Selibe Phikwe, Tuli Block, Francistown and Pandamatenga.
“In April, P1.6 billion, of P3.5 billion over three years, in tenders have been awarded and the focus is mainly on the construction of roads, health and education facilities. Other sectors that have been allocated package proceeds are manufacturing, tourism and agriculture,” says Moatlhodi Sebabole, Research Manager at First National Bank Botswana.
Sebabole says Botswana also has a five-year national development plan (NDP) which will focus on coal mining, base metals and diamonds. However, according to Sebabole, investors need to keep a careful eye on low agriculture and food security, stability of water and electricity, and low investment growth.
“The production side of the economy still remains under turbulence with the closure of some abattoirs as well as base metal mines like African Copper,” says Sebabole.
Regardless, Sebabole believes Botswana’s outlook over the next 10 years is promising. Focus will remain on infrastructure projects in water, rail and electricity, which will need financing of P100 billion (around $10 billion) by 2019.
Botswana is a far cry from the country that started with $70 per person a year and five kilometers of tarred road. Fifty years on, it faces new challenges that show how far the country has come – some might even go as far as calling it first world problems, including an educated and militant youth.
Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with the latest insights and inspiration from experts across the continent. Sign up here.